4 Days getting lost in 'real' Vietnam
21.01.2011 - 25.03.2011
HOI AN to DALAT
Recommendations are one of those essentials of travelling. Everyone has them, ‘go here’, ‘don’t miss this’, ‘avoid this at all costs’ etc etc. The biggest problem is knowing which ones to follow and which to ignore. This situation occurred with metronomic regularity on our trip, and in Ninh Binh we received the mother of all recommendations, “whatever you do in Hoi An make sure you get an Easy Rider.” What the hell is an Easy Rider?
As it turns out Easy Riders are a group of guides whose office is the front seat of a motorbike. For a pretty reasonable sum you can hire one of these guides (and their motorbikes) for the 4 day trip between Hoi An and Dalat through the highlands of Central Vietnam.
The route of this trip took us far away from the madding crowd, as the majority of tourists headed down the coast to Na Trang we were going to follow the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail trough the mountainous spine of the country.
Having met our guides, Tu and Thanh in Hoi An the evening before, 8am heralded our departure from the main gate of our hotel and after 15 minutes weaving through the traffic on the outskirts of town we were quickly on the open road headed off towards the mountains in the distance.
To describe every stop and every turn of the next four days would leave you fast asleep by the end of this and leave me with more words than I care to edit in my lifetime let alone lunch time; so for your sanity and mine I will keep to just the highlights from each day.
DAY 1 (HOI AN – DAK GLEI)
Stops – House that made rice paper; Pineapple plantation; Cinnamon tree (eating a leaf, sounds crazy but who knew cinnamon was a tree?); various waterfalls; Ancient Cham building (the Chams were the ancient civilisation of SE Asia); Ho Chi Minh Trail
DAY 2 (DAK GLEI – KON TUM)
Stops – Traditional Breakfast; Minority Hill Tribe Villages; Old Rope bridge; American War Memorial; More Minority Villages; Orphanage; Old French Church
DAY 3 (KON TUM - BUAN MA TOU)
Stops – Coffee plantation; Scrap Metal Yard (more on that later); Pepper and Rubber Plantations; Local Markets
DAY 4 (BUAN MA TOU – DALAT)
Stops – Mushroom farm; Silk worm Farm/factory; Snake!; More waterfalls and minority villages; Dalat
The most striking part of our four days with Tu and Thanh was their depth of knowledge about each place we went to, and the brilliant way they brought their country to life. It is a heavily used travelling cliché but it felt like each day with them brought us closer to seeing the ‘real’ Vietnam.
Through the stops and the stories of Tu and Thanh, Vietnam’s past came vividly to life. The first day took us to the head of the Ho Chi Minh trail, a man-made trail carved through the mountains to be used as a supply line for Viet Cong troops in the American (read Vietnam) war. Just to see the terrain through which the trail was forged is testament to the incredible sacrifices borne by those who travelled its length during the war. Despite years of bombardment and attack the trail was never successfully closed which is quite staggering, given that the might of the US army was intent on destroying it.
Throughout the four days the scars from the war were visible everywhere; the infamous Agent Orange chemicals (defoliant chemicals – which have been tied to cancer and birth defects since) were used ad nausea in this area and still scar the landscape to this day. The most damning indictment comes when travelling through thick forest only to look up and see the hill across the way is as barren as a desert, testament to the fact that these chemicals continue to ravage the ecosystems they originally destroyed. Along with the bomb craters and the numerous war memorials there remains many signatures of war to provide a dark contrast to the beauty of the area.
Despite all the graphic reminders of war, the most haunting came in the evenings when Tu or Thanh would let us a little further into their lives and talk about growing up during the war. The remaining psychological scares are just as raw as the ground we travelled over. The brutality of war was demonstrated repeatedly and whilst not wishing to leave you too depressed come the end of this blog I would like to share the story that sums it up in a tragically profetic way.
We had pulled over on the third day; on the long run into Buan Ma Tho, as we jumped off the back of the bikes we wandered into what looked like a scrap yard. Strangely enough this was exactly what it was as pieces of twisted metal lay strewn around. Confused we turned to Tu to explain the significance, he had brought with him out of the dilapidated house a greying lady who seemed to be the owner. He simply told us to open our eyes and look around. As what before had just been scrap came into focus, the fragments of war became visible. Bomb and shell fragments lay all over twisted grotesquely into their deathly structures; hauntingly a rocket case lay just by the gate with the American instructions starkly highlighting its origin.
However, it wasn’t the physical remnants that were the most disturbing aspect of this place it was the story behind it. Following the war, poverty and famine ravaged the country leaving many to find their sole income in collecting the discarded scrap metal of bombs and shells (the war saw more bombs dropped than the total dropped by all sides in WW2). The woman’s husband had been one of these men trying to eek out a living. One day whilst collecting the scrap metal he stumbled upon an unexploded bomb. Desperation had driven him to pick up this bomb for its metal when it exploded killing him outright. Tragically he had become just another one of the thousands of victims of unexploded bombs in post –war Vietnam. The real tragedy is found in the fact that due to poverty and a lack of options the lady goes out each day looking for scrap on the same hills that claimed her husband.
Although the war loomed with a presence through most aspects of the trip, was the people and places we saw every day were the real highlight. An old couple living in the mountains in a minority tribal village, who, in line with their customs, kept coffins under their house for when the time came. The children at the orphanage we visited in Kon Tum. The rubber collector in the plantation we stopped at. The family who had turned their front yard into an important cog in the booming coffee industry. The family who cultivated mushrooms and at the same time had a side business in snakes! The 78 year old woman who had never had her photo taken until I had the honour of photographing her for the first time. All of these people and many more made our 4 day adventure one of the most enthralling and intense travelling experiences I have ever had.
There are many stories to tell of our 4 days in the mountains, along the roads rarely travelled by foreigners but of all the stories this was the most striking and gripping. It is hard to describe in any detail what happened in those four days, we stopped at so many places and met so many people but what has remained with us both is the feeling that for these four days we were totally removed from any of the glossy veneer that exists in other parts of the country. The atmosphere and the people are so genuine and welcoming that for once the cliché of getting off the tourist trail has never rung more true.