Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Easy riders

I should mention that the trip in the post below between Dalat and Hoi An was taken on the backs, almost literally, of two motorbike guides out of Dalat. They go by the names of Paul and Joseph, a remnant of a catholic education, and collectively they belong to a part of the Easyriders, a group who nowadays have a substantial reputation for taking tourists on rides through the country.

They’ve both been at this for over twelve years and are both members of the original twelve strong crew who started the Easyriders in Dalat. Paul is in fact one of the riders we went with five years ago on a trip from Dalat to Nha Trang. That trip was particularly memorable, so it was never in doubt that we would go back again. When we found out that we had some time off in early July we decided to ride around the Central Highlands, and we knew we would have to search them out again.

Paul is getting on now. He has the look of a man who has spent a long time outside. His eyes have a smoky tinge around the rims of the irises that reflect time spent searching the road and the horizon. An artillery officer for the South Army in the war and born in Dalat, he has spent a lot of time in the hills where we travelled. His reflections on the scenes before us swept in and out of the present to encapsulate a time stretching back into a distant turbulent personal history (including time spent in a re-education camp) and beyond to the roots of Vietnam’s existence. Joseph’s own reflections were often less dramatic - he told us he was lucky enough to be slightly younger and so was a student in the war years - a dry wit slept at the corners of his mouth and could be roused at his leisure to have us grinning about something or other he had just thought of.

Perhaps it was dangerous leaving at the beginning of the wet season. This was the reason that we decided to avoid the landslide prone Northern Highlands and go through the middle of the country, avoiding the coast. We asked around a bit about routes and roads to take, and gained some insight into what people we talked to had done or heard of. However, on reflection it would be difficult to choose a dull section in the landscape. Mostly the roads were perfect. The main highway that heads to Saigon via this inland route is virtually brand new, mostly built by the minority tribes. It has in parts taken over the old route of the southern inland highway, which was built by the French before the war, then partly left to decay, and finally effectively destroyed by the bombing.

Now the road is almost gleaming in that way that fresh tarmac does. It has taken over large parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail and, as such, inspires much of the type of thinking that I have reflected on in the posting below. The hill-tribes, minorities and farming communities that it passes through, between the big cities of Da Nang, Kon Tum, Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot, are remote and captivating. At times we were spellbound by the forlorn existence of some of these people, at others my breath was taken away by their sophistication, such as the time I wandered into a Rong communal house in a small dirt and pigs village. In the musty dim blindness of the sudden relative darkness I was stunned to hear the question “Would I be able to help you at all?” peep out of a corner in pitch-perfect English.

Some things that we saw couldn’t be given an adequate description so I hope some time to show some photos of things. If you are planning on making a trip through the area don’t be put off by the uncertain nature of motorcycle travel or the unfamiliarity of the country. Take the advice of using these guides out of Dalat and you will be in very good hands. Beware though of others using the Easyrider name to get your business and visit the Peace II Hotel to find the original group. Their collective experience, honesty and reliability are worth every effort to locate them.

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