Goooonnngggggg – Bao, our Vietnamese guide, had just clanged the hollow bell in the small bamboo schoolhouse to show us how it worked. I looked more closely at the engraved letters on the top of the oblong metal object: Property of US. It was a bombshell from the 1960s that, now rusting and empty, had been strung up with wires in this small country school for a more practical purpose.  I was touched and curious to see this piece of the US in the middle of Vietnamese backcountry.

The early morning air was still cool outside as we returned to the motorcycles. Toan, my driver and guide, was holding my helmet out for me to grasp. I easily hopped on the back of the bike despite the tightness in my adductors from yesterday’s ride. We were on day three of our motorbike ride down through the central highlands of Vietnam; through thick lush jungle, over dry red flatlands, and across parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Two schoolboys study before class in a bamboo school room of a village outside of Kon Tum, Vietnam.

Two schoolboys study before class in a bamboo school room of a village outside of Kon Tum, Vietnam.

We chose this method of transportation to diversify our travels for Life in Transit, but more importantly to get in touch with the real, off-the-beaten track, rural Vietnam. Over the 600 mile journey from Hoi An to Dalat, the more the scenery changed, the more it stayed the same. Here are some of the sights that became familiar on our trail:

Motorcycle diaries

As we banked our first sharp gravelly turn, expletives ran through my head despite myself and I used my muscles to absorb some of the thumps on the bumpy road. As a newbie biker, I was pretty sure that my body was doing exactly what it shouldn’t do as a passenger: leaning against the turns, clenching my thighs to the seat when I saw a big turn approach, and grabbing the luggage rack behind me as support (as if that’s going to do anything). It took several hours of riding for me to loosen up, but eventually I started feeling comfortable and confident. Badass even! I was a tough biker chick! Then I caught a glimpse of my bulbous reflection on the back of Toan’s helmet and my ego deflated. I look like a total noob.

The vast majority of the vehicles on the roads are motorcycles. Bao tells me it’s partly because taxes on cars are so high, and mortorbikes are much more flexible on these sometimes rough routes. Mornings are pleasantly cool, midday is stiflingly hot, and my favorite time on the bikes is early evening. The light becomes soft and rosy and the air begins to cool. I can feel the waves of warm air alternating with pockets of evening shade when a mountain or rocky hill eclipses the sun. It also means it’s nearly time for a shower: after spending a day on the dusty hot roads, my skin feels parched and gritty and I’m ready to be clean.

Green peppercorns, one of the common crops of the central highlands, are sorted by machine or by hand, then spread to dry in the sun.

Green peppercorns, one of the common crops of the central highlands, are sorted by machine or by hand, then spread to dry in the sun.

The spice route

Coffee, pepper, cinnamon…and many other agricultural plantations we began to recognize ourselves after a few days: the dark green of the cinnamon trees, the tall trunks with diagonal slashes for draining rubber sap, the rippled green leaves with frosty-white coffee flowers, the spikey low bushes of pineapples, the creepy worm-in-apple look of ripe cashews growing, the bright green wet fuzz of flat rice paddies, and much more.

All these products are familiar for us to use, but I’ve never seen them in their natural habitat. We got to sample some of this produce when our Toan and Bao borrowed some cinnamon bark (sweet and firey) and ripe green pepper berries (spicy and savory) to use for the beef with onions dinner cooked in a large bamboo straw over the campfire in the forest.

These old diesel tractors are a common sight on the main roads of the agriculturally rich highlands of Vietnam

These old diesel tractors are a common sight on the main roads of the agriculturally rich highlands of Vietnam

Vietnamese Heartland

Vietnam is a densely populated country with a constant stream of villages and small towns running through the veins of the backcountry roads. Most of local people of this developing nation make their living through agriculture – more than 60% of the Vietnamese work force comes from farming – so in addition to the various fields of crops, we got to witness the daily grind of these farmers as we whizzed by on our cycles.

On the bumpy road, we passed loud and rusty tractors installed with hammocks in lieu of a seat towing large bins of stinky drying tapioca. In the space between the street and the houses, the concrete or dirt yards were covered with a single layer of small round pepper berries awaiting dried blackened perfection. Women in conical hats sit behind diesel-run machines in the shade, feeding tinted bamboo sticks in one end and recuperating cinnamon incense out the other end. The smells, colors and sights vary from village to village, but the endless work of tending gardens and fields remains constant.

A streetside café offers not only refreshments like sugar cane juice and Vietnamese coffee, but also plenty of comfortable hammocks for a real break.

A streetside café offers not only refreshments like sugar cane juice and Vietnamese coffee, but also plenty of comfortable hammocks for a real break.

Take a break

This is genius: roadside rest stops under shady vines with hammocks everywhere! After many hours of dusty and sometimes bumpy riding, frequent breaks were needed to stretch our muscles and relax. Fortunately, we were never far from a small Ca Phé  with canvas hammocks and a variety of cold drinks. Sticky green sugar cane juice squeezed fresh from the rolling bars of the machines tasted a little like sweet artichoke. Women pounded chunks of ice in small rubber bags to cool Saigon beer or Pepsi. Small pots of bitter green tea accompany every order.

Our favorite refreshment is hot, black Vietnamese coffee. The thick, nectar-like brew comes from the jasmine-sweet smelling robusta bean which flowers all over the country. They are dried in front yards and mixed with cheaper dried soybeans. A good heap of grounds is scooped into an aluminum double filter and placed on top of a glass. After a full ten minutes, the slow drips have accumulated in the bottom of a cup to a warm, flavorful infusion. It’s a small shot meant to be tasted, not gulped, and it’s perfect in the slow swing of hammock before jumping back on the bike.

We once took a break at a roadside pineapple stand where Toan instructed me to dip my juicy slice in sea salt – a tangy and interesting combination. As we relaxed our muscles, the guides chatted with some locals having beers. I settled into a waiting hammock, while one of the men looked pointedly at me. Thinking I was committing some cultural faux-pas, I gestured “Is it OK to sit here?” He looked at my face, then my lower body, then held up his two hands in a large round shape, showing how impressed he was with the generous circumference of my thighs. Oh my gosh, was this Vietnamese guy was calling me fat? Yep, he was. I just laughed.

A little girl runs home while the cattle get driven in for the evening near Lak Lake village, Vietnam.

A little girl runs home while the cattle get driven in for the evening near Lak Lake village, Vietnam.

Easy Riders

What accompanied us most closely for the length of our journey was our two drivers/guides from Easy Riders of Vietnam.

Bao had a round, friendly face and a teasing sense of humor. He was always taking advantage of my guilible side: telling me the fresh cinnamon bark is cocaine, that the water buffalo are actually Vietnamese rhinoceros, or rocking the rickety suspension bridges as I try to catch my balance walking across. His English was accented, but excellent – he told me he has worked for tour operators for many years and it showed in his good nature and many collected anecdotes. One he told us was about the governments’ education efforts in a hill tribe community. Life is hard for these ethnic minorities, so in an effort to limit births, the government began distributing condoms. The officials tried to be discreet in their instructions: “When you are loving your wife, put this on the ‘banana’.” So women would go to find a hard, green banana from the fields, sheath it with the condom, and put it under their pillows at night. Needless to say, the birth rates weren’t affected, and Bao thought this was a very funny story.

Toan was the natural leader and took his job seriously. He was a good rider with a cunning smile, and a loud voice. His blunt way of informing me that we’re ready for a break made me laugh every time: “Get off the bike!” he booms. He usually takes smoke breaks while Bao shows us around and tells us local stories.

Not only did they make the ride pleasant and enjoyable, they showed us some of the best places to meet local people, eat authentic Vietnamese food, and see the gorgeous scenery of the central highlands.

We got to taste the real Vietnam that we were craving.