When I think of bikers, the image that comes to my mind is that of Harley Davidsons, lots of tattoos, handlebar moustaches and leather pants. I am not any of those things. I’m more of the bicycle-riding, flannel-pants-wearing, clean shaven variety. So when the Indian girl approached me in the hostel lobby in Nha Trang, Vietnam, about a bike tour, my first instinct was to jump away from her and shake my head vigorously. But she persisted. Her name was Prateeksha and she patiently explained that she’s been talking to an Easy Rider, who’s offering a really good deal under $50. A day of exploring the countryside around Nha Trang on bikes, and we don’t even have to ride the bikes. We can ride pillion. This calmed me down a bit, and I agreed to go and meet the guy offering the tour.
His name was Eddy, his Company was called Eddy Murphy tours; and come to think of it, he did resemble the legendary Murphy a bit. He smiled easily, spoke a heavily accented and imperfect English with absolute confidence and had an album full of promising pictures.
Prateeksha didn’t want to go alone; I had a day free so I said yes.
The next morning Eddy showed up with his friend Van, a tiny young vietnamese with an equally generous smile, both of them riding their Hondas. We packed our raincoats and some water, and left.
I have ridden pillion before: through the streets of Mumbai with my bike owning friends who mock me till this day for not learning to ride one. It doesn’t take too much skill. Sit tight, hold on to something (the riders shoulders if you can’t find anything else) and keep your feet above the ground. We weaved our way through the crowded streets of Nha Trang, riding past the busy beach, over a bridge crossing a tiny bay, and through some back roads crossing local markets that tourists don’t frequent, heading towards the countryside.
After making a quick stop at an ancient temple at the edge of the town and clicking some pretentious pictures, we left the city. I always find it surprising how close to urban centres the countryside lurks, hidden from view, just a few twists and turns away. From my unique vantage point perched behind the Van, I could see green pastures, brown cows, people wearing conical hats working the inundated paddy fields, and a riot of green in every direction. The clear blue sky blazed above with a vengeance and the sun danced on the ripples created by the bike on puddles in the muddy road. We crossed a wooden bridge which hardly looked more stable than some of the south east asian economies, and stopped near a nondescript hut on a narrow street.
Colourful hangings outside the veranda betrayed its trade. It was a mat making workshop. This was countryside handicraft at its best – tall grass from the river deltas were being dried, died and hand woven into mats in all kind of sizes and a brilliant assortment of colours. The two smiling ladies were happy to amuse the two camera slinging foreigners and let us try our hand at the loom. It was a slow and painstaking process. The mat they were making would take the whole day to complete. How much would we want to pay for it? Five? maybe six dollars – for a whole day of work for two people.
A few turns away was the village centre for rice-paper making. A note about rice: It pretty much describes ninety percent of Vietnamese diet, and nowhere have I seen rice being turned into so many different forms. You have rice paper and rice noodles of course. Then you have rice cakes, rice candies, rice pancakes, and even rice powder – to turn into the form of your choice. The workshop wasn’t an epitome of hygiene, and Prateeksha visibly cringed when Eddy put his hand through a vat to show us the slurry that would be slow cooked over a kiln to turn into wet sheets, before being dried in the sun. We came out a bit wiser and a bit nauseous.
After this we left the fringes of the town, and took the highway towards the green hills in the horizon. The sky was clouding up, the sun was gone and there was a light breeze. The roads were empty and we whizzed past rice fields, small lakes, overgrown pastures. I could see the lure of the road for the bikers; I still couldn’t see the point of the tattoos.
We stopped at a place for lunch. It was a local eatery, and Eddy said we could eat dog meat next door. I was a little curious, but I saw the look of horror on Prateeksha’s face – a staunch vegetarian – and desisted. We had a meal of rice of course.
We were on the hills then. This was Vietnam at its countryside best, lush green slopes of the hill disappearing into the milling clouds above. We rode past a huge reservoir built as a part of a hydro-electric project. We stopped often to take pictures, and at times I marvelled at how silent it was out here. When Eddy and Van killed the engines of their bikes, I could hear my own breathing, and crickets in the background.
At the end of the road was a waterfall and a clear pool. We waded into the water and sat on stones and talked about an assortment of things. We touched upon dogs, China and the purpose of life.
It started raining. We let ourselves get wet a bit before wading back to the shore. There were some locals selling iced tea and coffee. We drank our fills, and started on our way back.
It rained a lot on the way back. Thunder and angry purple clouds followed us all the way back to the plains. Coming back to town is like waking up. The noise slowly fills up your ears, the crowd mills around and buffets you, the smells of petrol and refuge take their usual place as a background to every other smell. What you were dreaming until a few minutes back silently recede, leaving behind a faint impression; the details already fading.