Vietnam is best experienced on two wheels and The Easy Riders of Dalat - war veterans turned knowledgeable guides - are on hand to help, creating your perfect personalised itinerary. Just hang on tight and enjoy the view on a tour of Vietnam that is sure to be a highlight of your travels.
On my journey from the Central Highlands town of Dalat to coastal Quy Nhon, I rode pillion on Easy Rider Rene’s motorbike and after a brief panic regarding the winding roads and plentiful potholes, soon realised Rene was fully in control. Happily working his way along routes well known to him, stopping every so often to show me a plant, a stunning view or local tradesman, he took me to waterfalls, local markets, minority and floating villages, silk factories and coffee plantations. This wonderfully unconventional tour also took in broom making, ravioli making, silk worm raising, dried fish buying and dog meat hanging for sale at roadsides..
By early on the first evening we arrive at our overnight stop, Jun Village, inhabited by a minority group that arrived in Vietnam from Malaysia and Indonesia between the 13th and 14th centuries. We are staying at a local family’s teak stilted home, where generations share one large room divided by cloth sheets. After a feast of various local dishes, the fresh air and long day's drive hits me and I fall asleep to the sounds of cows settling down below.
In the morning I step outside in time to see a group of elephants loping past the front porch and, after a leisurely breakfast, Rene and I explore the village before getting back on the bike to head to the National Park and even bigger waterfalls.
Rene frequently pulls over to show me more local tradesmen. Most fascinating is a mushroom farm and a plant for the production of sugar crystals. We lunch at a pit-stop on a hearty bowl of Bun Rieu Cua, a delicious rice noodle broth containing a giant 'meatball' of crab, pork and egg and brimming with pork and chives. A heap of fragrant salad leaves accompanies it, and Rene shows me how to season the dish with the fresh limes, chillies and shrimp paste provided.
A wonderful ride takes us through small villages and alleys of coffee plantations, clouds of tiny green butterflies fluttering across our path. When we reach the park I am thankful for the shade of the lush vegetation. The sights are wonderful, small waterfalls gushing into turquoise pools, rivers passing over glistening boulders and cliffs of rock spouting frothy white streams. As I scramble through rough pathways there’s the sound of cicadas out in full force.
We retreat to our hotel in Buon Me Thout early, in preparation for day three, a long distance crossing from inland to the coast. It's an early start. I'm encouraged to eat my fill at breakfast time as Rene tells me that today’s road is near deserted. So I fuel up Vietnam style with rice, pork and egg.
Rene has been doing motorbike tours for 22 years, since he and a few friends - all Vietnam War veterans - began taking visitors on tours of the surrounding areas of their hometown Dalat. As time passed they were increasingly being asked to go further afield and formed themselves into The Easy Riders (named after the film) and their reputation flourished.
In more than two decades, however, Rene has only covered the trip to Quy Nhon five times, more commonly heading to Nha Trang or Mui Ne. The last time was six years ago, and his memory of the crossing through the Central Highlands to Quy Nhon, a seaside town away from the typical tourist route, was of an arduous drive. Fearful of rough roads and few inhabitants on day three's ride we turn off in the direction of Tuy Hoa with some trepidation.
It's with a sigh of relief that we discover that in recent years the road has been resurfaced and we can both relax and enjoy the view, which is enchanting. Blue grey mountains loom in the distance as we speed by expanses of sugar cane fields, while lakes and reservoirs glisten in the valleys. All is eerily peaceful, with only the sound of the motorbike and occasional birdsong for company.
After lunch at a tiny village called Tan Lap - where I marvelled at the intensity of flavour from parcels of tofu packed with a rich pork and black mushroom stuffing - we ride out of the hills into a mass of rice paddies. The working day is drawing to a close and all are returning to their homes from the vibrant green and yellow sea of swaying plants. Women in conical hats sell their wares along the roadside and men rattle past with their ox carts.
Arriving on the coast we spend the night in TuyHoa before heading down the winding and windy coastal road. Rene veers off the highway and takes me to a cliff top viewpoint - through hamlets and roads strewn with hay drying in the sun – and we are overlooking a vast bay with not a soul in sight and backed by pine trees. Giant waves crash against the rocks below, sunlight glistening on the sea.
This detour tops the lovely and interesting list Rene has shown me during our road trip. And as we begin our descent on our final stretch of road to Quy Nhon, Rene still scours the landscape to point out shrimp farms, salt fields and sea horse wine.
We enter the town at lunchtime and drive along the wide seafront boulevards in search for a place for me to stay. I'm aware that it is past Rene's usual 'lunchtime' and express concern for his hunger - but he cheerily brushes away my concern assuring me that he will simply grab something on his way back. And it's at this point that I realise just how attached I've become to this gentle and generous man.
As we part he gives me a tight hug and there’s a lump in my throat as his motorbike disappears into the traffic. The adventure is not over - there is still much of Vietnam for me to see - but I am going to sorely miss my local guide. The freedom of the bike, the exploration of areas not often seen by tourists and above all Rene’s friendliness made for a truly an unforgettable experience.