Da Lat, the Central Highlands and Nha Trang, Vietnam

Da Lat is an inviting mountain city to visit in Vietnam and a motorcycle tour from Da Lat is a great way to see the real Vietnam. We took a three day tour, starting from Da Lat and ending in Nha Trang, a beach city where you can work on your tan and do some scuba diving if you’re into that kind of thing. There’s also plenty of good food, both international and local.

Day 48 – 50, Da Lat, Vietnam

The first leg of our open bus ticket northward from Saigon was to Da Lat. Da Lat is a charming hill town with French old-style buildings. Arriving here was a great change from all the heat of Saigon, the Mekong and Cambodia. This gave us the chance to pull out our sweaters and beanies that we’d packed, which had so far served for nothing else but to pad our rucksacks.

We arrived in Da Lat on January 13 and stayed in a nice enough budget hotel as recommended by the bus company. When I say recommended, what I really mean is the bus company/travel agency drops you off at a hotel, or in this case a choice of two hotels, or you can get dropped off at their office. This would be the pattern for every stop on the open ticket bus tour of Vietnam. Of course you can choose your own accommodation elsewhere, if you want to hail a cab and/or carry your luggage to the lodging of your choice, often at night after a long and uncomfortable bus ride. Thankfully the accommodation choices are quite decent and affordable, in this case coming in at US $7 per night.

After checking in to our place, we took a walk around the town centre and had a look at what the night markets had to offer. The next day we cruised around on a moped and got a bit lost checking out the surrounding farm land, which was pretty nice. As instructed by Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, we hung out at Peace Café in search of some Easy Riders. A couple of different friends we’d made in Phnom Penh not long before had strongly recommended doing an Easy Rider motorcycle tour as the best way to get off the beaten track and really see Vietnam. After having a feed and a drink at Peace Café we found our guys. After another night and an uncomfortable encounter at a local massage establishment* in Da Lat, we strapped all of our luggage onto the backs of our motorcycles (forming a comfortable enough back rest) and set off on our three-day tour of the Central Highlands with our guides Dave and Duong.

Da Lat, by night
Da Lat, Vietnam, by night.

Assorted shellfish at Da Lat street market
Assorted shellfish at Da Lat street market.

* Every other country in Asia we’d visited was fine for professional massages, unfortunately in Vietnam, the vast majority of places like to offer “full service” but it’s not clearly obvious, so be warned.

Day 50 – 52, Central Highlands motorcycle tour

These motorcycle tours are really great and quite famous amongst people who have travelled through Vietnam. In Da Lat, the Easy Riders tour guides are so well known, that not long after you arrive, someone will probably approach you claiming to be an Easy Rider and try to sell you a motorcycle tour. I don’t know about the imitators, but the genuine guys have a great reputation for good knowledge and safe driving. You can spot them by their jackets with the Easy Rider branding. In three days we really saw a lot of stuff and made many stops along the way to see places of interest. Some of the things we saw were:

  • Da Lat’s “Crazy House”, an (incomplete) guesthouse designed by an eccentric architect
  • Many lush green rice fields
  • A rubber plantation
  • Coffee farms
  • Broom making by hand
  • A silk factory
  • A brick factory
  • A pepper and curry farm
  • A mushroom farm
  • A tofu and rice wine making farm
  • Various waterfalls
  • Vietnam War battle sites
  • Countryside sites affected by Agent Orange
  • Duc My, an old US air base during the war
  • Various minority villages, observing how these folks lived and worked

Reflecting on this list, I’m amazed at how much we saw in the space of three days, and all off the beaten track. This is definitely the way to see Vietnam. For those with iron buttocks, you can do longer trips and see even more, travelling for a week or even two weeks on motorbike. I should also mention that we didn’t camp out or drive all night or anything like that – we would bunker down by sunset and stay at fairly decent guesthouses overnight.

The Easy Riders
The Easy Riders. I do acknowledge they bare very little resemblance to Dennis Hopper or Peter Fonda. You can see all my luggage strapped to the back of the bike.

Meg and rice field
Meg and rice field.

Meg, mushroom farmer and pet python
Meg, mushroom farmer and pet python.

Cau Sere Poc bridge
Cau Sere Poc bridge, a strategic point during the Vietnam War, now disused.

Monument in a roundabout
Monument in a roundabout, Buon Me Thot city, Vietnam.

Government Billboard
Government Billboard, Buon Me Thot city, Vietnam. I like the all-present image of Ho Chi Minh (you may need to enlarge), looking like Colonel Sanders.

Deforested hills in Vietnam's Central Highlands
Hills deforested by Agent Orange in Vietnam’s Central Highlands during the Vietnam War.

Day 52 – 56, Nha Trang, Vietnam

We returned to warm weather and stayed for a few days in the lively beach city of Nha Trang, for US $10 per night for a fairly nice room at hotel Sio Mai 2. We cruised around the place on a moped, I caught up on my Banh Mi diet (which I-d missed out on during the motorcycle trip) and did some scuba diving, which the area is renowned for. Even though it was off season, the diving was decent and we saw some pretty cool stuff. It was nice to be in the “certified” group just doing fun dives (not doing any training). We thought about the added dimension to our trip we could now enjoy, being PADI certified divers. Maybe when we got to Mexico we would do some dives…

At our hotel, we had some communication difficulties with the reception lady, who was friendly enough to offer to book our departing bus but somehow misunderstood which resulted in us staying another night. That didn’t bother us too much; we just booked in for another dive and cruised around the town a bit more. At Nha Trang we completed dives 6, 7, 8 and 9. At this point we were starting to feel like competent scuba divers and definitely enjoying ourselves in the process. We also lay around on the beach, not realising it would be the last time in a couple of months we would get any tanning action. Our destinations over the next few months would be winter places.

After our last 2 dives, January 21 saw us soaking up a last bit of sun on the beach, then packing our bags to leave for the night bus to Hoi An. We found half a bottle of banana rum that we bought a couple of days earlier at a Mexican restaurant and decided it would be wasteful not to finish it. In a jovial mood, we went next door to the hotel to Omar’s, the nice Indian restaurant we’d been to previously and had a meal and a couple more beers. The bus was running late so as we waited for our pick-up back at the hotel, we had another beer each. We were by then well ready for the overnight bus to Hoi An, our next destination.

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