Hoi An has seen a huge development in the last 15 to 20 years. This little colonial town in central Vietnam is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the richest and most visited destinations in the country. However, despite the tourism, Hoi An still manages to keep its interest, charm, beauty and traditions intact. We visited Hoi An after our three day trip with the Da Lat Easy Riders, and a short stay in Nha Trang, and stayed in Hoi An for 11 days – the single longest stay within our trip.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Soon after Saigon we moved to Mui Ne. Having heard that Mui Ne is a typical resort location, popular with beach-holiday goers buying all-inclusive type of packages, we were initially undecided whether it was worth to go or not… but we decided we’d go after seeing some pictures of its surroundings. Basically the main attractions in Mui Ne are the sand dunes, a miniature version of a sand desert – there are two separate sand dune sites, one with white sand and the other one with red sand. There is also a fishing village, which is popular with photographers, and a stream called Fairy Stream, surrounded by red and white rocks.
We wanted to see all these places so we hired a driver through our hotel and we agreed that he’d pick us up at 4.30am. Very early, but we wanted to have advantage over other tourists 🙂
And fortunately when we arrived at the white sand dunes, we were rewarded with being the only people there, while the sun was slowly rising and the sky was getting bluer and bluer…
But wait – no more than 30 minutes later hordes of Japanese tourists literally invaded the place and broke the magic, romantic atmosphere.
After the white sand dunes we moved to the red sand dunes and finally to the fishing village and the Fairy Stream. Because the fishing village was so picturesque, and of course closer and more accessible than the sand dunes, in the afternoon we hired a bike and cycled there again to see the sunset.
Well, I’ll leave it to the pictures to show you the beauty of the place. I hope you enjoy them.
Remember to click the pictures to enlarge them and see them as a slideshow.
Despite our initial concerns due to the many bad stories (scams, bag snatching, etc.) we heard and read of, we ended up liking Saigon more than we thought we would. Certainly going from the rural (but in no way sleepy) atmosphere of the Mekong Delta, to the urban, international slant of Saigon had a certain impact.
We settled in the Pham Ngu Lao area, also dubbed the backpacking district, and took it from there, with no particular plans. The Pham Ngu Lao area is where all the tourist action is, and the centre of gravity for the expat community – lots of expats from western countries are living there.
Because Vietnam was once a French colony, we weren’t surprised to find so many French restaurants in Saigon. Now, we usually only go for local food when we travel, but because we were on the road already for quite some time, when faced with the opportunity to taste some good cheese and wine we couldn’t resist and we had to treat ourselves to a special, western-style dinner. But then after all, isn’t this French legacy part of the history and the ‘soul’ of Vietnam? Can we really say eating French food is not like doing something typically Vietnamese, to some extent? 🙂
The highlights of our frequentation with French food were these two restaurants: La Fourchette (across from the Grand Hotel on Ngo Duc Ke, in Dong Khoi, district 1) and La Nicoise (close by, always on Ngo Duc Ke, in the same area). The fact that many French expats are seen having dinner there, makes me think the cuisine is authentic – something I couldn’t be 100% sure myself, as a non-expert.
Speaking of French influence, Saigon downtown has also some French bakeries, boasting excellent baguettes and fine pastry. Some of these bakeries may be a tiny bit more expensive than your usual Vietnamese average, but they are worth every cent.
In terms of local food, there’s nothing better than street restaurants and food stalls. There is also a chain of restaurants called Pho 24 (where Pho, noodle soup with meat, is the signature dish in Vietnamese cuisine, usually eaten for breakfast, but from time to time also for lunch and dinner) – you find a lot of Pho 24 all around town (as in many cities in Vietnam). Pho 24 serves Pho, as you may have guessed, plus other Vietnamese specialties, but we weren’t very much impressed with these restaurants.
As I said, the main landmark for travellers is Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacking district, which is packed with pubs, clubs, resturants, bars, etc. – we rarely made it out of this area.
Other two places we enjoyed, and which gave us a glimpse of the spiritual aspect of the Vietnamese society, as well as the opportunity to see some good architecture, were the Notre-Dame basilica and the Jade Emperor Pagoda.
As we wanted to learn more about the Vietnam war, which the Vietnamese, fairly so, call American war, and hear the Vietnamese version of the story, we paid a visit to the War Remnant Musem and also took a day-trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels. We also went to the Reunification Palace but we didn’t find it so interesting.
To read more about Kim Phuc and her story, check wikipedia here.
To read more about Booby traps, check out this wikipedia article.
The cityscape – In the streets of Saigon
Saigon is the city of mopeds, probably more than any other city we’ve seen in Vietnam. As taxes for cars are very expensive, people buy mopeds (they are more affordable even taxwise) and use them as cars. This is very common in all Souteast Asia.
Electricity cables are another important visual element in Saigon, there are so many and they are so messily tangled with each other…
We figured out eating and sleeping are important parts of a Vietnamese’s life. This is an aspect I absolutely loved: I’ve seen people eating and sleeping any time during the day, even when on duty.
The other aspect I found interesting of Saigon is its mix of tradition and modernity…