Words and Photos by Helen Abramson
As someone who grew up in a household with pet lizards and thus spent my childhood cowering under the duvet with the sound of escaped crickets ringing in my ears, I feel distressingly uneasy entering a room full of thousands of the chirping little critters.
My agitation grows as I’m served a plate of them, freshly fried. Crunching down suspiciously on a small one smothered in chilli sauce, I wince at the peculiar texture as the spindly legs snap in my teeth.
The body is much meatier than I expected though, and actually rather flavourful. I find myself reaching for a couple more, despite how grossed out I am.
We’re at the beginning of a two-day cycle from the hill station of Da Lat in southern Vietnam’s highlands down to the coastal resort of Mui Ne, 170km away.
The majority of the route is downhill and on country roads, though we’ve been warned about a couple of steep uphills, and we’ve got a van trailing us in case of emergencies.
Overall it sounds straightforward enough, and I’m pretty convinced that nothing much can go wrong… until our guide’s chain snaps a whole ten minutes into the ride.
My boyfriend and I are riding brand new, shiny 27-gear Giants with excellent suspension, but our guide, Cuong, has been landed with a much older model.
Fortunately, as we were so near town, he was able to nip back quickly to the bike shop to exchange it while we stopped to enjoy our crunchy luncheon.
While we wait for Cuong’s return, our van driver and owner of the adventure tour operator, Duan, proudly explains how we’re missing out on exotic party snacks back home: “We normally eat crickets with beer. People brings them to parties, and sometimes butterflies or worms as well.”
I nod in approval, but have to admit I’m probably more of a peanuts-and-crisps kind of girl.
The region around Da Lat, at an elevation of 1,500–2000m, remains cooler than much of the rest of the country year-round, and as such almost every inch of land is used for various kinds of farming.
It also means the conditions aren’t too unpleasant for cycling, though I’m acutely aware that the further we descend, the hotter it will get.
Guns n’ Roses
Farmers migrated here from Hanoi in the late 1970s, after the Americans were finally driven out by the guns of the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong, allowing the country to become unified and independent.
My agitation grows as I’m served a plate of crickets, freshly fried.
Flower farms are the first thing we notice – as far as the eye can see lie rows and rows of colour in makeshift plastic-and-tarpaulin greenhouses. “These roses”, Cuong says, pointing to some perfect white blooms, “cost around 25 cents here, but once exported to Japan they’re preserved and last for at least three years. Then they’re sold for as much as $20 each.”
I withdraw my hand swiftly from fiddling with the velvety petals of a nearby flower, not looking to see how much I’ve damaged it.
We jump back on our bikes and make our way down a hillside on a well-tarmacked, surprisingly wide road with a steep drop-off.
Once we’re down and through to flatter countryside, countless fields of bright-red strawberries, a regional speciality, whizz by, as well as dozens of other farms, with Cuong yelling just-audibly, “Mango! Black pepper! Artichoke! Jack fruit!” at us as we pass the multi-coloured patches of land.
This is the home of the Koho people, one of 54 legally recognised ethnic-minority groups in Vietnam, each with their own language and cultural heritage. Unlike the nation’s Buddhist majority, the Koho are mostly Catholic, and the men stay at home while the women work.
But it’s not just that which sets them apart – the older generation don’t speak Vietnamese at all. Although these days children are taught it in school as a second language, which has opened things up a bit.
We stop at a rice wine factory, where we’re shown the remarkably simple process of making it. Cooked rice is fermented in barrels for about three days, after which it’s boiled in vast cylinders.
The steam is condensed, collected, and diluted – and there you have it. We try a tiny sip of the undiluted variety, which is about 60–65% alcohol, and it burns my mouth off.
Weasel Poo is a Delicacy?
We’re barely back on the bikes before we’re off again to explore a weasel-poo coffee farm. I’ve been looking forward to trying this bizarre Vietnamese speciality for some time, and intrigued to see whether the product matches up to the hype.
As the world’s second-largest coffee exporter, Vietnam takes its beans very seriously. The exported variety tends to be pretty low-grade and usually used for instant coffee, but within the country it’s a different story.
Coffee is almost always filtered slowly through a single-cup dispenser, and what drips through is thick, slightly sweet and very rich.
Weasels eat coffee beans then excrete them whole, adding richness to your cup of coffee. At least that’s the idea…
Weasel coffee, or cà phê Chồn, is reputed to be the cream of the caffeinated crop, so I’ve got high hopes, despite how nauseating the method of extraction sounds. Weasels have a penchant for coffee berries and are naturally disposed to pick out the ones containing the choicest coffee beans.
The berries are digested but the beans are excreted whole, with added richness and depth of flavour. At least that’s the idea…
Farmers then dry the beans out, clean them up (thankfully) and roast them. The final product is preposterously expensive, at around $90 per 100g, but Duan explains why: “It takes 22kg of normal coffee to make just 1kg of this, and of course it’s a lot more work.” I buy a cup of it for a very reasonable $2.75, and it doesn’t let me down.
It’s wonderfully rich, preposterously thick and rather chocolaty. It also feels like I’ve had 22 times as much caffeine as from a regular cup, leaving me merrily buzzing for hours.
Think I’ll Go And Eat Worms
It’s not even lunchtime yet on our first morning and we’ve still got plenty more to see before we eat. Silk is big business in Vietnam, where there are tailors on every street corner.
Yet again there’s a less-than-pretty process in order to create a fine product. Silkworms fed on mulberries produce the best silk.
The white slightly fluffy cocoons are immersed in boiling water, which kills the larvae. The white strands of silk that make up the cocoons are released and unravelled on spindles before being wound onto reels and woven into cloth.
Naturally, the dead larvae are then fried and eaten.
I admire this attitude to cutting down on waste, and force myself to try a grub. Its gooey texture is a tad unnerving, and the flavour is nutty and slightly bitter. It doesn’t taste as good as the crickets, but I’m pleasantly surprised.
About 30km southwest of Da Lat we stop at Elephant Falls, where water thunders down a 30m drop onto huge rocks which allegedly look like the waterfall’s namesake, though I’m not convinced.
Our final cultural stop is a very quick peek into Linh Ăn Tư Pagoda, flanked by stone dragons and typically placed on top of a hill with a good view of the surrounding arable countryside. From here on in, it’s time to focus on cycling, sweating, rehydrating and eating.
Lunch includes dodgy-looking squiggly pigs intestines…
Lunch is a mixture of shared plates, with the ubiquitous morning glory (a green spinach-like veg), pork skewers, BBQ chicken, stir-fried seafood and dodgy-looking squiggly pigs intestines which we politely avoid, much to Duan’s glee as he devours the lot.
The afternoon’s cycling is mostly flat or downhill, as we zip through lush greenery and sleepy villages of stilt-raised thatched huts where children yell greetings at the top of their voices or just stare in confusion.
There aren’t many other vehicles on the roads, which is a blessing in a country where traffic has its own rules. These seem totally insane to foreigners, but obey a perfect logic to locals.
Crossing the roads in Vietnamese cities is like walking a gauntlet in slow motion. The rule is: keep walking at a steady, slow pace, and whatever you do, don’t stop. It works, too.
As long as you stay calm, the traffic just moves around you. Still, I’d much rather avoid being part of a gauntlet altogether while on a bike, and the lack of traffic is undoubtedly a blessing.
At the end of the day we take the option of an extra 9km down a country lane, bringing our total distance to 74km, before we stop for the night. The path is blissfully quiet, and we persuade Cuong to try cycling with no hands, which incredibly, despite two years guiding, he’s never done.
Once he’s started he can’t stop, and for the rest of the trip, wherever there’s an opportunity, he’s whooping and hollering with his hands in the air.
Babes in Arms
When we stop for a final breather and some water, I suddenly find myself with a baby thrust into my arms. A family, whose wooden house is just next to the road, has come up to greet us, and I don’t need Cuong to translate that the father is demanding I hold his child.
I’m breathing heavily, dripping profusely with sweat and covered in muck and dust. The one-year old girl bursts into tears immediately, but the father laughs and insists with wild miming that I keep hold of her, ostensibly for his amusement.
I clutch her awkwardly for a few minutes until at last she’s removed by her sympathetic grandmother, and we’re on our way again.
Our last visit of the day is to the striking Pongour Falls, impressive even in the dry season. Local picnickers sit on flat rocks, staring and giggling at the damp foreign intruders before we chuck the bikes in the van and drive down the highway to our overnight stop.
Down a dirt track, Juliet’s Villa is a friendly little oasis set amongst rice paddies and coffee plantations.
We’re served an array of tender barbequed meat while Duan forces us to do shots of rice wine.
“In my family, my father only let us eat dinner if we drank rice wine with it.”
We move to sit round the bonfire, and, unperturbed by our concern over his alcoholic upbringing, Duan sees off the rest of the two-litre bottle before we call it a night.
Day two begins with the climb I’ve been dreading. After merciful cloud cover on the first day, this morning there’s not a cloud in the sky.
We climb the hairpin-bend mountain pass through thick forest, advancing 300 vertical metres over 5km for a gruelling 25 minutes.
I’m convinced each turn will be the last, and when the end is finally in sight, I’m so exhausted I can’t speak.
The views over the tops of the trees out onto the rolling hills are spectacular, and when we’ve recovered enough, we speed off for a solid 40 minutes of steep, electrifying downhill through the tree-lined hairpins, the sound of monkeys ringing in our ears and not a soul in sight.
We stop for lunch at Gia Bac village where we’re served a huge, perfectly cooked snapper in tomato and onion sauce, along with several plates of tasty veg and rice.
When we’ve eaten far too much, we collapse in hammocks for a few minutes before bracing ourselves for the final leg of the journey.
The views over the tops of the trees out onto the rolling hills are spectacular
It’s a sizzling 36°C now. After an hour or so of intense, white-knuckle, snaking downhills we take a rest in some shade while Duan gives us ice cubes to rub on our foreheads and drop down each other’s backs.
The wind has picked up now that we’re almost at sea level, and Cuong warns us that it’s going to get much stronger during this last flat section, which takes us past dragon fruit farms and cornfields through towards Mui Ne.
I soon discover just how tough trying to battle a 20km/hr headwind can be – it seems harder than the morning’s uphill, which nearly beat me. We crawl along at snail’s pace, pushing on through clouds of dust until finally we reach the end.
I’m so worked up that yet again I’m mute for a few minutes. Once I’m vaguely back to being human, I’m exhilarated. I can’t think of a better way to see the Vietnamese countryside than cruising through quiet villages and bombing at death-defying speeds down jungle roads.
Plus it’s an excellent way to get yourself an outrageous vest tan line that won’t vanish for weeks.