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The Easy Riders of modern Vietnam

Coming off an Easy Riders adventure is not unlike coming off a drug. The pushy sales tactics and cat calling of locals in the tourist ghetto of Hoi An grate your nerves. Everything compares against the unforgetable real thing: the easy smile of a chiseled women carrying a superhuman load of bamboo in a handwoven basket-cum-backpack over a ramshakle bridge, children attacking you with exploratory fingers that pinch to check if you are real, setting around a comforting stove with brighteyed hilltribe people who laugh heartily at just your presence. The Easy Rider’s close encounters with Vietnam make the tourist trudge on Highway 1 a hard comedown. 

A chopstick factory family

Barely past our first picturesque rolling hill, we peel into the slow-paced home of a Viet Cong admiral. An old war picture hangs on the dilapidated wall of his boxy concrete home, a colorful centerpiece in the dusty, grey living space . Five children hover around the weathered man at work. He weaves around three straw baskets per day, each one selling for 20,000 dong (US$1.25). This work supplements his ten dollar per month government stipend. He welcomes a break to half-heartedly pour us tea. The family hovers around his past glory and seems happy that visitors have come to talk about it.

A loose collection of guides on Honda Bonus 125 motorcycle formed almost ten years ago. They gained a reputation for their honest, penetrating tours of Vietnam as it is- a glimpse of how the rural majority live hard and laugh loud in a rapidly recovering country. The Easy Rider’s filled a necessary hole in the freshly opened Vietnamese travel scene. The first tourists, however intrepid, were funneled along a prescribed path from steamy Saigon, up Highway 1 to Hanoi. The travel community was crying out for independent adventures that leave the creature comforts behind and gave an honest look into a country they knew had a rich, dark history and strong character. Guidebooks applied pressure to the motorcycle avengers in 2003 for a catch-all name, and they were donned the Easy Riders after the American movie by the same title. The guides meet roughly once a year for a sort of quality control. They need to make sure that all of the Easy Riders live up to the original mantra- lots of personality, genuine care of the guests, not another tourist in sight, interaction with local people and an honest rendering of Vietnamese history.  There are now 74 Easy Riders.  

raking coffee beans

The third day, a random picture stop in a coffee producing area about 45 miles north of Buon Ma Thout leads to a once-in-a-lifetime encounter. 70-year-old Gin gave birth to 14 children from her tiny, solid frame.  She was from Hanoi, but relocated- like so many other people- and given land by the government when there was not enough food in Hanoi to feed her family. She moved with some of her fellow villagers and five of her children, but her life remains divided. She tells us that she misses the husband and life she left behind, and will go back to die with him when her grandchildren are grown. It is a breath-taking sight, the withered, tough spirit raking coffee beans against the backdrop of a fertile valley. She is profoundly alone and ecstatic to see us.

Undoubtedly, the biking experience and landscape are second to the Easy Riders themselves. Binh Dunhill is the leader of the pack. He is gangly and good-natured, always wearing conspicuously clean white despite racing through the mud all day. He was born on the southern Mekong Delta and trained as a doctor. In the war, he was a pilot in the American  Air Force. When the South was “liberated”, Dunhill also managed to survive a “reeducation” camp. 

Herr Binh

Herr Binh, as we called him, had an almost European face and demeanor. He wears a tan leather bomber jacket and little reading glasses. A northerner, he was born outside of Hanoi and went to school for architecture. When he graduated from school, no one had the materials or resources to build his designs and the Communist government had little respect for his trade. He was forced to join the Northern army in a little publicized six-year clash with China. The government did recognize his intelligence, and sent him to then Communist Berlin to study industrial chemicals. When the Wall came down, he was again left with a skill and no use for it. A highly skilled man, he spent the following years doing menial labor, like selling fruits and vegetable before meeting up with the Easy Riders crew.

We pass rows and rows of eerily perfect rows of rubber trees. The government made an imitative for the production of rubber in the formerly bombed countryside. First, they confiscate the land, predominated from ethnic hilltribe people. Then, they employ local farmers, taking a percentage of profits. Local people say that they promise to sell out to the private sector after a while.

more raking coffee beans

Some completely earth-toned, mud caked boys materialize out of the linear rows to gawk and laugh for around twenty minutes while our guide explains the situation. He tells us that it was the first time they had ever seen foreign people.

We made it Kon Tum and my life took on new light tonight. I was fed chocolate by both Viet Cong member and a Southern bomber pilot. Hello, post-modern world.

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