The Ultimate Easy Rider Central Highlands Road Trip
There’s something about the open road and motorbikes. And there’s a little bit more something about motorbike touring in Vietnam’s lush and exotic Central Highlands.
The Central Highlands encompasses the well-known tourist hotspot of Dalat, as well as a series of smaller and lesser-known places like Lak Lake, Buon Ma Thuot, Pleiku and Kon Tum.
Each of these places have their own charm and appeal.
Lak Lake is home to Vietnam’s former elephant hunters, the M’nong, who have given up the hunting to specialise in lakeside elephant rides for tourists.
Buon Ma Thuot is known as Vietnam’s coffee capital.
Pleiku, which uses the former U.S. air base as its domestic airport, is a thriving country town, while its near neighbour Kon Tum is a sleepy riverside village that’s home to many ethnic minority groups.
It is possible to self drive through the region … if you have a Vietnamese motorbike drivers license.
But after my self-driving experience in the Mekong Delta (details still to come), I decided the best way to do my fast and dirty guidebook travels through Vietnam’s Central Highlands was for someone else to do the driving for me. That way they, not me, could worry about the dearth of signage, the inaccuracies of printed and online maps, and roadworks, because there are always roadworks in Vietnam.
You may remember I had an only-OK Easy Rider experience in Dalat last year. This time round, on a multi-day trip, I really wanted a great Easy Rider, who could understand my non-touristy needs and be a good companion for several days.
Mr Hung was recommended. Mr Hung, I was told, is a friend of one of Darling Man’s Dalat cousins. A guy I’d met, apparently, in Dalat, when I was tired and cranky and had the sun in my eyes, a baby strapped to my chest and a demanding four-year-old pulling one arm while Darling Man stopped to have a yak with someone or other in Vietnamese without explaining to me what was going on.
Once this somewhat dubious family connection was pointed out to me, I had little choice but to put my career in Mr Hung’s hands. I flew to Dalat airport to meet him for a five-day hard and fast tour of the Central Highlands. No ordinary tour, mind you, because I needed to skip a lot of the fun stuff in order to inspect hotels, eating places and bus stations. This guide book writing is tres glamorous, I tell you.
On the flight to Dalat I realised I hadn’t packed sunscreen. I was very much aware that as a lily-white Australian of Scottish and Irish descent, five days in the sun without sunscreen could kill me. I was also very much aware that outside of the hip and cosmopolitan tourist areas of Vietnam, sunscreen would not be available.
Improvisation saved the day and, wrapped up like the ancient mummy that I am, I straddled Mr Hung’s enormous bike and set off to explore the items on my heavily researched list. Some of these items, I discovered, were really not worth exploring at all.
As is often the case in Vietnam, meeting the locals is much more entertaining, enlightening and fun than stopping off at some of the must-see points recommended by tour operators and guidebooks.
For five days, I sat on the back of Mr Hung’s motorbike and buzzed through the most amazing scenery. The windy backroads of the Central Highlands are the highlight of any motorbike tour of the region.
When I suffered an attack of what Mr Hung called “elephant bum”, a condition brought on by too many hours of one’s rear end bumping around on the back of a motorbike, we pulled over to eat, talk to the locals, drink coffee or check out the local attractions.
Most Easy Rider customers are budget travelers, backpackers or flashpackers, who want to keep their costs to a minimum. Mr Hung, like most of the Easy Riders that take tourists through the Central Highlands, has his standard list of budget places to eat and sleep.
In fact, there’s usually an Easy Rider hotel in each of the towns. You’ll be able to tell which one it is because there’ll be a bunch of big-arse motorbikes parked out front.
To keep my costs down, I was happy to stay in the usual Easy Rider places. But for my guidebook I also had to check out some upmarket options. This was a learning experience for both of us, and we really did find some gems.
My route, which I wouldn’t really recommend as a five-day trip because it was far too rushed, went a little something like this:
* Dalat Airport to Chicken Village, an ethnic minority township near Dalat (not recommended)
* Chicken Village to Elephant Falls
* Elephant Falls to Lak Lake
* Lak Lake to Buon Ma Thuot
* Buon Ma Thuot to Kon Tum (bypassing Pleiku)
* Kon Tum to Pleiku (backtracking to Pleiku so I could fly home to spend the weekend with the kids).
A much more enjoyable route would have been:
* Dalat airport to Dalat for a couple of days of exploring
* Dalat to Lak Lake
* Lake Lake to Buon Ma Thuot
* Buon Ma Thout to Pleiku
* Pleiku to Kon Tum for a couple of days of trekking to hill tribe villages
* Kon Tum to Quy Nhon, an off-the-radar beach town midway between Nha Trang and Hoi An
For a more upmarket-than-usual trip, I’d recommend:
* staying at Van Long Motel (not the longhouse) at Lak Lake and eating at Duc May Cafe in the street behind;
* living it up at the four-star HAGL Hotel in Pleiku, owned by Vietnam’s richest man;
* staying at Life’s a Beach just outside Quy Nhon.
To stay in these places, you’ll have to either negotiate a higher-than-usual day rate with your Easy Rider or agree to pay your and your driver’s accommodation separately to the daily rate.
Staying in the usual Easy Rider hotels will mean you’ll pay between US$60 and US$85 per day for a multi-day tour. When negotiating, check whether the rates being quoted include hotels and food.
After five days on the road with Mr Hung, I couldn’t recommend this former teacher highly enough as an Easy Rider guide. He was knowledgeable, professional, humorous and insightful.
To contact Mr Hung, call 01647 293 997 within Vietnam or +84 1647 293 997 from outside Vietnam. He can organise other drivers to take couples or larger groups out Easy Riding around Dalat and through the Central Highlands. It’s also possible to hire Mr Hung to lead a tour for those who want to self-drive, or even go by private car.
I fell head-over-heels in love with Kon Tum during this trip and can’t wait to take Darling Man and the kids there for an extended stay. There was just something about the friendly locals, the laid-back vibe, the rolling hills, the misty mornings, the crisp air, the longhouses, the engine oil-thick coffee, and the super-cute Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs.
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5 years ago