Vietnam's Easy Riders

Photos by Andrew James

Armed with cigarettes, bad jokes, and a nifty Honda motorbike, Endy, 42, lives a life on the road with strangers. For the past six years, he has been an ‘Easy Rider’ — one of a group of self-styled tour guides that ferry tourists through the war-ravaged, coffee-drenched and starkly beautiful Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Endy has five children with his wife, who sells trinkets at a road-side stall in their home town Nha Trang, a boozy beach resort on the central coast. His business partner, Binh, 39, is single. Endy and Binh take travellers on two-wheel tours to parts untravelled by coaches and unsullied by bass-thumping discos. My travel companion (the photographer) and I book an overnight trip.

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In a tatty fisherman’s village on Nha Trang’s outer edge, not 10 minutes’ drive from air-conditioned hotels and beach-side bars peddling a brisk trade in beer, men take shelter from the sweltering sun underneath a concrete bridge while they strip bamboo for boat-making. The boats look like soup bowls. Cow dung serves as glue plugging the gaps in the weave.

As we walk by, young children materialise at the doorways of rough-slatted shacks to greet us while shy mothers keep watch from dark and dusty corners. Though Easy Rider tours are becoming popular, few tourists come to villages like this one — most still prefer the dancing monkeys on nearby islands.

In his previous life as a fisherman, Binh lived in a village like this. Binh’s father fought with the Americans during the war. As a result, he wasn’t allowed access to higher education and he had to leave school early to support his younger siblings. High-school drop-outs have few employment options in Vietnam. The destitute life of a fisherman is one option open to all.

Binh likes his current job, which he has been doing for seven years. Going by his rates (about US$50 a day), he is likely making a decent living in a country where a hearty restaurant meal can cost less than US$2. In halting English, Binh describes the plight of living with a low income: “No money, no honey,” he quips, before adding, with a chuckle, “No honey, die quickly!”

One of these bikes can and often do carry two full-grown men and a large backpack strapped on to the back with bungee cords — often for days. An Easy Rider passenger sits behind the guide, legs splayed, hands holding onto a small bar at the rear of the bike. Though the seats are well padded, eight hours of straddling can render the seat more pincushion than cushion.

Still, the rides are popular. Ninety-nine percent of tourists enjoy the experience, say Binh and Endy. Some develop lasting friendships with the guides, such as an American who once asked Binh to drive him from Nha Trang to Hanoi — a 1,200km journey — over 10 days. He’s planning another trip with Binh.

Only once has Binh had an unpleasant Easy Rider experience. He was chaperoning a large German man on what was to be a week-long trip from Nha Trang through the Highlands. On the first night, the German suggested the two share a room to save money. Binh agreed, but in the dead of the night his easy sleep was disturbed by a soft kiss on his cheek. Binh’s response was unequivocal: “I can’t drive for you anymore,” he told the tourist. The next morning he drove into town and bought a bus ticket for the German to return immediately to Nha Trang. Alone.

A man and a bag make for light cargo compared to some of the stuff Vietnamese highlanders transport on two wheels. Indeed, motorbikes here perform all the functions of trucks, buses, and family cars. As we zip up once-forested slopes denuded by Agent Orange and round sharp corners, we pass bikes with trailers carrying livestock, bikes overloaded with bananas, bikes carrying mom, dad, son, daughter and dog, and bikes transporting pigs in bamboo cages.

At a cost of about US$500 each, motorbikes are still the dominant transport in the country. Ho Chi Minh City is home to 4.5 million of them. But it’s not the safest form of transport in the world. In 2006, Vietnam’s road toll was 13,000.

Off the road, we see other signs of the Highlands’ industrial antiquity. Vietnam’s GDP has grown by an average of seven percent for each of the last five years and poverty has dropped from 51 percent to eight percent in 15 years, but while machines in China pump out textiles in seconds, women here weave silk sarongs and scarves by hand, spooling long threads on simple wooden frames while sitting on concrete floors.

In an age of mass production, women in these areas still cut bricks from wet clay with wire and mould them manually to shape and size before sending them to the kiln. A few kilometres away, a man breeding silkworms on a screen that occupies most of the floor space in a sparse two-roomed bungalow reminds us that though Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in January it is still very much Third World.

Night in the Highlands brings quiet. After enjoying an indigenous music performance by some of the local tribesmen and women at our resort — they changed out of their Nikes and into traditional hand-made clothes especially for the intimate audience — our guides retire with us to the lakeside bar for some beers. Urged on by the alcohol, Endy and Binh tell jokes of pudenda and wet dreams (which they call “sweat dreams”) and refer to the Water Closet as “Washington City”, much to their own delight. They show us how to snap a bill out from under an inverted beer bottle perched atop another bottle without sending them toppling.

The view of Lak Lake is calming, even if our guides’ laughter and now tiresome jokes are not. With due deference to the surroundings — the lake of lily-pads, the trees of jackfruit, the dark, cloudless night — Endy produces his cellphone, plonks it on the table and programs it to play a song. There amidst the tranquility of a spring evening in the quiet hills of central Vietnam, we are treated to a ringtone version of the Venga Boys’ 1998 hit single, ‘Boom Boom Boom’.