Vietnam Motorbike Tour: Day 5

 Lions, Dragons and Buddhas, oh my! As already mentioned, I saw a lot of lion dances. There were more as we left Da Lat and headed towards another mountain. I shall always think I was being ushered in and given a grand farewell. We were on our way to Lak. 

Stunning lush greens. The hills are planted with all sorts of crops right up to the roadway. There is such little land and so many people that in some places farmers have figured out which crops work together or can be laid in nearly immediately after harvesting of one. One bush overhanging the barrier was very interesting – open up the fuzzy fruit, break open a seen, orange food colouring.

 Farmers live very simple lives, we would call the homes in some areas less than hovels; however, their view on life is that they need to land to grow crops, they do not need things and they do not need to travel. Family is the priority. Itbalso seems that piety can be found in the simplest of shrines – whether Buddhist, Catholic, Caodism, Dao or one of the more ancient beliefs. Along the way, from Saigon to Lak, there are Catholic Churches (this is the primary Christian based faith in Vietnam), Buddhist Trmples and shrines to Buddha, Guanyin, and Mary. I would say Guanyin and Mary were pretty evenly represented – rather fitting as Guanyin is the Goddess of Compassion and Mary, also known as Our Lady of La Vang, having appeared in 1798 as an apparition and holding a child in her arms, expressed love and comfort during a troubled time for persecuted followers. For the Vietnamese whatever they believe their faith is strong. However, I was also told many of the farmers are only believers for as long as they can send children to classes and/or share in neighbours helping neighbours. I guess only they really know. 

The wooden cable spool is a very simple shrine outside a farmer’s ramshackle house.

Of course I should have expected another stop for weasel coffee. This was a family business where they also hedged their bets against the coffee market by making some pretty powerful rice wine – I was not about to try it. Not only because I do not drink – the facility had my western senses wondering at the low standards of cleanliness. I have been trying to keep my culture from interfering with learning, yet every once in a while up it pops. I also felt sad for the weasels locked up in cages and had to remind myself they are fed rather than eaten. I chose to drink regular coffee.
A mid-size Silk factory, compared to some of the home businesses I saw, did not hold anything new for me. Collect the SIL, worms, feed them lots of juicy leaves, allow them to make a caccoon, boil the caccoon to extract the siall, wash, card, weave, dye. The poor silkworm? They make a good snack. I was offered some mixed with lemon grass and peanut oil. I declined. Of course some must be allowed to become moths to lay eggs to make more worms.

I was definitely in need of the Happy Buddha, at the Linh An Pagoda, about 30 km outside Da Lat, and made sure I rubbed his tummy for good luck. There was a lot more to see. The Guanyins in waiting were in various stages of preparing to enlighten those who would come to worship. A hand here, a bottle upturned rather than down, headless – I had found a little factory of enlightenment.

It was the time to once again cover a lot of mileage – I felt a bit like the little engine that could as we twisted and turned up and down yet another mountain. Of course, compared to the Rocky Mountains that straddle BC and Alberta in Canada these are just baby mountains, until an attempt to drive up them on a Motorbike with traffics of all sorts whizzing by at breakneck speed. I believe it was this leg where we saw a group of foreigners on bikes stopped and assisting one of their group who must have just had a minor crash. We did slow down but all seemed relatively fine and it was a fair sized group. Which brought up the topic of foreigners thinking they can go on a Motorbike ‘self tour’ – the thought of locals is these people are nuts. Alright, I know most get home safely, but they do not see the backroads, none of them would ever find their way through the first pass we took, and it is foolhardy to think an international licence gives them licence to drive like locals – they simply do not have the skills nor the ability to read signs. (My rant)

To put me back in a happy space we did visit enough temples with dragons for me to forget idiots; although I was beginning to think one dragon looked like another and finally gave up keeping track. Besides, dragons tend to be uncooperative.

I was happy to make it to the hotel at Lak Lake and even share it with my first indoor lizard on this trip so far who was already in the room. He was very tiny. Also too quick for me to take a photo. I will now mention that there was so much information for me to process I knew there was little chance I would retain most of it. It was at this point I decided to enjoy more and worry less about taking notes. Even my photos seemed less important than moments that would never be captured on film. 
Expenses: 135,000VND = 7.50CAD

Day 6

Abandoned Catholic Church


Vietnam Motorbike Tour: Day Four

Whenever possible I like to have a view from my room when I wake up in the morning and had to ask my guide about changing my room in Bao Loc as it overlooked the entrance and had a very strong light that penetrated the curtains. I was promised a great morning view of the valley. I woke up to fog.

After breakfast we visited the Pongour Waterfall – well, I visited. I cannot recall if I have said that my guide takes me to various sites but usually does not join me as someone has to stay with our belongings. However, when it is possible, a little dangerous, or the route might be confusing, he is there to, well to guide me. Most of the time he just hands me my camera, says to enjoy and I am off to explore. I think only once so far have I not carried my small Lug with me. 

As far as waterfalls go Pongour is pretty impressive and far enough off the beaten track to make it remain untarnished by tourism – unlike Niagara Falls in Canada. The falls tumble over natural steplike ridges which means rather than roar it cascades with a musical lilt – turned high but pleasant all the same. The terrible part of this visit is that I managed to delete two days worth of photos! I am hoping I did not make it permanent. Especially after carrying my camera all the way!

One can only hope the area will remain unmarried by vendors
Roadside lunch.

We visited Chicken Village, about 600 Co Ho people live there, where I was encouraged to find the chickens that are different from other chickens. Alright, I am not anywhere near a chicken expert but I have seen enough to know there many kinds. All I could say was all the chickens had gone to bed except for one that ran away with her chicks, one in a field and another that fled into the coop. I also noted the giant chicken at what appeared to be a defunct aquaduct. Did all the chickens perhaps drown I asked, or could they swim? Then the story as to how Chicken Village got its name. Several years ago the government had the bright idea to build a system for the village to get water, engineers and designers came to view the land. While there one of them was told the myth of the area.
Playing on the coffee beans at Chicken Village

A young woman fell in love with a poor young man, and he with her. They wanted to marry but he was too poor so the family said no. (In this particular minority group the man has to go to live with the family of the wife) The couple begged for her family to change its mind. Finally relenting a little they told the young man that if he could find a rooster with nine spurs he could marry into the family. He searched and searched but of course he could not find such a chicken. However, still in love the young woman told her family she would also search for a chicken with nine spurs and set out into the jungle. She was never seen again having been eaten by wild animals, perhaps a tiger. So the engineer and designer erected a giant rooster with nine spurs at the aquaduct in memory of the myth. Although the rooster remains the aquaduct is not used after more modern methods or water were found. It appeared it may have never been used. And that is why Chicken Village is a motorbike tourist destination.

One big Chicken!

From Bai Loc to Da Lat we kept passing by lion dancers, either preparing to dance or dancing. As in several dozen! Also one dragon dance. We could not stop for any of them although I really wanted to. It was as though they were announcing our arrival too each area. The colourful costumes, red, yellow, green, blue and even one pink one, with their fringes and sequins shaking and dancing was enthralling. Each small group also had a drummer and some had cymbals. The people in central Vietnam know how to celebrate a festival. Much later, in Da Lat as I was finishing a lovely dinner of spring rolls and a fabulous dinner of noodles with lots of vegetables, a lion entered the restaurant! I was thrilled and hoped I managed a few good photos before it headed down the street to another storefront. The drumming was still going strong into the dark night – I fell asleep to the beat. I later found out that all the young people who do the lion dance collect money at each stop – much like Spring Festival at home in Chinatown.

Have you ever asked a dancing lion to keep still?
I treated myself to dinner out at a place that was on Tripadvisor – except I made the decision solely based on the look of the place and the menu and completely forgot the name!

View from my room. Up the street, the hill, was the direction of where I ate. This seems to be my only photo of Da Lat,
Expenses: 220,000VND = 12.20CAD

Vietnam Motorbike Tour: Day Two

I had expected I would sleep in after a tiring day of riding in the sun. However, I was up at my usual 5:00am. I finally headed out to find something to eat at about 7:30 and sent a message to Toan letting him know where I was. A bit of confusion, he thought I wanted to go for breakfast whereas I was already eating. Seems my choice of next door was not his first pick. Oh well, the Pho (pronounced Fa, like in Fa,la,la, la… ) was still one of the better bowls so far.

We packed up and were on the road by 8:30 with our first stop at the hill where the Viet Cong/Communist members first hid from those opposing their cause. A war memorial has been built and the site is now a National historic site. Hi Chih Min’s statue is prominently displayed for people to pay homage. 

The flag and the dragons caught my fancy
The shrine to Ho Chih Min. He was a well loved leader.

In the same area is a Cao Dao shrine where one of the early disciples meditated from 1927-1933. The religion was established in Southern Vietnam in 1926 and has about four million followers. The religion seems to be a combination of Confucianism, Taoism and Chinese Buddhism. Talk to most scholars of Religious Studies these days and they say Confucianism is a philosophy, not a religion. They also tend to agree there are different types of Buddhism. So why not start a new religion that teaches the concept of a universal family for universal peace. 

I was trying for the view, rain clouds were not cooperating.

Once we reached the top it was a beautiful view, perilous steps in the rain when barefoot! It was just over a half km uphill to get there. Did I mention it was raining? Along the way, and close to the memorial are huge granite stones the opposition, including the Americans, pockmarked by firing upon them in a vain effort to flush out the Viet Cong. (before they were the Natl Liberation Front). One such place is now a shrine to perhaps men who had fallen. 70% of the NLF were men – women, according to my guide, were far less willing to be involved in what was surely going to, and did, result in war. So many reminders of the stupidity of war, politics and interference by outside forces.
Considering the rain and this was a natural shrine – to open sides, gigantic granite stone for the roof – I am rather pleased this even turned out.
If anyone can enlighten me as to what the holes in the rock mean please do!

We headed out again in a downpour – I got very wet after my water resistant pants, and my raincoat, did not hold up to the pelting. Then my runners were soaked through when Toan did not see a giant puddle across the road until we were in it! Thank goodness I had my pink flip flops bought during the downpour in Saigon. About an hour later we stopped for a much need coffee and of course it only stopped raining long enough for us to hope for a dry ride – that did not happen. Rain until our next stop at a hole in the wall for lunch. We had pork as there was not any chicken. All I could do was hope it would not disagree with me. 

French cannons at the top of a hill some distance out of Saigon certainly were a surprise – my first question was how on earth did they get them there? They are huge! By placing these cannon here the French had a bird’s eye advantage. They could control the passage of ships and any country, or Vietnamese for that matter, attempting an attack from north or south. The site is now a popular spot for families, couples and partying young men, to picnic and have their pictures taken by, or on top of, one of the cannons. The route is quite steep with many twists and turns – we met one hapless fellow on the way down who probably had too much to drink. I think he had been on the back of a motorbike. 

This was one of 3 or 4 cannonball storage areas. Each had a ramp nearby for rolling several up to the cannon at once
If I recall the twisty road to the top of the Big Mountain is about 1.5km. I am still searching for how the French got six of these up let alone one!

After passing countless lovely looking resorts and seeming to come close to the end of likely choices, as well as rapidly losing light, we finally stopped at a hotel. Beautiful location, gorgeous view of the ocean, outdoor restaurant attached – I was ready for a shower, dinner and bed. The sun was setting as I sat in a chair watching the skies slowly, then suddenly, darken. Our day was done.

A room with a view – our stop in Miu Ne. Who cares if it was raining!

Breakfast 35,000 (2.00CAD) Toan said it is not a very good place but the Pho was so far the best I had in Vietnam. He said the coffee is 2/3 corn (chicory?) oh well, it served its purpose; Dinner for two 238,000 (13.50CAD); (time to discuss how we will be dividing coffee and meal breaks) Water & toiletries 30000 (seems expensive)

I am finding it too time consuming, and most likely not all that interesting to readers, to put down all the expenses so from now on I will do the total in VND and CAD.

VietnAm Motorbike Trip: Day Three

Day 3
Fairy Stream – no reason for the name other than a direct translation. It is a sandy stream great for walking in simply because. I also found it was like a foot exfoliation from the fine sand. The depth rarely went past my ankles and had few strong currents. The brown is due to the constant movement of the sand. Stand in one spot too long and you will slowly sink. A pleasant beginning to a full morning of sights. 

Fairy Stream. The water is brown due to the sand that constantly shifting. The stream rarely goes above the ankles and then only to mid-calf.

Next was a quick stop at a fish dock minus the dock. The fishing boats remain moored further out while the fish are brought in on coracles and supplies taken back aboard. It was quite amusing to watch a few men, one woman who gave up on the ineptness, trying to get over the surf while a fellow next to them had no difficulty. Once away from the beach these craft move swiftly.

Did I worry about polluted water, of course; however, I did not see anything actually floating in it.

Launching a Coracle is not easy
It was all smiles and laughs the whole time

The stench was not as bad as when the sun beats down but the miasma as a whole was still quite unpleasant.
Much of the area is built on or out of the red sand hills and the sand dunes made me wonder how much the shifting sand will have everything sliding into the ocean. I am glad Toan convinced me to check out the dunes – more exfoliation, great views and how often will I get to play in a dessert like space without the sun beating down in me?

Sand castles anyone?
Random person shows a bit of the scale of the dunes.

Before lunch we made two more stops. A Hindu Temple and a handicapped facility that specializes in sand art. I still have a problem with such places although it appeared the ‘staff’ are all 14+ – not that I saw many. 
The temple, there are three, all quite small ,built in the 9th c. was the highlight of the morning. Seems the followers of the faith had a method of building with brick by using a secret mortar – such a secret the knowledge had been lost to antiquity!

No visible mortar gives the temples cleaner lines

The largest is undergoing extensive work which had meant that, in the process of some excavations more artifacts have been discovered.
A baby shrine – none of the three are very high.

By the time we left the clouds became ominous and the first big raindrops hit us with resounding bursts. We threw on our rain gear before heading to a roadside place for lunch. This generally meant donning rain pants, rain coat &/or poncho, and for me plastic booties. Then everything had to come off when we would stop for breaks unless we wanted to have a steam bath. One such stop had hammocks, common in the south of Vietnam. Heaven. 

I do not think I have ever sat or lain down on a hammock in all my 60 years! I could get used to them.
The rain stayed with all the way to the start of the mountain road we would take – up, up, up. We still had three hours of riding to go. I worried about dark falling. Slow going with two people and all our gear. It reminded me of some nasty off roads on the northwest coast of BC in Canada. It was like crossing a border. The people have much darker complexions, corn became more prevalent than rice and for the first time I saw large pigs. The cows were also going home, along with goats, rather hazardous driving avoiding potholes, potbellied pigs and huge cattle! 
I wondered about the raised thatched homes sitting next door to cookie cutter cement homes that appeared to be in better shape. The government built the new homes for the people to live in; however, they did not like the homes, preferring to live in their traditional structures. So many houses remain unlived in. 

Suddenly, just shy of 4:00pm a loud bang – I was dropped at a roadside place and my intrepid driver went to find a mechanic. 20 mins later he returned. Once again he had to do the repairs himself. Good to know he can! We still had at least two hours to travel and the light was rapidly waning. I did not want to be stuck in a mountain village with the cows, pigs and chickens!

Coffee, peppers, cashews, bananas abound around the canal created by the hydro dam far below us at a rather perilous spot to have a view and take some photos. I do not believe there was really anywhere safe to pull over and when the road narrowed to a cow path, with broken stones, deep potholes and mud, I was convinced we had to have taken a wrong turn. I was flabbergasted when I saw four wheel vehicles rounding corners – usually barreling towards us on a path barely wide enough for our Motorbike. 

The water diverted by the Hydro dam provided much need water for new crops to be planted and provided more than subsistence farming for the people living on the mountain.

By the time we arrived in Bao Loc I understood the word and feeling of being knackered. My room was changed for one with a view – I wanted something rewarding for having survived the ride. Dinner was at a nearby hole in the wall. One man was happily getting sloshed, I was the first foreigner he had ever seen in his 75 years. He could say thank you, and shook my hand – strong grip.

Total Expenses 145,000VND = 8.00CAD

Vietnam Motorbike Tour: Day One

I was pretty well packed and ready to go, all I had to do was put on my runners, drink my tea and finish chatting to my daughter who had decided she will meet me in Hoi An as there was not enough time for her to fly to Saigon and catch up with me. I received a message saying my ride had arrived – 45 minutes early. I decided right then we would get along. I hate being late for anything. 

I need to stop here to say most of the day remains a bit hazy. I must have been more overwhelmed by the experience than I realized as I simply cannot recall one clear memory. It was more of a sensory overload. I needed to become acquainted with the bike and driver, and he with me. Trust is a major factor when sitting astride a motorbike. First I had to hop aboard – easier than it sounds. Then getting out of Saigon seemed to take forever and the traffic remained crazy although not quite as insane as in the centre.Fortunately it was a nice day – heck, it was HOT! I applied sunscreen 3-4 times and still had a sunburn on my back where it is never easy to reach.The weaving in and out of traffic, light touch of the horn as we passed by others; the city giving way to lush green, with too much garbage on the roads to mar picture perfect moments. The smell of oil, fish, garbage all mingling into a barely bearable bouquet that we finally left behind before our first stop for coffee.

Cute little drip cups makes a small, bold coffee to give the day a kickstart. Add condensed milk and go, go, go! Most people drink their coffee with ice. Also a cup of green tea. I am hooked except for the Conde seed milk – only because I want my blood sugar to stay down.

It took quite some to get out of the city, Saigon and the surrounding countryside is huge! I thought we would never leave the traffic behind. Finally crossed what I thought was a toll booth but was the entry to catch a small ferry boat across to an island -.this seems to cut down on time and is far more pleasant to sit for about ten minutes without all the exhaust. To help with the fumes, dirt and wind Toan bought a cowl like cover up for my face. We drove off the ferry towards a monastery of sorts. I would find myself getting rather confused as to just what I was visiting at times. The way I understood it this was a retreat of sorts for monks but with a distinct Chinese influence. 
In Vietnam always assume shoes have to come off if entering a temple of any kind!

Of course I do not read Vietnamese so the first notices telling visitors to remove their shoes went unheeded – oops. Thank goodness there was not anyone around. I remembered before entering the largest hall, it helped that I saw shoes but no people right away. I put away my worries about the, being stolen. I was quite sure nobody would want my runners – not a common type of footwear.
Pho for lunch and of course more coffee.

We did a lot of driving and had to stop in one place when the motorbike started to make strange noises. Eventually it was suggested I be dropped off at a cafe while my driver went in search of a mechanic after the one he wanted was closed – it was Sunday. I suggested Highland – I had seen it a couple of blocks back – because I was quite sure they would have AC and a western toilet. Ah, the conveniences we prefer. I was also able to charge my phone and iPad. As I said, trust was important. After all, I had paid him and he had all my stuff except my purse and daypack. About 40 minutes he came back, had to jury rig what he needed because the piece could not be found anywhere.
Our trusty steed.
Seems a black plastic ring was not put back on when the bike was serviced before I was picked up.

Of course we wasted a lot of time so made it to our hotel just before dark. I was exhausted, and Toan was most likely worried I would be unhappy with the turn of events. However, we had stopped for coffee a couple of times and lunch as well as short stops for him to point out places and explain them to me. Money has yet to be discussed other than the cost of the tour it self which includes my guide, the bike, fuel etc., accommodation and entry fees to sites. For the day we took turns until dinner. When we discussed thwt took up his offer to being me chicken and rice to the room which he insisted on paying for. I was ready to fall asleep.