We arrived in Dalat in the evening. The air was crisp, cool and fresh. A beautiful lake shimmered in the dimming light as the day turned to dusk. The Guesthouse Markus and I found was not only reasonably priced, but luxurious for a guesthouse. What a nice change! Dinner was delicious and cheap… Lonely Planet hit the mark right on with that local recommendation! On the bus to Dalat Markus and I met a Dutch guy who was traveling with another Dutch guy and some Israelis.
(Okay I’m writing the bleeping blog at a café while I wait for my bus to Hanoi… a Vietnamese guy who doesn’t speak English keeps blabbing to me in Vietnamese even though I don’t understand. Now, he’s thumbing through my guidebook uninvited and one of the three things he’s tried to get me to say in Vietnamese is ‘toilet’. Is this a person curious in a traveler or curious about having his very own clown or puppet? I have a hunch it’s the latter.)
After dinner, we ran into one Dutch guy, Pieter, who decided to kick it more with Markus and I. We made plans to rent bikes the next day and bike to some local sites I had it in my head that we could get as far as a waterfall 55 km away and back – the first part, down the mountain, would be easy; the second part, up the mountain, well, we could do it! Hehehehe…
The next day we got up early, ate breakfast and then searched high and low for mountain bikes. We had seen others on them, so we knew they could be rented, we just didn’t know where. Finally, we found a place. But the bikes looked shady. Then, we finally found another place and rented the bikes. Not more than five minutes into our jaunt though my bike was slipping gears incessantly, causing me to jam my knee several times. That wasn’t going to work. We went back, turned in the bikes and got our money back. At that point, I just wanted to rent some motobikes, but Pieter was bent on a mountain bike. So, we finally found a third place. The bikes seemed okay. We took them on a test run. But, I did tell Pieter that once we got down the mountain, we were sure to have problems. But hey, I was up for it. It was 12:30 by then. I just wanted to get going.
The trip to the first waterfall, just 15 km away was fun. Once we got outside of Dalat in the valley, it was downhill, or down mountain I should say. You didn’t have to pedal, just coast. At times, I was streaming past the motobikes! It was a rush! At the first waterfall, of course we were charged to park our bikes. What? Pay to park our bikes? What ever happened to free bike racks? Bahhh! So, after paying to park our bikes, we pay to get in to see the waterfall, only to be left with the choice of paying to “roller coaster it down” to the waterfall or walk. The “roller coaster” was actually a one-seater hand brake cart thing that looked kind of fun. So, we sprung for the $3.75 ride down, but decided to walk back up. It was actually pretty fun! You could whiz pretty fast through the trees if you didn’t ever hit the break! It was worth $3.75 for the first-ever run. I wouldn’t pay for it again though. The waterfall was nice. Nothing I hadn’t seen on my trek through the Thai jungle though (which by the way cost me $7 a day including the guide, trekking, food and lodging). After the waterfall it was back to down mountain biking. Hehehehe. Another natural rush! It was about a half hour before we reached the next waterfall near the foot of the mountain. We opted not to go in though. We had heard that this one wasn’t anything special and that they kept caged animals that they abused on display. We asked a Westerner exiting the waterfall as we arrived and he confirmed this rumor. So… onward to the waterfall further away… just about another 35 km! Markus wasn’t to keen on going. But, I just took off. I was having too much fun. Pieter was up for it so he followed, which meant Markus didn’t really have a choice and he followed. We were biking through a loooong flatish valley when my pedal just fell off. I couldn’t help but let slip one “I told ya so” to Pieter. But, we laughed it off. He pedaled back to a mechanic shack he saw to get another screw because we couldn’t find the original. When he got back though, it wasn’t the right one. So I took his bike, he took mine and one-pedaled and we all went back to the mechanic shack. We had lunch at the shack café next door. Some of the best Pho’ (traditional Vietnamese soup) and Vietnamese tea I’ve had. It was a fun little break for all of us. These locals were really nice. Charged us real local prices. We paid them more, of course. It seemed like a steal after all those inflated prices and since they didn’t want to charge me even double I wanted to give them at least double. See, I’m not stingy! With a freshly bolted pedal and a lunch in our bellies, we were again on our way. Twenty minutes later, Pieter’s tire went flat. Time to stop again. Another mechanic fixed the tire, and we felt good about spreading out our business. ; ) We took a coffee at the next door shack café this time. And off again! But, Pieter’s petal kept loosening and we had to stop every 15 minutes so he could retighten it. We finally had made it about the right distance, hours after we should have… but, still no sign of a waterfall. We asked locals, they pointed, we shrugged and followed their fingers. We ended up biking through a hidden coffee plantation, over a rickety bridge and through lots of local villages… but no waterfall. (Okay, I’m writing on the bus now. I have to have the laptop hang out in the aisle because the guy in front of me has his seat so far back. I move it when we stop to let others on. Yet, one of the bus “officials” says “hello” then motions for me to close my laptop. You can read everything on my face. I didn’t respond. But, I’m sure the look on my face said “Bring it on, buddy.” Then another guy slapped the first guy in the head and they all laughed and turned around. Hmmm… maybe I’ll give the “Bring it on, buddy” look more often. Seems to work.) Finally, it was about 5 in the evening and we decided to give up and turn back. We quickly realized though, that there was no way we were going to make it back through the loooong valley and up the huge mountain before midnight if we kept having to stop for Pieter to tighten the pedal on his bike. So… we hitchhiked. A piece of cardboard with Dalat penned on it did the trick in no time. A local woman and some local kids watched the whole spectacle. The woman was helpful and told us what we should pay 10,000 dong each. Even with her bargaining on our behalf we weren’t able to get a ride for less than 50,000 dong each. Five times what we should pay… because we’re Westerners.Bahhh! Whatev… we were having too much fun! On the bus with our bikes, we realized Pieter’s loose pedal problem was a huge blessing in disguise. If we had attempted biking up that curving mountain road in the dark without reflectors we would have surely been killed… by the bus we were on! We forgot about the crazy killer buses that race down two-lane streets through the middle, honking incessantly at motobikes to get out of the way or die, constantly overtaking other vehicles on blind curves. I’ve been on my fair share of crazy, killer buses by now. But, I even shrieked at one point on this one, as I was sure we (we meaning the 25 people packed into a place that sat 8) were going to plow right into the back of a truck as we braked and swerved back over to avoid a moto coming in the other direction in its own lane. I’ve never felt more relieved to have my own two feet planted on solid ground as when I got off that bus. Geez. All in all, the day was one fantastic adventure and we all a bit strung up on the whole experience for a bit. There was more to explore… but, we had tempted fate enough for the week at least, so the next day we planned to hire a guide and rent motobikes.
Well, I take the whole tempting fate thing back… for me at least. Our guide the next day was great. He took us to flower nurseries, silk farms (did you know you can harvest an 800 m to 1 km strand of silk from one cocoon?), coffee plantations (with various species – short: mocha, big: robusta, very tall: arrabica and tall: katima), stunning waterfalls, pagodas, temples and fed us the best food I’ve had yet in Vietnam. Of course, to get some good shots (which really, I don’t know how good they turned out) I had to put myself in some slightly precarious positions… but, I repeat, slightly. Nothing too dangerous! Really!
Our guide was so good, we decided to hire him to take guide us three through the central highlands to Hoi An (bypassing the coastal resort city of Nha Trang) for a five day trek. He would drive one motorcycle and one of us would ride on the back with him and Markus would drive a motobike and the other would ride on the back with him. It’s not common for Westerners to commandeer one of the bikes on such a long trek with an “Easy Rider” guide (that’s what these guys who do these guided tours are called). But, Markus had proved his moto skills on our day trip, so he got the approval to drive. That saved us money, because that meant less guides were needed. The trek was fantastic. I was on a natural high for an entire day afterwards… literally jumping around with energy and excitement not knowing what to do with myself. Again… getting ahead.
So yeah, fantastic. I could go into immense detail here or gloss over. I figure I’ll spare you guys and gloss over. More villages, more coffee plantations, tea plantations, rubber tree plantations, black pepper plant plantations, jackfruit trees, banana trees, curry plants bearing curry fruit (as the guide called it. Officially, I don’t know, but the “fruit” contains the seed they use to color their red curry), broom flower (again as the guide called it… they use the long bristles of this plant to make their brooms), durian (stinky fruit) plants, avocado plants, papaya trees, sugarcane grass (you could order a glass of fresh sugarcane juice at local stands along the road), and red chili plants all canvassing what couldn’t be more picture-perfect mountain landscapes with bright blue skies and puffy white clouds. We stopped in villages. Our guide explained everything from how the villagers farmed each crop to why their ceremonial shacks, or long houses, were shaped how they were (facing East to West in order to harvest the maximum amount of energy from the sun), to why their utensils were shaped how they were and how they were used. We stopped at an alligator farm (was it alligator or crocodile? I can never keep the two straight), and saw monkeys (in cages unfortunately. But also luckily, because these monkeys were waaay more aggressive than the one that just strolled on by me at Angkor Wat.) Our guide pointed out the area devastated by Agent Orange, which is now growing lush again. He pointed out the mountain where no one dares to tread because it’s still covered in mines. He pointed out the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. He took us to waterfalls five times as big as the spectacular ones we had already seen. He took us to pools naturally formed by waterfalls and rivers merging, where leaves were so giant they were five, six, seven times the size of a human head. At one waterfall we met some wealthy locals (I say wealthy because they were bling blinging more than I have ever blinged blinged in my life) who were feasting one some kind of fowl they had barbequed, with homemade seasoning and local beer. They shared their waterfall picnic with us (hope that’s not why I’m sick! No messages of bird flu from Markus and Pieter yet… so I should be in the clear.) We traveled through cultivated and terraced hills and raw and wild jungle and even regal pine forests… we really had it all. I have to mention the downside to this though. Vietnam is losing more acres of pristine, wild jungle every month… probably everyday. Locals are burning more and more jungle and pine forests in order to clear more land for coffee.
Oh I can’t forget my first taste of local rice wine (which doesn’t give you hangovers) and the amazing food throughout the journey. Our guide had done his research and certainly knew where to eat. Fish, beef, raw pork, eel, rabbit, frog, fresh spring rolls you roll yourself… we tried just about everything.
You couldn’t have asked for better weather during the first three-days of our trek. The last two were wet and drizzly. At times the rain pelted and felt like little needles, especially when I tried to open my eyes to see where we were going. The last day I resorted to watching a blue-colored, blurry world pass by through my plastic poncho. These days of rain are probably why I’m sick. I got soaked and stayed soaked for two days straight and it was rather cool. Not freezing or anything, but cold and wet. Not to mention I was wearing just flip flops. Not much could be done though. We had to keep on keeping on. And, at the time, I was rather enjoying it. It really seemed like an adventure when we had to battle the rain. Plus, I liked skimming my feet over the puddles as we rode on the motobike. So yeah, that’s probably why I’m sick. Oh well. Afternoon of day five, we reached Hoi An. In all, 7 days straight on some sort of bike… One day of mountain biking, 6 days of motobiking. Whew! What an unforgettable week! Honestly, I felt ready to leave Vietnam then. What could I do to top that?? What could I do to experience more of the real Vietnam than that?