Where to start? I have had the most incredible three days and I'm only half way through my tour of the central Highlands.
I guess we have to start with my guide Mr Bin. He's been running motorbike tours for 14 years. He's quite small. I get all the drag on my head when we're driving as I'm sitting about a foot higher behind him. What he lacks in stature, he makes up for vocally. Shouty barking Vietnamese. Sometimes loud singing. He gets stuff done. He likes to drag me around by my elbow and give me bro back slaps. He's a wealth of information and loves to talk and laugh. Everything and everyone is crazy to him followed by manical giggling. He's crazy.
We set off from Hoi An towards the central Highlands. You're quickly in the jungle, and we stopped to eat the best pineapple I've ever tasted. About two hours in, we joined the Ho Chi Minh road, a real road following the infamous trail that the Vietnamese made following the war. Up, up into mountains and jungle following the rocky river we're definitely not on the tourist trail anymore Toto. Everyone is gawping at me from their scooters and the side of the road. Kids yell 'hello' and when we stop for a drink I quickly gain a male fan club, just sitting and staring at me while I drink my coke. Awks. They ask Mr bin many questions about me. They love my nose. My nose! They also all think I'm somewhere between 22 and 25. Winning. Mr bin is nonplussed and says they are crazy, of course.
On to ethnic tribes near the border with Laos. Mr bin is quite disparaging about their lives. He talks about them like they are almost sub human; they don't speak Vietnamese and they can't do anything for themselves. The government pays as they are too simple. Hmmmm. The kids stare at me wide eyed until I get down low and get the sweets out. Then I'm their best bud.
We stop at a town called kam duc for the night. There's not really anything going on. The Burton on trent of vietnam. I'm thinking I'm going to be the only westerner here for sure. Two seconds later in walks Tom from Leeeeeds. I laughed, and told him what I'd just been thinking. A super lovely 23 year old wise head on young shoulders, he's travelling the other direction to me, from dalat to hoi an on a motorbike on his own. He said after three nights of locals and stilted conversation he was ready to see a western face. Mr Bin got out the rice wine, kept insisting there'd be no headache in the morning and there was a lot of laughing culminating in Tom being force fed food by Mr Bin.
Day Two and no headache! Sad goodbye to Tom and we're off through more beautiful scenery. We visit some more villages where they really have nothing. Basic schools with no resources and grubby kids. Women working the land and interestingly the men looking after the babies.
The vietnam war left deep scars in this part of the world. Most people don't want to talk about it, they show disgust at what happened, the unnecessary massacre of so many people but won't go much further than that. We pass through Dac To which was an American stronghold liberated in 1973 where there are tanks displayed next to the war memorial. We visited a place that recycles the bombs still littering the jungle and Mr bin quips that the war may end in 100 years when they've got rid of them all. It's sad to think what it must have been like for the civilians. A constant state of fear I guess, similar to any foreign occupation.
Day three and we leave kon tum where we stayed overnight and visit a beautiful wooden church built by French missionaries. Most people in kon tum are catholics. Mr bin and I sit down and have a very frank conversation about about politics, the one party state and religion. It's safe to do that in this wooden church built 100 years ago.
There's an orphanage attached to the church. We go inside and Mr bin talks proudly about the work they do. I am trying not to cry and he takes one look at my face and ditches me. The orphanage is heart breaking. These kids have been left alone in the world. They live in dorms with the only brothers and sisters they know. They are so unbelievably lovely and tail me as I walk around asking questions in excellent english. I come downstairs and find Mr bin playing the piano and singing to them. We get on the bike and I have a little weep at the unfairness of the world.
On to an amazing pagoda in the middle of tea fields, as far as the eye can see. More kids who follow us silently then get me to play games on their phones with them.
Further and further and the staring is getting a bit much. A mum points to me in an attempt to get her baby to stop crying. It works. It's not that the staring is aggressive or scary I just feel a bit like a freak show. It must be my nose that sets them off.
Tonight we are staying on the shores of a lake and me and Mr bin fished for our dinner. I caught one! But it was too small, back in she goes. Some local men pay way too much attention. One kept trying to smell my hair. I have to stand up to show him who's boss. We spend the most amazing evening floating on the lake chatting to the teenagers of the family who own the resort, playing songs on YouTube and singing along.
Oh wow I haven't mentioned the food. Ok, so Mr bin is a bit of a feeder. He's repeatedly told me how fat his wife and kids are so point proven. He has ordered me the best food I've had whilst travelling. Venison caught from the jungle, foraged vegetables, pork ribs, river fish, Pho. Vietnamese coffee and lots of fresh tea. All consumed in places where you question drinking out the glass let alone eating there. Laurence Hunter I keep thinking of you whilst chowing down as I know you'd be saying yes to everything too. So far it genuinely has been a glimpse of the 'real' vietnam. I've spent so much time with Vietnamese people who are all as eager to know about my life as I am about theirs. It's a true verbal culture swap. Mr bin has nailed it.