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Easy Riders of Dalat

by Matthew Vlemmiks

April 30, 2006

Dalat, in the South-Central highlands of Vietnam, is unlike anywhere else in South East Asia. Arriving there is like being transported into an Alpine town, with French architecture, fantastic mountain vistas and chilly European weather. There reside the Easy Riders, a motorcycle tour group who have been operating successfully for more than ten years. A day (or more) with them is a treat – a perfect way to take in the stunning geography of the Annamese Mountains and gain some insight into modern Vietnamese life.

Exploring the honeymoon Mecca of Vietnam must necessarily begin at the crack of dawn. Our drivers Thao and Hong are a gregarious pair, happy to chew the fat on everything from religion and politics to football and food. Their bikes are small but perfectly formed, and a couple of kilometres outside of Dalat we are surrounded by sweeping valleys, evergreen forest and cloud topped mountains. Our first stop is at a greenhouse, where flirtatious older women plant roses, discuss David Beckham and pose for photographs. Next it’s a silk farm – after examining thousands of the translucent little fellas, we visit a factory to see the fruits of their labour. The facilities and methods look to have been transported straight from industrial revolution era Lancashire , but there are some high quality fabrics on show.

Coffee is one of the region’s greatest exports, and as we pass the plantations Thao details the widespread deforestation necessary to support production. A displaced community from northern Vietnam live nearby, and we are told of the tensions that still exist between north and south. Our guides also offer some invaluable advice for the unsuspecting traveller – avoid restaurants serving “Thit Cay” – as Buddhists they share the Westerner’s aversion to eating dog!

The most picturesque stop-off of the day is the Elephant Waterfall. Unlike many of the spectacular falls surrounding Dalat, there are few tourists here, and we are greeted only by a handful of bored locals. A huge, powerful waterfall set amidst rolling hills, getting close to the action involves clambering over some dangerously slippery rocks, where one false move would require a helicopter rescue team. It’s worth it though for the sense of achievement and fantastic photo opportunities.

Overlooking the waterfall is a pretty pagoda in a beautiful garden setting, and on site there is a selection of Buddha statues. You get the conventional sitting Buddha and a standing female version, but the most eye-catching of all is the huge “Happy Buddha” looking down from the hill. He is the fat, laughing Buddha, hawked in miniature at markets throughout Vietnam . The detail in his teeth, nails, nipples and belly-button are impressively intricate. Our guides regard him with distaste as a recently built attraction to please tourists, but I am more easily impressed.

Next comes perhaps the highlight of the day – lunch! In a small home ten minutes from the waterfall, a family serves local delicacies for the Easy Riders and their hungry passengers. We are presented with the finest food we have sampled in Vietnam . Amongst the typical bowls of rice and pho, there is also cured pork in sesame seed, beef wrapped in vine leaves, fried catfish, stir fried vegetables and the most amazing spring rolls. The food is mouthwatering and the portions massive. And it is during lunch that our guides open up on their feelings about Vietnam and the outside world. Thao accepts that “Uncle Ho” obviously loved Vietnam , but feels Communism has not been kind to his country. He argues that Vietnam an economic equal of South Korea and well ahead of Thailand before Communism arrived. Moreover, he admires Bush and Thatcher because there is apparently “no bullshit” with them. I would take an instant dislike to any westerner expressing these views, but it is fascinating to hear in a country where Ho Chi Minh is so revered.

We thank our hosts and are introduced to their litter of new born puppies before heading back towards Dalat. Along the way, we stop at a mushroom farm - Hong says the farmers call their mushrooms “Holyfield’s Ears” because of their resemblance to Mike Tyson’s favourite dish. Back in Dalat, we visit the main tourist attractions the town has to offer, including the kitsch, cartoon-like Crazy House and former prince Bao Dai’s lavish Summer Palace before we are dropped back at our hotel doorstep as darkness falls. On a mid-December evening thousands of miles from home, Dalat’s unique character evokes warm echoes of European Christmases.

A day out with the Easy Riders is undoubtedly one of the highlights of travelling in Vietnam . The sights are breathtaking, the company great, and the sense of child-like freedom you feel whilst roaring through the mountains on the back of a motorbike is incomparable. And for those with time and money to spare –you can book a five night tour all the way to Hoi An!


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