The Meanderthals

My day with a Vietnamese soldier

I spent today with a lieutenant in the Vietnamese army, sitting behind him for seven hours as he showed me the sights of Dalat’s countryside and told us about his life in the war.

Huang Van Hong is now one of the members of Dalat’s Easy Rider Club , a group of 80 motorbike guides who whiz around the countryside (and beyond) to show visitors the beauty of this region up in the hills of the Vietnamese Highlands. He is 60 years old and  has worked as a guide for 12 years. And he told us stories about his life in the war that made it hard for me to imagine this smiling, jovial man as someone who has been subject to so much suffering. “My life had many tears,” he said as he smiled broadly and adjusted his helmet. He fought for the South Vietnamese and, once the war was over, was taken by the Communsts to a “re-education camp” where they were told to pack enough food for seven days.

Seven days turned into a month, then three months, then a year. He was shuttled from camp to camp in deep Vietnamese jungle with other South Vietnamese officers, his family having no knowledge of his whereabouts. When he asked about their instructions about packing for seven days, he was told “We said pack food for seven days. We didn’t say you could leave in seven days.”

Such has been our experience in Vietnam. Meeting aimiable, warm people and then discovering they have led lives that we can’t even dream about.

So, for me, Hong was a perfect travel companion who not only knew the countryside of Vietnam but one who could add so much through his experiences

We’d heard about the Easy Riders before coming to Dalat and considered giving trying them out as a way to see the countryside on the back of a bike. The group started back in the 1990s as an informal bunch of Vietnamese who spoke English and were able to show visitors around (although they had to pick them up outside the town since foreigners were not allowed by the police to travel with Vietnamese guides) and they evolved (mostly due to the Lonely Planet guide books) into an organized group of tour guides operating beyond the borders of Dalat into multi day tours throughout Vietnam. We were also told, when asked how to find them…”They will find you”.

True to form, we wandered down to the Peace Cafe yesterday, which used to be their hangout until they opened the Easy Rider Club next door (since the Peace Cafe wanted to charge them commission) and were approached by Hong and his partner, Binh. After a few moments of western skepticism, we decided to take the plunge and spent most of today on the saddle, whizzing around the countryside. Me with Hoang and Skip with Binh.

Boy, are we glad we did! For our $25 investment, we were shown the Dragon Pagoda, the spectacular Elephant waterfall, a coffee plantation and ancient temple. We sampled rice wine and watched it being made, visited an incredibly industrious silk factory where dozens of people plucked silkworms and spun mechanized looms into vibrant coloured fabric, walked on the U.S. airstrip where they flew cargo planes in the war, and spent time with a 91-year old Chil tribe resident in his dark, damp, wooden hut sipping strange looking watery tea and seeing his three smelly black pigs, which he proudly displayed for us.

We walked around the Crazy house, which Lonely Planet describes it as ‘a free-wheeling architectural exploration of surrealism”, and saw fields after field of flowers.

We also drove through the winding roads across valleys and through mountain passes, observing spectacular scenery of rolling hills and forest of soaring pines which went on for miles. And we shared a mountain of Vietnamese food with Hong and Binh in a tiny local cafe while the rain fell outside and a friendly blonde dog chewed on our leftover chicken.

Seven hours later we disembarked from the saddles, pulled off our helmets and warmly bid goodbye to our new friends, Hong and Binh, after exchanging countact information.

Could  a seven day tour of Vietnam be next?



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