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Hal Phillips Gets Sideways 

 

in the Vietnamese Highlands

 

We have been only a day in Phan Thiet, and frankly, I’d like to stay another two at least. The links at the Novotel Ocean Dunes & Golf Resort are superb (good enough to warrant another go-round) and only a fool would beg off one fully flaked-out day on the hotel’s quiet stretch of beach. But the itinerary can be a stern taskmaster, so I keep my peace and prepare for our scheduled departure. 

Then, on the way to breakfast, I see them—the motorcycles and their attendant sidecars, all neatly lined up in front of the hotel—and my ambivalence melts away. No one in his or her right mind could resist the sheer romance of a couple hundred kilometers by sidecar from this tropical perch on the South China Sea to the mountain retreat of Dalat. I’m glad to see that my driver, Gilles Poggi, sports a krama, that distinctive, all-purpose Cambodian scarf. I want one too. And I’m hoping we can line up behind our respective machines and, at the sound of a gun, begin the journey rally-style.

The reality proves more staid. With the sun now peeking over the hotel façade, we slather on the sunscreen, affix our sunglasses, helmets, and hats, and wait for the last of our group to return from the bathroom. Hardly the stuff of Paris to Dakar, though our three-wheelers do turn over, en masse, with a very satisfying rumble, and we pull out in precise formation, one after another, like starlets from one of those 1930s-era musical follies diving into a pool.

Poggi, a Corsican who wears his krama with all the Gallic élan one might expect, is owner and general manager of the posh Princess d’Annam Resort & Spa, located some twenty minutes south of Phan Thiet in Ke Ga. These sidecars and their motorized escorts are his personal obsession, and he leads these trips—along with his friends in Team Camel, their touring club—as a one-of-a-kind amenity for guests seeking 360-degree tours of the south Vietnamese countryside.

“We started adventuring with sidecars more than ten years ago, in Hanoi,” Poggi shouts as we travel up the coast, his voice perfectly audible above the four-stroke din. “I had two friends who had hooked up with these sidecars. One of them invited me to go to Sapa, and I’ve been riding ever since.”

Poggi slows down and stops his narrative for the moment to avoid a cavernous pothole. We’ve turned away from the water now, the roads becoming narrower and dodgier with every passing kilometer. My sidecar, of course, is suspended between three points of a triangle: the two wheels of the motorcycle, to my left, and a third wheel to my right. When Poggi dodges a pothole, my carriage often passes directly over the road blemish. The passenger sees it coming and instinctively braces for a jolt that for some reason never comes. This is a fine metaphor for sidecar travel—all in all, the experience is far more comfortable than one might expect.

“Later, when we moved to Phan Thiet, I decided to get one for myself,” Poggi continues. “I met a policeman who was selling one, and when I asked him how much, he quoted me a price—by kilo! So I bought one, for maybe $200. Later, I realized we should have another one, so we could go out as a group. I bought a second, and the policeman told me, 'I’ll do you a favor. You buy the second and I’ll give you a third for free.’ Today, we have eleven.”

The ride of choice for Team Camel is the 650cc Ural M-72, a Russian bike based on the vaunted BMW R71, a German army staple during World War II and the very bike Steve McQueen made famous jumping barbed-wire fencing in The Great Escape. Urals became prevalent in Vietnam only after 1975, and they remain practical, Poggi says, because the Russians did a good job simplifying the design, parts are readily available, and Vietnamese mechanics know their way around them. They’ve been fixing them for thirty years, after all.

In our party there are two quite spiffy sidecars bearing the Princess d’Annam emblem; these are the hotel’s primary touring vehicles. The others are decorated more flamboyantly, according to the whims of individual club members. Remi Faubel, the resort’s celebrated chef, drives a canary yellow Ural featuring the snarling countenance of a large cat-like creature. Poggi and I ride a black model named for the Ramones. It’s an odd-but-pleasing juxtaposition, wending my way through a Vietnamese tableau with a Corsican guide, seated in a Russian-made BMW knock-off commemorating the greasers who gave us Sheena is a Punk Rocker.

Having passed through a narrow shelf of level ground set aside for rice paddies, we soon set off into the highlands. We are on the back roads where villages are fewer and farther between. The Urals are working hard now, taking on steep inclines and those potholes too large to straddle. The higher we go into the mountains, the less tropical the landscape becomes. But never is it anything less than lush: ten shades of deep green set against still darker greens.

On a treeless plateau set high above a reservoir of sparkling blue-green, we stop for lunch which, thanks to Faubel, qualifies as perhaps the most elegant picnic ever devised by man. Holding a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, Poggi defends his precious Urals from the half-serious charge that they are, well, rather ungainly in appearance. “The sidecar is not a very noble piece of transportation, it’s true. No matter how we package it. But there is nobility in riding a sidecar, there is nobility in experiencing the highlands in this way, there is nobility in enjoying a lunch of foie gras and perhaps a glass of white wine.”

There’s no arguing this.

After lunch we climb ever higher into the highlands on narrow roads of the switchback variety, each one flanked by precipitous drop-offs lurking just beyond the guardrails—when there are guardrails. It’s something of a shock to see that Vietnam can be so legitimately mountainous. Two hours from Dalat we zig-zag our way up through a broad mountain pass and Poggi points to a hillside dotted with cultivated vegetation: “Café,” he shouts, lifting an imaginary demitasse to his lips. It was the first of many plantations we would pass in the next half hour. 

As we draw closer to our destination, the roads get better and the population less sparse. For several hours, we had passed only through dusty, remote villages where locals met our odd caravan first with surprise, then with smiles and waves. In these more populous areas, our standing as curiosities is more modest. Dalat is a resort mecca that attracts all kinds of tourists, foreign and domestic. A light rain begins to fall. We draw less and less attention as pedestrians veil themselves and we find our place amid the wider flow of traffic.

Though we have been climbing steadily since mid-morning, the final stretch of road is the steepest yet. Halfway up this series of switchbacks, the vegetation turns again; there are pine trees at the roadside now, and the air sports a startling crispness as we cruise into Dalat. The French influence in Vietnam is hard to miss, even fifty years and three wars removed. But because the French founded Dalat, as opposed to merely occupying it, the city has retained more of its Gallic character than just about any place in Vietnam. Our ultimate destination, the Sofitel Dalat Palace hotel, which opened in 1922 and has been painstakingly restored, evokes a level of French colonial grandeur and indolence unmatched by anything in the country.

Bedecked in shorts and flip-flops, I surely looked a fright as I hoist my dust-covered frame from the Sheena Express. Had I alighted in this state from a mere automobile, I might feel out of place. As it is, I ascend the ornate, white marble steps in the perfect historical idiom, regretting only that I have failed to pack a tuxedo for the evening ahead.

 

 

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