Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Motorcycle Blogs
Oct 13-17

It seems oddly appropriate to reference The Motorcycle Diaries since I'm riding in a communist country. Regardless of Che's politics, the movie is a great travel story.

It seems that the "blogger in beta" site I was using is inaccessible from most of Vietnam. Since I can't login, I can't post the entry I had waiting. Using this temporary blog then, fast forward to.... The Motorcycle Blogs



Dalat is a center for internal tourism in Vietnam. The tour guides tout it as "the most beautiful city in Asia". Personally I saw nothing much to justify this. It's considered a romantic city and many honeymooners come here. The main attraction seems to be the cool weather since it's 1000 meters (3000 feet) above sea level. The French had fancy houses here when they were in Vietnam and there's a small scale Eiffel tower (though I'm not sure how old it is). Now it's a growing university town since the climate makes it easy to study, and also a center for fruit and vegetable production in Vietnam.

My main reason for coming here was the small note in the Hitch-hiker's guide to the galaxy, eh, the Lonely Planet guide about the Easy Riders of Dalat. Researching it for this blog, I noticed the number of meaning the term had over the years. I'm using it strictly in the motorcycle-riding meaning.

Easy Riders is the term a group of motorcycle riders in Dalat give themselves, though the motorcycles they ride are not Harley-Davidsons and none is more than 125cc. Apparently the law has strict guidelines on who can ride a motorcycle bigger than 150cc. The riders give tours of Dalat and the area to tourists, taking the tourists on the back of the motorcycle. Given my weight and the tiny tiny engine of the motorcycle, I quickly dissuaded the guide I found from this notion, getting him instead to let me drive his bike while he accompanied me on a smaller one. The bike, an old Honda, spit and sputtered its way through the hills of Dalat and the area carrying us to a number of Pagodas, some coffee plantations and vegetable fields and to the historical train station showing the very old coal-run engine and the still-working-for-tourists Russian engine.

The first of two interesting attractions was Crazy House. Crazy House is a hotel built by an architect who's the daughter of Ho Chi Minh's successor's to the presidency of Vietnam. The place is a bizarre, tacky, concrete construction of Alice in Wonderland style yard and rooms. Tourists can come by and see the rooms unless someone is sleeping in them at the time. Here's the yard.



And a few of the rooms.



The other attraction, for lack of a better name, is amusement waterfall. The waterfall itself is nothing to blog home about. Access to it required a long climb down, which of course meant a lot of steps coming back up. The local tourist industry put a stop to that with the construction of a brand new amusement ride - a cart you can take to go down the all the way to the waterfall.



On the way down, you control your speed using breaks on the side of the cart. This is completely gravity powered. Once you're done seeing the waterfall, you can take the cart back up - it gets pulled by a motorized cable.

These two guys wanted to get my picture with them. I insisted to get their picture with me right back.


But the day trip around Dalat was not what I came for. What I wanted was a longer trip through the central mountains of Vietnam. I changed my tour guide for the following day (or rather I changed bikes to a more comfortable one and the guide came with the bike) and we set out on a 5 day tour through the western highlands of Vietnam, from Dalat to Hoi An.

Day 1 - Dalat to Lak Lake

The bike, a 10-year-old 125cc Daelim, seems oddly similar to the 500cc Kawasaki I used to ride. The only difference is, alas, the engine. But this bike seems to manage well enough. The roads are generally good, though from time to time the asphalt disappears and you're left with mud you should carefully navigate or find a place where you should skirt the road to bypass some obstruction.

Riding a motorcycle here is like playing a video game. The road twist and turns, meandering through the mountains. Behind every turn is a potential road hazard - another motorcycle, a person walking in the street, or a cow herd coming up the road disregarding any traffic lane conventions. All of these will try to move aside if you see them in time and honk, or at least will let you pass by. More interesting are the surprise hazards - that piglet running into the road being chased by a dog or the chicken trying to cross it. I don't know why but many chickens do.

From time to time you'll get the big one - that oblivious oncoming truck. You'd better move quickly to the side of the road since trucks travel in the center... Points are awarded for safe passage. You only get one life :)

On the other hand, the speed is not great. On that first day, we averaged 30 km/hr (20 mph). About 40 kmh when going downhill or horizontally outside villages, and about 20 kmh when going uphill despite the bike's valiant effort to go faster.

We're driving through the mountains, a land of minorities (the Montagnards) intermixed with the Vietnamese majority. This is also a place where a (relatively) small number of foreigners travel. Since I'm still somewhat of a novelty to the locals even if they've seen foreigners before, I'm creating a sensation as I pass through the country side. In my wake I keep hearing the sound of laughing and yelling children and the sounds of surprised adults, mixed in with the "hello"s of the kids who see me early enough to wave before I pass. If this was a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book, this would be known as the year when the giant rode through town bringing laughter to all the kids.



As we progressed into the mountains, my ass was reminded more and more that it's been years since I seriously rode a motorcycle and that you need to develop an immunity in certain parts of your behind to sustain a long ride. We did 150 km that first days, about 5-6 hours of riding and even with the stops I was getting seriously soar. We stopped and bought a pillow to make the motorcycle feel more like a throne but still, there's only so much I could take.

A couple of hours before we reached our final destination for that day, the sky opened up and rain fell down on us. For those of you who've not experienced riding a motorcycle through the rain let me note that you're essentially a rain collector. It matters not how much rain is falling down. You drive through it at a speed that's usually faster than the speed it's falling at. Your become very wet very fast and the only remedy is to stop somewhere until it passes, an unknown amount of time, or to cover yourself up. I had a rain parka with me, though it didn't cover my hands and only covered the upper half of my body. The predictable results were two very wet feet, though I dried up very quickly once the rain let up.



As you travel, you breeze through the air, getting a very cool feeling regardless of the temperature. It was pretty cool when we started and due to the wind stayed relatively cool until our final stop. What you don't notice is that the Sun is baking your arms as you go. By the time we got to the hotel, my arms were red and starting to ache. From the 2nd day on, I used heavy portions of sunscreen since I didn't have any long sleeved shirts with me.




Take Some Rice, Add Some Bacteria, Let Rot

We stopped along the way to see a number of things, the first of which was how to make rice wine. We descended into the basement of one of the houses along the road. In it were covered jars which my guide opened up to show me the steamed rice and yoghurt being fermented.



After 3 weeks of fermentation, the contents is moved to a distillery and boiled to capture the alcoholic beverage. What's left is fed to the pigs, slumbering drunkenly in the pens right nearby. You can see the back of one in the photo.



Enough forone blog entry.Tune in next week for the continuation of - The Motorcycle Blogs.

As a side note, to see the video from the previous post, try: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3998519557030018396&hl=en

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