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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Motorcycling in Vietnam's Central Highland

There's something undeniably sexy about seeing Vietnam by motorcycle. Regardless of your level of riding experience, a trip by motorbike is doable if you're determined and patient. 

The Central Highlands route is still considered way off the beaten track; you'll encounter few English speakers and will need to brush up your Vietnamese (or acquire a phrasebook). It's a rewarding experience that can astound and inspire.

Who will you ride with: are you a solo rider, will you ride in a group, or perhaps you're more inclined to ride as a passenger with a touring company? Routes are known in advance, hotels are taken care of, and plenty of rest stops are made. If you opt to do the trip yourself, be prepared to spend more time organising logistics, but you'll have more potential for deviating from the set paths and exploring at your own pace.

In terms of route, the cities and towns in the Highlands are probably best treated as overnight stopovers, rather than as destinations themselves. Even the larger cities like Buon Ma Thuot offer little in terms of traditional tourist comforts, such as a selection of restaurants with English menus, and few sights to see around the city. These cities can easily be explored once you arrive merely by driving around and pulling over when you see an interesting church, monument, or memorial.

Along your route, if you see something eye-catching as you pass through a village, pull over and ask about it! Local industries are booming in the up-and-coming cities of this region: you'll pass rubber, pepper, tea and coffee plantations, fields of flowers set for export abroad, and much more. This area is also home to many sites of incredible national importance. Part of the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail weaves in and out of Vietnam in this region and you'll pass by Charlie Hill and other war memorial sites. Dozens of Vietnam's ethnic minority groups inhabit the Highlands, and visiting with these people is an alternative to the heavily-subscribed treks through Sapa in the north.

There are two ways to equip yourself for the ride, either buying your own bike, or renting one and making a big loop through the region. Bikes are inexpensive but the old adage of buyer beware applies. You should know enough about bike maintenance to get by if crisis strikes. This is where renting a bike or riding with a tour company can be advantageous; you're ultimately not responsible for the equipment, and you don't have to worry about reselling the bike at the end. The best way to transport gear is to strap everything on the back with heavy-duty bungee cords or rubber ties. Plan for possible weather fluctuations; thick plastic bags will keep everything dry, and you'll want one of those thin plastic body suits that sell in all roadside stalls. Despite their flimsy appearance, you'll be surprised at their effectiveness.

I rode as a passenger through the Central Highlands on a 6-day tour from Da Lat. For the latter half of my journey north to Hoi An, I encountered a Belgian couple who were doing the same route, sans guide. At the end of our trips we compared notes. Without wanting to toot my own horn I think I may have gained the most out of the experience—but this was because I could just sit back and absorb what was around me (my driver doubled as an excellent guide). While the others struggled to deal with tire punctures in an unfamiliar language, I learned firsthand about Vietnamese culture and life in this incredibly diverse region. The pair admitted to making no advance preparations besides buying a map.

For the DIY-ers remember several key points. Get the most current map you can find; construction on new roads continues daily and these roads are smoother and less confusing than some older ones. If you've got the time, don't push too hard for daily mileage, especially when you're cruising through the tropical jungles between Kon Tum and Dak To, where you can stop and hike parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Take plenty of rest stops and discover the local markets, and eat lunches at the roadside stalls—drive through town once first if necessary to find the most popular place. Seeing the Central Highlands by motorbike is incredibly freeing, but you must remember to remain flexible and most importantly, to have the ride of your life.


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