VINTAGE SIDECAR TO SON TRA (MONKEY MOUNTAIN)
I can see Liem’s smile widen out of the periphery of my right eye as he slides back into third gear to take on the sharp, ascending corner, then back again to fourth as we valley down a straight stretch of Da Nang’s famed Son Tra peninsula. The URAL roars along, in mint condition, with me safely ensconced in its vintage sidecar. This is the perfect vehicle to take in the spectacular surrounds. One feels the adventurous rumble of the engine, that you are part of its mechanic unit, leaning into turns and listening attentively as it bawls and bellows up and over the landscape, conversing with you and the driver in distinctive tones. I only wished that I sported the goggles and head-hugging leather cap worn by characters such as Biggles or the legendary Red Baron to complement my experience.
Red-Shanked Duoc Langur
Of course, the beauty of the sidecar, is that you are still a passenger and don’t have to negotiate gears or be responsible for steering the bike, meaning you can relax and keenly observe the scenery whilst still experiencing a unique form of participation – it’s as if you and the driver are in cahoots to keep this rogue of a bike on the correct path.
Liem starts to slow and then crawls to a stop mid-vale of the Son Tra mount. The URAL in front is at a standstill. My first thought is they’ve blown a tyre, but an arm hastily extends upwards, indicating the forested area on our right side. I look askance into a patch of sunlight dappled jungle. Then I see them. A small family of red-shanked duoc langur monkeys. These endangered primates give Son Tra its other moniker – monkey mountain. I had learned about them years ago from Dr Ulrike Streicher, a wildlife veterinarian based in Da Nang, who once contributed an article about these intriguing species for Live Hoi An. I knew that this was one of those absolute ‘once in a lifetime’ moments since these particular langur monkeys are both rare and extremely shy.
Luckily, the rest of our noisy two-wheeled gang were tardy to catch up and we got a decent, albeit brief, look at the monkeys. One of the adults was on his hindlegs and walked rather gentlemanly, with his bearded face, white vest-like breast and fire engine red stocking legs, he seemed as if he were dressed up for a special occasion. Of course these are their natural colors, which are simply extraordinary. I could go to lengths to describe them but they are just a stunning sight to behold. By the time the rest of the group turned up to our spot, the langurs had disappeared deep into the jungle.
The Mountain Peak Spectacular
Our adventure to Son Tra involved many aspects – the monkeys being an unexpected and delightful surprise – including a visit to the Lady Buddha or Bodhisattva of Mercy at Pham Lam Pagoda, the 1,000 year old banyan tree and of course the peak – which requires a rather daunting climb up a very steep incline. It’s a drive I would not want to brave myself even though I’ve had a fair amount of motorbike experience. If you have clear skies, you can see all the way to Hue (apparently) but on the day of our tour it was a bit foggy. This did not dampen our sense of fun mind you – being on the misty mountain top gave us a cool experience of its own.
We also had exceptional views along the way, of bays and beaches around Son Tra and the vista of the East Sea out from Da Nang’s shoreline is never tiring. Our tour – which was arranged with Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort & Spa – included journeying to all the mentioned attractions (and admission price) in the vintage sidecar as well as a gourmet lunch at the peak. Sumptuous cheeses, cold cuts and bread accompanied by wine and a few Vietnamese touches – such as papaya salad – was a welcome inclusion at the top where we poked fun at the “mountain fairy” statue (I think the boys were having us on with this one, it looked more like Confucius) and generally had a good laugh with our Vietnamese drivers/guides. They take a lot of pride in driving the URALS – and they should, because they are gorgeous-looking bikes with sidecars – and went out of their way to make sure we were all comfortable and having a good time. This made the tour infinitely more special.
At the end of our adventure to Son Tra, my Japanese friends said that this vintage sidecar tour was the highlight of their Vietnamese holiday. For me, a long-time resident, it was a remarkable experience that will stay firmly etched in my memory.