I have a confession to make: I knew before I came to Dalat that I would take a tour on the back of a motorbike. It’s one of the “things to do” here – a must-do, in fact, suggested by almost everyone I’ve talked to who has visited Dalat.
There’s a group of “organized” motorbike drivers who refer to themselves as “Easy Riders;” they’re actually all over Vietnam. But in Dalat they are more prevalent and more organized than in other areas. I can understand why – it seems like touring the central highlands region of Vietnam just lends itself to motorcycle travel.
There are also a lot of people who call themselves “Easy Riders” who, in fact, have no affiliation with the organized group; there are those who have organized in opposition to the Easy Riders; and then there are lots of guys who own a motorbike and don’t have another way to make money who appear out of every nook and cranny of this hilly city to tempt you with the offer of a cheap ride on their motorbike – just like in every other city in Vietnam.
When I arrived on the airport transfer bus, I was immediately approached by a kind of sketchy looking guy whose shoes I literally spotted as I looked down the stairs out of the bus. “”Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” I find this immediate, in the face extremely unsettling when all I’m trying to do is get a location on a map and figure out how to get to the next. Out of reflex I replied, “No motorbike.” Well, this was about the stupidest thing I could have done, because then he was engaged. He said, “Why not?” I’m an Easy Rider!” Ugh. Even if I had wanted to book this tour right then, I was just not impressed. He said, “Oh, you’re scared!” I repeated that I didn’t want a motorbike, and he thrust a card into my hand as I got into a taxi to my hotel. Lo and behold, guess who followed me to my hotel? I spotted him as I got out of the car; he turned away thinking I hadn’t seen him. Creepy! When I told the woman who owns this hotel about him she said that it was actually quite common to be followed by “Easy Riders” in this way, but to not engage him, and if I wanted help arranging such a tour she could help. She said he would be harmless aside from that first annoyance, and she proved to be correct. I never saw him again.
After checking in and chilling out for a bit, I ventured out onto my little street in search of food. I had consulted Lonely Planet and had some nearby restaurants in mind; after waking around a bit I ended up at one right across the street from my hotel.
The restaurant was empty when I walked in. Apparently I was a little early for the dinner crowd and caught the server off-guard. He quickly got a menu for me and I began to browse.
I ordered a Dalat red wine (first wine in a long time!) and a chicken clay pot. The server started talking to me, and, lo and behold, he is an English student at a local college. He asked me if I knew about the Easy Riders and I rolled my eyes. “I want to do one of those tours, but I’m kind of freaked out by the whole thing,” I said. “I’ll take you tomorrow!” he replied. Oh, geez, I thought, another one!
As it turned out, Viet merely wanted to use me as a “test tourist” and to practice his English; all I would need to do was pay for gas, entry into the sights that charged, and for lunch. These tours can run from $20-50 per day, also not including these things; this day would be a bargain by comparison. I asked him if he was a safe driver, if he had a helmet for me, and if his bike was reliable. Of course he answered “yes” to all of the above, and he seemed honest enough. I knew where he worked and could let people here know who I was going with. Even if the “tour” was a bust, I had another day here and could try again. We agreed to meet at 8 the following morning at my hotel. Although I figured he knew where to take me, I made a list of common sights in and around Dalat that I would consult the next day.
He was there at 8 on the dot. We headed into rush hour traffic which was a little unsettling, but I quickly relaxed when I realized that his bike wasn’t going to go much faster than 35-40 mph under the stress of my additional weight.
We fueled up and headed towards the first sight – the Dalat Cathedral. Then we went to the Lam Dong Museum. This was an intersting museum with a little bit about a number of different topics, inclduing the flora and fauna of the local area; the ethnic minority groups in the region; the American War, and other slices of Vietnam life. This was one of my personal favorite items:
A communal wine jug used by indigenous peoples who would all sip from long bamboo straw.
What was more interesting, though, were my guide’s personal stories about growing up in the Mekong Delta right after the American war ended. Born in 1975, he had vivid childhood memories of family members and friends killed and maimed by land mines while farming; watching young men cry as they were shipped off to fight communism in Cambodia, knowing that they would likely die in that war; and families and friends who killed one another in battle, fighting on both sides of the war, with an impact they would only realize later, in reunions.
When we saw this boat
and he translated the sign for me, I was floored: this meter-long boat – constructed of bamboo and plastic – had been used during the war to escape an island prison for the mainland. The prisoner, whose picture was on the wall beside the boat, survived and was reunited with his family. These were Incredible stories of a war we learn so little about in American schools – already the highlight of this tour.
We then headed to the Hang Nga Crazy House, a surrealist architectural wonder created by a local architect with a fabulous imagination and clearly no regard for OSHA safety standards and recommendations for building.
This local oddity is the first sight listed in Lonely Planet and is clearly a must-see. It reminded me of Barcelona and Gaudi, while also eliciting some strong and even strange childhood fairy tale allusions;
After the Crazy House we took a long ride up to a reservoir/ lake called Tuygen Lam Lake. Viet didn’t take me to the “touristy” side of the lake; rather, we went down a bumpy dirt and gravel road to a picnic area people from Saigon use when they come up here for day trips. We sat and admired the lake, watching the families picnicking, when suddenly we spotted this beauty and her motley little crew of six piglets.
I don’t know if Viet was more entertained by the wild pigs or my enthusiasm for them.
We then traveled through a minority village called Lat Village, to Lang Biang Mountain, where i spotted the famous zebras described in yesterday’s blog.
The view from the top of the mointain was great, but soon socked in by fog and mist.
We then went back through the minority village, and Viet asked me if I’d like to see the “minority group” Catholic church. I didn’t think it would be that much different from the other Catholic church I’d seen earlier. Of course it was.
We then headed back towards town, stopping at the “Domain” church which was TEEMING with visitors.
It was, indeed, a very pretty church, and NOT one mentioned in the guidebooks.
It was time to eat some lunch and, frankly, I was tired. Having not spent that much time on a motorbike, and on sensory overload, I’d had enough. Viet looked at his watch and surprisedly announced, “Wow! It’s 3:00!” I was amazed, too, by how much time had passed and how much i had seen.
Then came the question, “So, do you think I could be a good tour guide?”
“You already are!” I replied.
We enjoyed a lunch of his choice and a beer, and I tipped him $20 for his time and expertise.
It was a good decision and frankly, there wasn’t much more I wanted to see in Dalat that I couldn’t walk to the next day. Viet was a good, honest, safe guide who will one day, no doubt, be out there one day as a professional – Easy Rider or not.