Cruising Vietnam’s Central Highlands: Part Two

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Day 2:
We started our ride early the next morning, the air still chilly from the night. Our first stop was a minority village near the lake, a small community that resides in wooden stilt houses with their livestock living underneath.
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As we left the Lak Lake area, we drove through a large valley that was bordered on the east by Chu Yanh Sinh National Park. With the mountains disappearing into the mist on my right, we drove past workers farming the rice fields. I exchanged waves with the workers and many children who were riding in the back of trucks and tractors. Everyone we passed greeted me with a smile as we cruised by neon green rice paddies.

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That afternoon, Lok took me off the main road and drove into the thick forest to visit a few waterfalls. The areas at the bottom of the waterfalls are usually great for swimming. Unfortunately because of recent rainfall, it was too dangerous to swim in, but that also meant that the waterfalls were at their most powerful. ez rider Oct 2013-275
Actually, I had more fun on the tree lined paths near the waterfalls, admiring the Fern Gully-like forest.
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When we stopped for lunch, Lok turned to me asking, “You like big snakes?” Replying “yes”, (maybe a little too quickly), we walked around the corner of the restaurant to a large cage. Before I knew it, this man was taking a six foot long python out of its cage and draping it over my shoulders. It was strange and bit unnerving, but nonetheless a hilarious lunch time activity.

I think my face says it all

I think my face says it all


That evening we drove into the small city of Buôn Ma Thuột, the capital of the central highlands and notably the mecca for delicious Vietnamese coffee. Lok and I ate dinner at a street stall, and after I walked the area around my hotel. Buon Ma Thout is not on the tourist trail just yet, but a ridiculous amount of identical mini hotels have been constructed, seemingly waiting for the tourists to rush in one day. I bought some pineapple cake at a local bakery and a can of 333 beer and spent the rest of the evening on my hotel room balcony enjoying the quiet night.
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Day 3: The concluding day of our trip was met again with a clear sky. I was shocked we had evaded rain for the entire trip; something I figured was bound to happen at least once. We headed out of Buôn Ma Thuột but not without trying some local coffee first, of course. In Vietnam, the coffee is served alongside hot green tea, in a small glass with sweetened condensed milk at the bottom which is then mixed into the black coffee. This is called “café sua”, coffee with milk, or white coffee on most menus. The sweet creamy milk balances out the robust coffee perfectly. I pretty much fell in love with Vietnamese coffee as soon as I stepped into the country.
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We drove east towards the coast and my final destination, Nha Trang. We spent most of the day on major roads and highways which didn’t have the same scenic splendor of the past two days.
The last stretch of our ride took us east until we hit the coastal road and drove south into the resort town of Nha Trang. It was the first time in three days I saw foreigners, and I soon came to realize that Nha Trang was overloaded with them. Lok dropped me at my hostel and we said a quick goodbye.
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I was sad to see our time come to an end, after three days we had spent many silent hours together while Lok showed me his country with pride. I was introduced to a side of Vietnam I would have never seen otherwise, and to a man who I was humbled to spend time with.
Lok and I come from very different worlds, and very different times. Barely scraping 4″10, he would light up a cigarette and recount the battles he fought nearby. He was modest, never acknowledging his bravery. “In Vietnam, we have no choice. We have to join army,” he would tell me. Lok was only 17 when he was drafted to the Vietnamese army. He fought with the South, against the Communist North. 7 years of his life were spent in the dense jungle with American GIs, helping them survive in the harsh environment. He told me stories of the war and would conclude with chuckle and one of his favorite English lines, “Oh, so crazy!” (in an accent reminiscent of Cheech Marin).
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Those three days I cruised through Central Vietnam with Lok were definitely a highlight of my trip. Because of Saigon and Hanoi being located in the far south and north of the country, the Central Highlands is often overlooked by tourists. I would encourage anyone visiting Vietnam to visit Da Lat, or at least a part of the Central Highlands. It’s a journey that I won’t soon forget, and I’m thankful I had the chance to get to know not only Vietnam, but one of its greatest people.
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Cruising Vietnam’s Central Highlands: Part One

As soon as I got to Vietnam I was already looking forward to something different from the typical bus tours and day trips. Saigon was fun but it was lacking something. I wanted to get out of the city as soon as possible. After two days, I got on a bus and headed north to Da Lat, a tiny city in the Central Highlands. I found Da Lat to be quiet and kind of quirky in a European sense, it didn’t seem very Vietnamese at all.
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I liked walking the windy roads and getting lost, and I soon found myself chatting with a motorcycle guide about doing a tour. Da Lat is well known as a base for doing an Easy Rider tour because of its close proximity to the mountains of central Vietnam. You can take a tour for just one day or as long as ten and travel to multiple places throughout Vietnam. I knew that the next stop for me was going to be the beach town a few hours away and I didn’t want to miss out on the scenery while sitting inside a bus.

The guide who I chatted with was an older gentleman donning a bright blue members only type jacket with “Dalat Easy Riders Club” emblazoned on the back. He was the real deal. He showed me book after book of handwritten testimony from past customers who raved about him and their tour. It was going to be pricey but it was going to be unforgettable (I hoped). I excitedly signed up for a 3 day 2 night tour and early the next morning my guide, Lok, arrived to pick me up for our adventure.

Day 1: Da Lat to Lak Lake
I was apprehensive about being on the back of a motorcycle, they scare me and driving on cliff-side roads gives me anxiety. But Lok was a pro, he had been doing this for over 20 years I would find out later, and he made me feel safe almost immediately. We drove out of Da La city and into the countryside, where the hill and mountainsides are covered in crops more common to Europe than Southeast Asia.
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Thanks to the cooler climate and the French colonization, the Da Lat area grows vastly different crops than the rest of Vietnam. Pine trees grow alongside palms and coffee plantations neighbor strawberry farms. The cool air and the smell of pines reminded me of Fall in New Jersey and immediately turned me into one of the Highland biggest fans.
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Da Lat' mountainous farmland

We zig-zagged over mountains and across small towns. Every so often, Lok would pull over saying “okay, you get off here”, and show me various crops and farms and teach me about the Vietnamese farming culture. We saw farms of curry, black pepper, coffee, indigo, and rubber trees. We walked the property of a family owned farm to see the coffee, rice, and pigs that they depended on for income.

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Every single household in this region had turned their front lawn into a micro farm of some sort. The boxy cement houses were surrounded by stalks of corn or pepper, coffee trees, and other plants. If they didn’t grow their own crops, the house paired to another type of industry, whether it was brick making or making rice noodles and drying them in the sun. I was not surprised to read that the ancient Vietnamese were some of the earliest farmers. Although the French brought various crops and modern advancements, the people have always worked and lived off their land.
rice noodles drying in the sun
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The weather was my definition of perfection: clear blue skies, and cool enough that I was comfortable in long sleeves on the motorcycle. I was thankful not to be under the hot roasting sun that I’ve come to know in this part of the world. The end of the first day brought us to a small lakeside town named “Lak Lake”. We arrived at the guesthouse just in time to walk down the road to the lake and catch the sunset. Local kids were hanging out by the lake; this was Friday night, after all. I watched the sun go down over the quiet lake, with the Annamite Mountains in the distance.
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A group of teenage girls came walking down the road, and one of them asked if she can talk with me and practice her English. I invited them to join me and learned the girl’s name was Vy. She was 17 years old, a high school student and volleyball player in Lak Lake. I chatted with her for a while, and Vy old me how she loved the quietness of the lakeside town she calls home. We said our goodbyes eventually and I made my way back to the guesthouse, ready to start another day exploring the magnificent countryside.
Vy and her friends

Discovering Angkor

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On my first full day in Siem Reap, I headed to the world famous Angkor Wat and spent the day exploring the ancient ruins and temples. This region of Cambodia known as Angkor was once the seat of the Khmer Empire, a Hindu kingdom that ruled from the 9th to 15th centuries. The Khmer kings were known by many powerful names like “god-king”, “lion-man”, and universal monarchs. The architecture that was constructed during under Khmer rule are sprawling and magnificent; fit for nothing less than a “god-king”.

Because of the sheer size and number of archeological sights to visit at Angkor, you need to start your day with the sun in order to fit it all in and not faint from heat exhaustion. Located about 15 minutes outside of Siem Reap town, the temples are best reached by hired tuk-tuk driver who will be your personal driver all day for about $15 USD.

I headed out at seven a.m. and was happy to see that the day was hazy but not rainy, ideal weather for exploring outdoor temples in the heat. After purchasing a ticket and temple pass for $20 USD, the first and most anticipated stop is the principal temple of the region, Angkor Wat. Built around 1113, it’s easy to see why this is one of the most famous religious monuments in the world, not to mention the largest religious structure in the world.

Approaching the temple is like approaching the Eiffel Tower. You crane your neck to see it as you’re turning the corner, but nothing can prepare you for the actual sight. This temple is absolutely massive, it’s surrounded by walls on all sides as well as a giant moat and was once enclosed by another outer wall that occupied a space of 203 acres. Talk about massive!

Because of my early arrival at the temple, I was able to explore the grounds mostly alone. It’s easy to get lost in there, the hallways that encompass the central tower go on forever; I must’ve only seen about 50% of the temple in two hours. The imposing structure is built of sandstone and is a classical example of Khmer architecture. Towers are shaped like lotus buds, bas-reliefs cover the walls depicting ancient scenes, with vaulted archways similar to ones used in Gothic structures.

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There are many other sights to visit within the Angkor grounds, and it’s easy to spend an entire day exploring. Ta Phrom is a smaller temple, yet it is still large and sprawling. Dense jungle has grown around and literally through this temple fusing the natural and the man made. There are literally huge trees that have engulfed parts of the temple walls and grown upward towards the jungle canopy.

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You can walk amongst the ruins here and get lost in the maze of corridors that sometimes end abruptly from the roof caving in.  I loved the ruined feel of this sight and how it’s located deep in the jungle. Walking through it made me feel like I was the first person to explore the temple, just like Indiana Jones. Ta Phrom made its big screen debut in 2001’s “Tomb Raider” film starring Angelina Jolie, which is how it’s known today.

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Another well known sight is Angkor Thom, which was one of my favorites. It was the capital city during reign of King Jayavaman. The temple that lies at the center of this sight is known as Bayon Temple.  Because of my late morning timing at this temple, it was literally mobbed with tourists who arrived by the busload. I tried to ignore the hordes of people but it soon became overwhelming as I could hardly take two steps and not bump into someone. The most unique feature of the Bayon are the  200 “face towers” that are located on the top level. These massive stone faces silently watch over the 1 million tourists that visit Angkor every year.

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I really liked the details that are present at the Bayon Temple. The walls are carved with historical scenes from ancient Angkor, from battles to everyday life in the city.

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After wandering through the temples for the better part of the day, it was safe to say I was templed out, hungry, and dehydrated. The skies turned dark around the fourth or fifth temple, so I decided to call it a day and head to the nearest restaurant. The temple tour finished with a fruit shake and famous Cambodian curry fish amok, which was served in a large coconut.

I would love to see Angkor again in my lifetime, it’s almost too much to internalize in a single trip. What I would love most is to visit with my Dad, who is a history buff and was most excited for me to see the temples. If you are ever in Southeast Asia, take the time to go to Siem Reap and visit the Angkor Temples, I don’t think there is anything like it in the world… and you can fulfill your childhood dream of pretending to be Indiana Jones for one day.