It’s been suggested you haven’t really seen Vietnam unless you’ve seen it on a motorcycle. They dominate the country, their image evocative of the country itself. And so, we decided to give it a try. A short guided journey, because neither of us actually know how to ride, from Dalat to Mui Ne and through the central highlands. It would take two days.
The morning of day one we were whisked from the city as terraced checkered fields rose up before us, with scattered colors of burnt orange and varying shades of deep green. The air was cool with the sweet smell of freshly turned earth. The road narrowed and cracked and weaved amongst the hills. We stopped to hike to a viewpoint that let us look out over the central highlands and the city.
The majority of the first day was spent visiting a variety of sights around the valley. From elephant falls, coffee plantations, to a silk weaving factory we got our first real look at local life. We stopped by several small homes, which from the outside gave no indication of the elaborate work occurring inside. One house made incense that supplied the whole valley, another distilled rice wine. One family had taken old motorcycle tires, and retrofitted them into bungee cords, selling them throughout the country. Our guides remarked that because the government wouldn’t help if they didn’t have work so they had to be industrious. They also seemed to be under the impression that many westerns were rather lazy in comparison. The day was punctuated by cups of delicious, dark, viscous Vietnamese coffee that cost 40 cents a cup while we learned about the country, the people, and the war from a completely different perspective.
By the end of day one we hadn’t left the highlands, the weather remained cool, with scattered rains that drifted past on occasion. In the morning the clouds had not passed as they usually did, imparting a particularly cold chill through the hills. As we wound our way towards sea level the clouds began to drizzle, making the road slick. Closing my eyes, the smell of the wet pavement mixed with the northwestern reminiscent forest and the weaving highway made me feel like I was back on highway one headed up the coast from San Francisco.
Before leaving the highlands we visited a small self-sustaining hill tribe, one of 54 in Vietnam who had only recently acquired electricity. Though most were gone working we did meet a few women, it was clear thy didn’t see many tourists. Unlike tours we’ve done in the past where it seemed as if the local people were putting on a bit of a show (then going back to their normal lives later) this didn’t feel staged at all. The young women we spoke to was a mother of two at seventeen, shy, and kind. She smiled as asked us guarded questions and laughed when we said how old we were (and without children).
As the road straightened and the altitude approached sea level we left a drizzling forest for the sun-stricken thirsty landscape of the coast. We passed dragon fruit fields and ate fresh seafood on the roadside. We were back to the sea.