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Off the beaten track - Dalat to Hoi An

VIETNAM | Monday, 28 May 2007 | Views [2879]

Who says smoking will kill you? 80 years old and out to get firewood, Muong Hill Tribe Village, Central Highlands

Who says smoking will kill you? 80 years old and out to get firewood, Muong Hill Tribe Village, Central Highlands

The open bus system in Vietnam makes it too easy and get locked into the tourist route. After spending the last 5 days on the back of a motorbike exploring the central highlands and the Ho Chi Minh trail, I'm so glad we resisted the temptation to take the cheap option and miss out on seeing the real Vietnam.

Easy Riders Mui and Rocky, were our knowledgeable, though at times overly talkative, guides to some of the beautiful scenery we have yet to experience on our trip. Verdant coffee, pepper, and rubber plantations, fields of cassava and pineapples, steaming virgin jungle interlaced with waterfalls, glistening rice paddies and smiling hill tribes people were our surroundings for the five day trip from Dalat to Hoi An.

Travelling along some of the many branches of the Ho Chi Minh trail we walked along sections of the original trail, saw old bomb craters in the middle of people's pineapple crops, abandoned airstrips, and hill ranges still denuded of vegetation courteousy of Agent Orange. Communist victory monuments were everywhere.

Our food was another experience in itself. Apart from being insanely cheap we sampled everything from pigeon rice porridge to weasel. The coup de grace would have to be the barbequed 'milky wild sow breast' - mmm rubbery! Another night whilst enjoying a tasty 'goat hot pot' the chef marched in the front door of the restaurant with a freshly skinned billy goat over his shoulder and proceeded to slice and dice the carcass on the table next to ours for the next hour... nice!

We stopped beside the road atching people do everything from producing Cassava startch, to drying cashews and pepper and smashing bark of trees to use for making adhesives. Adhesive which we discovered, while watching a skilled young girl mechanically roll out stick after stick, is used to make incense bind together. We saw the silk making process from the worm feeding beginning, through the cooking and spinning middle to the weaving and tailoring end.

The road link along this section of the Ho Chin Minh trail was only completed 2 years ago, so it has yet to fall victim to mass tourism. As such, many of the locals in the villages we stopped in had only seen white people on TV before. When we rocked up on the back of a motorbike kids and teenage girls screamed and ran over to us in histerics, crowding us to shake our hand and 'talk' to us to shake our hands. It was a bizaire feeling to be treated ike a rockstar. While it was not quite rockstar material, our audience joined in with our classy renditions of 'Heads shoulders knees and toes' and 'the wishy washer woman'.

As well as providing access for tourists, the nes road has provided excellent access for many of the hill tribes to makes a few extra Dong smuggling out timber and other protected jungle products. We arrived at one villige just ast they putting the last couple of illeglly milled hardwood slabs on the truck. The local Forestry checkpoint officer had received the appropriate backhander and it was payday for the villagers. "Our country is the best at corruption" stated Mui proudly. "Unfortunately, it will be poorer because of it" I replied in resigned disbelief. At the Forestry checkpoint, hundreds of tonnes of confiscated wood slabs lay scattered along the roadside. How many hundreds more had gone through is anyone's guess.

Don't get me wrong, the hill tribes have a hard life and they do these things because they can get away with it and to survive. In one village we met an 80 year old woman who was heading out with her backpack on an 8 km round trip to get firewood (about 20 kg worth!). In another village we talked to two women in their early thirties with 4 kids each. They told us that in the months before their babies are born, they had to work extra hard to stockpile enough firewood so that they didn't have to go out and gather any for a couple of weeks after the baby was born. They still had to cook and clean and look after all the other kids mind you as well as the newborn.

We had an amazing time and fully recommend spending the bit extra to do a trip like this through the Central Highlands, away from the mass tourism of the open bus system and the hill tribe tours in Northern Vietnam/Laos/Thailand. Pick your guide carefully though. Five days with a know-it-all can do your head in a bit.

Tags: Adventures


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