Saturday, December 23, 2006

Day 07 - Easy Riders

Easy Riders eat your heart out. Free as the open road in Dalat...

Infesting Dalat and its surroundings like woodworm are the Easy Riders a group of motorcycle afficionados who do their best to catch tourists as soon as they arrive in town. To be fair, they are, on the whole, a great bunch of guys who give us visitors an excellent introduction to the town, its surroundings and, often, much further afield. But this comes at a price.

We'd been told that you don't really need to find one of these guys in advance as they find you. That advice was true enough. At Pongour waterfall, we'd met Kenny, our first Easy Rider who spoke excellent English and was happy to show his own book of recommendations that they all carry, cram full of glowing comments in several languages of tourist from the four corners of the earth. $20 a day per person was all we needed to pay and we'd have two bikes, two guides and a great day discovering whatever took our fancy in this area.

But did we tell you we had a cash-flow problem? We'd worked out that we had something stupid like $15 a day to make do on for the rest of the trip unless we got a cash advance from Visa and simply bite the credit bullet. But at that point, we hadn't seriously considered this. We'd also done what many travellers do and can be fatal: forget which day of the week it was. This had meant that we'd been faced with limited options for changing money today as it was a Saturday. Thankfully the main bank opened from 7am until noon. So, we really didn't want to spend $40 in this state.

What we decided to do instead was get our own bike at $10 for the day and explore on our own. It was the best decision we made in the whole holiday and we had a whale of a time.

At 7am, our 100cc bike was waiting outside our hotel with a tank full of petrol. A quick warmup around the hotel grounds was all I needed to get back into the hang of riding a motorbike and we were off. First into town to change money and then to a local shop to get baguettes (eaten by everyone here... those darned Frenchies!!!) yoghurt and cheese (Laughing Cow... darned Frenchies again!!!)

Leaving town heading north, we aimed for Lang Bian, the highest mountain north of the town. We'd made enquiries into treks that do this mountain. At $15 a head, these were much steeper than the slopes and we were certain we could do it ourselves for nowt. We were right. The road was a pleasure to drive on and the villages we drove through interesting to look at. Most people had traded their straw and wood houses for more durable concrete ones but everyone was friendly and curious and engaged in daily life; cooking, cleaning, chatting, sitting about, playing, repairing and a hundred other things.

At the foot of Lang Bian there's a car park and beyond this you are not allowed to proceed under your own motorised steam. At least this was what we were told despite the fact that later we saw a number of obvious tourists on their own bikes on the torturous road up to the 2100m summit. We decided against walking. It was $1.50 for us both to sit in the back of a jeep for the ten minute ride up. We bounced around in the back as the driver twisted and turned on a road he could doubtless have driven with his eyes shut. At the top, we were greeted by a stunning view over the surrounding rolling hills and tribal villages.

Sheena atop Lang Bian

Right in front of us, a small river had been dammed into a lake stretching a slender kilometer along a lightly wooded valley. Hills that seemed to have been sandpapered smooth bubbled from the valley floor and were dotted with a patchwork of farmsteads connected by red dirt roads. Amidst all this, tribal villages were scattered with their grass huts and outhouses. Across this landscape, hardly anything moved. It seemed idyllic; a different universe from the Saigon we'd left the day before.

We'd hoped to walk down ourselves but this almost came to nothing when the driver of our jeep and the rest of the passengers pressured us to go back down with them an hour later. We didn't want to. We wanted to walk. I think they would have felt happier had we said we wanted to grow wings and fly down. It was obviously unheard of. We began to saunter down the road. They followed us in the jeep gesturing and barking at us to get in. Only the driver seemed really put out by this. The others seemed just amused. Eventually he gave up and we were left to ourselves.

On a hunch, we headed into the forest and found one of many trails we knew would snake down the mountain. The ground was very dry and littered with a blanket of long pine needles which, if you weren't careful, would avalanche downwards when you least suspected it. We both fell over at least once at some point. But the forest was beautiful and the air warm and clear. All that we needed was for someone to assassinate the guy doing karaoke down in the valley which we could hear above the birdsong. It was hardly sublime.

We had lunch on a rock, discovered some plants we'd never seen the likes of, washed in a

Small, hard, crimson and with no visible stalk, we had no idea what these were.

mountain stream, got rid of the leech on my thumb and lost my five-year old sunglasses by the time we emerged onto rolling grassland out of the forest a couple of hours later. We tramped back to our bike through heavily tilled farmland where the lush green spinach contrasted sharply with the bright orange richness of the soil - bit like the French Open really.

With the afternoon before us, biking into the surrounding hills was inviting. We didn't get far on paved roads though before we encountered dirt and the dirt was very bumpy indeed. We meandered around, dozed on the grass under some pines, and found a good road heading to a nearby town which we struck out on. It was wonderful to be so free to explore. The road was really nice, threading through pine forests, valleys and passes and eventually leading us to the far side of the dammed lake we'd seen from Lang Bian first thing in the morning.

There was hardly anyone on the road. Occasionally, a tribal family all mashed onto one bike would pass us and gape. At one point, a family pulled up and started a conversation with us which lasted as long as our language resoures and petered out at the next bend. We stopped at one point and Sheena had her first driving lesson on a bike it was so quiet. But even this road, nice as it was and signposted to places tens of kilometres away, suddenly ended at a random point and became a rutted track that we had no inclination to continue on.

A wonderful day on a shoestring and, no, we hadn't had the insight and help of any Easy Riders, but we'd certainly had an easy ride. The only disappointment, apart from the fact that we discovered that we were pretty sunburnt, was that we didn't find the horn until just before we got back to our hotel. I reckon we must have been quietest motorbike in the whole country that day.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another lovely trip to really get to know the country side.
(In my opinion...................
In keeping with most countries outside the 'first world' the horn is only of serious use when the brakes fail. In keeping with most countries outside of the first world there are usually no brakes you apeared blessed on both accounts!)

9:49 PM KST  

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