“I love my job, it’s my passion,” said the Eagle, as he looked out at the green and brown patches of farmland in a valley below the rolling mountains of Da Lat in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Standing beside his decades-old motorcycle, he points to a mountain in the distance, the top of which resembles a woman lying down looking at the sky, Lady of the Mountain she’s called.
Eagle, whose real name is Phamduy Hung, is a military vet who fought for South Vietnam during the war. In 1996, more than two decades after the horrors of the war, Mr. Eagle built up a business for himself taking tourists on the back of a motorbike through the mountains where he grew up.
“That’s why I love my job, on the back of the bike is the way to freedom,” Eagle said, before getting on his bike and riding off.
Myself and a traveller friend from England, Simon, spent the day following Eagle and his co-worker, Linh, aka Crazy Buffalo, on motorbikes through the snaking roads in the lush green countryside of Da Lat.
The town is located 1,500 metres above sea level and its name means Stream of the Lat, referring to the ethnic Lat people who live in the mountainside.
A couple from Victoria, B.C., Chris and Tasha, were on the back of each bike with Mr. Eagle and Crazy Buffalo and the four of us spent the day exploring a slice of this beautiful country.
We visited a coffee plantation where the delicacy is coffee beans made from weasel droppings.
“It’s shit coffee,” Eagle joked. Weasels are fed the coffee beans and their stomach acid is supposed to soften the flavour of the coffee. The coffee was served strong like espresso and had a smooth and chocolaty-rich taste to it.
At our lunch stop, we saw some huge vats of rice wine — used as traditional healing medicine — where any manner of foul things were fermenting; Lizards, snake, even crow. We had a taste of the banana rice wine, which was strong and sweet and tasted a bit like brandy.
Around midday we rode into Nam Ban to see the Elephant waterfalls, a powerful gush of water that thundered down into the river below. The trek down to the base of the falls was slippery and treacherous but worth it once we were feeling the spray from rocks just metres away from the waterfall.
We rode through an ethnic minority village in a valley outside of Nam Ban. The children played with a ball around the dusty front yard of their house and ran out to wave as we drove by. “I love you,” one of them shouted, which drove the younger ones into fits of laughter. “They know four words,” Crazy Buffalo said. “Hello, money, I love you and goodbye.” He said many of the kids only go to school for a few years before they have to start working on the farms.
During the journey, we ride past the Valley of Love, which is named such because it’s shaped like a heart. Some of the roads are blocked by passing cattle and at times, we’re squeezed to the side of the road by a honking truck taking a curve in the middle of the road.
Eagle first got on a bike when he was 15 and riding through
his hometown is where he’s at peace.
“I don’t like to stay at home. If I stay at home, I think of the past. If I stay at home I will die very quickly,” he said.
Eagle is 63 which shows in the lines in his face and the cataracts circling his hazel eyes. Although Hung says he earned the nickname Mr. Eagle because of his eagle-like vision and he has the energy of someone a decade younger.
Eagle spent two and a half years in a Communist re-education camp following the war, where many of his fellow soldiers were tortured and killed. “Many friends die so I am lucky to be alive,” he said.
Eagle said many Vietnamese fled to Western countries after the war amid of massive food shortages after the new communist government seized huge swaths of farmland. His sister moved to Vancouver in 1978 and he hopes to visit her one day.
Even better than the stunning sites was having Eagle as a guide. He was interesting, honest and unapologetic about his political views.
At the flower farm, Eagle showed us an array of roses but quickly began talking about the communist regime and the Russian influence in the country.
“I can say I don’t like Russian people. They are the Red mafia. I am very glad the [Soviet Union] collapsed.
Eagle said soldiers across Vietnam fought for the country’s
freedom which has not yet been attained.
“It’s a sad country but it’s moving step by step,” he said. “I love my country, I want to develop my country.”