Looking for a little adventure, Paul Hellweg heads to Da Lat, where he meets up with three founding members of the original Da Lat Easy Riders. Photo by Fred Wissink.
“Head out on the highway looking for adventure,” implores Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’, the song that opens the classic American 1969 movie, Easy Rider. A little adventure on the highway is what two friends and I sought when we booked a motorbike tour with three members of Da Lat’s famous Easy Riders. There are over 20 groups calling themselves the genuine Easy Riders, but we lucked out and managed to hook up with three founding members of the original group. I’d always thought the Da Lat Easy Riders had been inspired by the movie. That isn’t the case, but I soon discovered their story does have much in common with the film’s themes.
We arranged a two-day tour up to Lak Lake in Dak Lak province and back to Da Lat. Our guides enthusiastically showed us the mainstays of the local economy, making stops at places that produce weasel coffee, silk fabric, rice wine, cashew nuts, and mushrooms. It was an informative trip, but not particularly adventurous. We did, however, eventually get a little of the latter. While stopped for breakfast in a remote M’nong village, I was startled by the sudden shattering of breaking glass and a collapsing brick wall. Being from southern California, at first I thought it was an earthquake. I was relieved to see it was only an elephant crashing into the café. Our three guides nonchalantly continued with their breakfast as if pachyderm intrusions were everyday occurrences. Jack Nicholson wasn’t there to express an opinion one way or the other, but I like to believe he would’ve maintained his cool too.
Easy Rider endures as the iconic symbol of the 1960s because it reflects the then-current social issues and tensions in the United States. Obviously much of the 60s unrest was a direct result of the war America was waging in Vietnam. Suffice it to say the 60s were a period of social upheaval in Vietnam, too, and the Da Lat Easy Riders are a byproduct of that era. All but three of the founding members are veterans of the American War. The group’s founder and leader, Phan The Hien, was a former officer in the Saigon army and an interpreter for the US 101st Airborne Division.
In the years directly following the war, Vietnamese society experienced significant transformations, and — for various reasons — not everyone adapted immediately. Everything changed in 1991, the year economic renovation took hold in Vietnam. According to the historian Douglas Pike, more economic and social progress took place that year than in the preceding 15. The push to collectivise agriculture and industry was abandoned. The reforms encouraged international investment and included a new reliance on the private sector to fuel economic growth. The door to free enterprise was opened. And so it was that in 1991, 16 unemployed ex-soldiers and teachers banded together to form the Easy Riders.
They were all friends prior and they did not name their new enterprise — that happened later, when the author of the Lonely Planet guidebook referred to them as the Easy Riders. The name stuck. Hien says he has seen the movie and likes the allusion, thus the name endures. Of the 16 original members, 12 are still actively guiding. They are older than many of their imitators, but this is a case where age is an advantage. All 12 were born in Da Lat, and they have greater knowledge of the area and more experience guiding than their younger competitors.
On our tour, my friends and I had our wanderlust satiated as we raced in the wind up Route 27. We were taken to the requisite tourist attractions to the north of Da Lat, including the majestic Elephant Falls. That was on the first day, and little did we know that elephants were to become the leitmotif of our tour. Other than the unexpected breakfast encounter, we saw a number of elephants in and around the M’nong village. There are still wild elephants in nearby forests, but we only saw domesticated ones. They were formerly used for agriculture, but now most spend their days lugging around tourists.
This was my second visit to Da Lat, and the first time I went with an organised-tour horde. I prefer the personalised approach of the Easy Riders. There’s a lot of appeal in having a say about where to go and what to eat. And what better way is there to learn more about the era of the American War, then through the people who lived it?
Contact details for the original Easy Riders can be found at Easyridertrip.com.