Apr 17 2008

The Motorcycle Diaries (Part 1)

Published by at 9:42 am under Central Highlands,Vietnam

“Good driver! I’m sure!”, Mr. Hoa shouts, pointing to himself, immediately after steering the bike around another pothole. I can’t hear him over the roar of my own bike, but I see Brittany’s shoulders bouncing in laughter as she clings to Mr. Hoa up ahead, and I know exactly what he’s saying. Vietnam’s Central Highlands provide plenty of opportunities for Mr. Hoa and Mr. See to show off their hazard-dodging prowess, and given the oddly proportioned luggage we’ve had them strap on the back of the bikes, they’re both doing an admirable job of keeping us upright. As we honk and weave our way through a herd of water buffalo plodding across the highway, I can only wonder… how did I get here?

Vietnam Central Highlands Motorbike Tour
Brittany and Mr. Hoa

We’d spotted Mr. Hoa’s sandwich board advertisement while bicycling around Hoi An one afternoon. “Central Highlands Motorbike Tours” it promised. With “MR. HOA – EASY RIDER!” The Easy Riders, as they call themselves, are a loosely organized group of motorcycle drivers, offering guided tours through parts of Vietnam not serviced by the well-beaten tourist trail. We didn’t know much about the Easy Riders, mainly because we’d written off their services as too expensive upon learning that they charge $60 US per passenger per day. There are really no words to describe how much money $60 is in Central Vietnam. At those rates, an Easy Rider could work five days a year, and have the rest free to concentrate on blowing up small planets with one of his Death Stars. But just in case, we put the kickstands up next to the sandwich board, and poked our heads into the shop. A shirtless Mr. Hoa greeted us, and cheerfully pulled a plastic table and chairs off a stack, and into the center of the room. Thirty minutes later, we walked out with an agreement for a five-day tour, with two drivers, at $35 per person per day. We had sealed the deal with a handshake and a “Cheap price for you! I’m sure!” from Mr. Hoa.

So, at 9:30 the next morning, Mr. Hoa and Mr. See showed up on their motorcycles at our hotel, ready to pick us up. Us and two backpacks, two small rolling suitcases, and one newly acquired giant duffel bag, packed full of tailored clothes. Despite having seen one biker carrying a TREE on the back of his bike in Hanoi, I still had my concerns about whether all of this would really fit on two motorcycles. The Misters had no such concerns – they brought heavy-duty rubber straps for the job, and they got to work constructing a small tower of luggage on the back of each bike. The towers turned out to make nice backrests for Brittany and me, especially after our drivers added a couple of duffel bags of their own.

We had five days stretching out ahead of us over the winding mountain roads, and absolutely no idea what to expect. These are our motorcycle diaries.

Day 1

Today’s mission: reach a small town called Phuoc Son, 200 km south of Hoi An. Just getting out of Hoi An’s influence and into the highlands took a couple of hours this morning. But once we did, the green mountain scenery was beautiful. We were lucky to have beautiful weather today as well, although it does get hot on the bikes, baking in the sun. The wind from our speed helps, but we both managed to get a little sunburned. I am riding with Mr. See, and Brittany rides with Mr. Hoa. Mr. See doesn’t speak any English, but Mr. Hoa talks enough for more than two men. His English is broken, but he impressed us both when he told us he learned it simply by listening to the tourists!

In addition to being our driver, Mr. Hoa is also our local guide, translator, and photgrapher. He is constantly stopping our caravan to show us a photo opportunity that he thinks we need to capture, or urgently motioning for our camera, and capturing it himself. He has a passionate interest in photography – our photography, to be precise – and he is always looking over my shoulder to ensure that I capture a particular scene the way that he wants. And speaking of looking over shoulders, I think he has become a little nervous about undercutting the typical Easy Rider price: he made us promise today, that if we meet any other Easy Rider passengers, to tell them we’re paying $50 each.

We made a stop today at a pineapple farm, where Brittany and I were both shocked to discover that pineapples DON’T grow on trees! They grow in the center of spiny plants on the ground. Who knew? I guess the Misters, because I have never seen two men laugh as hard as they did when we confessed to our belief in pineapple trees. Mr. Hoa told us that he used to work on this pineapple farm as a kid, after being orphaned during the war. An American bomb killed his parents and all NINE siblings, when he was only eight months old. With no parents to foot the bill, he never even went to school. He noticed the guilty look on our faces when he told us about the bomb, and immediately tried to reassure us with: “Is OK today, no problem. I’m sure!” accompanied by high-fives. Mr. Hoa asked the lady who owns the farm to cut us up a fresh pineapple, and we ate it dipped in salt.

We made it to Phuoc Son early in the evening, with enough daylight for Brittany and me to do some exploring on foot while the Misters showered before dinner. The difference between this small town and the cities on the tourist track is amazing. We draw stares everywhere we go, and people are constantly happily greeting us with the one English word they know: “Hello!” Especially the children – they love to come racing out of their homes, screaming “Hello! Hello! Hello!” as they follow us down the street. The friendly interaction with people is is so refreshing after Hoi An’s incessant “buy someting?”

We were greeted by one man during our walk who seemed to be working on a house. He asked where we were going, in perfect English, and whether we would like to go see an “ancient airport.” It turns out that he is former English teacher, and Catholic seminarian. He is currently working for a humanitarian organization, helping the poor in this region. He accompanied us to the “ancient airport,” which turned out to be a trash-strewn field that the Americans used as a landing strip for a few years. I took his picture with Brittany, but at his insistence, only from the waist up. He was a little embarassed to be wearing neon yellow running shorts. At dinner, Mr. Hoa made fun of us for thinking pineapples grow on trees.

Day 2

Woke up a little later than intended this morning, causing us to be twenty minutes late to our scheduled 7:00am breakfast meeting with the Misters. Breakfast was pho, a typical Vietnamese dish that’s very much like chicken noodle soup, and I found eating this for breakfast to be more unsatisfactory than I could have imagined. Also, I guess it didn’t mix well with a potent Vietnamese coffee, because soon after hopping on the bikes and hitting the road, I began to feel very nauseous. This was unfortunate timing, because we had to cover 250km today. So between my aching stomach and aching butt (the motorcycle seat is wearing thin already!) my day was slightly more uncomfortable than I would have liked.

But we did visit a beautiful waterfall before lunch, which lived to the hype Mr. Hoa had been heaping on it since we set off yesterday. Lunch was the standard rice + wilted leaves + unidentifiable meat, but I was not feeling well enough to partake. Mr. Hoa didn’t seem to understand at first (“No! Eat now! No other restaurant all afternoon! I’m sure!”) but he did catch on, and he’s currently asking me how I feel at every stop. His interest in my health extends to monitoring what things I do try to eat to soothe my stomach. He has jumped in to prevent me from trying a couple of different snacks today, by snatching them from my hand, making a sick face and rubbing his stomach in agony.

Vietnam Central Highlands Motorbike TourAfter taking so much amusement from our pineapple plant revelation, Mr. Hoa made sure to extend our agriculture lesson today. We made several stops to see rubber trees, coffee plants, and pepper plants. The sheer number of rubber trees boggles the mind. We saw them planted in precise lines for farther than the eye can see, in every direction. The farmers strip a section of the bark each year, and collect the rubber cement-like goo that secretes. Next year, they will strip a different section, and in this way, the tree will be able to heal and produce rubber for years. After each plant introduction, Mr. Hoa looked at us expectantly, I suppose hoping that we’d reveal our belief that rubber grows on beanstalks, or coffee grows on puppies. We disappointed him each time, but his laughter any time we see a pineapple plant hasn’t really diminished, so I don’t pity him too much.

We visited the village of an ethnic minority people late this afternoon, where we saw old women carrying handicrafts into town in large shoulder-slung baskets, and naked children bathing in communal outdoor tubs of water. While we were walking around, it suddenly started to rain. Hard. Mr. Hoa had us quickly duck into a village home for shelter, and I can only assume that he asked for permission later. The home consisted of one room, formed out of 3 1/2 wooden walls covered with a leaky sheet of aluminum. In one corner stood a rasied wooden platform, serving as both bed and sitting area, depending on the time of day. The only other piece of furniture was a foot-powered sewing machine, until the house’s resident elder pulled in a torn leather stool from beneath an overhand outdoors.

The home-owners did not, of course, speak a word of English, but they were very kind to share their shelter with us for half an hour. “Thank you” is one of two things I know how to say in Vietnamese, so I said it again and again when the rain died down and we prepared to leave. But it elicited no response other than confused looks, which seemed less like the “WHAT the devil are you saying?” looks that I’m comfortably accustomed to, and more like “why would you thank me for letting you take shelter from the rain?” I tried to imagine a foursome of strangers barging into MY home on no more pretense than “hey, it’s raining,” and I’m fairly sure that my reaction would somehow involve the police. So thank you, people from the tribe I can’t pronounce, for your naked babies, your dry footstools, and for not calling the cops. I appreciate the gesture, even if there is no phone in your house. Or your village. Or the police station.

Vietnam Central Highlands Motorbike TourI didn’t eat at dinner either, until Mr. Hoa insisted that the waiter at our restaurant bring me an omelette. Why an omelette, I have no idea. I don’t speak Vietnamese, but I speak body language, and I watched the waiter make it clear that his restaurant does not serve omelettes. Resistance to Mr. Hoa is futile however, and ten minutes later, I was served an omelette that, if I COULD speak Vietnamese, I would have told the waiter I didn’t really want in the first place. For the sake of clarity, I was actually served fried eggs, but that’s what the Vietnamese call an omelette, and we stopped arguing that one back in Hanoi. Surprisingly, the omelette turned out to be the first thing I was able to fully stomach since breakfast. I guess resistance to Mr. Hoa really IS futile…

Next time: The Motorcycle Diaries, Part 2

NEXT: The Motorcycle Diaries (Part 2) »



2 responses so far

2 Responses to “The Motorcycle Diaries (Part 1)”

  1. Ben's Momon 18 Apr 2008 at 9:32 am

    You both look cute in your helmets – thank you for wearing them!

  2. Suzon 18 Apr 2008 at 12:47 pm

    @ Ben’s Mom – YOU’RE SO CUTE!!! I love reading your comments almost as much as I love reading the posts! It’s like little snipits of ‘real life’ in all this crazy traveling that we read of them doing.

    @ the post – Wow, really? Pineapples don’t grow on trees? Perhaps that’s why they’re so spiky….

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