After spending almost a week in Mui Ne, Angela and I headed to Nha Trang, Vietnam. We decided to take the bus, which had options of leaving at 1:30 PM or 1:30 AM. Angela wanted to take the AM bus, but I talked her out of it as that sounded like something that would make me grumpy.
The bus had reclined seats in a little pod, so you had to kind of lay in them. I think it was supposed to be more comfortable, like a sleeper train. The pods were a little small, so I could not imagine sleeping a long time in them. That said, the 5 hour bus ride was pretty comfortable, and very cheap. I’d definitely do it again. Once we arrived in Nha Trang, our motorcycle guide, Mr. Nam, met us at the bus station. Mr. Nam owns the company called VietnamRider, which is a cut above all of the other Easy Rider tours available. We needed to send a suitcase that wouldn’t fit on the motorcycle ahead of us to Hoi An, so Mr. Nam agreed to meet us at the bus station to help us do this. We had not repacked yet, so we had to do this on the street right after we arrived in Nha Trang. It resulted in a few unnecessary items, and a few missing items, like sufficient underwear! After we sent our suitcase away, Mr. Nam took us across the street for some cheap and delicious Vietnamese food. We talked about the trip, and he showed us our route.
We had an early night so that we were ready to begin our motorcycle adventure. In the morning, Mr. Nam had our cycle at the hotel, ready to go. I was going to ride a Honda Masters 125 cc motorcycle. He wanted me to take it for a test ride before Angela rode along, which I was not concerned about until he explained how the shifting works. I am used to a motorcycle that shifts 1-N-2-3-4-5 and then stops, so by raising the shifter you can only upshift, and by depressing the pedal you can only downshift. These motorcycles were circular, so by depressing the shifter you could go N-1-2-3-4-5-N-1-2-3-4-5 forever and ever. I was really concerned about this at first, but eventually decided that I just needed to pretend it was the same, except backwards. After a while I got used to stepping on the shifter to upshift and raising it up to downshift, and I only made a few mistakes.
Pictured above is Mr. Nam explaining the shifting to me. Angela rode with me on the first day, and Mr. Nam carried our luggage. We headed north along the coast and it was raining lightly. We stopped at a fishing village just north of Nha Trang that apparently was located where Nha Trang is now, but because of tourism the government moved them. Nha Trang is a lot like Mui Ne because many Russians choose to go there, which causes fewer and fewer westerners to go apparently.
We stopped several times in a small village early in the trip. Mr. Nam took us to a family that produced rice paper, and another that made rice noodles. Below, you can see the rice paper drying before it is cut into noodles.
After that, we stopped at a silk factory. It was a strange process that I did not completely understand. Mr. Nam also taught us how to identify if something is real silk or not (by lighting it on fire). He demonstrated this to us at the silk factory, which made me very nervous.
After the silk factory, we visited a mother and her daughter who made conical hats by hand, which I think is the only way it can be done. It was amazing to watch them sew the hats by hand, and we learned that it is a dying art because they can only make about 2-3 hats a day, and they are inexpensive.
After we had several interesting visits with local families, our trip took a turn for the worse. We ascended into the Vietnamese highlands, which out of extreme ignorance I was totally unprepared for. I also didn’t realize that we would be spending most of our time in the highlands. I am very glad that we did, but I wish I would have packed warmer. We ascended 2000 meters (6,562 feet) in the mountains, and it began to rain. Mr. Nam was well prepared, and had great ponchos and pants for us to wear, so we didn’t get at all wet. However, the road was winding and narrow, and there were many oncoming trucks and semis. With the steep hills and two of us on the 125 cc Honda, we also struggled badly to climb to hills. Third gear was always way too high, and second seemed much too low. It was a miserable climb for about 30 minutes, with a few breaks for some really astonishing views.
After we reached 2000 meters, we leveled off and the rain stopped. It was very cold at this elevation, much colder than I thought I would be in Vietnam. Mr. Nam had a well timed stop in a small village where Angela drank hot tea and I had delicious Vietnamese coffee. Mr. Nam told us about how his father had been a translator for the U.S. during the war, and when he was only one month old, his father was lost above the border of Laos and Vietnam somewhere. He had never known his father. Mr. Nam was very interested in the war, and a big U.S. supporter. It was interesting talking to him, because a lot of the museums and the people we had spoken with previously thought badly about what the U.S. did during the war. Mr. Nam, however, thought it was good that they were there, and was very supportive of America. He taught us a lot about the war. After we finished talking and Mr. Nam finished his cigarette, we got back on the cycle. After what seemed like days of riding, we began to see greenhouses off to our right. Not just a few, but thousands. It was incredible. Below are just a small portion of the greenhouses, along with the mountain in the background that we had climbed earlier.
They stretched for miles and miles, all of the way up until we reached Da Lat. Mr. Nam told us that a lot of flowers were grown in them, as Da Lat is known as the city of flowers, and a popular destination for honeymooners. When I first saw the greenhouses, I assumed we were riding by some serious government testing area or something. It really was surreal.
Da Lat was a really beautiful little town, but the traffic was intense, and Vietnam has really embraced the round-about (which I am not a supporter of), and so I was anxious to get off of the bike. We arrived at our basic hotel and got checked in. Mr. Nam told us how to get to the night market, and informed us that it was too cold and he would be in his room staying warm. Angela and I decided to go and explore the night market, but it really was cold. We had a few street food snacks at the market, and looked around at the different tents of merchandise. What was interesting about Da Lat was that the market was selling more everyday products that the locals would buy. Most night markets we have visited cater to the tourist, and you see a lot of the same things over and over. We ended up sitting down outdoors at the night market for a local dinner, which was very delicious. We went to bed early after being beat up by the cold all day.
The next day, Tuesday, we had a long trek ahead of us. Mr. Nam took us to get pho for breakfast, which was delicious. Then we hit the road. It was warmer today, with sunshine and no rain. Angela rode with me again today. We were to ride 200 KM, which is only 124 miles. Normally, I would say that was easy. However, the roads are bad and we only travel about 20 mph/30kph, which seems so slow. It seemed fast on those roads though, and with that little motorcycle. We stopped early on at a weasel coffee farm. Long story short, the weasels eat the coffee beans and then poop them out, and then humans drink that coffee. I had a cup, and it was ridiculously strong. I didn’t need to have another, and I felt a little sad for the weasel’s lot in life.
Angela poses with a weasel.
We traveled a long way on this day, and the roads were rough and difficult. On the way, we stopped whenever Mr. Nam saw a good view, and we also stopped to sample some fresh and local watermelon.
We ate lunch at an ‘elephant village’. We only actually saw two elephants. After that, we visited the local Mnong minority people. They live in long houses shaped like boats, and the women run the family, which is quite different from other Vietnamese cultures. One woman let us look inside of her house, and a group of high school girls laughed at us. After we left the Mnong village, we stopped to enjoy the rice fields, below.
Our ride to Buon Ma Thuot was so long and rough that I felt ill by the time we rolled into town. We did walk over to have dinner at a nearby place where nobody spoke English, and so the waitress told us she would just bring us some dishes of her choosing. It all turned out to be good, especially the cold beers. We once again went to bed early and tired.
Wednesday was even longer, and the road was even rougher. Angela decided to ride with Mr. Nam, which was more comfortable for her, and easier to ride for me. We rode through Pleiku, which had a famous airbase during the war. Shortly after Pleiku, we met an old South Vietnamese solider. He had lost his leg due to a land mine, and when the north soldiers discovered him hiding in a town, he told them he was a farmer. Later, when the U.S. was giving citizenship and plane tickets to the South Vietnamese that fought, he was denied because he was still registered in the city as a farmer. It was a sad story, but he was a very nice man. He thanked us for coming, and hoped that we had a lovely holiday in Vietnam. I sometimes felt on edge about people asking for money in Vietnam, because it happens so often. I was worried during our conversation that this is what this would turn into, but it never did. I felt guilty after leaving that I worried about it in the first place. Mr. Nam was just giving us a really great opportunity. We rode the rest of the way to Kon Tum, and I celebrated New Years by going to bed at 8. I felt feverish, and very ill. Luckily, I never actually got sick.
The next day, Thursday, was the best day of the trip. We had a nice breakfast near our hotel, and Mr. Nam told us about the Bana minority people. A lot of small minority groups live in the highlands of Vietnam, as most Vietnamese people lived on the coast. Most of these people speak Vietnamese, but they also have their own language that Mr. Nam couldn’t understand. Mr. Nam explained a lot of the history of the Bana people, but one story he told us stuck out. If a woman dies during childbirth, the Bana people will bury the child with her, even if it is still alive as the child is considered bad luck. When the French occupied Vietnam, an orphanage and cathedral were established in the city of Kon Tum to take the children from the village and to keep them from being killed. Apparently, the tradition still exists today. We visited this orphanage on the way out of town. They had 300 children there currently, but the nun told us that some families sent their children here if they were too poor to feed them. We got to play with them for a while, after viewing the beautiful church.
After we left the orphanage, Mr. Nam said he was going to take us to a Bana village. That made me almost uneasy, and I assumed we would travel many miles from Kon Tum. However, the village was basically a suburb of Kon Tum, probably less than a mile from the orphanage. The Bana people build their community buildings to resemble an axe, and below Mr. Nam is explaining about life in the village and answering our questions in front of the community building.
I was particularly disturbed by the thought that some of the orphans that we met could have a father and siblings still living so close. In fact, they could have passed each other in the city at one time or another.
After the Bana village, we rode down a city street in Kon Tum that was an old airbase. You could definitely see that we were on the runway; it was long, wide and straight as an arrow. After that, we headed into the countryside. We were riding on very rough terrain, as a lot of the roads were under construction. Still, it was a beautiful ride. We stopped at a memorial for where a major battle occurred in Dak To, and then we stopped at Charlie Hill. This was the sight of a major battle during the war. It was sobering to see the mountain as Mr. Nam told us of the events that transpired there. We walked a ways off of the road to find the old runway, which is now only a strip of dirt.
After that, we had a long stretch of riding through the central highlands of Vietnam. We eventually ended up on the Ho Chi Minh road. Mr. Nam was quick to point out that the Ho Chi Minh road was built in the direction of the trail, but was not the trail itself. However, Mr. Nam being the well-informed guide that he is, took us to a section of the actual Ho Chi Minh Trail. He explained how it went into Laos, and how nowadays loggers used it to transport wood across the border. We did not stay long, and when we stopped for lunch, Mr. Nam told us that there is a lot of smuggling that happens on this road with the truckers, and that they don’t like people to stop there. Below are photos of the old Ho Chi Minh Trail.
We had a long day of riding on the Ho Chi Minh trail. We stopped once for fuel, and I snapped a picture of a very typical alternative to a tractor used in Vietnam. We saw them all of the time. It was pretty much an engine on two wheels attached to a trailer. Also, Mr. Nam wanted to take our picture by a sign that said we were on the old Ho Chi Minh road, as proof.
We stopped below to observe a waterfall, and I discovered an old bridge that was once part of the old Ho Chi Minh Trail. Also pictured below is a dried up riverbed, due to a dam that was built.
We stayed Kham Duc on Thursday night, which is now a location of some serious gold mining, and also the sight of some battles during the war. It was very cold, and our hotel did not have heat. Strange! We did have a nice time, and ate hot pot for dinner, which is a favorite of Angela’s. Mr. Nam normally let us have the evenings to ourselves, but tonight we had dinner and beers together. Mr. Nam told us a lot about his life, and his son whose mother is an American teacher in Ho Chi Minh city. They are returning to the United States soon, and it was a sad story. Mr. Nam was a wonderful guide, and I am glad to have met him.
On Friday, the last day of our trip, we were cold and tired, and it was rainy. We had some beautiful views of the highlands as we descended into Hoi An, but I think Angela and I were both pretty beat. We stopped for some nice views, and some local pineapple, where Mr. Nam taught us the history of Vietnam. He is very smart! After that, we had a long ride until we entered Hoi An, which would be our last stay in Vietnam.
All in all, it was a beautiful trip. It was certainly more difficult than I expected, but I would do it again. We were in places that most tourists don’t get to go, which was really special, and we met many people and had experiences that were unique to the central highlands of Vietnam. I would recommend that anyone interested invest in the trip with Mr. Nam and VietnamRiders, as I don’t think our experience would have been nearly as good with any other group. I would also recommend that they pack some warmer clothing than we did! We arrived safely in Hoi An many miles later, and ate together at a great cafe. Mr. Nam arranged and paid for a cab for us to be taken to our home stay as it was a little ways outside of the city. What a guy!