Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 16 February 2007

Motorcycle Diaries: The Central Highlands of Vietnam

When I last wrote, we were in Dalat preparing to leave on a 5 day motorbike tour of the central highlands. Now, having finished the ride, and endured an 18 hour overnight bus from Hoi An to Hanoi, I can truly say that this was, hands down, one of the best travel experiences I have ever had.
Our guides, Thanh and Xuan, are both Dalat area natives and are absolutely full of local knowledge, bad jokes, history and smiles. We felt very comfortable with them from the get-go. Our first day found us winding through the mountain roads outside of Dalat. We explored waterfalls, saw the silk production process (from mulberry trees to feed the silk worms to the factory that uses both modern and antique processes to refine the silk), visited a school, visited many ethnic minority villages and handed out candies to beautiful local children. We stayed the first night near Lak Lake.
Day two took us from tranquil, idyllic Lak Lake, through small villages and national parks (where we swam in pools fed by waterfalls) to the unofficial capital of the central highlands, Buon Ma Thuot. Thanh and Xuan took us out for beers and traditional Vietnamese BBQ that night. The restaurant we went to only served goat meat, and they bring it to you raw at your table, along with a small grill with wood charcoal. Jess and I were commenting on the novelty of cooking your own food at a restaurant…never would you be served anything raw that you were to cook yourself at a restaurant back home…imagine the law suits!
The third day was a long haul up a national highway with stops along the way at Rubber tree and pepper tree plantations, and the town of Pleiku for lunch and finally up to Kon Tum, a city heavily populated by various ethnic minority groups.
Day four was most certainly the highlight. We rose up from the dusty plains outside of Kon Tum, where much of the countryside had been destroyed in the war, onto the Ho Chi Minh Road [which theoretically follows the path of the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail] into the mountains and the jungle. The villages in the clouds at the top of the mountains were teeming with curious children and the scenery along the road was absolutely awe-inspiring. As I rode over the Ho Chi Minh highway, through a land of such beauty and tranquility, I couldn’t help but think about the thousands of Americans that once looked upon this same land as one of horror and anguish. The Central Highlands were especially “strategic” during the war, and we saw many sites of former military bases, napalmed hillsides, tracts of land still contaminated by Agent Orange. But, amazingly, 35 years later, the region seems to have retreated back to the relative obscurity and peacefulness it likely enjoyed years ago, before all the fighting began. In a way, it was sad to realize the atrocities and the devastation that was experienced by so many in this region–American and Vietnamese alike–but, today, it was an overwhelming sense of relief and optimism that overpowered my thoughts of the past. If a place that was characterized by such violence, hatred, terror and misunderstanding can be so transformed in just a few generations into a place that is so beautiful, so welcoming and so peaceful, I have to have hope for other currently troubled places around the world. Here’s to hoping that one day, a young American woman will ride through the wilds of Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and be inspired by the peace they have been able to achieve, and by the beauty of the people she encounters there…

We were sad to say goodbye to Thanh and Xuan in Hoi An, and it was a little hard to rejoin the masses of foreigners on the backpacking trail through Vietnam. This was certainly a journey neither of us will every forget. Cam on, Thanh. Cam on, Xuan. Thank you.
I am currently sitting in Hanoi. Tonight is Tet Eve, or, New Year’s Eve. Should be a huge party in the streets tonight, followed by quiet in the streets tomorrow. I will post another entry about Hoi An, Hanoi and our upcoming trip to Ha Long Bay before too long.
May peace be with you all. Chuc Mung Nam Moi. Happy New Year.

Dalat is beautiful hillside retreat. Cooler air, beautiful lakes and old French villas make this town a wonderful break from the bustling chaotic heat of Saigon and the Mekong delta.
Dalat is an important agricultural area in Vietnam. Most of the vegetables you see in markets in Saigon come from the central highlands around Dalat. The market in town is a testament to this.

Thanh and I outside of Dalat on our first day on the bikes!

Thanh attempting to extract a miniscule strand of silk from the mouth of a silk worm.

Elephant Falls. Ahhh…

This hillside was hit by a napalm bomb on the right side. Very little has been able to regrow there. The left side (missed by the bomb) serves as a reminder of what the countryside used to look like.

Jess and Xuan share a moment on the roadside.

Beautiful waterfall near Buon Ma Thuot. Complete with rainbow.

Same waterfall, from below. Its name escapes me…

Kids in a small village outside of Kontum.

Countryside near Kon Tum. Much of this area was a battefield and the hills around here are all still contaminated by Agent Orange. Very little productive land remains.

Kids running out to investigate. Small village in the clouds. Ho Chi Minh Highway.

Thanh and I riding in style.

The Ho Chi Minh Highway was paved from 2000-03. It follows the original path of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was used extensively by the Vietcong during the war. In the later stages of its use, it was widened and bridges were built to allow for trucks and tanks to make the journey. This bridge remains by the side of the new highway.

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