Nha Trang to Dalat to Mui Ne to Saigon (Day 93 to Day 101)
After familiarising ourselves to the beach life of Hoi An and Nha Trang respectively, we knew that we probably weren't getting the most out of our Southern Vietnamese experience and therefore had to pry ourselves away from the sand and sea in order to really see what this country has to offer. We had an idea of taking an 'Easy-Riders' motorbike tour at some point along the way, which is where you ride a motorbike (or jump on the back of a guide's bike) and they take you away from the main tourist attractions and aim to show you a different side to their country. Anne had actually heard about the Easy Rider guys when we were back in England but we were definitely 'umming and ahhing' as to whether or not it was worthwhile, due to the obvious safety risks and financial implications. However, when the original Easy Rider, Papa Hanh collared us on the street, spouting tag lines such as "If you're not a ****ing pansy, you can drive one yourself" in a quite impressive cockney accent, we were pretty much sold immediately and decided that we were going to put our lives in his hands for 5 days.
The tour was to begin on the Saturday morning and from there we were going to cover roughly 200km north to a city called Buôn Ma Thuột. Thankfully, Anne had opted to ride on the back of one of the guides so I knew she was in safe hands, but I have to say I was rather nervous about hitting the open road, as other than the hour-long test drive with Papa Hanh himself a few days prior, my only other motorbike experience was from when I was about 14 and I was tearing around a field in Lymm with a jack-the-lad type character called Anthony Dore. Needless to say, I was jumping in headfirst at the deep end without any sort of lifejacket, as the Vietnamese roads are probably not the best place to undergo a crash course, but non-the-less I was extremely excited as these are the type of experiences that Anne and I had hoped for when we left England; not so much unique but different enough, as it's very easy to just follow the main tourist routes once you're here and end up like a package-holiday sheep.
Back to Day 1 of the tour. Papa Hanh was true to his word and arrived at 8:30am on the dot with a taxi in tow for us. We headed straight down to the beach and met with the other riders; Jamie & Tony from Bristol, Chris & Daniel from Germany and Simon & Anna, also from Germany. After being introduced to our guides, Cao & Kai and strapping our luggage to the bikes, we were off on the open road. I spent the first few hours just becoming acquainted with the bike and growing accustomed to it's slight niggles, as obviously it wasn't a brand-spanking new machine. As we hit the mountains just outside of Nha Trang, my lack of confidence was beginning to show slightly as my foot was constantly on the brake and I was taking corners in snail like fashion. Fortunately, the mountains subsided and we began to race through the countryside. I felt as though I understood the laws of the road almost immediately, although a few of the others felt rather shaky when there were articulated lorries and coaches passing at arms length. I even gave Anne a bit of a scare with an overtaking stunt of my own, although I maintain that there was more than enough time for me to pass through safely twice! Anyhow, we continued on our journey and stopped for lunch at a local cafe, where we were treated to rice and chicken before getting back on the road. We were informed that the first day's driving was to be the most laborious by far and it was certainly tough going. After stopping at Cocoa and Rubber Tree Plantations, we finally arrived at our hotel at around 5pm. It might have been slightly earlier, but Daniel had been highly unlucky to experience not one, but two flat tyres in the afternoon.
One quick shower later and we were off out with the rest of the gang to sample some local BBQ cuisine. We were joined by Matt, Chris & Mario from Australia & Switzerland with their guide, Bob, who had taken a similar tour to us on the first day but for some reason did it separately, but they were to be joining us up until we reach Dalat on Day 3. As we sat down in the café, Cao fussed about and got the food ordered. Within no time a few small table-top BBQ's were placed down but we still didn't really know what food to expect at this point, so it came as quite a shock to us when live prawns were placed in front of us and the locals simply popped them straight onto the grill. Ethics aside, it really doesn't get any fresher than that and I think it's fair to say that no-one was disappointed. After the prawns, we were given some beef (luckily, this had been slaughered and diced into bite sized pieces) and some rice to ensure that our stomachs were full ahead of the second days driving. It was obviously washed down with a few local beers, but we ensured that our intake was kept to a minimum.
Day 2 was another early start and we were out on the road at around 9am. Our first stop was to a local brick factory, where the workers have to endure heavy labour in the scorching temperatures for pittance. We were told that 100 bricks would cost only $2, so it really makes you wonder how these sorts of establishments make any profit whatsoever, or the extent of the pittance of a salary. After the brick factory, we were heading for one of the highlights of the trip - a waterfall and lake where we could stop for a dip. It took us around an hour or so to reach it and walking down to it from the hillside was quite a task, but it was surely worth it in the end. The water was cool and tropical blue/green in colour, there were many small rapids and falls as well as deeper plunge areas, and amazing vegetation and greenery all around, so it certainly made for exciting mid-day activities. After we were suitably refreshed, we headed on for a spot of lunch and then onto the hotel after taking in a couple of sights along the way. We might have arrived at the hotel sooner than 5pm, however we somehow managed to lose Simon and Anna, as they had missed a turning at some point along the way. Luckily, Cao was notified as they had gone back to the café where we had lunch and he promptly turned back to find them. Anne however, wasn't notified of the situation and as she was on the back of his bike whilst being completely oblivious to the situation, a number of things were racing through her head as Cao was weaving through the traffic at high speed. As this was all unfolding, Jamie suffered a flat tyre and so it meant that the other guide, Bob had to go to sort out the repairs and the rest of us were left in the middle of nowhere for nearly an hour while everything rectified itself around us. After all the commotion had subsided, we finally reached our second destination completely intact and sat down for a local banquet for dinner. Jamie, Tony and I stayed up quite late going over the usual football chit-chat and after I unsuccessfully tried to get the City game on the TV, we hit the sack a little later than we probably should have.
We were advised that Day 3 would probably be the worst of the 5 in terms of driving, as the roads to Dalat were not the best and we were to expect slight saddle-soreness by the evening. However, this wasn't to deter us and spirits remained high after leaving the hotel. The first stop was an authentic minority village which I think was supposed to have been part of the previous day's itinerary, but the unscheduled stops had meant that it was pulled over to this morning. However, both Anne and I agreed that we would have preferred not to have seen the village at all, as it was obviously geared towards tourism and didn't really hold any interest; it just seemed like another opportunity to take big green notes from westerners. There was also the opportunity to take an elephant ride across a river but we all declined as it just didn't hold any appeal at this point. So, we moved on and headed towards the mountains, meandering through the potholes, rubble and debris that were cast before us. Fortunately, we were treated to a few stops in simply perfect locations with views across the miles of countryside. However, on a number of occassions, Cao pointed out where the vegetation had been scorched from the American napalm attacks during the war and the change in landscape and terrain was clearly visible to see. After passing through the rugged trails, we were treated to some fine roads coming into Dalat where the driving was extremely enjoyable and upon entering the city, it appeared as though we had passed through some sort of porthole and were actually in an Alpine resort. The buildings were all in immaculate condition and the town itself just seemed like a million miles away from everything else we've seen in Vietnam. The fact that it is the wine region of the country could explain some of the differences. After checking into the hotel, we headed out for some more BBQ and were treated to crocodile, ostrich, wild boar and venison. Very much up our street. That evening got slightly more boisterous as it was the last night for a few of the people. Aussie Matt challenged Kai to a chilli eating competition which ended in Matt winning 12-11 but provided lot's of tears for both contestants. It proved to be cracking viewing for us and great entertainment though!
The following morning I woke up rather early and managed to catch the City game that I had missed a few nights earlier on repeat. Day 4 was to be spent in the villages around Dalat and as we were staying in the same hotel, it meant that we could ride without our bags. As half of the group had now left along with two of the guides, all that remained with Anne and I were Jamie & Tony and Chris & Daniel, with Cao as our sole guide. The day nearly started in disaster though; we were driving on a main street in Dalat with a chap walking his bike across the road, completely oblivious to oncoming traffic. As it was quite busy, I couldn't pass him on my side of the road without hitting another bike and as the brakes weren't the best, I didn't want to slam them on either. So my only option was to veer to the left, whilst continuously ramming the horn in the hope that he would stop, but the more I turned left, the more I was just heading straight into his path as he continued on. Of course at this point, I probably could have weaved back to the right but I evidently wasn't thinking rationally and probably shouldn't have been as liberal with the beers as I was the night before. Fortunately, I managed to squeeze through a couple of feet away from the pavement on the other side of the road and quickly scooted back to the right side, after the obligatory profanities were screamed at the still rather oblivious chap in an over-enthusiastic Manc accent. With my confidence completely shot, we headed for the mountain range and made for a number of stops along the way, including a temple & waterfall (no swimming this time though), a cricket farm where we sampled some deep fried crickets, a rice wine distillery and the Crazy House of Dalat, which was some wacky construction which really can only be explained by looking at the photo's. That evening we were pretty much left to our own devices and despite the pretty architecture, Dalat didn't have much to offer, so we turned in at around 6:30pm and just watched a few films on the cable TV in bed.
Day 5 was by far the most enjoyable drive, although that's all we seemed to do. We drove straight from Dalat to Mui Ne in around 4 hours, covering 170km. The change in scenery was rather interesting though; from being extremely cool in the mountains, we descended into desert like towns and in an instant it simply felt like someone had just turned the oven on. The transition was extraordinary. From there, we had some fun with the video camera's and pretty much raced for the coastline of Mui Ne. It was a great feeling getting to the shore again as there's something special about being next to the sea. We arrived in Mui Ne at around 1pm and checked into our hostel. After waving goodbye to Cao, who was driving the 200km back to Nha Trang in one go, we headed out for lunch with the lads. That evening, we checked out the local sights and enjoyed a game of crazy golf before turning in early. The five days on the road had surely taken it's toll on us.
To be honest, we were slightly disappointed with Mui Ne. We were told to expect some of the best beaches in Vietnam with a brilliant backpackers atmosphere. We didn't really see any of the atmosphere, it just really reminded us of a Ayia Napa type resort but with a lot of Russians. Also, the beach was practically blocked off to the public as the only way onto it was to cut through a restaurant or guest house which had access but obviously, they weren't going to let us through there for free. When we finally did get onto the beach, we found a dead puppy which had been washed up. All in all, our experience in Mui Ne wasn't the best and we were glad to be moving onto Saigon, especially because we had caught wind that Matt, Jess, Mathilda and Stina were all there and we had arranged to meet up with them the evening we arrived. We did get chatting to one nice guy though, a chap called Ed from London who we shared information on China with, as he was heading in that direction.
Our coach was due to pull in at Saigon at around 6pm, but due to traffic issues, it didn't arrive until around 7:30pm. Luckily, it literally stopped outside our hostel and we walked in to find Mathilda and Stina waiting for us in the reception. So after a quick freshening up, we headed out to pick up Matt & Jess and the 6 of us sourced out some food and drink. It wasn't to be a mad one as Anne and I had to be up early for a trip to the War Tunnels & Bunkers and the other four were heading out for a few days on the Mekong River, however we had arranged to meet up in Phnom Penh as we should all be crossing over in that city too, so we could have a blow out there.
So, the morning after, Anne and I headed out for a trip through the war bunkers. It was a very enjoyable trip, although as expected, it was an eye-opener, as was the War Remnants Museum that we visited afterwards. The one thing that I had noticed from the various war museums and establishments that we had visited was the selective facts and statistics which they produce. Now, I'm not disputing that the Americans were in the wrong and most of their actions were utterly dispicable, but there is hardly any mention of any of the Vietnamese civil disputes leading up to the war or of the 900 or so French soldiers who mysteriously vanished en-route to Ha Noi whilst under Viet Cong escort etc. It all seems a little too much forced at points and quite propaganda like as they don't admit to any wrong-doing at all. Anyhow, that evening was slightly less full on than the day as we had popped out for a couple of beers and befriended an Australian middle-aged trio, who in turn managed to have a street vendor and her daughters attach themselves to her, along with an interesting Canadian fellow named Bob. As it turns out, he was formerly an actor and actually played Grumpy in the Care Bears. If I remember correctly, my sister Becci was a big Care Bear fans in her infancy (I probably enjoyed the show as well), so this was quite amusing to be sat with one of them.
Anyhow, on the way back into the hostel, I began chatting to an American chap named Devin and he & I, along with a French lady named Pascal, were up until gone 3am talking about everything and anything. Probably not wise as the bus to Cambodia was leaving at 10am the next morning. The journey took around 7 hours and that evening, we were in our rather incredible hostel in Phnom Penh, sat around the pool eating our dinner. The evening proved to be just a quiet one as we had a busy following day, so we just sat with our feet in the pool listening to chilled out hip-hop. I couldn't help thinking that my friends Dan and Heff would have been in their element.
So, Vietnam is over and we're in a new country yet again. Soon we'll be heading to the coast where we can finally relax and allow time for the soul to catch up as travelling as fast as we have really does take it out of you.