Easy Ridin’ in Viet Nam’s Central Highlands

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I just finished five days of motorbiking around the Central Highlands with an Easy Rider tour (meaning I was riding pillion, not driving).  They were five exhilarating, educational, and exhausting days. We started between 7-8:30am every day and rode anywhere from 165-240 kilometers a day.  The days were full of stops to explore the region and its people.  The nights were lazy and entailed big dinners, lots of rain, and going to bed early due to boredom and/or exhaustion.  Some days were better than others.  Some stops were more interesting than others.  Sometimes we got rained on.  Sometimes my butt hurt a lot and my legs went numb.  But the overall experience was really rewarding and I’m glad I did it.  I got to see parts of VietNam that most people never see.  “Real VietNam” my driver called it.  And it’s true… it was an authentic experience.  Nothing I saw or did on the tour seemed set up or imitation. So, read on to get a slice of my real VietNam experience.

Day 1: My driver, Ocean, picked me up at 8:30am at my hostel in DaNang, strapped my bags to his bike, and and we hit the open road… for about 5 minutes.  Then we were at our first pit stop: Marble Mountain. Marble Mountain is a popular tourist spot in DaNang.  Like the name says, it’s a mountain and it’s full of temples, pagodas, sculptures, and caves.  After I scaled the steps to the first dragon sculpture, I thought, “Oh man, this is going to be cheesy.”  I was wrong.  It’s actually a very interesting and impressive mountain that you could easily lose yourself on.  I spent about 2 hours exploring it and I didn’t even see everything.  Here are some photos:
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Yep, that’s an elevator going to the top of Marble Mountain. I took the stairs.

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Marble Mountain, a temple

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Marble Mountain

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Marble Mountain

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What do you think these guys are talking about?

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Marble Mountain, in a cave

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Marble Mountain

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Marble Mountain

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Marble Mountain, temple in a cave

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Marble Mountain, temple in a cave

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Marble Mountain, children learning to pray

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Marble Mountain

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View of Da Nang from Marble Mountain

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A lotus flower growing in a garden on Marble Mountain

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A lotus flower growing in a garden on Marble Mountain

We had so many stops on Day 1 that it would take me ages to write a paragraph about each one.  Instead, I’ll just write detailed captions with the photos. Okay?  Okay.  Here we go:

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Traditional Vietnamese way of carrying your load

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Woman making green bean biscuits. I had to use her bathroom and inside the house there was a baby with an oversized head. I cannot help but assume it is a birth defect caused by the generational effects of Agent Orange. The baby looked just like the ones in the photos from the war museum in Saigon. So sad.

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Cham tower, built by the Cham tribe in the 11th century

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The architecture of the Cham is widely studied because they built their towers without any visible cement between the bricks.

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Rice field ready to be harvested. Yellow = ready!

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Women dump rice into the wind so that the empty shells get blown away

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Women dump rice into the wind so that the empty shells get blown away

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We visited a Caodaism church. Caodaism “combines the teachings of all the great religious traditions” to be an all-encompassing, universal religion. It was started here in Viet Nam in 1924, but has followers all over the world. Very interesting religion, indeed.

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Altar at at the Caodaism church. See all the famous religious leaders?  How many can you name? I got Buddha and Jesus. Pretty sure that’s Confucius under Buddha.  That’s all I got.  I suck.

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Caodaism church

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Caodaism church

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We stopped for a pineapple snack while passing through the pineapple farm region of central Viet Nam.  It is eaten with salt and tea leaves.

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Pineapple and hammock rest stop

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Me and Ocean… Easy ridin’

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On the Ho Chi Minh trail

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Guy driving his bike over a very wobbly suspension bridge. I walked over it.

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On the Ho Chi Minh Road

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Vietnam’s Central Highlands

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Cotu minority village… ladies and babies

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Pigs and dogs

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Vietnam’s Central Highlands

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Vietnam’s Central Highlands

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Vietnam’s Central Highlands

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Dog in a restaurant, eating scraps off the floor

Day 2:  This was my favorite day on the bike.  We had great weather and passed through the most beautiful scenery of all five days: waterfalls, rice fields, stunning mountains, and the Ho Chi Minh trail.  We also visited the Vinh Son 1 orphanage, which was one of my favorite experiences of the whole trip.  The children in the orphanage ranged from newborns to 18-year-olds and were there for a variety of reasons:  lost both parents, lost one parent, born as a twin, born into difficult circumstances/poverty, unknown, etc.  We first spent time with the babies and toddlers, and that was hard because they seemed wildly understaffed.  Fortunately, some of the older girls in the orphanage were helping out the few adults.  One baby had bruises all over his arm and bum (he was naked from the waist down), and another one had a serious eye infection.  Both were heartbreaking.  One sweet little girl came right over to me and got in my lap.  I tried to give her as much love as I could in the few minutes that she was in my arms.

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At the orphanage

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At the orphanage

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At the orphanage

Then we went outside and I was quickly confronted by a crew of teens who wanted to know a few things about me: my name, where I’m from, my age, am I married, do I have a boyfriend, how long I’m in Viet Nam.  They were good at speaking English, very friendly and curious.  Some of them also spoke French because they have a French-speaking teacher at their school.  I really enjoyed hanging out with them.  I was inspired by them.  Maybe some day I’ll work or volunteer at an orphanage.
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At the orphanage

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At the orphanage

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At the orphanage

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At the orphanage

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Central Vietnam

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Central Vietnam

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Weird pit stop to see an old burned bus

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Dak Che waterfall

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Dak Che waterfall

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Rice fields

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Rice fields

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I got these smiles from all the local kids 🙂

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Local market

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Local village

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We had to pull off because of heavy rain and we sat on the front porch of a family’s home…

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The little girl who lived there was so curious but so shy, she kept looking out, but wouldn’t step out of the house

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Creativity at its finest… a homemade toy truck

 

That night we stayed in Kon Tum and ate rice pancakes for dinner.  They were so good!  You wrap them up in rice paper like spring rolls.

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Day 3:  Day 3 was probably the least scenic day.  We saw a lot of industry-related activities (see photos and captions).  Seeing people at work made me realize that “Real Viet Nam” is synonymous with REAL HARD WORK.
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Men shaving bark off tree trunks. The bark will be dried and then turned into incense.

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Tea plantation

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Women workers at tea plantation

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Blacksmith making tools the old-fashioned way

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Place that makes sheets of wood to be turned into plywood

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Place that makes sheets of wood to be turned into plywood

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Rubber tree farm

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Sap from the rubber tree. Will be used to make latex.

We also went to a Reclining Buddha pagoda, which was pretty, but not all that interesting as there was no tour of it and no one else around.
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Reclining Buddha

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Reclining Buddha

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Reclining Buddha pagoda

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Reclining Buddha pagoda

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Reclining Buddha pagoda

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Ede traditional long house

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Hot pot

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Hot pot

Day 4:  On Day 4, we saw more people working hard: making incense, packaging incense, making rice noodles and rice paper, packaging rice products, peeling shells off cashews.  All the work seemed to be happening inside people’s homes and it was always a family affair with husband, wife, and children all with a task at hand.  Babies would just be lolling about on the ground while everyone around them worked.  The amount of work that was visibly piled up seemed endless.  I have so much respect for people who live in countries where the work is never-ending, all day, every day, and the average ANNUAL salary is $250 USD.  They literally live off the land.
Usually, I would feel uncomfortable in these types of situations, where I stroll into someone’s home or shop and watch them work, but the people we visited did not give a s*** about my presence.  Most of the time, they just kept on working with barely a glance in my direction.  Every now and then I’d get a “hello” or a smile, but usually they just kept on keeping on.  Ocean would tell me a bit about what they were doing, and twice I got to jump in and try it myself (picking tea and making incense sticks).  Otherwise, it was like being a fly on the wall.
The same went for the visits with the local minority groups.  We stopped in a few villages where these minority groups live and those visits were a bit more awkward because it was a lot of sitting and staring on my part.  Ocean would chit-chat with the people and sometimes tell me about what they were saying, but mostly I just sat around and they either stared at me or ignored me.  These were not my favorite parts of the tour, although it was cool to see how they lived.  I felt strange taking pictures of them, so most of these photos were taken by Ocean.
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Incense maker

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Incense maker

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Incense packaging

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Incense packaging

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Incense packaging

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Making rice noodles

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Rice noodles drying

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Rice noodles drying

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Rice paper drying

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Vermicelli noodles drying

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Packaging rice noodles

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Man and is granddaughter in “noodle village”

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Pre and post-shucked cashews

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Women whose job is to shuck the shells off cashews

 

On Day 4, we also went to the Dray Sap waterfall, which was pretty, but apparently not as impressive as it used to be.  There is now a hydroelectric dam upstream, so the amount of water in the falls is significantly smaller than it once was.  The water in the river, though, was shockingly blue-green, which was cool.

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Dray Sap waterfalls

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Dray Sap waterfalls

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Dray Sap waterfalls

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Dray Sap

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Dray Sap

 

That night I slept in a long house, which is a traditional house of the Ede ethnic group.  I thought it was going to be like a homestay (the family did live in the house, after all), but instead I was just in a big room by myself on a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net.  The family had nothing to do with me.  They didn’t even respond when I said hi to them in Vietnamese.  It was kind of strange.
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Traditional Ede long house where I slept

By Day 5 my butt and my brain were ready for the tour to be over.  We had really crammed a lot into just a few days, and it was exhausting!  Fortunately, day 5 was not very busy with only a few stops: a floating fishing village that we just viewed from a bridge, another minority group (sat and stared), some amazing views of coffee plantations on the mountains, and a Gerber daisy farm. The local minority group, the K’ho, live in very primitive houses and cook over an open flame in their house.  They have one fire going for food, one for rice wine, and one to keep the house warm when it’s cold.  While I was there, one of the children prepared a dish of shredded unripe mango with chiles and salt.  They let me try it… salty, spicy, tangy goodness.
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Floating fishing village

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Floating fishing village

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K’ho minority family home

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K’ho minority group

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K’ho minority group

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Sour papaya dish

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Awesome views of the coffee plantations

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Awesome views of the coffee plantations

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Awesome views of the coffee plantations

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Awesome views of the coffee plantations

 

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Gerber daisy farm

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Gerber daisy farm

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Gerber daisy farm

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Eating passion fruit off the vine

On our way back into Da Lat, we stopped at a coffee/souvenir shop with great views of the surrounding hills.  The owner of the shop owned 24 dogs and they were all at the shop (she probably lives there, too).  I was in my own personal heaven on the floor of the cafe with all these dogs.  I could have stayed all day, but Ocean had to pull me away.

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The coffee shop with 24 dogs

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The coffee shop with 24 dogs

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The coffee shop with 24 dogs

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The coffee shop with 24 dogs

Another fascinating observation I made from the back of the bike was about the style and quality of people’s homes in the Central Highlands.  We passed by so many beautiful 2-3 story, gated homes that would have cost at least half a million dollars had they been in Denver.  But right next door or right across the street, there would be a small, dilapidated shack.  I tried to capture some images of the homes, so you can see for yourself.  These are all taken on the same street.

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Homes in the Central Highlands

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Homes in the Central Highlands

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Homes in the Central Highlands

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Homes in the Central Highlands

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Homes in the Central Highlands

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Homes in the Central Highlands

We arrived back to DaLat and Ocean invited me over to his house for dinner.  His wife prepared an amazing vegetarian feast for all of us.  It was so kind and generous of them to welcome me in like that.  They are not even vegetarian and his wife was worried that she wouldn’t do a good job making vegetarian food.  She was wrong… it was all SO good!  We sat around on a mat on the floor at a low table and ate until we might explode. We had spring rolls, sautéed spinach & garlic, an incredible fermented tofu dish, peanut dipping sauce, soup, and the standard steamed rice.  It was another moment when I was reminded of how lucky I am to be here, to be on this journey, to be meeting all these wonderful people and experiencing so many new things.  I am so THANKFUL for my life!
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Amazing dinner with Ocean and his wife, Trang

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Amazing dinner with Ocean and his wife, Trang

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Amazing dinner with Ocean and his wife, Trang

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Easy Ridin’ in Viet Nam’s Central Highlands

  1. This looks like the most amazing authentic Vietnamese experience! Yet again your pictures capture it perfectly! Love, love the picture of the rice noodles drying in the wind – so cool! Love you lady & love reading your awesome blog xx

    Liked by 1 person

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