Trip to Dak Lak: Story of an Expat in Vietnam
While we are in France, organizing our long-term trip, others are already going along unknown roads, like my “little” brother Ben. Settled in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for a year (and back to France for a few months for our greater pleasure! Well I shouldn’t say anything, in a few months it will be our turn!), Ben tells us about his trip with friends to the Dak Lak province…
This post is also available in: Français (French)
Here we go for 10 hours of sleeping bus. It is 8 pm in Saigon, the streets are still very busy and our bus is making its way through the anthill to leave the city to Buon Ma Thuot, some 215 miles to the north near the Cambodian border. Dak Lak, or the region of coffee and central Vietnam highlands.
So yes, 10 hours for that… the ride is not really the best part of the trip: I’m stuck between two Vietnamese people puking their guts out in bags, with the sounds and noodle smells that go with it. The roads are not well kept and there are potholes everywhere so we are getting shaken around, pretty quaint and memorable! And it is actually not so easy to sleep.
We arrive at Buon Ma Thuot well in shape at sunrise and it is freezing here! I’m used to Saigon’s heat and I can definitely tell the difference here: farther to the North and half a mile of altitude, it wakes you up in the morning. I decide to discreetly put the blanket from the bus in my backpack before leaving, thinking about the next two nights in a tent that promise to be harsh.
After a coffee-Phỏ breakfast, we rent semi-automatic motorcycles (“Xe mai” in Vietnamese, from the English “semi” and pronounced like it) to reach a small coffee plantation in Ea Tân, 50 miles to the north.
The ride is amazing, on a countryside road among blooming coffee plantations.
You feel like you are speeding on these straight lines but you barely reach 40 mph… always because of the potholes. Sometimes, it’s almost like riding on a motocross field, you need to hang on tight!
The trees growing in regular lines are for rubber production. An unusual place where the good adventurers that we are decide to take a break. We continue on our road and with no accident, a miracle.
It starts pouring rain at the worse time, when we are on a dirt road. We all stop to put on our famous “raincoat”, this tarp cover you put on as soon as you feel a drop, a vital fashion accessory.
I finally start going again, after the others, for another 100 feet and the tragedy happens: I see Armel lying on the ground under his bike, literally stunned. He has just badly hurt his chin and he is bleeding a lot. Locals hurry towards us, it’s the attraction of the village. Poor Armel cut his chin open deeply. Luckily for us, the nearest hospital is only 4 miles away.
There again, we attract people’s eye. The whole staff of the hospital comes and goes as Armel gets stitched up. In the meantime, an old man dressed as a Vietnamese army colonel absolutely wants to show us his electrocardiograms. Still in shape for his age!
After an 8 hour motorbike ride, 7 stitches and a great fright, we finally arrive on the plantation. It is beautiful and very calm. The small and old shack looks over the coffee fields where Vietnamese are picking up cherries. They are bare foot and working really hard in the rain. Part of the previous harvest is drying in front of the house.
The next evening is memorable: nice barbecue with a duck cooked over a wood fire. The after dinner liquor is less appealing: the boss cheerfully comes to us holding a big jar filled with a funny looking liquid with floating snakes and chicken heads! Ok, just one shot, to try… well that’s not how it works here: as long as your host offers you some, you can’t really say no… not tasty and really strong! We end up “trying” about 10 times, a memorable night…
The night in the tent is wonderful… directly on the ground and in the cold. I am quite happy with the blanket from the bus.
On our second day, we are supposed to work in the fields but the owner takes us in the nearby village for some coffee instead. Strong but tasty, it changes from the snake shots! We also spend a nice time with children who have just got out of school. We really have fun taking pictures with them.
We are not very productive for the rest of the day: a motorbike ride to enjoy the scenery and a fishing trip in the lake of the property. Nothing for me, I am disappointed, there were piranhas in there!
At the end of the day, same rundown: same people, same place and we start over. But this time, it’s a chicken for the barbecue. A chicken bought at the market alive, brought back alive head down on the scooter and killed at home with a simple and efficient incision of the right artery. The night is as nice as the previous one.
It’s already time to go back home on the next day and the way back is less eventful. The motorbike ride is quick and with no accident. Two sleeping pills help a lot in the bus to Saigon. After a deep sleep, we wake up in the heat and dense traffic, we’re home!
In the end, it was an incredible trip, with beautiful landscapes and kind, generous people. I sometimes had the impression I was discovering what real life is about. It really makes you think, like when the owner looks at your hand, touches your palm and tells you: “no calluses, that’s no man’s hands!”