The Easy Riders are a group of motorbike guides that are synonymous with Vietnam. The success of the group has spawned new groups, factions and conflict amongst the guide gangs. They each have their own territory and risk trouble if they try and tout for business outside of this.
We are are talking Honda rather than Harley here. But nonetheless the bikes themselves are proper road bikes, a welcome change to the ‘hair dryer on wheels’ we’ve been renting whilst in Asia.
When you go on one of these tours, everything comes with you. They strap your big bag to the back, the smaller bag to the front. The big bag helps form your back support making the ride as comfortable as you can hope for really. Which is good news seeing as we planned to do 550 km in 3 days. The bike also has to carry your guide’s stuff. They inevitably travel light.
The most basic tour you can do is a full day, in and around the areas of Dalat. We however, extended this to 3 days and 2 nights. Rather than circling around the city and returning to the hotel, we’d travel onwards, staying at different places for two nights with the guides taking us from point to point.
We had two guides; Thiens (“chi-en”) and Windy.
On his way to becoming a tour guide Thiens has been many things including a birdman (more on that later) and a farmer. He was leading our tour. Wherever we went he seemed to know everyone. Particularly the ladies with whom he flirted outrageously. Despite being a ‘happily’ married father…
It’s difficult to describe how we found Thiens, but I’d say ‘a little bit of a prick’ is about right. As a guide though he was excellent, he delivered his promise of a tourist-free, unseen version of Vietnam. We ate as locals, travelled without hassle and learnt a lot.
Windy, on the other hand was very likeable. A man of very few words (his english wasn’t great) you could instantly tell he was a nice guy. He was older than Thiens, probably in his mid-forties.
Anyway both of these guys belong to Dalat’s Easy Riders. And would be our guides, breakfast, lunch and dinner partners with whom we’d spend a good 10 hours a day with for the next three days.
The plan was to do a spiral like tour around the central highlands, ending in its southern region where we’d catch a bus to Saigon.
We wanted to see parts of Vietnam we would never have seen otherwise. We wanted to stay in places we wouldn’t stay, eat in places we couldn’t find.
We did all this and more.
Sometimes we saw things we didn’t like and sometimes we had a little panic (Julie doesn’t like bugs). Thiens was often arrogant and pretty unlikeable at times. Windy difficult to understand. And sometimes we just wanted a bit of space.
But… Despite this it really was brilliant. A true highlight in a great journey so far.
We’d drive (or is it ride?) over 150 km a day riding from 8am to 6pm. It’s tiring. It’s bumpy, it’s hot and dirty (I thought I’d caught the sun until the “brown” started washing off my face in the shower).
The tour involves various visits to farms and factories, stops at scenic locations and touring along some beautiful roads.
Now to be honest, I was a bit sceptical about the visits to farms and factories. These can become an awkward pressure sell and not a very enjoyable experience. They can also be a bit shit. I mean I have come out here to visit a bloody brick factory? I’m on my honeymoon for fucks sake. On the other hand I suppose it’s a good opportunity for an industrial ‘real Vietnam’ photo which should prove an Instagram winner.
We visited a flower farm, weasel coffee farm, silk factory and yes a brick factory. Here’s the photo to prove it:
And to be fair, it was actually quite interesting, if not always comfortable.
There was no pressure to buy anything and the insights the guys provided at each stop added to our understanding of the local area and vietnam as a whole.
The weasel coffee farm was difficult though.
Of all the stops this seemed like a front to get tourists in. They didn’t just produce weasel coffee, but also rice wine, specialising in brews with exotic animals in. This didn’t sit too comfortably but as our guide explained, the value placed on some of the exotic animals used in the brews means local economic factors drives the production. It’s all supply and demand.
The local minority communities (our guides words not ours) still go into the jungle and hunt animals to sell to the factories. These brews are often sold to rich Chinese tourists.
The conditions of the weasels they are actually civet cats was also poor, kept in battery-style cages without much light. They are fed fresh coffee beans that they then digest and pass through. This is collected in a tray under their cage and then roasted. It is only males they use for this.
They have one female civet they use to breed. She is kept in a larger cage than the males which is outside, giving her more light and slightly better living conditions (still shit though). This wasn’t how I envisaged my weasel coffee being produced. I still had a romantic notion they’d be collecting beans from the forest floor…
Now according to our guide in order to be able to keep weasels the farm needs a license from the government. A condition of this license is that each female can only be kept for 7 years before being released back into the wild. This is some stretch and they don’t even get out early for good behaviour. To be honest, from the standards of the farm we saw, I’d imagine the Civet would be so traumatised by the time of her release she’d find it pretty difficult to survive.
It was at the weasel coffee farm that Thiens told us his history as a Birdman. He’d go into the jungle and set traps for exotic birds, selling them for considerable gain into the pet and chinese medicine market. He also kept fighting birds that would be kept at the weasel farm.
Well, at least he was honest.
From Worm to Scarf
Amongst the other stops was a silk factory, seeing the full process from ‘worm to scarf’. Words I never thought I’d ever write.
We saw the worms being fed, the cocooning process with lava. We saw the silk thread being extracted from the cocoon and ultimately being dyed and woven into fabric.
Julie even touched a worm. Again, words I never thought I’d write.
The tour took us to places somewhat off the beaten track (not far mind) which meant we were able to avoid the bus loads of Russian and Chinese tourists that we usually see. We went to some truly spectacular places along the way:
We went here to swim under a waterfall and in the river. It was such an incredible spot which we pretty much had to ourselves. The water was turquoise, lush jungle all around. I also got myself a stick.
We visited an incredible place called Lak Lake. This place is seriously beautiful and relatively tourist free.
We had the chance to take a kayak out onto the lake for around an hour, enjoying the quiet and amazing scenery. It was early morning with only local fisher-women heading out to check their traps. As we drifted, we spotted a line of elephants crossing the lake from their jungle home over to the village where they are put to work carrying tourists. Their treatment is questionable by their owners, but they looked majestic.
Whilst at the lake we spent the night in the traditional long house of the local minority population.
It’s pretty sweet from the outside, basic on the inside but comfortable enough (if you don’t mind sleeping on the floor). Unless you’re Julie that is. I think she’s like nectar to bugs everywhere. They ignore lights and just want to hunt her down. We spent the night under siege from wave after wave of ravenous flying bastards intent on giving us the right arse.
It wasn’t a great night’s kip.
All about the touring
This was after all a motorbike tour and the ongoing highlight was the journey itself. Some bits were dirty and horrible but some were just out of this world.
It was hard to capture the most spectacular journeys on camera as we were too busy enjoying the views, winding through breathtaking roads and landscapes.
In a car, you are detached from the environment around you. On a bike, it’s so different. And it’s great fun, even just being a passenger. It would have been amazing to drive it.
We both finished our tour exhausted and thrilled. Ready but sad to end our tour. I want to buy a bike when we get back although as Julie reminds me, the A23 ain’t really the same thing…
Oh well, at least we’ve got the memories.
Cost: The trip wasn’t cheap costing $70 per person per day so $410 in total. This covered our guides, transportation and accommodation and entrance fees. It doesn’t include food and drink although Thiens assured us he would take us to eat in local places with true local prices. He was true to his word, with varying degrees of success when it came down to the quality of the food.
We booked our trip through our hotel, although there a plenty of options on Tripadvisor.
Guides: Despite Thiens chequered past and his arrogance they were both pretty good. We definitely preferred Windy though.
Length: For us 3 days was enough. We had an amazing time but were ready to call it quits by the end.
Experience: Overall it was great, we saw parts of Vietnam (good and bad) we couldn’t have seen on a standard trip. Definitely do it if you ever get the chance.