Dalat Easy Riders: A motorbike ride with war veterans in Vietnam

We’d heard about the Dalat Easy Riders before heading to Dalat – our guidebook had a paragraph or two about this network of freelance motorcycle-riding tour guides, and we were already thinking of taking a tour with them – but we didn’t know we would stumble across some of them so quickly.

Towards the end of the afternoon, the bus we’d taken in Mui Ne had dropped us in front of a random hotel, and as this hotel happened to have a convenient room for us we didn’t even think twice before taking it. So we dropped our bags into our room, took a quick shower and, without further ado, went out into town. That’s when we met Stephane. He was standing outside a café, Peace café (as we found out later, this is the original Easy Riders’ meeting point) and he chatted us up as we walked past him: “Interested in taking an Easy Rider Tour?“.

The Dalat Easy Riders‘ story began many years ago. Once the Vietnam war, which the Vietnamese (rightly so) call American war, was over, a guy called Hien Phan, living in the Dalat area, began working as a motorcycle-taxi for Vietnamese people. From time to time he would also take longer rides and and explore the country, visiting places he’d never seen before the unification.

In 1986, Vietnam’s communist government started a transition towards a ‘socialist-oriented’ market economy and in 1988 the country opened up to tourism. In 1992, Hien Phan (mr Hien) along with a number of ‘pioneers‘ including Stephane, organized a motorbike trip for tourists that was then recommended by the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam – the foundations of a well-deserved long-lasting fame were being laid. In 2003, both Lonely Planet and Rough Guides gave these guys the name of Dalat Easy Riders, echoing the famous movie, and a legend was born.

As with many successful businesses in Vietnam, the Dalat Easy Riders formula was soon copied by others. Most of these ‘counterfeit’ groups were using very similar names, and each one was claiming to be the original thing. Today you can’t walk in Dalat without coming across a biker offering to take you for a multi-day ride in exchange for a fee. Actually, the phenomenon has spread so much during the last few years that it crossed the boundaries of Dalat, and you are likely to be harassed by a growing number of Easy Riders, whether counterfeit or original, even in other Vietnamese cities, including Hoi An.

We didn’t turn down Stephane‘s offer in the end, but it took a couple of days before we made a decision. We checked Stephane‘s reputation online, shopped around, and in the meanwhile we explored Dalat.

Cho Da Lat (Dalat Market) - Markets are usually our first stop when we visit a place and Dalat was no exception
Cho Da Lat (Dalat Market) - Markets are usually our first stop when we visit a place and Dalat was no exception.
An HDR photo of the Crazy house, Dalat. Alice in Wonderland meets Gaudí in this unusual building designed by Vietnamese visionary architect Hằng Nga.
An HDR photo of the Crazy house, Dalat. Alice in Wonderland meets Gaudí in this unusual building designed by Vietnamese visionary architect Hằng Nga.
Architect Hằng Nga posing for us into the ticket office of her creation, the Crazy House.
Architect Hằng Nga posing for us into the ticket office of her creation, the Crazy House.

The night before our road-trip we met Stephane again at the café and agreed an itinerary. We were going to take a 3-day ride from Dalat to Nha Trang, going through ethnic minority villages in the central highlands. That sounded exciting, but we still had to resolve a problem: being the two of us plus Stephane, we still needed another motorbike. The choices were either renting a bike and following Stephane, or hiring another Easy Rider. We opted for the second option and that’s when mr Hien came in. He was sitting across us in the café and when Stephane suggested that we’d travel with him too, he introduced him to us and we had such a good feeling about him that we knew that the 4 of us would make a good team all together.

The following morning Stephane and mr Hien came to our hotel, I helped them to fit our backpacks on the bikes and finally we hit the road. I can still remember the excitement.

Stephane and his motorbike, on the morning we left Dalat.
Stephane and his motorbike, on the morning we left Dalat.
Mr Hien smiling for the camera on a suspension bamboo bridge somewhere near a M'Nong Gar minority village, in central Vietnam.
Mr Hien smiling for the camera on a suspension bamboo bridge somewhere near a M'Nong Gar minority village, in central Vietnam.

Our 3 -day itinerary with the Dalat Easy Riders saw a few tourist attractions (including a flower and a silk factory, and the Elephant waterfalls) and many off-the-beaten-path bits. From time to time mr Hien and Stephane would stop on the way to show us napalm-bombed hills still bearing visible scars of the war, old bombed bridges, and other sad landmarks. During their years as Easy Riders both Stephane and mr Hien have been hired by many travellers, including American war veterans who’d come to Vietnam to see again the jungles, the mountains, the rivers and the rice fields by which they’d fought against the Viet Cong, when they were young. “Nobody won the war“, everybody seems to agree, the Vietnamese as well as the visiting Americans, looking at the evidence of a crippled landscape and reflecting on the losses on both sides.

As the Americans were unable to tackle the Viet Cong guerrilla efficiently, the US Air Force resorted to Napalm bombing (along with agent orange) in an attempt to discourage, weaken and kill the Viet Cong, who were mostly hiding in the jungle. The controversial use of Napalm bombing and chemical agents by the US Air Force in the Vietnam war caused a huge environmental impact and affected the health (both physical and psychological) of entire generations of Vietnamese people.
As the Americans were unable to tackle the Viet Cong guerrilla efficiently, the US Air Force resorted to Napalm bombing (along with agent orange) in an attempt to discourage, weaken and kill the Viet Cong, who were mostly hiding in the jungle. The controversial use of Napalm bombing and chemical agents by the US Air Force in the Vietnam war caused a huge environmental impact and affected the health (both physical and psychological) of entire generations of Vietnamese people.
The silk factory on the way to the Elephant waterfalls, few kilometers outside Dalat. Full of tourists, but also very photogenic.
The silk factory on the way to the Elephant waterfalls, few kilometers outside Dalat. Full of tourists, but also very photogenic.

As we rode through the countryside among the coffee plantations of the central highlands, in the direction of Lak Lake the first day, and toward Buon Ma Thuot the second, we had the opportunity to peek into the daily life of the ethnic minorities. With more than 90 ethnic groups living in its territory, Vietnam is one the most diverse and multi-cultural countries in the world. During the war some ethnic groups supported the Viet Cong, under the promise that, once the war would be over, the new government would give them free school, land and other privileges. Other tribes fought along side with the Southern Vietnamese Army and the US.

The first minority village we stopped by was a Chin village. Chin people are originally from Burma, but given their country's political situation, some Chin communities fled Burma's military regime and settled elsewhere in South East Asia.
The first minority village we stopped by was a Chin village. Chin people are originally from Burma, but given their country's political situation, some Chin communities fled Burma's military regime and settled elsewhere in South East Asia.
Young Chin boys sitting in the shade of one of the homes of the village.
Young Chin boys sitting in the shade of one of the homes of the village.
Another shot of the Chin boys.
Another shot of the Chin boys.
Chin girl peeking through the door.
Chin girl peeking through the door.
Romana with a villager and one of the children.
Romana with a villager and one of the children.
Chin villagers in a moment of relax, smiling for a group shot.
Chin villagers in a moment of relax, smiling for a group shot.

These tribes, or hill-tribes, as they are usually called (the French used to refer to them as montagnards, perhaps with a hint of mockery), have a separate identity and different languages, customs and traditions. Nowadays most of these groups, especially those living in the central highlands, have abandoned their traditional outfits in favour of a more westernised way of dressing. And even in the North, near the Chinese border, ethnic groups wear their tribal suits only either during important community events (for instance religious ceremonies) or just to please the many tourists and their cameras.

Two M'nong girls we met on the way to Lak Lake, in the Dak Lak province. There are many M'nong communities in the area.
Two M'nong girls we met on the way to Lak Lake, in the Dak Lak province. There are many M'nong communities in the area.
We came across this Blue H'mong lady and her two daughters in a street market near Lak Lake. It's not that frequent to find members of hill-tribes of the central highlands wearing their tribal outfits.
We came across this Blue H'mong lady and her two daughters in a street market near Lak Lake. It's not that frequent to find members of hill-tribes of the central highlands wearing their tribal outfits.
Rafting house, part of a floating settlement on a river in the Krong Ana district, Dak Lak province.
Rafting house, part of a floating settlement on a river in the Krong Ana district, Dak Lak province.
Woman from the floating riverine settlement in the Krong Ana district. Mr Hien and Stephane explained to us that these people came all the way from the Mekong Delta region in the south of Vietnam. Judging by the typical Cambodian headscarf (Krama) this lady was wearing, I suppose she is part of one of the many Khmer communities of southern Vietnam.
Woman from the floating riverine settlement in the Krong Ana district. Mr Hien and Stephane explained to us that these people came all the way from the Mekong Delta region in the south of Vietnam. Judging by the typical Cambodian headscarf (Krama) this lady was wearing, I suppose she is part of one of the many Khmer communities of southern Vietnam.
This tomb, on the way to Lak Lake, has a feeding hole which some local hill-tribes use to 'feed' the dead. The early Christians had a similar ritual called 'refrigerium' or 'refreshment'.
This tomb, on the way to Lak Lake, has a feeding hole which some local hill-tribes use to 'feed' the dead. The early Christians had a similar ritual called 'refrigerium' or 'refreshment'.
A M'nong family in Buon Jun. This was the only nice people we met at the village, but I don't blame the other villagers. As Buon Jun is pretty touristy, being a popular stop of organized tours, these people must be fed up with westerners coming to visit.
A M'nong family in Buon Jun. This was the only nice people we met at the village, but I don't blame the other villagers. As Buon Jun is pretty touristy, being a popular stop of organized tours, these people must be fed up with westerners coming to visit.
As I kept moving around taking pictures, this M'nong lady said something, which I obviously didn't understand. She was probably joking, or perhaps she was just making some remarks on the fact that I had taken too many pictures already :)
As I kept moving around taking pictures, this M'nong lady said something, which I obviously didn't understand. She was probably joking, or perhaps she was just making some remarks on the fact that I had taken too many pictures already 🙂

On our last day, while we made our way to Nha Trang, we rode through the coffee plantations around Buon Ma Thuot. Buon Ma Thuot is considered the coffee capital of Vietnam and Vietnam is today is one of the world’s largest exporters of coffee, together with Brasil and Colombia. Along with the local Vietnamese, some members of the E De community have seen an increase in their wealth over the last decades, after having embraced the expanding coffee business. While the new generations of E De are westernising and building modern houses for their families to live, the older generations still stick to the tribal tradition and live in the good old bamboo long houses built on stilts. We didn’t meet any of these ‘rich’ E De families, but we had an opportunity to look at their houses from outside.

Coffee leaves and beans, in one of the many coffee plantations around Vietnam's coffee capital Buon Ma Thuot.
Coffee leaves and beans, in one of the many coffee plantations around Vietnam's coffee capital Buon Ma Thuot.
Chatting with mr Hien, in front of a nice glass of local coffee.
Chatting with mr Hien, in front of a nice glass of local coffee.
People working in a piece of land.
People working in a piece of land.
Rice fields, another recurring view in rural Vietnam.
Rice fields, another recurring view in rural Vietnam.
This modern house with a longhouse attached at the back reflects the generational conflict between the young and the elders in the E De community. As the elders of the family refuse to live in the modern house, they build longhouses close to the main house and live there.
This modern house with a longhouse attached at the back reflects the generational conflict between the young and the elders in the E De community. As the elders of the family refuse to live in the modern house, they build longhouses close to the main house and live there.
Another modern house with a E De longhouse close by.
Another modern house with a E De longhouse close by.

Toward the end of our trip we also visited a nomadic farming family, who welcomed us into their wooden house and invited us to drink rice wine with them.

The youngest members of the nomadic farming family with some of their chickens running around.
The youngest members of the nomadic farming family with some of their chickens running around.
When we arrived, the 'woman of the house' was making dinner for the family.
When we arrived, the 'woman of the house' was making dinner for the family.
...and I was offered wine rice as a welcome drink.
...and I was offered wine rice as a welcome drink.
The nomadic farming family we visited practices a subsistence economy, including slash-and-burn agriculture, and livestock breeding.
The nomadic farming family we visited practices a subsistence economy, including slash-and-burn agriculture, and livestock breeding.
When I asked what animals were these, I was told they were field rats. Field rats are a popular food in Vietnam but will make everyone cringe in the western world. Rats are caught, skinned, slaughtered and the skewered. In the absence of a fridge, and this was the case with this family, it is possible to smoke the rat meat, so it will last up to several weeks without going rot.
When I asked what animals were these, I was told they were field rats. Field rats are a popular food in Vietnam but will make everyone cringe in the western world. Rats are caught, skinned, slaughtered and the skewered. In the absence of a fridge, and this was the case with this family, it is possible to smoke the rat meat, so it will last up to several weeks without going rot.
One last photo in front of the longhouse before we left the nomadic farming family.
One last photo in front of the longhouse before we left the nomadic farming family.

We arrived in Nha Trang at night and took a room in a hotel – it was time to plan our next moves and say goodbye to our travel buddies. We’d spent only 3 days with them, but the whole experience was so memorable that it felt like much more than that.

Vietnam was one of the countries we liked the most, and if I was asked what was the best bit of our Vietnamese trip I wouldn’t hesitate to say it was our ride with the Dalat Easy Riders.

For more information on the original Dalat Easy Riders please check mr Hien and Stephane’s websites here:

If you contact them directly you can’t go wrong.

  • Emmanuelle

    Thank for your great reply! I heard about these books and might try to get them!
    I am very interested about communism after discovering all the eastern europeans countries which used to be under the communist umbrella: Slovakia, Poland, tcheck Republik, Hungaria, Bulgaria… I find it fascinating and Bulgaria is a wonderful country. Corruption is a big problem there but we talked with many Bulgarian who are seeing it decreasing a lot thanks to their entry in Europe three years ago. I am se fascinated by hearing people talk about it and what they went through. That is probably because of my psychology background and my interest for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ;o)
    Re Vietnam, North Korea or China I hope things will change one day. Hopefully we will witness this in our lifetime!

    • Romana

      Emmanuelle, I think things have already changed a LOT in Vietnam, even though it’s still far from being perfect.
      I haven’t read much about North Korea, but I don’t think we can compare the two countries. Vietnam is now a very open country and I don’t think the same can be said about North Korea.
      I was fascinated by Vietnam and its people. Besides the natural beauty of the country, I was mainly impressed to see everyone working hard to make a living and unlike Cambodia or India, we barely saw any people begging in the streets. Everyone is trying to pull their weight, even if it’s just selling noodle soup in the street.
      In the last years Vietnam’s economy has been doing great and hopefully the next future it won’t be considered a developing country anymore.
      Great feedback, as always, by the way 🙂

  • Looks like a trip that was well worth it.
    Great pics of the people and the countryside.
    Thanks for posting an informative article.
    Cheers,
    John D. Wilson

    • Thank you for dropping by, John!
      It was an unforgettable trip I can assure you 🙂

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