On my second day in Nha Trang, Vietnam, I met Kim, a fellow Dane who had lived in Vietnam for the past fourteen years. Kim had a small bar in the western quarter of Nha Trang and had done pretty well for himself, selling watered down beer to tourists. When I asked Kim for advice about what to see or do in Vietnam, his answer was resoundingly clear.
‘Leave the coast, go inland. See the real Vietnam and meet the people. The real crown jewel of Vietnam is its people.’
‘What’s the best way to do that?’ I asked.
‘Bike,’ he said. ‘You heard about the Vietnamese Easy Riders? They are amazing. They will show you the real Vietnam. You’ll never want to travel any other way again.’
Keen to experience the authentic Vietnam and get off the beaten track, I met with Cuc, an Easy Rider, recommended to me by Kim.
Cuc was forty two years old and had been an easy rider for the past eight. He was short and stocky, and had this pitch black hair, that looked like it was cut to the shape of a pot. We shared a couple of beers Hanois (not Kim’s watered down stuff) and Cuc showed me pictures of past trips and talked me through different routes. Cuc was very passionate about his country and I was soon hooked on the idea of a four day trip inland and we arranged to leave the following morning.
As I got to Kim’s Bar, Cuc was standing outside, making the final few checks on his motorbike, an old Honda CL 1600, that would carry the both of us the eight hundred kilometres from Nha Trang, through the Central Highlands, to Ho Chi Min City in the South. I handed Cuc my rucksack, which he expertly wrapped in a plastic sheet and tied to the back of the bike, whilst I said my goodbyes to Kim and his wife. I then put on my helmet, posed for a customary photo and off we went.
The drive out of Nha Trang was hellish. We had hit early morning traffic and the roads were swamped with mopeds and motorbikes weaving in and out of each other’s lanes. I lost count of the times I bumped knees with passing drivers and I secretly wondered what I had gotten myself into.
Any doubt I had soon disappeared as we hit the long winding coastal road out of the city; taking us around the bay, where across the water we could now see Nha Trang, with its white sandy beach, its many towering hotels and the hustle and bustle we had left behind. The view from the back of the bike was surprisingly good and with the feeling of the cold wind against my face, I soon fell into the role of an Easy Rider.
Along the way we stopped several times, where Cuc, who seemed to know everyone, would introduce me to some of the locals and would give me an insight in to their lives and customs. Our first stop was Loung Son fishing village, which are the main source for fish for Nha Trang and the surrounding area. Though it was still early the fishermen had already brought in their daily catch and their blue and white painted fishing boats were now bobbing peacefully in the water along the beach front.
Further along the beach and near the single pier, things were anything but peaceful. The pier itself resembled a colony of working ants, where colourful dressed Vietnamese women of all ages, in traditional conical hats and faces covered by cloth or masks, (an attire no doubt necessary to keep out the sweltering sun and the pungent smell of fish.) were busy bartering for fish. Whilst others who had already made their purchase, could be seen carrying the heavy baskets of fish to the beach front, where they were loaded onto waiting motorbikes.
After the Luong Son fishing village we stopped first at a shrimp farm and then visited a lobster farm. Lan the lobster farmer seemed honoured by my visit and after having shown me the tanks where the baby lobsters were farmed, he introduced me to all of his family and invited us for tea. Lan was very inquisitive about what I thought about Vietnam and what my plans were whilst I was here. I can only guess that he must have been impressed by my answers, as out of the blue he asked his daughter Bi’nh to join the table. Bi’nh was a tall and slender girl in her early twenties, with long dark hair and dark brown eyes. She was wearing a dark blue dress, which showed off her long legs and milky white skin.
‘You like her?’ Lan asked.
Being respectful to a man in his own house I said, ‘Yes she seems very nice’
‘She is twenty two and not married,’ Lan said deeply serious. ‘It is very hard finding suitable husband.’
Not really knowing what to say, I looked to Bi’nh for help. Bi’nh’s eyes were firmly fixed on the table in front of her and her face was quickly turning the colour of the baby lobsters Lan had shown me earlier. Not getting much help from her I looked at Cuc instead.
Lan continued, ‘You could stay here tonight and get to know each other and in the morning I can teach you more about lobsters, yes’.
Seeing our discomfort, Cuc jumped in and explained that we had a long way to drive and that we better get going. Grateful for Cuc’s interjection I quickly said my goodbyes and headed for the bike. As we got to the bike Cuc couldn’t contain himself anymore and burst out laughing.
‘What the fuck was that all about mate’, I said. ‘Was he serious?’
‘Yes very serious. Have you changed you mind? She’s pretty.’ Cuc said still laughing.
No let’s get going, I said. ‘I can’t see myself as a lobster farmer anyway.’
Back on the bike, it wasn’t long before we went inland and started climbing the mountains shielding the Central Highlands. We stopped for lunch in Ninh Phung, a small town that had sprung from the remnants of an old American army base. Here Cuc patiently taught me how to make my own Vietnamese spring rolls and took great delight in watching me choke on one he had filled with chillies, as I had used the bath room.
From Ninh Phung we made the finale climb up the Phong Hoang Pass, or Phoenix pass as it was named by the Americans, due to its resembles of the wings of a Phoenix.
Slowly circling up the empty mountain road, with no other sound than the strangely soothing hum of the old Honda, you would never have guessed that the pass was once a key battle ground of the American War, as most Vietnamese proudly referred to it as. I was amazed by the scenery around me. The surrounding hills and mountain tops were covered in luscious green trees. The deep blue sky was clear, except for a single white cloud dancing across the blue sky. I asked Cuc to drop me off a few kilometres from the top, so that I could really take in the views and just enjoy the moment.
Being born in an entirely flat country like Denmark and having spent most of my adult life living in London, a city that is as frantic as it comes; there was something majestic about being in the mountains. I felt a calmness that I had not experienced before, and as close to nature as physically possible. Had it not been for Cuc waiting patiently at the top of the pass I would happily have spent the rest of the day in the company of the Phoenix.
From the Phong Hoang Pass we continued into the Dak Lak region of the Central Highlands and immediately it became noticeable that this was coffee country. The distinguishably green coffee fields dominated the landscape and outside almost every farm house we passed, coffee beans were laid out to dry on large plastic sheets.
For a long time we were driving along the long winding empty roads without seeing anyone, except an old couple who waved at us, as they sat outside an isolated farm house drinking tea. Before coming to a small village, where in the space of ten minutes we were first overtaken by a man on a motorbike, with a full size live pig in a custom build cage, strapped to the back of the bike and then chased by a pack of dogs. Luckily Cuc’s old Honda was too fast for them and we got out of the village unscathed.
After another thirty minutes drive we arrived at a large dam, where we stopped to admire the view of the valley below. As far as I could possibly see there were rice paddy fields, spread out like a puzzle, separate only by tiny streams and a long narrow asphalt road cutting right through the yellow and green landscape. The valley, Cuc explained, was the home of the E De and Mnong ethnic tribes, and was also where Lak Lake was located, which would be our final destination for today.
The final ride towards Lak Lake was tough and I had to ask Cuc to let me off the bike, so I could walk for a while, as my poor backside was really feeling the strain of spending so long on the bike. At one point Cuc had driven well ahead and I was enjoying the peaceful walk, taking in the views of the paddy fields, when I spotted six women in a nearby field, dressed in blue and red traditional clothing, knee deep in mud, bent over with their backsides in the air and heads covered by traditional conical hats.
One of the women must have heard me approaching and turned around just as I walked past them. I was shocked. The woman stood in front of me must have been at least in her early to mid seventies. Her face weather beaten and wrinkled, but still beautiful; with these dark piercing eyes that was staring right at me. I think she was just as surprised as I was; the sight of a white guy with a shaven head and beard, walking all alone on an empty road, surrounded be paddy fields, was probably the last thing she expected to see.
We both stood there staring at each other for a while, before she gave me a big toothless grin and said something in her local language. The other women all turned around and before me stood three, possibly four, generations of, what I later learned to be, E De women. I gave them a big smile back and waved. Then sensing a great photo opportunity I took out my camera and after a bit of sign language and gentle pointing of the camera, the six women happily posed for a photo, which to this day still hangs proudly on my living room wall.
I caught up with Cuc and we completed the finale stretch to Jun village, a Mnong ethnic village located on the bank of Lak Lake, where we had booked a home-stay for the night. As we approached the village we were met by the sight of a young teenage boy riding towards us on an elephant.
‘Chao Ahn’, shouted the boy and waved excitedly. The elephant on the other hand seemed entirely unimpressed and trundled past without paying us any attention.
We parked the bike at a small enclosure on the edge of the village and were welcomed by a village elder, dressed in bright blue trousers, black and red shirt and wearing a black and red hat. (Cuc later explained that this particular black and red pattern was reserved for senior members of the tribe.) The village elder briefly spoke to Cuc and pointed in direction of one of the sixteen Longhouses which formed the main part of the village.
The Longhouses were long wooden houses built on stilts, so to keep out the livestock, such as dogs, pigs, buffalo and chickens, which were freely wandering around the village. The houses were all built facing in a North-South direction and each was occupied by several generations of the same family.
We walked to the house the village elder had pointed out and were met by the matriarch of the house. She was an older woman with short grey hair and a leathered brown face and in her mouth hung an old pipe, which she was constantly puffing on.
The Longhouse was split into two; an area reserved and curtained off for the family and a communal living area, where two thin mattresses, each with their own mosquito net, had been laid out on the floor. Cuc explained that since we had arrived late we would be eating on our own, as the family had already retired to their quarters. We were still treated to a delicious buffalo curry with rice and Cuc managed to buy a bottle of rice wine from the old lady.
Armed with the rice wine we walked down to Lak Lake, where we found an old log of wood to sit on. From there we had a clear view out over the now dark lake. The moon was almost full and it reflected perfectly in the water. On the other side of the lake I could still just about see the mountains far away. It was the most serene and peaceful setting; and sitting there talking with Cuc, enjoying the strong rice wine, I could only imagine what the next three days as an Easy Rider would bring.