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Ta Nang, One of Vietnam’s Most Beautiful Trails and Best-Kept Secrets

Whether we choose to participate or not, most of us are fascinated by Vietnam’s motorbike culture.

The pace, the innovative spirit, and the casualness of people who perform in each day’s tightly choreographed traffic dances make for a thrilling phenomena. So you can imagine my enchantment when I discovered what motorbike culture looks like on Ta Nang Mountain and the hills of Lam Dong Province. It takes about a six-hour drive and half a day’s hike from Saigon to reach the entrance to this other planet. It’s a place that makes me feel a million miles away from any city, and comfortably isolated from the rest of the world. And once you’re there, it’s easy to see why the people that know it are always going back.

The Men and Motos of Ta Nang

The complete Ta Nang-Phan Dung trail travels more than 55 kilometers across the hilltops and valleys of three provinces: Lam Dong, Ninh Thuan, and Binh Thuan. People have been walking these ridges forever, so it was inevitable that eventually Vietnam’s famous motorbikes would make it to the mountains too.

The unique machines that ride over these ridges are called xe đi rừng, meaning “motorbikes used in the forest,” or xe độ, which translates to “motorbike that’s been changed from the manufacturer version,” a hint at their distinguishable nature. The young men who drive them are known as người khuân vác or “porters,” with their custom rigs doubling as convenient (and might I add slick) nicknames for the exclusive group; we also can call them người chở đồ, or “the transporters.” 

As with so many good things, the longer you peer at these amazing machines, the more you see. Some of my favorite features were the free and detached stick-for-kick-stand strategy that seemed to be invariably adopted, the custom welded made-to-size holders and racks that carry bottles of engine fluids and extra gas, and the complete (although initially subtle) and utter lack of foot...anything. Eventually you’ll notice the chain on the rear wheel and the extra sets of shocks. After the pleasure of riding as the third of three passengers on one of these skeleton rigs as it ripped over a flat portion of trail, I surmise they “beef up” the engines as well. 

One of the handful of trail vendors, a lovely man named Anh Heo, shared that anyone could buy a basic version of one of the bikes for a reasonable price, but the porters mostly build and customize their own. One bike had a variety of its parts painted green to match its green shocks, while another had the skinniest exhaust pipe I have ever seen; no more than a couple centimeters wide all the way down. 

As it turns out, not all the người khuân vác men are transporting camping supplies. Consider the cooler that resembles the ones you see all over Saigon containing cold soda, water, and beer strapped to the back of Anh Heo’s rather simple-looking bike. He drives 40 kilometers a day to sell cold beverages to weary hikers along the trail.

Yes, that’s right! That means as you trek into this magical land, around each bend or at the top of a long climb there very well may be ice-cold beer waiting for purchase. As soon as the initial excitement wore off, I giggled that I could be shocked at all. We are in Vietnam after all, “cold beer can be delivered anywhere,” my friend graciously reminded me. I should have been shocked he hadn’t found us sooner.

Another Planet Entirely

As you trek deeper down the Ta Nang-Phun Dung trail, the landscape starts to unwrap itself. Lowlands become sparsely covered hilltops covered in patches of young forest or dotted with a lone tree. Eventually, the route took us through a bamboo forest and up the back of a long, last, steep hill. And as we cleared the treeline and came around the side of the giant bulbous mound of earth we had just scaled, the scene and sky grew before our eyes. We had arrived, safely transported to another world. 

Boldly and graciously, the landscape evolves with the seasons here. The sparsely camouflaged ridges are sometimes covered in patches of dense, deep green, and sometimes they are bald. Underneath the ground-growth, the hills are covered in a basaltic soil that, when pounded by Vietnam’s iconic rains, turns a vibrant orangey-tan and gets thick and slick and dries like potter’s clay. 

By the time you come up to your second or third incline, you notice the deep grooves the machines cut into the side of each pitch, and it becomes clear why the bikes are as rugged and souped up as they are. Their revving motors and altered anatomies produce a loud chug-chug-chug that announces their arrival before they can be seen. And then watching them is a joy: chain suddenly crucial, power plainly obvious, operator’s command of the situation; relaxed and masterful. Sometimes an extra passenger sits atop the cargo, sometimes three men straddle the long frame, but always smiles and half-smoked cigarettes occupy the corners of their mouths. 

Chang Lang Thang

Both of my trips were made possible through the guidance and support of the enthusiastic trekking group, Chang Lang Thang, a team of young, local nature lovers who have made a business out of taking fellow hikers on unique, remote adventures throughout the central and southern regions of Vietnam. With an everything-included model, they make it easy for hikers to sign up and go; no equipment or extensive preparation necessary.

Chang Lang Thang’s commitment to sustainability further sets them apart. Each customer who signs up for one of their treks donates five trees to the Forest Garden Project, a project dedicated to respecting, reforesting, and educating about Vietnam’s Central Highlands, in partnership with local farmers. 

Since the organizers opt to keep group numbers small and treat all their guests as old friends, they are able to create an instant and intimate comradery within their teams, an aspect that makes it hard not to fall into new, fast friendships. The hike will get you on your first trip, but the people and the moments this experience fosters will keep you coming back. 

A Sunrise Worth Going Back For

I woke up as the sky was already changing. My body was moving before my brain caught up. I crawled out of my tent, crammed on my shoes, and roused my friends. As I pulled myself up and out into the dawn air, the scene beyond our little mound of planet gobbled me up from the top down. I closed my eyes and let myself go. Behind my lids lay a background of dusty, lavender blue, streaked with neon pink and fire bursts of orange.

The air was cool but not cold, the best word for it is probably ‘fresh,’ a word we rarely get to use when describing the weather in southern Vietnam. With my eyes shut, I allowed myself to tune into the gentle choir of different songs; monkeys, cicadas, and a chorus of bird calls. Each note was unique and vibrant against the soft quiet of dawn. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It brought me back to my feet, bare on the wild grass, still dewy from the night.

Voices and the sounds of breakfast started to fade in against the jungle’s pleasant cacophony. I opened my eyes and in front of me stretched an expansive valley of receding hills smothered in layers of whipped, white morning mist. Each row a deeper shade of blue-ish gray; each row an extra barrier between us and the real world. It took us both an extra beat before we gave up the moment and turned back towards the smell of fresh campfire-brewed coffee. 

If this moment appeals to you, find Chang Lang Thang on Facebook and sign up for their next trek. Hong Trang (who often uses the English name Kate), one of the founding members, and the rest of the crew are even greater gems than the utterly breathtaking vistas they will lead you too. It doesn’t happen often that you stumble upon one of those great fleeting things; be it a place, a group, or a tradition before it becomes a “was." And in my humble opinion, hiking Ta Nang, led by CLT, is one of those very rare things. Don’t wait, because as we all know, a thing so great surely doesn’t last forever.