A few weeks ago I went on a solo photography trip to India to shoot a self-assignment about the nomadic communities living in Gujarat. As part of my pre-trip preparation I undertook some research, bouncing ideas around with friends, checking articles and other resources, and learning about the current reality and life conditions of these groups. I knew the two plus weeks I had planned to devote to this trip where going to be tight for such a complex subject matter, but I was more than happy to take the challenge.
With about 4 million members in more than 300 different communities, the nomadic population of the state of Gujarat is quite substantial and diverse. In the past each nomadic community used to provide a specific service to the society: many groups specialised in performing – they were musicians, fire-eaters, snake-charmers, acrobats, whereas other tribes would carry out manual work (e.g. ironsmiths, knife-sharpeners, bamboo artisans). Technology and industrialisation have contributed to the collapse of the demand for such services, leaving these people out of work, threatening the survival of their culture and traditions, and – what’s worse – eroding their livelihood. Read More
From the 13th to the 20th of December my hometown, Siracusa, has been celebrating its patron saint Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy). While I see no difference between believing in Santa Claus and believing in saints protecting cities, I still appreciate traditions – especially culinary traditions.
A young Christian martyr from Siracusa, Lucia was tortured after she refused to honour the marriage her mother had arranged for her. Legend has it that after Lucia’s death a famine hit the city. Read More
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 originalEasy 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 mrHien 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:
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