“This is real Vietnam!” shouts our Easy Rider guide, Loi. He expertly navigates our motorbike through a herd of barely moving cattle, a cacophony of tinkling tin cans, cantankerous mooing and exasperated beeping of the other vehicles behind us (including Phil on his own motorbike, although he’s not beeping, just trying hard not to lose us in the crowd).
It’s barely 9am and it’s rush hour for both animals and people, with farmers using the roads to move their animals from the village to nearby green pastures. Welcome to the Easy Rider way of seeing Vietnam. You can come to Vietnam and drink buckets on the beach with other backpackers and have a perfectly good holiday, but it’s on two wheels against the open road that you get the high res, surround sound version of the country as it reveals itself to you more and more with every mile.
And how it reveals itself, in a display of radiant colour, ever changing smells and symphony of sounds that will lift the spirits of even the most hardened traveller. Try wiping the smile off your face as you tear round hairpin bends that might send you flying into the coffee plantations to the right or bamboo forest to the left. Try feeling down when you’re at the top of the mountain, head to head with the sky as it broods over which village it will fling its latest downpour on, the sun fighting an ever losing battle against the angry Goliath sized clouds.
Try doing anything but laugh when it’s you the sky lashes out at and you have to hurry to the nearest stop and nap in a dirty hammock next to flapping chickens while raindrops the size of avocados thunder down. Try resisting the urge to stop for a photo when you see a sullen, swollen sow determinedly sniffing through the roadside bushes for tasty morsels, her ample belly swaying as her dew-eyed piglets hurriedly follow.
Try meeting Loi’s 83-year-old friend Mr Huong over cigarettes and whisky and not feel a warm ring begin to circle around your heart. This Ho Chi Minh look alike and retired kung fu teacher has just a handful of teeth remaining, brown and rickety like a delapidated fence, giving him as much chance of getting through an apple as I have of climbing Mt Everest. But his hearty laugh brings the house down (and so does his suggestion that Phil and I both drink more whisky for better ‘boom boom’!).
Try thinking about what you’re lacking when you meet the Hmong people and walk the dirt roads of their village, hordes of children spilling out of just one room, tin roof houses watched over by gap toothed elders, babies strapped to girls not much bigger than them, greeting you with smiles and waves.
And try thinking anything at all when a hulking truck comes careening around a corner, it’s throbbing mass nudging us to the edge of the road like a footnote in a margin, other motorbikes hovering around it like flies. Loi of course is cool as a cucumber, expertly weaving his way across with the finesse of a silk seamstress, resuming his loud singing of Vietnamese pop songs once the road is ours again. He has eight children and a devoted wife to return to and he has been an Easy Rider for 16 years, so trusting him to look after us over three days is, well, easy.
Loi himself becomes a feature of our trip, with his steady, skillful driving and insider knowledge of the local areas. A self taught consummate English speaker, dinner time is never dull with Loi. He describes how on every full moon he and his wife slip out to drink wine under the stars. And why does he have eight children? Because they’re his future. “When all my children are with me, and we are standing together, I feel strong,” he says.
Not only does he take us to tourist hot spots such as waterfalls, a weasel coffee plantation, temple and silk farm, but he also shows us more local villages (one is even floating on a river). He knows the best places to eat Vietnamese barbecue, fried chicken, and do-it-yourself summer rolls. You never know what’s around the corner, and when you ask about the schedule, he says, “Don’t worry! We are Easy Riders! So take it easy!”
Orders are orders, so alright then. We sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Extra info – we arranged our Easy Rider tour with Loi through our hostel Dobby House in Dalat. Most hostels and travel agencies around Vietnam should be able to arrange an Easy Rider route depending on where you want to go (our route was from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City over three days, taking the bus to HCMC over the second half of the third day). Before we agreed on everything, Loi’s colleague Mr Hung came to our hostel a couple of days in advance to talk us through the route and confirm that the price would include two motorbikes, a guide, fuel, helmets, wet weather gear and accommodation, but not food. For more details you can visit https://vietnameasyrider.bike/.