Two weeks a year, in late January or early February the populace of Vietnam relaxes, chills and heads to the hills (and beaches) of the world’s hardest working land. They really do deserve it and this year so did we, having worked practically every day from June 2012 to February 2013.
This year the Vietnamese New Year, more commonly known as Tet, was officially on 10th February, the first day of the first month of the Lunar calendar. Our holiday, as English teachers, started on the 4th and ended on the 18th, the two-week period when all private and public schools were closed. We’d spent weeks, even as far back as Christmas, planning our get away. We’d decided, after much deliberation, that we obviously had to get out of Ho Chi Minh City, see some ocean, look at some greenery and fall flat out on some sand somewhere. Myself, Gareth and my friend Neha, had planned to ride east to Dalat for some cool breeze, towards the coast in Nha Trang for some seaside shenanigans and then further south to Mui Ne for a short but sweet beach retreat.
The journey was to take eleven days, all we needed was a bike each (Neha had a Honda Dream 100cc semi-automatic, I had rented a Yamaha Nuovo 125cc automatic scooter and Gareth brought along his Yamaha DT 175) a few days of clothes, swimming costumes, passports (every hotel keeps your passport for the duration of your stay) and about £300 each worth of Vietnamese Dong. A 9am start outside our apartment and we were ready for one of the greatest experiences of our lives so far; a round-trip motorbike ride taking us 1440km from the Mekong, through the Central Highlands, along the coast of the South China Sea, and back again.
Day 1 Ho Chi Minh City to Dong Xiao – 140km
Police check after police check can really do wonders for the blood pressure of a novice scooter rider… I hoped and prayed whenever I saw the beige uniform poking out from the roadside that the scooter ahead of me would be pulled over before the man with the truncheon noticed my auburn curls sticking out from under my helmet. However, after numerous moments of sheer panic, breath holding, slippery sweaty palms and, at least once, the absolutely logical idea to shut my eyes tight (if I can’t see them, they can’t see me), we were out of the city.
Our plan for day one was to first make our way to a national park not too far from Ho Chi Minh City called Cat Tien where we quite fancied seeing wildlife, maybe a monkey or something. Our introduction to Cat Tien was seeing a vast lake before us not long after we’d turned off from the dusty belching Highway 1. We consulted our travel guides to work out which road to take so we could get inside the park. It turned out that we were 120km away from the entrance and it was in the complete opposite direction. So much for seeing that monkey.
The transit town of Dong Xiao, north east of Ho Chi Minh City, was our final stop of the day. We arrived around 5:30pm just before nightfall. It had been an educating experience getting there. There were times when the road hardly existed and as a first time scooter rider (my only previous experience being on an electric push bike called Rob) I had to share the road all of a sudden with huge coaches whilst manoeuvring around potholes, gravel, sand and other materials that when connected to a bike tyre can be life threatening. All in all it was brilliant fun and made the day exhilarating not to mention a little bit agonising on the arse parts. That night we all slept well.
Day 2 Dong Xiao to Kien Duc – 120km
The roads became mountainous and quiet, the stares lingered longer, trees lined the highway and the air was clean. Gareth, having done a trip similar to this four years ago with a Vietnamese guide, had a vague memory of waterfalls along this part of the road so we spent our time riding and looking out for some kind of sign. Whenever we asked a local about this waterfall they looked baffled. We realised that this was going to be a day of moving forward, pushing through the pains in our arses and getting to the furthest town before dark.
We stopped at the first decent looking hotel in a small town near Kien Duc where we made friends with the owner’s little scamp of a daughter. When I say ‘made friends’ I really mean I laughed while she punched Gareth repeatedly. She was only about 5 years old so in order to calm her down, we got out our kindergarten* bag of tricks i.e. sang to her one of the many nursery rhymes that are forever engrained in our minds; ‘Open, shut them, open, shut them (you put your arms out in front and open and shut your hands to the words. It’s probably in my top five) give a little clap, clap, clap. Open, shut them, open, shut them…’ Oh, she was just enthralled but as soon as we stopped she shrieked her actual face off and started punching towards Gareth’s balls.
Day 3 Kien Duc to Lak Lake – 200km
We left the town early knowing we had a long day ahead of us. It was a beautiful ride along the Ho Chi Minh Trail where we could see the Cambodian border in the distance to the west. The magnificent mountaintop jungle stretching for miles was medicine for a soul so used to seeing an expanse of concrete towers.
For breakfast we stopped at one of the many roadside eateries for some Pho Bo. The road before us was gently inclining while we reclined on our stools, and while a dead dog was being blow-torched for someone’s dinner behind us. Yep.
Our first stop was at a waterfall called Dray Nur near the town of Buon Ma Thuot. Not the easiest place to find but with the wonder that is GPS and Gareth’s superhero sense of direction we arrived without any difficulty.
The waterfall wasn’t showing all of its glory but bearing in mind that it was the height of the dry season we were still impressed. We took a refreshing dip in a shallow pool beside the waterfall but were soon graced with the presence of a small group of young Vietnamese men who sat on the razor-sharp rocks beside us and took it upon themselves to film Neha and me in our swimming costumes on their phones. We stayed for an hour and a half and then moved on to Lak Lake (Ho Lak in Vietnamese).
Arriving into the area, 56km south from Buon Ma Thuot, I could see for miles luscious green rice paddies reflecting the departing sun overlooked by distant mountains. Gareth had been to Lak Lake before so took us to the hotel he had stayed at 4 years ago.
Even in the twilight of the evening The Lak Lake Resort looked unkempt like a 1980’s washed up celebrity with a one hit wonder. The gentleman on the reception offered us two rooms, a double for 750,000 and a single for 700,000, much more expensive, Gareth said, than last time he was here. With no cheaper alternative offered to us, (and we found out the next day that there certainly were cheaper alternatives, much much cheaper) and the darkness quickly drawing in, we knew that this would be our only option for the night.
The rooms overlooked the lake, hence the price, and were spacious and clean. The bathrooms contained all of the usual necessities, including a bath, but we found that turning on the shower was impossible, even by Gareth’s Herculean strength. A handyman was called in and delightfully explained how to effortlessly twist the tap that Gareth had been ragging at.
Dinner was comparatively cheaper than the room prices would have you believe, and fairly substantial too. Taste wise though, I wouldn’t write home about it.
Day 4 Lak Lake to Da Lat (Lam Ha) – 100km
Silence. It had been a long time since I’d heard it. I woke up at dawn and surveyed the orange hued lake. Trees housing waking birds, fish bobbing causing ripples to go far and wide, a lone man dropping his paddle into the depths, dragging his canoe through the still pool reflecting the cool morning star. The silence was stunning. I will remember that sensation for the rest of my life.
After a simple breakfast of omelette, bread and coffee we wandered to where we could take an elephant ride. The hotel offered it to us for 700,000 dong per elephant for two people but when we enquired at the office we were able to pay only 600,000 dong for myself and Gareth whilst Neha was able to haggle down to 400,000 dong.
Sat inside a metal cage above an unusually big Asian elephant, we were taken around an M-Nong village, one of the ethnic minorities in the area, and across the lake. At one point our elephants appeared to be casually floating us over the muddy waters. The ride lasted an hour and was comfortable enough for me but Gareth had a bit of a dilemma as to where he could hang his legs. I’m not sure how comfortable the ride was for the elephants though. With a metal cage on their backs and two fully sized human beings inside that, not to mention the guide sat on its neck guiding it with the use of a stick and kicking its ears. I hope the elephants weren’t in pain or felt any discomfort, especially as Neha’s elephant, we found out, was pregnant. This enterprise appeared to bring money to the local area which ultimately improves the lives of those families involved. Is it a toss up between the livelihoods of those in poverty and the freedoms of a wild animal? Maybe that’s for another blog.
Around 11am we set off towards the road to Da Lat. A journey that should have taken no longer than four hours ended up taking 24 hours. Da Lat sits within a bowl surrounded by mountains on all sides, which means that the weather into Da Lat is consistently inconsistent. Within 70km of Da Lat a fierce storm drew in. With heavy hearts we waited in a roadside cafe until it was safe for us to hit the road again, but as I’d never ridden in wet conditions before I was definitely pooing myself. The weather lifted, it was still raining a little and the roads were flooded, yet we moved on. Within moments of setting off my bike began to stall whenever I closed the throttle. Gareth explained that it was probably due to water damage in the engine caused by the rain. After 10 minutes Gareth’s bike lost power, at the same time we both realised that we’d lost sight of Neha who had been behind us. Gareth rode off on my bike like a knight atop a noble steed and when he found Neha, her foot peddle had only fallen off and she’d gone to fetch it back. Upon their return, Gareth’s bike miraculously came back to life. WIth much relief, we knew that we had to carry on because we were losing daylight and the road to Da Lat was too mountainous to ride at night. We needed to find a town to stay in overnight.
We came across an industrial town called Lam Ha, about 50km south west of Da Lat and chose the first hotel we found. Other than the bright neon signs screaming at us to stay, it had a fairly palatial appearance from the outside and a good sized bar inside. The room in our hotel was decorated in a simple but modern style with a low bed and a miniature courtyard guarded by whitewashed walls to the front and sides, a little natural light elbowing in through the puny skylight above.
There was a spa on the floor above the guestrooms, so after a nightcap Neha and I went to have a look at what treatments we could have. We walked the ten or so steps up the grand opulent staircase. To the left of us, sat on dark leather sofas around a glass coffee table, we saw three men in their early 30’s, wearing scruffy jeans and jumpers, looking over at us perplexed. Oh, just surprised to see two young western women in this part of the world, we thought. Then it suddenly dawned on us… hmmm… but just to be sure, Neha looked through the frosted glass pane in the door to one of the rooms and, yes, a prostrate man, as naked as the day he was born. We ran back down that grand opulent staircase faster than you can say ‘massage parlour’.
For some unknown reason, either guests or staff were up and about at 3am in the morning making it one of the worst nights sleep any of us had had. Alas, tomorrow morning we were to arrive in Da Lat, the city of eternal spring.
To be continued…
*My sincerest apologies to those Brits who may find my use of the word ‘kindergarten’ unpatriotic and a downright betrayal. As sad as it is, it is now a part of my daily vocabulary because, yes, in Vietnam, I am a Kindergarten Teacher.