Vietnam has a unique, rich civilisation, beautiful scenery and warm people. It is home to 54 different ethnic groups and one of the best adventures you can have is to hire a motorbike and head off in search of this cultural diversity. From ancient temples to tree-lined French quarters, from vibrant hill tribes to fragrant teeming markets, Vietnam is anything but quiet and presents an unforgettable assault on the senses.
The Red River delta in the north, the Mekong Delta in the South and almost the entire coastal strip in Vietnam is filled with brilliant green rice paddies. This coastline also includes unspoiled beaches and lagoons. Between the two deltas lie mountains (which cover over 3/4 of the country), some of which are covered with rainforests as a result of trapped precipitation. The Central Highlands area is dotted with waterfalls.
The forests of Vietnam are thought to contain 12, 000 plant species of which only 7000 have been identified. It has an enormously diverse fauna with over many rare large mammals including the elephant, Javan rhino, tiger, leopard, black bear. Tragically Vietnam’s wildlife is in precipitous decline as forests have been destroyed and waterways polluted. In addition uncontrolled illegal hunting has exterminated the local populations of many species. There are over 100 recognised endangered species of animal and bird in Vietnam.
There are really no good or bad times to visit, because where there is rain and stifling heat, there is also usually cooler dry weather. In fact, the average temperature year round in cities like Ho Chi Minh averages over 30c (80f). Beware of cold winters in the North near the mountain ranges. Between July-November, Typhoons can develop along the eastern coast and can be very damaging, so it is prudent not to travel in this area during this time.
During the Tet New Year Festival in Late Jan/early Feb, unless you are desperate to go it should be avoided, as flights are fully booked and accommodation can almost impossible to find.
One of the real treats of visiting the Vietnam is to be able to sample the many delights of its cuisine, In fact, it is reckoned that there are over 500 national Vietnamese dishes from which to choose from. Although the food has adopted traces of Chinese and French influence, it has retained a unique taste. Fermented Fish sauce (nuoc mam), fresh vegetables, herbs and rice are found everywhere. Fish and seafood are also very common in many dishes. The good news for travellers is, unless you eat in exclusive hotels or restaurants, Vietnamese food is very reasonable. Expect to pay around $1 for street food, while you can feast at a café for as little as $5.
For the brave, there is a chance to try exotic meats such as shark, bat and seahorse, but many of these creatures are endangered. Recommended are banh trang (banh da in the north) – huge spring rolls filled with meats, vermicelli, mushroom, onion and eggs, and fried till golden brown.
Due to the large Buddhist tradition in the area, the Vietnamese have a long gastronomic tradition of cooking vegetarian food, which is very easy to find throughout the country.
Vietnamese coffee, grown in the Central Highlands, is known for its excellence, and for the brave of you a swig of rice wine with snake’s blood and various body parts will keep the adrenaline going!
Vietnam is a long thin country that stretches 1600km along the Indochinese peninsular. It is slightly larger than Italy but smaller than Japan. It has a population of 77 million making it the 13th most populous country in the world, and is home to a total of 54 ethnic groups including the Vietnamese themselves. Vietnam is the most populous country in Southeast Asia.
Among these ethnic groups the largest are the Tay,Tai H’mong, Jarai and Dao. Over 84% of the country is ethnically Vietnamese, 2% Ethnic Chinese.
Just 5 years ago 90% of the population were farmers. This figure has now dropped to 70% as the younger population leaves the farms to make their livelihood in the cities.
MOTORBIKING IN VIETNAM
Treks journey starts with a flight to Hanoi from where we ride north towards China for a trek into the mountains and a boat ride along the beautiful lakes of Ba Be National park in time for the Spring Festival.
Best Season: It is better to visit the northern area of Vietnam during the spring/ summer months, when there is less rainfall and warmer weather.
Best Sights: Travelling around the country by bike really makes you fell a part of the landscape. The varied colourful costumes of the different tribes are stunning to look at, whilst Ba Be National park has beautiful waterfalls and caves that stretch for miles through mountains.
Remember to Bring: Sunglasses and good head cover for boat journeys, when you are in the heat of the sun for hours. Also make sure you have all the relevant safety equipment for motorbike riding.
Watch out for: Dehydration.
BA BE NATIONAL PARK
Did you know…
• Ba Be National park covers 50,000 hectares of limestone tropical forest. The centre piece is the largest natural lake in Vietnam : 7km long and up to 30m deep.
• Puong cave in the park is 300m (1000 ft) long and has a river running all the way through it. It is a prime example of the fantastic limestone Karst formations that are a special feature of this area of Vietnam.
• There are several cave-dwelling communities found in the Northern hills area.
TREKKING FROM DALAT INTO THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS OF VIETNAM
Leaving the highlands of the North and catch a plane to Dalat, one of the most beautiful cities in Vietnam and a reminder of colonial grandness. From there it’s a trek through medicinal rainforests , then a bike ride along a section of the Ho Chi Minh trail, to join the elephant training Mnong tribe.
Lak Lake is surrounded by Mnong villages and early morning mists hang above the calm waters and mingle with the smoke from the longhouses. The lake can be explored by canoes which have been painstakingly hollowed out from tree trunks. One can stay overnight at Buon Juin – a Mnong village – where it is possible to watch the working elephants take their evening wallow in the lake. The Northern mountains of Vietnam represent the country at its most wild and inaccessible. It contains some of its most awe-inspiring scenery and a fascinating mosaic of hill tribes.
Did you know:
• Over 30 Hill tribes inhabit the northeasth area. Some such as the Odu, Romam and Brau are in serious danger of becoming extinct. The area is also one of Vietnam’s most biologically important areas and new species are still being discovered in the rainforests. Medicinal plants flourish.
• Dalat is a city in the European sense with a cathedral, a university and a royal history.
• The countryside surrounding Dalat is extremely fertile and a large variety of fruit and vegetables flourish in the cool mountain air, many of which are grown by the minorities. If you visit the market early morning it is a great opportunity to see them – especially subdivisions of the Khor – Tola, Baja, Lat, Nop and Ta Nhau. Many are extremely shy. The Khor sell custard apples whose leaves are crushed and then infused with hot water as a cure for malaria. Enormous carrots and marrows are for sale as well as fabulous flowers. You will also see people selling brown furry animal-like objects. These are cu ly and they are made from fern fibres which are used in traditional medicine to stop wounds bleeding.
• Dalat, the ‘city of love’ has always been a mecca for Vietnamese honeymooners. Dalat is situated on a plateau in the central highlands at an altitude of almost 1500m and has a population of 130,000. To the north are the volcanic peaks of the Lang Biang Mountains rising to 2,400m. The town itself is in a beautiful setting by a lake and surrounded by rolling countryside which is probably why the French chose it as a hill station where hot and flustered expats could escape the stifling lowland heat of Saigon. Thanks to a tacit agreement between Hanoi and Saigon during the war the city was not bombed and remains much as it was half a century ago
• It wasn’t just the French who chose to chill out in Dalat. Vietnam’s last Emporer Bao Dai had a summer palace here that made a great base for hunting trips in the surrounding countryside.
• A favourite past time of the locals is chewing betelnut – a stimulant that colours teeth red, makes them fall out, but makes you feel very lightheaded!
HO CHI MIN TRAIL
- Route 27 out of Dalat follows the old Ho Chi Minh Trail – the Viet Cong’s secret supply route linking the north and south. It was mostly a network of footpaths under the protective canopy of the jungle. The US bombed the living daylights out of the trail in a hopeless attempt to shut it down. The total tonnage of bombs dropped on the trail was greater than all the bombs dropped in WW2. They also dumped defoliants such as Agent Orange in an attempt to expose the trail.
- The last battle of the American war was fought in this area in March 1975.The road from Dalat to the above villages follows the old Ho Chi Minh trail and its easy to figure out why it was so tough for the Americans to spot the trail. Tucked high and deep in the Central highlands rugged and beautiful Truong Son Mountains, the road meanders with seemingly impassable switchbacks. It taxes the imagination to see how the Viet Cong were able to get anything down it, much less themselves.
- There is a thriving industry in re-cycled war scrap metal in Vietnam, particularly along the trail. The metal is principally sold to Japan where it is turned into cars which are then shipped to….you guessed it…the United States.
- The central highlands of Vietnam are home to anumber of Hill tribes that are descended from Malayo-Polynesians and Khmer. These are the aboriginal Indochinese people. They are commonly known as montagnards – a term coined by the French meaning mountain people. The Vietnamese know themm as Moi which means savage (nice). They refer to themselves as Dega which mean first people.
- One of the most tragic and little known consequences of the Vietnam war was the decimation and destruction it brought to the montagnards of the central highlands. By the war’s end 85% of their villages were either in ruins or abandoned. Over 200,000 mountain people died. The montagnards were recruited and trained by the CIA and US army to fight against the Viet Cong. This loyalty to the US has not endeared them to the communist government in power since 1975 and there have been accusations of severe ‘cultural leveling’ in this area. The montagnards have not been given access to medicine and have had their lands taken away from them. The Government has banned the teaching of their languages and forced them to marry Vietnamese in order to dilute and destroy their cultural heritage. It is feared by some that within 20 years their unique culture will have been totally wiped out.
THE MNONG TRIBE
• The Shamanistic-Anamanistic Mnong tribe have been famed elephant catchers for hundreds of years and although elephant populations are declining they still use them for their traditional role of dragging logs in the forest. The Mnong culture is closely linked to elephants. For instance they believe that drinking elephant urine has medicinal properties and so not a drop is wasted
• The Mnong live in houses built on stilts and like to drink alcohol from communal jars using pipes. Matriarchy is observed and the children take the family name of the mother. They believe in the existence of many spirits which are related to their life. One such spirit is mother rice which holds a special role. The Mnong file their teeth before marriage.
• Yok Don National Park is home to the rarely seen Asian Tiger, leopard wild elephants and buffalo. It is also home to the rare white elephant.
• Elephant facts: the tip of an elephant’s trunk is 10 times as sensitive as your fingertips. The trunk has over 100,000 muscles in it – the human body has just 639 in total. Elephants produce enough methane gas every day to fuel a car for 20 hours. In its lifetime the average elephant walks the equivalent of 14 times around the planet. At night elephants cover them selves in mud to protect them from insects (and wash off in morning).
• The Mnong are famous for catching and taming wild elephants which are then used as beasts of burden.
• All Mnong have a nickname according to how many elephants he has caught.
• The night before a hunt the Mnong cannot have sex
• The Mnong perform a ritual with the special rope used to catch the elephant.
• 100km north of Lak Lake is another option for elephant antics – Ban Don village which lies in close proximity to Yok Don National Park. This village has a long tradition of taming the forest’s elephants and you can visit the tomb of Khun Ju-Nop, known as the king elephant catcher who died in 1924. Each man in the village has a nickname according to the number of elephants he has caught. In Darlac (where?) there are 500 elephants which have been domesticated and are used to hunt wild ones. Visitors to the village will often be invited to drink from a communal jar and following copious rice wine there is likely to be an impromptu musical performance using gongs.
The Mnong live in stilt long houses – inside many things hang from the walls to dry – food such as frog, lizard and snake. After a birth in the family the placenta will be hung up to dry which is considered a powerful remedy for rheumatic problems.
• Fewer than 100 elephants are remaining in the wild. Once trained, an elephant lives up to 40 years with its trainer.
main image: “Sapa, Vietnam” by Nathan O’Nions