Apart from their safe driving skills, the ‘easy riders,’ most of whom are natives in Hoi An, also impress their clients with their first-hand experience and in-depth knowledge of their hometown’s landscapes and customs.
Hoi An prides itself on the UNESCO-recognized Hoi An Ancient Town.
The drivers have their hands full catering to the demand among trekkers and foreign backpackers, who prefer unique and authentic experiences amongst the mountains over casual sightseeing bus tours.
Among the easy riders is Do Van Thong, 50, a resident of Tan An Ward in Hoi An City, who had just returned weary, yet satisfied from a five-day trek with a tourist between Hoi An and Da Lat, a beloved resort town in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong. Riding his high-capacity Minsk, Thong has offered free service for over 13 years now.
The weather-beaten driver and his client sped up treacherous roads that snake through the resplendent Truong Son Range, which runs parallel to the Vietnamese coast.
“Escorting foreign backpackers gives me ample chance to explore more of our country’s nooks and crannies and learn more about my own customs, while earning an income at the same time,” he said.
Thong used to be a farmer before offering ‘xe om’ (motorbike taxi) service around Hoi An Ancient Town for an additional income.
It was during that time that many foreign vacationers suggested he carry them for a few days to mountainous areas within the province and across the Central Highlands.
Thong began his first ride on his old Minsk in 2003.
“I was hesitant at first as the mountainous roads were in terrible condition back then. Many roads were perilously muddy and blocked off by landslides. My heart would pound hard with my clients behind,” he recalled.
“I got used to the road conditions soon though and there’s no place I would say no to now.”
Thong’s usual destinations include villages of the Co Tu ethnic minority group, secluded to the west of Quang Nam Province, and hamlets of Ba Na and Xe Dang ethnic communities scattered throughout the Central Highlands.
“Previously backpackers approached me while I was sipping my coffee at T-junctions or in the park. We struck oral deals and off we sped for several days on end. Sometimes I didn’t have time to pack clothes,” he said.
He recently launched his own website to offer his potential clients easy access to his services.
According to Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters’ investigation, Hoi An is currently home to more than 100 such easy riders, who come from different walks of life and a wide age range.
Many have found the job taxing, as it involves regular treks to the forest, but also financially rewarding.
Several have set up their own websites to allow backpackers speedy access to detailed information and booking.
Apart from Thong, Son, or Nguyen Hong Son, is also a sought-after ‘easy rider’ in Hoi An City.
The 51-year-old, who has been involved in the trade for more than seven years, worked in a tea plantation in Dong Giang District until 1990.
During the time he stayed in Hoi An, he also earned extra money by driving ‘xe om’ after harvest, prior to offering his easy riding services along with some fellow farmers seven years ago.
His team is currently made up of more than five members around his age, who quickly gather as soon as tourists book a ride.
Son has also armed his team with high-capacity motorbikes and run his own website.
He noted that easy riding, which is a form of adventure tour, is exclusive to those interested and varies in prices depending on distances and localities.
An excursion to the rugged areas in Tay Giang District, also in Quang Nam, fetches at least US$50, Son added.
Cultural, tourism connection
According to Nguyen Thanh Tuan, a 43-year-old ‘easy rider,’ in addition to robust health and fluent communicative English, it is crucial that a practitioner knows the area and the ethnic minority groups’ customs like the back of their hands so that they can introduce these highlights to tourists as tour guides do.
Vanessa, a British vacationer, was fascinated by her easy riding experience and the Central Highlands’ gorgeous landscape.
“It’s so great to be accompanied by cheery, helpful ‘easy riders,’ who treated us to historical stories of the places we were heading to,” she said.
Son stressed that easy riders should also constantly update themselves with tourism knowledge and delve into traditions and customs in order to properly answer their clients’ questions in English.
He added that despite running a type of adventure tour, ‘easy riders’ must also be responsible for their clients’ safety, and drive their bikes with great care.
Foreigners have also joined the market.
Mark Wyndham and Simone, a married couple from Australia, decided to stay in Hoi An in 2009 and opened their company, Hoian Motobikes Adventure, or Hama tour.
The husband and wife carry their clients themselves, and their services have been showered with compliments from backpackers.
Thong, the above-mentioned local ‘easy rider,’ however, pointed out that while easy riding tours offered by local and foreign operators have mushroomed in Hoi An, he and his native colleagues do enjoy a certain competitive edge thanks to their unrivalled first-hand experiences and exhaustive knowledge.
Speaking with Tuoi Tre, Nguyen Hai, deputy director of the Quang Nam Tourism Promotion Center, revealed that ‘easy riders’ have contributed to a rise in revenue and income in mountainous areas.
Locals have also shown enthusiasm for the new form of tourism.
“‘Easy riders’ are important connectors between tourists and the local tourism sector,” Hai asserted.
He added that local tourism management agencies will hold training programs for ‘easy riders’ to improve their manners, drive safely and polish their guiding skills in the long run.