Get Your Motor Runnin’ – Easy Riders

January 16, 2009 4 Comments »

Can you feel the warmth?

View Da Lat photography

View snapshots of Dalat

I’ve been in Vietnam now for 4 months and I keep hearing about a city in the south that is supposedly not like Vietnam; the weather is cool, the air is fresh, and it’s reminiscint of a French village. The name is Oz…ok, I’m just making sure you’re awake, actually it’s called Da Lat. Da Lat comes up over and over again as holiday destination of choice of the Vietnamese. The prospect of cooler weather and fresh air sounded enticing. My visiting friend, Veronique, was my perfect impetus for exploring some more of southern Vietnam, so I put Da Lat on our travel itinerary.

Da Lat Landscape

We took the bus on an 8 hour ride out of the congested city of Saigon into the ‘real’ Vietnam. It was such a wonderful feeling to get out of the maze of motorbikes and pollution; I could feel the weight of Saigon slipping off my shoulders with every hour passing in the bus. Soon I was surrounded by green rolling hills and valleys. The landscape was a tiered checkerboard of crops. I was actually a bit surprised about my reaction to this new green country. It felt comfortable and peaceful. Now I’ve never considered myself a country girl; yet I’m starting to question that as each year goes by. Maybe I am just looking for simplicity as I age. Where has that clubbing girl gone?

When Veronique and I stepped off the bus we were immediately accosted by the usual suspects; taxi drivers, tour operators, hotel owners all saying ‘pick me, pick me’. Oh if finding a boyfriend were only that easy. However one caught my ear because he had impeccable English. Actually it probably wasn’t impeccable, but when you teach English everyday you become excited when you meet someone who can actually speak it without murdering it! Two young men helped Veronique and I into a taxi and chatted with us ensuring that our taxi was going to the right place. Before the taxi drove off, the one boy said, “Is it ok if we come talk to you about our motorcycle tours?” Not a bad sales tactic, help us and then try to sell us…at least they provided some value to us – so I said “sure”.

Green Orange

After getting settled into our lovely room at the old Novotel hotel next to the Cathedral we went outside for a walk to find some food. It was no big surprise when the two young men that helped us with the taxi were there waiting for us – ready to pitch us on their services. They were part of a group called Easy Riders of Da Lat. A group of tour guides that would take you on a motorcycle tour of the Central Highlands area. I was immediately intrigued because one of the most cultural things you can do in Vietnam is ride a motorbike. Motorbikes are the symbol of Vietnam. I can’t help but be intrigued by their power, scared by the lack of rules, stifled by their pollution, amazed by the calm that drivers possess, and simply be in awe of how the chaos works. I love the motorbikes here; and I also hate them. When the Easy Riders pitched their countryside day tour, I knew that it was something I wanted to do immediately. Motorbikes are to Vietnam as Broadway is to NYC.

Me being an Easy Rider

We arranged for a countryside tour the next day. It was the same price as many of the other ‘bus’ tours offered around the area, and this seemed much more personal and fun. After all, who doesn’t want to sit on the back of a Harley with the wind blowing through their hair?! Oops – wait a minute – there are a couple things wrong with this picture. First off, upon closer inspection it wasn’t a Harley, it was a Honda, with Harley stickers on it. I guess this shouldn’t have surprised me since I’ve never seen a Harley in Vietnam, but the stickers were good enough for me. Second, even though it was windy, there was no wind in my hair because I had to wear a helmet…something that I never argue with in Vietnam. Our two guides that morning were Hong and Hip. Hong was the veteran Easy Rider and hence the lead guide. His English was good and he had this amazing laugh that made you want to join him in his jovial moment.

Da Lat is Vietnam’s garden. No, I’m not joking…it is one HUGE garden for the 8 million people in Saigon as well as other parts of Vietnam. We drove through town and climbed up into the rolling green hills; everywhere you looked were fields of vegetables and flowers. Little straw pointed hats dotted the fields of green which simply added the charm of the serene view. The air was crisp and cool, the road had gentle curves and climbs, and Hong was humming biking songs to me…I was on a high…this is the Vietnam that I love. The one that is simple, quiet, and serene with welcoming people and big smiles. This is what made me come to Vietnam in the first place. Unfortunately Saigon is a necessary evil is you want to work, but any time you have a chance to get out – you take it.

Hong and Veronique with our lunch feast!

Hong educated us on the temples/religions, the farming, the crops, the rice whiskey, and we stopped at water falls. We stopped and watched the local ladies picking cabbage and onions. This wasn’t just a normal tour; it was a cultural interactive tour; my favorite way to sight see…the local way. We stopped midday for a feast of Vietnamese cooking for only $4 including our drinks. Hong told us stories about past trips and showed us pictures his past customers had sent.

We had such a great time the first day that we hired them again the next day to do more motorcycle touring. This time Jean showed up as the veteran/lead guide. Jean was another excellent guide. He took us to the train station, to a local market (my request of course…I love markets!), to another waterfall, a palace, and to one of the most ornate beautiful dragon temples I had ever seen. The temple was made completly of broken china and beer bottles. Veronique and I walked around in awe of the craftsmanship. Jean brought his own flavor to the day – he was a historian. I learned more about Vietnamese history in that day than I had learned in the 3 months I had been living here. He was a wealth of information, and he had some very personal insights about the war. His uncle and father fought in the war with the Americans, so it was fascinating to hear about his their time at the ‘reeducation camps’ after the fall of Saigon. He was the first person I had ever heard refer to the war as a ‘civil war’ as opposed to the ‘American war’. Jean was extremely honest in his feelings and I felt like I had made a new friend for life. His English was superb – all self taught. He even could speak a few words of Dutch to impress Veronique.

Discover the ins and outs of European train travel

Beautiful Butcher

I can’t say enough good things about the Easy Riders organization in Da Lat. It is clear that they love their city and they love their jobs. They were extremely accommodating and would grant us anything we wished…oh, if they only couldn’t have produced Brad Pitt….

The group does day tours around Da Lat, but they specialize in longer haul trips; a proper road trip. They will customize tours for you through the Central Highlands, Nha Trang beach, Saigon, and the Mekong Delta. I will most definitely use them again to do a longer cultural tour of the south. If you want to see the real Vietnam, see it with them.

Besides becoming biker chicks, Veronique and I also soaked up the town of Da Lat visiting the central market, trying out some great restaurants (Café De La Poste and Long Hoa), and we even splurged at the best French restaurant in town – Rabelais at the Da Lat Palace Hotel (Sofitel). Veronique had to teach me French literature and explain the name (Rabelais was the author of the book Gargantua) so it was educational too. My little Midwestern schooling had left out French literature – go figure. Most of the Vietnamese locals also spoke French, something I never would have realized if Veronique hadn’t been with me!

Our stay in Da Lat was refreshing. It was as if you had entered a lovely little European town; it didn’t feel or look like Vietnam, it was in a world all it’s own. On my last day there I went for a cool 5k run around the lake soaking up the normalcy of it all. We had one last lovely breakfast at Café De La Poste and hopped on the bus back to Saigon. As I peered out the window watching the green fields recede in the distance, I knew one day I would be back for more.

Trip Details:

Tour – Easy Riders Dalat – website

Hotel:  Novotel Da Lat

Restaurants:  Cafe De La Poste (excellent food and atmosphere!), Long Hoa (#6 on 3 Thang 2), Rabelais (in the Sofitel Hotel)

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