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.
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.
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.
Actually, I had more fun on the tree lined paths near the waterfalls, admiring the Fern Gully-like forest.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.