I knew within the first week of the CELTA course I was going to need a vacation. It was the third week that I began to list the places I wanted to go and things I wanted to do. I knew that once I found work I wouldn’t have the opportunity to take the time I wanted to travel the country. Certain jobs don’t even have two consecutive days off. I might be able to manage a day trip, but that would be about it. Danang, Dalat, Nha Trang, Vung Tau and Can Tho were on the list.
I chose Danang because it was the first city in Vietnam I really spent time in. I have friends I’d met in 2011 and it seemed like a good place to begin a motorbike tour. Da Lat because I’d heard such great things about it. There are cooler temperatures and tons of flowers. Nha Trang because of the beach and seafood. I thought of water sports, beach town vibes and there was a student during the CELTA course from there. I needed something mellow and something to quench my Aries fire. I put Vung Tau on the list for the same reasons. It is a day trip from Ho Chi Minh and there are more job possibilities than Nha Trang and Danang but, in the end I skipped this beach town. Can Tho because of the disappearing floating market. There is a little romance for me and the Mekong Delta. It is the place I first imagined before 2011 being the true Vietnam.
My first stop was Danang. This is where I would start my motorbike tour to Da Lat. I always liked this little city. It’s not as frenetic as HCMC. The people are nice. One of my CELTA classmates lives in Danang. So I thought it would be a nice way to start. It was also where I needed some time to convalesce from a bad cold that I had developed at the end of my CELTA course. I stayed at Namunamu, with somewhat of a view of the ocean between new construction of high rise hotels. I did enjoy a sunrise on the beach.
I also took a dip in the pool. As much as there are a lot of changes and development happening, it’s still nice mellow Danang. I wanted to stay. I always have. Schools have waiting lists for placement there. Not many job openings for ESL instructors. The turnover is very low. If you visit you will see why teachers don’t want to leave.
DAY 1: I was still very sick and tired when we began our tour. Mr. Tam was nice enough to procure some cold medicine for me for the next few days. I packed my large backpack, he strapped it to the back of the bike and we headed on our way. It was almost within 30 minutes of riding that I wanted to pass out. I don’t know if it was the strong cold medicine, the lull of the engine or lack of a good sleep, but I wanted to close my eyes and wake up at our first destination. We made a few stops, but a key stop was at a Cao Dai temple. I think I had managed to close my eyes and bang helmets with my driver a few times before we pulled into a long driveway. They had rice drying at the entrance. Once I had my camera in hand and was about to walk around we were invited to a large vegetarian lunch. It was even a surprise for Tam.
It was quite delicious. An older gentleman could speak a little bit of English. He explained all the food and after eating he invited me to go into the temple, which I did and took a few pictures. This is when I didn’t really like my new telephoto lens. It would have been nice to have the wide angle available to capture everything. He explained a little bit of Cao Dai, and how accepting it is of all faiths. I liked the food, but I personally don’t care much for any religion’s message.
Afterwards we got into some foothills. There we stopped so I can do a little swimming. It was really hot. I had a little flashback to the last time I tried to go to a waterfall in Vietnam. My blood sugar crashed after climbing and climbing and not making it to the top. Again, I had to climb. I began to get frustrated because I could hear the water, but the path was taking me away from it. As I turned around, ready to leave without swimming, I found the path. I quickly changed into my bathing suit and found the swimming hole. The last word of advice from Tam was, “watch your luggage”. Well, dammit. I walked from out of the trees to see about 15 teen boys splashing, climbing and jumping into the water. How was I going to watch my bag with camera and clothes and enjoy my swim? I wish I had changed at the motorcycle and left my bag with Tam.
So, unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the waterfall and new friends. I just didn’t want to reveal what I had in my bag. With bad feet on all the rocks, I kept my eyes on my bag and didn’t venture too far into the water. It was just enough to cool off and watch them do backflips into the water or play chicken. I didn’t want them to run off with my stuff. Eventually, a few came up to me and we began to compare tattoos. My lion impressed them and they showed me some of their stars and koi fish. I kept trying to introduce myself, but they never offered their names when I asked. My Vietnamese pronunciation is horrible. Then we took some pictures with each other. They used their phone. Again, I didn’t want to open my bag so they could see my shit. Terrain wise, they could have taken advantage of me. I was slightly scared.
When traveling alone I feel adventurous, but I also like to keep my belongings in tact. They were nice enough kids. As small numbers of them began to leave I thought I would climb higher to get a better view if not a chance to take some photos. They told me not to. I don’t know the reason, but I left the swimming area with them. Once we returned to the motorbikes Tam did a little translating. We talked a bit about tattoos. How much they cost, what it means to have a tattoo in Vietnam and such. You can see quite a few tattoos in Vietnam these days, mostly all black ink. They still have stigma in the smaller villages and towns. They told us that they get stopped by the police and they can’t get jobs if they have the smallest of tattoos. I feel a little silly not to have taken their picture and to have been so crazy about my daypack.
We stopped in the mountains right before the rain came down. Kham Duc. A shower and rest before dinner. Then a deep sleep. Riding on a motorcycle all day is exhausting.
DAY 2: I had just finished the cold medicine I had. The start of the ride was cool. I wanted to keep the mask of the helmet up, but I felt myself getting stuffy once again. I wasn’t convinced that I had enough cold medicine to make it to Da Lat. We pressed on. There was an opportunity to get into another waterfall, but the morning wasn’t warm enough for me. A swim is a nice treat in the afternoon when you’ve been on the bike for a while. I should’ve gotten in. There was a separate little section that was a hot spring. Bridges…not that great in this country. They ride and drive over them while I am nervous walking over them.
As we passed fields of tapioca I could only think of the tremendous lines in front of Boba Guys. After visiting Taiwan I could only think of the price people pay in the States for that drink. We stopped in a few minority villages, but we stopped in the largest one I had ever seen. I had my own little bag of coconut candy I had brought from my Mekong Delta trip. Children from far into the village came running for some candy. First there were five, then ten and then more. I was glad I had a lot. This time, with Tam’s help, there wasn’t the fighting that happened the last time I brought out some treats. These were the Van Kieu people.
Our stop for the night was Kon Tum. There was another large Catholic church. The oldest in the area. Tam explained that elephants had helped to bring the lumber through the jungle to build this church. Behind the church was an orphanage. We had some local food, banh xeo. Delicious. It was extremely fresh as she continually made the little pancake in front of us and grilled the meat right there. We rolled everything up in rice paper, I didn’t think I could get enough of it.
DAY 3: Another night spent in a nice hotel, nice enough for lovers. It’s just been reminder of how I am alone now. The CELTA kept me distracted from my real life, but travel in Vietnam has been a reminder of my travels with my ex in 2015. It was one of the things we could do together, deferring to one another when necessary. My reality was slowly sinking in at this point. Sleep would come, but reminders of why we aren’t together woke the next morning with me. Some of that loss and anger at loss would wake up too. In 2015 we did a similar motorbike tour, but we had headed to the north through the central highlands. This time I was headed south. Same country and driver, but different territory.
Tam, who I consider family, pushed us through day 3. There wasn’t much to view and we made few stops. Stops are important for rest and breaking up the day. It started off cool in the morning, but the temperature rose. I couldn’t help but reflect on 2015. It was blazing hot on that particular tour. It wasn’t until we hit a patch of rain that I decided to leave her on the highway in those mountains. I left her in the mountains along with the other lost souls from the Vietnam war.
That is something one cannot escape when driving through the country side. The remnants of bones, landmines and baby forests cover this beautiful country. While passing smaller and older motorbikes (scooters to be exact) a European face would appear. The legacy of the French and Americans linger as facial characteristics. Pepper, coffee and tapioca cover what once was jungle.
Tam’s face scrunches up as he talks about 30-40 years in the past, in the mountains. He’s reminded of the poor road conditions, lack of soles on shoes or even flip flops and very poor people. Then his face would light up as Mercedes and Landrovers passed us as we spoke on the side of the highway. It’s still quite evident how poor the people are in the countryside. Tok toks pull all types of lumber, feed and produce up and down the highway, driven by young poor farmers. They don’t typically look as nice and new as the picture.
3 days is the longest I’ve been on a bike tour of this kind. My hips have reached their limit, but I am 2 days from Da Lat. I absolutely love the central highlands and it’s beauty. The people are more relaxed and humble. They are curious about me and my tattoos. I don’t even mind the hard long stares. I laughed when they laughed without knowing what had been said. I imagine it was more about my weight than anything else. (My beer belly was creeping back with the lack of swimming and extra vacation beer).
Without the frequent stops my thoughts were trapped under my helmet with no where to go. Making it to this point I needed to cleanse myself. Each kilometer reached was closer to freedom and healing. With that freedom, debris needed to be cleared away from the progress I wanted to make emotionally. Day 3 was an exhausting and emotional day. I’m glad we finished when we did in Buon Me Thaut. Nem Viet otherwise known as Nem Nuong was dinner. I’m getting to the point where I can remember the food I ate and look for places to get it. This was my favorite introduction because of how fresh it was.
DAY 4: I visited Dak Lak Museum. I walked slowly around the building to stretch my legs and hips. I wasn’t quite ready to get back on the bike for the ride.
From there we went to a major waterfall. Getting there was a pain in the ass. Literally. The road was absolutely horrible getting to and from. The temperature was also rising. I thought I might be able to go for a swim. Not. Walking around, sweating my ass off I ran into an Aussie and his Vietnamese girlfriend. They asked me how I was getting around. A few comments at how dangerous it was to travel by motorbike. It was a short exchange. I got a few more shots in before stumbling back to the motorcycle. They were also on a motorbike, but with small suitcases, not tied down.
The Aussie’s girlfriend spoke to Tam for a bit claiming she was also from Danang, but her accent showed through and Tam found that she was from the countryside outside of Danang. They took off for lunch and we headed to Lak Lake. Funny thing though. As we made our way from the waterfall we noticed that they had left their guide behind in the literal dust. He couldn’t keep up with them. Bumps and holes finished, we came to a highway. I was grateful for every stop we made in the shade. There was a small damn and a fishing village on our way to the Lake.
This short part of the journey I thought I would wear my camera on my shoulder and take pictures from the bike. It ended up being switched on when I wasn’t using it.
Once we reached Lak Lake the camera battery died and I pulled out my iPhone to take pictures of the long houses. Some Easy rider tours will take their clients to the long houses to stay over night. Thankfully Tam didn’t think it was nice enough for me so we went to Lak Lake Resort instead. Before landing at the resort we saw the couple again and they told us how they had to dump their “guide”
Lak Lake resort also had a long house on the property. Beyond, I had my own room, but the television didn’t work. I could only charge my phone in the bathroom. My camera had gotten so hot in the heat I had to wait until the middle of the night until it was willing to take a charge. The room wasn’t the best, but the surroundings were quite beautiful outside the room and the dining room.
NOTES from Day 4…keep your knees in, less stress on the hip joints. Keep camera in the day pack to not have it switch on accidentally and get too hot. Lay down in the hammocks whenever possible.
DAY 5: This was our last push to DaLat. I was ready for the end of the tour. I think Tam could sense my weariness also. He kept his humor, where I struggled. Our day started with a bit of coffee by the lake. I was able to Face Time with my parents. The wifi was so good in this remote area. We waited for a while for my elephant to come down from the jungle. I was going to take an elephant ride/swim. It was a little disappointing though. I thought about my first ride on the island of Sumatra. There we washed the elephants and fed them and then took a ride through the jungle and river. This one took a little dip in Lak Lake. It felt like we were moving backwards the whole time. The sun was blazing this morning. It was nothing spectacular. Not that I’m a connoisseur of elephant tours, but you know. The main thing I remember was not feeling secure in the carriage.
After the elephant ride we were back on the bike to Da Lat. Holy Shit! The roads were rough at the end of the tour. Emotionally and physically I relished getting off the bike for a rest. My body cried each time I swung my legs over the bike to get back on the seat. I had forgone my opportunities to swim earlier days. I sorely wished there was swim time this day. If you ever take a motorbike tour take advantage of each chance to swim. You never know when the next one will come up. It’s a life saver.
When we stopped for lunch the road was broken rocks. It looked like the government was waiting for drivers to tamp down the rocks before they made any effort to pave it. It was rough and full of ruts that at times were full of water so we had to swerve often to avoid them. It wasn’t a straight simple shot. Lunch was banh cuon. More rocks after lunch but after a while we were on a paved road again. The trees changed. They were tall straight pines. We could have been in the mountains in America or French Alps. The temperature was cooler and we kept climbing up.
It was a relief to reach Da Lat. We had passed flower plantations and pine trees coming into the city. The amount of traffic compared to HCMC was almost nil. There are a lot of people on the road, but it was so much more manageable. There is a large lake in the center of town and we rode around it to my hotel. I thought I would see more of a French influence on the city as a whole, but it was a Vietnamese city and very quiet. I still had to see what made this little mountain town so special and notable.