Scooting through the Hills

Warning: this is a long post, so if you don’t feel like reading, just watch the damn video. Hooray for montages!

First, we must apologize to our parents. We’re SORRY for taking moto lessons in the states with explicit plans to ride them for three days in a foreign country with virtually no traffic laws. We also apologize for creating a killer montage with really cheesy music (if you read no further, at least watch the video.) But since we are rebellious children, we are NOT SORRY for having the time of our lives on fire red 150cc scooter in the highlands of central Vietnam. Plus, if we hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t have experienced the country to its fullest. It was absolutely necessary. We love you!

DAY 1:
It’s all Ricky’s fault. He told us we had to experience Vietnam on a moto. He told us Giang, or “River” – the western translation, was the best guide around. He told us we wouldn’t regret it. Damnit, he was right, but it didn’t look that way from the beginning.

We met River, and his assistant Mr Bihn, the night before to go over the details. He wanted to check our moto handling, but unfortunately the bikes we’re not available and he had to trust our abilities. We assured him that we could hold our own and he believed us. Then, we crossed our fingers hoping that our perceived motorcycle skills were as mighty as our powers of persuasion.

Two British gents would accompany us on this trip. They sat on the back of the guides two large WW2 era motor bikes. Cortney and I got little scooters of our own, our packs (everything we own) were fastened to the back. 7am and its time to depart Nha Trang, a famous beach town, which is not as large and chaotic as Hanoi or Saigon, but can be overwhelming, especially to two virgin city drivers. Cortney was eyed suspiciously, I stalled my bike while trying to cross a busy intersection. We quickly realized that no one relaxes on a bike in Vietnam. Similar to crossing the street, there are a few good rules to follow when riding:

1. Look everyone in the eye. I see you, you see me!
2. Salmoning is accepted. Going against the flow is actually the best way to tackle certain traffic situations.
3. When in doubt, slow down. The crowd of local drivers will just flow around you like a river of gravy encountering a lost pee.

First stop was an ancient Cham ruin in the middle of the city. All the Cham temples are impressive because they are made of brick and look recently built but are actually over 1000 years old.

Next we rode along a beautiful section of the coastal highway. Just when I was starting to feel relaxed and in control, BLAM, a bug hits my visor. Well, thank goodness for the visor; now if the pain on the back of my neck would stop that would be even better. The pain, it turns out, was from a bee that somehow hit my helmet, made a physics defying u-turn and stung me on the back of the neck. I thought these guys called themselves the Easy Rider tour. Bee stings on the open highway don’t seem to fit the tourist bill.

Stinger removed and a Vietnamese sweet coffee later, we were back on the road heading into the hills. With the cross traffic behind us, we encountered a new challenge; passing freight trucks on an inclined narrow road with underpowered bikes. Cortney lead the way and was fearless. I followed and tried not to crap my pants.

We arrived at a hilly section with newly planted trees. River, who, by the way is a constant ball of energy with fascinating insights, pointed out that this was the famous Phoenix Pass. During the war, US bombers dropped an ocean full of agent orange in the surrounding jungle. For the next thirty years nothing would grow with the exception of small weeds and grass. Agent orange was devastating for everyone involved and, as we found out, it continues to ravage the country side and the people. But nature has persevered and trees are finally sprouting from the hills.

The Vietnamese, forty years later, are still dealing with the literal fallout. We stopped at a roadside stand selling drinks and snacks. There we met the owners, a family with four children. The first and last children are healthy and normal. It’s a different case for the middle two. Their father was exposed to agent orange in the 1970′s while working the Ho Chi Minh trail supply lines. He has lasting effects from the exposure but what he passed to his children was worlds worse. Their youngest daughter is mentally handicapped and wracked with spasms and contorted limbs. She can’t stand, speak, or eat for herself. She did have an amazing smile and seemed to know we were there. The family was gracious, expected nothing, but of course we donated a small amount for her care. This wasn’t the last time we would encounter the remnant horrors of a war torn country.

After that sobering experience, we rode for the rest of the day. Gaining altitude and passing town after town, most used as road stops for truckers carrying their goods to the coast. It was a welcome to relief to hit our destination city at dusk and get an early nights sleep after eight hours of assaulting the hills with our mechanical ponies.

DAY 2
This day promised to be less riding and a bit more of nature. Our first stop was the market where River helped us purchase food for a special BBQ lunch. Cortney and i picked up some local fabric masks to protect us from the constant exhaust that spewed in our face. We even joked that smoking a cigarette while riding may be healthier.

River and Binh took us through the country side to a seldom visited park. We rode through a rocky forested trail which opened to an amazing waterfall. Here was our picnic spot, and not a soul was around to bother us.

River and Mr Binh gathered foods from the jungle to compliment our meal. They found natural peppers, water leaves, and bamboo sprouts. We packed sticky rice, mint and pork into the bamboo tubes and laid them over the camp fire. We also roasted a chicken strung between bamboo poles. As the food cooked, the four tourists took a plunge into the river. By the time we finished splashing around, lunch was served. The bamboo tubes were split open to reveal lines of tightly packed rice, meat and vegetables. The chicken was delectable and everything was wrapped in leaves collected from the jungle. We had certainly left the golden arches of China behind.

The final event before a long moto ride to our overnight city was a “water massage.” River showed us a secret route under the thundering falls. We carefully pulled and picked our way beneath the freezing water and the sensation was… amazing. Shivering, freezing, deafening, invigoratingly amazing.

DAY 3
We were really in the hills now. Day three was a breathtaking journey through rice paddies, strawberry farms and flooded valleys. In between the rubber necking we stopped at rubber tree farms (the trees are bled for their white, smelly liquid gold), pepper orchards, and silk worm huts. We were handed trays of wriggling worms and saw basketfuls of cocoons ready to be spun. Later, we toured a factory where workers steam the cocoons and then carefully unspool the silk.

Throughout the three days we stopped at local villages and hung with the excited children. They showed us their water buffalos and fish ponds. We bought bags of candy to give them, I even mastered the art of tossing candy while driving my moto past enthralled school children. I was Santa Claus on a vespa.

We arrived in Da Lat with the setting sun. As we gathered on a hill top and watched the country side turn from green to gold to red, we reflected on an unforgettable journey. From beach to hill country, we experienced the real Vietnam, and to our amazement, we lived to tell about it.

Also, our parents are grounding us when we return home. We love you, please be lenient!