Saigon to Da Lat: Our Trip in the South of Vietnam
When we arrived in Vietnam I had 2 goals, find a motorcycle and eat. Buying motorcycles in Vietnam was one of our main attractions to the country. We had heard the road are well maintained (this has actually proven to be true) and scenery along the way is one of a kind. We began our search for the bikes in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City. This is usually the first stop for backpackers from all over the world when they first arrive in Ho Chi Minh. The streets are lit up by neon signs from clubs, bars, and restaurants. The bikes we had our eyes on were Honda Win Replicas. These are Chinese “knock off” motorcycles of actual Honda Wins. They are manual bikes that have been pieced together over the years with a random assortment of parts. These Wins are usually purchased in Hanoi and are ridden by backpackers down to Ho Chi Minh. Then resold to more other backpackers traveling the opposite way. The Honda Wins are notorious for breakdowns due to the use and abuse they go through on their trips through Vietnam. However, they are extremely cheap. We got ours for $200. This low price gave us some extra monetary wiggle room for repairs. We purchased our Wins from backpackers who had come down from Hanoi on a 3-week journey. Our other option was to purchase the Wins from a shop in Ho Chi Minh for $350. The bikes in the shops were in better condition, but our hope is that we would spend less than $150 on repairs on our $200 bikes. We also decided to split any maintenance expenses between the 3 of us. This took any competition when we were looking to purchase bikes. We also though this decision would relieve any tension or hard feelings between the three of us. It would have been unfair if one of us had to pay $200 worth of repairs because the randomly selected the bike that was going to break down.
Besides eating, we also visited the War Remnants Museum and Củ Chi tunnels. These were great eye opening experiences and really helped give me a solid background on the Vietnam War (The American War as it is known in Vietnam). Both of these historical sites were obviously biased and commonly referred to the Americans and the enemy. The War Remnants Museum was the most graphic museum I have been to. This is comparing it to the Holocaust museums in Budapest and Washington DC. Photos of soldiers carrying heads and human remains were not uncommon, neither were photos of the elderly, women, and children seconds before death. There was also a portion dedicated to agent orange victims. I spent a total of 2 minutes in the section before I couldn’t handle it anymore and left.
The Củ Chi tunnels are 30 minutes out of Ho Chi Minh. They were a vast tunnel system used by the North Vietnamese, and it was one of the most heavily bombed areas during the war. These tunnels were tiny, I could barely squeeze through the widened tourist versions. The only way I fit inside was in a deep squat with my ass 3 inches off the floor. There is no way any of us would have fit in the original tunnel system. After visiting these sites I realized how uninformed I was about the Vietnam War. During our stay in Ho Chi Minh, I did notice there were a handful of locals with physical deformities (a little over 10 in our 5-day stay). I couldn’t help but think that 40 years later the war is still affecting those living in the area.
On a little bit of a happier note, we did make some Vietnamese friends at our hostel. Our hostel was owned by a 30-year-old petroleum engineer. He and his cousins help run the hostel making it quite the family operation. His cousins also help consume most of the beer at the hostel. One night after dinner, we wandered into the hostel and were instantly handed beers. We learned that to cheers in Vietnamese begins with a count, then ends in cheers. Mot, Hai, Ba, Vô! is the local way to cheers. After learning that we decided to return the favor and teach our new friends the traditional American drinking game, beer pong. Our new friends spoke as much English as we spoke Vietnamese. However, this didn’t inhibit any of the fun at all and as long as we knew Mot, Hai, Ba, Vô! we were ok.
After the sights and food in Ho Chi Minh, we hit the open road on our newly purchased Honda Wins. We left the city at 4 AM to avoid any traffic, as I haven’t been exposed to more hectic and reckless driving in my life. There are no rules of the road here. The locals go where they want when they want. If you’re in their way they will honk and expect you to move. They also do not look left when they turn which has proven to be pretty inconvenient. We witnessed a man on a scooter get taken out by a bus at an intersection during our 4th day in Vietnam. The man was fine (he actually walked away without a limp or anything) but the scooter was destroyed, and I was terrified for the fact that I had to navigate these roads. Within 40 minutes of our departure, Alex’s throttle was stuck on his bike, and oil was leaking all over my bike shorting out the electrical system. Lucky for us, we broke down right in front of a mechanic. After asking a local lady to wake him up (he was sleeping in a hammock in his shop as it was almost 5:00 AM) and our bikes were fixed within the hour. We were ready for the open road. Our first stop was Mui Ne. This is a small coastal town about 140 miles (a 5-hour motorcycle ride) outside of Ho Chi Minh. All nerves of riding a motorcycle were quickly swallowed up after this trek. Mui Ne is known for its kiteboarding and for $80 a day we could have rented all the gear needed to kite. Lucky for my wallet, there was no wind. We spend 3 days here where we relaxed at our hotel, swam in the ocean, and drank countless ice coffees. After this relaxing stay, we were ready to get out of the touristy town and head toward Da Lat.
Da Lat is 95 miles outside of Mui Ne and located up at 4,900 ft. The architecture here is different than any I had been exposed to in Asia. It was very European. The city is built on a hill located on a small lake. The city was originally set up as a vacation retreat by the French in the early 1900’s which, explains the European architecture. Before reaching the city we made a quick pitstop at Pangour Waterfalls. This waterfall was massive, very clean, and well maintained. My only complaint was that we were unable to swim in the falls. But that was probably for the better and helped keep it clean. Our only full day in Da Lat was spent hiking to the tallest mountain in the area, Langbiang Mountain at a little over 7100 feet. The trail began weaving through coffee plantations that quickly turned into a pine forest. The pine trees were very similar to the ones we were used to in Spokane… Ya, I can’t believe I just compared Vietnam to Spokane either… Regardless, the hike stretched to be 5.3 miles. The last half mile was one big stair stepper to the summit. The rest of our time in Da lat was spent wandering around the town partaking in our favorite Vietnamese hobby, eating. We went to the local Sunday market, ate some seafood hot pot and took in the local environment. It seemed as though the whole town came out to eat that night. There were an odd amount of locals with dogs at the market. They were parading them around the streets. From Pugs to Huskies there was a wide variety of pooches roaming the town. We also noticed many of the locals drinking a warm milk on the side of the street. Interested in what this may be, Alex and I decided to investigate. After ordering one green pea milk and one peanut milk, we imminently called off the investigation. Both kinds of milk were just flat weird. Filled with enough sugar to turn 10 kids diabetic, I took 2 sips of my peanut milk and promptly tossed it in the trash. It tasted like stale peanuts in milk, not the peanut butter milkshake flavor I was hoping for. The next day we woke up left Da Lat and made our way towards NHA Trang.