There’s more to Vietnam than bánh mì and phở .
Or at least, that’s what Hoan told me while we were sitting around the hot pot. I had found myself on the floor of the hostel in Da Lat, after the rest of guests had gone out to see the night market, enjoying dinner and drinking far too many bottles of rice wine with about a dozen Easy Riders.
Generally, I am very proud of being an independent solo traveler. Drop me off in most countries in the world and I hit the ground running: ordering street food for under a dollar to stretch my travel fund, wandering the streets at night, and sitting in the back of bars and cafes to see how the locals do. But I’ve realized that being on my own and tightly watching my budget only gets me so far. Sure, I can comfortably survive on $20 a day here in Vietnam and easily tighten up to under $10 by forgoing the museums, comparing prices at all the bahn mì stands, and scouting out the cheapest hostels; but I knew there was more to see and do. And while a nice smile and friendly “Zoh!” (Cheers) goes a long way to make new friends across language barriers, but I knew there were deeper conversations to be had.
So when Hoan offered me an Easy Rider tour of the West Highlands by motorbike, I was interested but not yet sold; still hanging on to my original philosophy of budget travel. With this tour, I would effectively be tripling my daily budget and I was skeptical I’d really get the bang for my buck he promised. But as the rice wine kept coming (an Easy Rider sales tactic, I’m sure) his promise to show me “The Real Vietnam” started to sound more and more interesting. Since I needed to get to Hoi Ân, he said we could take a trip north, along the border with Laos. We’d stop in some villages, stay with families, and get to try all kinds of food along the way. He poured me another shot of mulberry rice wine. I hadn’t committed to paying anything yet but I was very close to being persuaded.
“Hey, hey you!”, one of the Easy Riders next to me shouted. He was pointing to my glass and holding his in the air. In Vietnam, no one drinks alone. I raised my glass knowing that this last drink would be just enough to loosen my wallet, but I was ready to be convinced. “Một hai ba, ZOOOH!”
Who are these Easy Riders, though? In the 90s, some scattering of Da Lat locals started giving tours to the Western travelers coming to Vietnam. An American guy dubbed them ‘Easy Riders’ and the group was formed. Now they’re featured in Lonely Planet and get a steady stream of customers coming in. Outside of Da Lat, from Saigon to Hanoi, anyone with a motorbike and ability to speak English can call themselves an Easy Rider. So when you get an offer of a tour, it’s hard to tell who’s real and who’s not. And even if you do have an authentic Easy Rider, nothing guarantees that you’ll get along well for the full day, two day, or week-long tour you’ll take (as the guidebook helpfully points out).
In my case, I felt like I could trust Hoan on our six-day tour from Da Lat to Hoi Ân. He seemed excited to show me more about his country and he was definitely a good drinking partner. I was still skeptical that the tour could live up to all the hype he promised me but after several ATM stops and finally handing over the money, I learned to forget my budget (at least for this week) and start enjoying all the reasons that brought me here.
A fully comprehensive account of our six-day tour would be far too much to read and I, the budding writer, would not want to subject you to that torture. But below you’ll find three snippets and some of the best pictures to give you a glimpse into what this week was for me.
6 days of changing scenery (only the final one with rain) as we passed through the Western Highlands of Vietnam
Chapter 1: Karaoke
As we rounded the corner into the village, Hoan’s motorbike almost collides head-on with the elephant. He’s handled these roads before so we swerve out of the way and make it safely up the path and into the village next to Lak Lake. We are staying the night in a long house with a Hmong family after our first day of travel from Da Lat. While we unloaded our bags from the bike, the thoughts of the day swirled in my head.
It was only the end of Day 1 and I had already:
- Learned more about the history of Vietnam than 3 previous museum visits.
- Finally got to taste Kopi Luwak (“poop coffee”) on a plantation
- Munched on some fresh crickets at a farm
- Learned about the production of rice wine (a dangerous drink)
- Watched the silk process from worm to tie
- Stopped a gorgeous Buddhist pagoda, a waterfall, banana plantation, and had a delicious lunch
I scrambled to scribble down all the things I learned that day and impressions I had in my journal before eating. Long gone was the sinking I felt in my stomach when I handed over the money after several stops to the ATM. This was worth it. And the first day wasn’t even over yet.
After dinner, Hoan said that there was going to be a party and I could join if I wanted to. I had no idea what this entailed. We were in a village next to a lake and I had no idea what Hmong fishermen and women do for fun in the evening. Well, that night I found out. They eat pork, drink rice wine, and sing karaoke; mostly in Vietnamese and they laughed as I tried to sing along in a duet. Even more, laughs when I gave them my rendition of ‘Burning Down The House’.
Chapter 2: The Chicken
Apologies to my vegetarian readers, but this one ends with a death.
I asked Hoan what we were going to have for dinner that night as we had planned to stop at a family’s house.
“Do you like chicken? How about we get a chicken for the family.”
If I was back home, and someone said “a chicken”, I would assume they meant a stop at the grocery store for a fully prepared chicken, already cooked on the rotisserie. I would not assume that they meant this:
But we were in “the real Vietnam” as Hoan kept calling it. So we biked to the street market in town and picked out one of the heavier chickens who just wouldn’t sit still on the scale. I carried her on the back of the bike on the way to the house and our host family cheered when I arrived with the bird. “Gà!” I said to the kids. One of the few animal names that I now know in Vietnamese.
My grandfather kept chickens but I was too young at the time to learn how to kill and prepare them. Hoan did the work to get the chicken ready to cook as I watched along. Not a new food per se, but maybe the quickest I’ve eaten a chicken after it was killed. As the dinner was set out on the floor, I eagerly grabbed the lime and doused my portion then started debating how to sprinkle the spice mixture in front of me on the bird. “Hey,” Hoan said, “watch me first”. He squeezed his lime right into the spice mixture to make a dipping paste to spread over the chicken as we went. I still had a lot to learn.
Chapter 3: Family
Hoan also quit his job when he was my age. He was unhappy behind a desk and became an Easy Rider tour guide shortly after leaving. His parents didn’t quite understand at first but were ultimately supportive. When Hoan travels up north through Pleiku, he asks his clients if they wouldn’t mind a stop to his parents’ house so he can prove to them that he does indeed have a job now and to show the Westerners how his family lives. Hoan offered the same visit to me, which I was grateful to accept. “But I must tell you that my Dad fought in the war,” Hoan said, “for the North”.
When we stopped to park the bike inside his parents’ front gate, Hoan’s parents came out to greet us with open arms. Not the reaction I was expecting as an American from a former Viet Cong soldier. “Mỹ!” he said, shaking my hand. “Việt.” He points to himself. “American, Vietnamese”. We sat down at the front table and he poured us both tea. He didn’t speak any English apart from the infrequent “hello” and “thank you” but it was an awesome experience to sit and have Hoan interpret his stories and share about my family and life back home.
For dinner, we ate duck, pork cheek, noodles, and bahn têt, a dish saved for the upcoming Lunar New Year. I got to continue talking to Hoan’s father and mother, seated to my left during the meal. The guy to my right (Thu) proudly told me that this was his first time drinking with a foreigner.
Dinner with family and friends
I cannot vouch for all Easy Riders aside from a dozen that I know are fun to drink with. But I had an amazing time on this particular tour. I’ll go back now to my budget to stretch my savings further but I am now extremely aware of the value in having a guide; sometimes it’s worth it to spend the few extra dollars.
If you, dear reader, want to take a tour with Hoan through any part of the country to have a chance to see “the real Vietnam”, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org