Dalat delights

Da Lat Travel Blog

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Escaping from Saigon we caught our first "sleeper bus" out to the city of Dalat.  A sleeper bus has around forty beds in it rather than chairs, so offers a reasonable amount of room to lay out, enjoy the trip, and doze, provided you're not more than six foot tall.  As we were only catching it during the day we didn't have a chance to try out its full potential, but suffice to say that for day trips, this is a pretty good way to get around.  Even if they did mispell tour on the front of the bus!  As we journeyed from the hot and steamy south of the country towards to cooler central highlands the change in vegetation was noticeable and abrupt.  Climbing into the mountains the paddyfields (admittedly not that picturesque at the moment, in fact somewhat forgettable, due to the recent harvest) gave way to tropical woodlands, dense vegeattion and impenetrable forests, intersected only by a road, that, thanks to a recent typhoon, was pretty patchy in places, or rather some of it was located several tens of metres downhill to its intended location.  The scenery reminded me of Borneo and the jungle (and the collapsing roads) there.  Then, at the top of the pass, at the watershed there was an instant change.  Suddenly there was a fresh breeze in the air, the humidity dropped and dense jungle was replaced by acres of low-lying shrubs and fields.  The majority of these growing coffee, Vietnam being the second largest exporter of coffee.  The cool(er) climater of Dalat and its surrounds provides the ideal place for vegetable growing, proving to be some kind of analagous "vegetable bowl" (or should that be platter?) to the south's rice-bowl.  They also have vines and produce Vietnams wine, which was reasonable, but not amazing.  At three quid a bottle though, who can complain.

The first noticeable thing about Dalat is its more vertical nature, being secured tightly to the valley walls.  The second, and arguably more interesting thing is the architecture.  Most of Vietnam so far follows similar architectural principals, houses are narrow, just three metres wide, most of the front being just door leading into a large double storey front room which serves as local shop, internet cafe, restaurant and motorcycle park depending on the premises, and often more than one.  However these houses go back quite a long way, and then also up, often several storeys, presumably depending on the number of generations living there (the Vietnamese are very family orientated), but also back at the same time.  The whole thing tends to represent a slice through a concrete pyramid.  Dalat is a former French colonial town, and so has a big french influence in its architectural style.  Many of the houses look fairly alpine, and being the place where the French went to holiday in Vietnam, there are some big old fancy hotels too.  Because of this different architecural style and cool climate the city is also where the Vietnamese come to holiday, and as its also flower growing city, its become the romance capital of Vietnam.  So Alex and I have spent a couple of days here!  Seriously though, its a city which takes its romance particularly seriously, with horse and cart rides around the lake and heart shaped wreaths of flowers kind of kitsch going on.

Shoehorning its way into the middle of all this are the backpackers, who have also made this city the adventure sports capital of the country.  We intended to rent some bikes on our full day here and head off the some of the local waterfalls, (there are many of these as well) but unfortunatly Alex wasn't feeling great so I jumped on a day tour with five minutes notice for a whistlestop tour of the surrounding, and very picturesque, landscape.  On the way, we visited a flower farm, where they grow flowers, a cricket farm, where the grow crickets, a coffee plantation where they grow coffee, a rice-wine making shed where they make rice-wine and a silkworm farm where they grow, you've guessed it silkworms, as well as spinning it out, and making lots of silk goods (with retail opportunity of course, the Vietnamese aren't the kind to miss out on any commercial niche).  All interesting enough, but perhaps not much of note.  This was all on the way to the Elephant waterfall, (and Pagoda, don't underestimate the Vietnamese ability to stick a temple or Pagoda everywhere too).  So called because of some elephant shaped rocks the falls are very photogenic.  Perhaps mainly due to the perfect combination of size and distance from the viewing areas that the falls nicely fill the frame of a photograph without any effort to zoom or reposition!  They were good falls, and we got the chance to see them up close at the base, up close enough to get pretty wet.  The Pagoda was pagoda-ish, starting to get a bit Pagodad-out at the moment.  And there was a giant statue of the Happy Buddha out the back, big enough to contain a room inside his belly.

In the afternoon we visited the Crazy House, an architects dream or nightmare depending on the architect.  It was a collected of concrete wierdly shaped buildings shaped a bit like trees, with twisty staircases, aereal walkways and animal themed rooms (including the termite themed room!).  It was all abit like the Magic Faraway tree or something.  We were given a tour of an embroidery workshop which was genuinely interesting.  I'm not known for my love of all things embroidery but here they created pictures of such detail and precision that, from a distance they looked like paintings or even photographs.  Some of the portraits were outstanding.  They take a long time to make and are quite pricey.  There was also a church which was churchlike.  Returning to the city I wandered round the lake and met up with Alex, who was feeling better for dinner.  It would have been nice to stay in Dalat for longer, done some trekking, and some cycling, seen a few more falls and perhaps ridden an elephant (?!), but time is ever pressing on this trip, and if we harbour any ambitions of making it to the north and the cool stuff up there, then we had to move on.

The next day was a transit day, an early morning start for another sleeper bus which got us back to the coast and to the heat of Nha Trang.  This palm lined beach resort with large sweeping arc of golden sands was another, entirely different city, wide streets, fewer cars.  But being a beach resort, its a bit of a beach resort! and so the six hours we had to explore was plenty enough.  We headed up along the beach to located the city's culture, a set of brick Cham Towers on the northern side of the main river.  The Po Nagar Cham Towers date from as early as the 7th century and are relics of the ancient kingdom (presumably Hindu; Uma, Shiva and Ganesh are dead giveaways) that ruled the central section of what is now Vietnam for several hundred years.  We were treated to some traditional folk music and girls dancing around with pots on their heads.  Very nice!

We ambled along to the Long Son Pagoda in town, and were throughly touted and hassled by people (local orpahns from the next door school no less) selling trying to sell us postcards.  This was followed by a nice gentleman showing us around, giving us incense sticks whith which to pray with, standing us in front of a monk for a few awkward minutes and taking a few photos of us.  He then, of course, wanted money from us, which he claimed to be for the monks.  He presumably pocketed it himself.  Its annoying to be scammed like that, but he was pretty cool up until that point, hard to know in situations like that.  There were some more Buddha statues out the back, one 18m, long reclining sleeping Buddha and then 152 steps up to one on top a hill with some fine views.  There was also a church, which looked like it had been made out of grey lego, all blocky before some quick souvenir t-shirt buying.  I've gone and bought a Tiger Beer t-shirt, a favourite among many south-east asian tourists, but it is kind of cool.  And we had dinner at the brilliantly named "Same-same but cheaper" restautant, trying the local fish in a traditional vietnamese hot pot.  Very tasty, but, like most dishes in this country, very heavy handed on the onions.  The restaurant, like pretty much all the one's we've encountered since Saigon (and many of the shops too) all play this cd (or collection of cds) of instrumental versions of famous songs, often in a jazzy style, often just given a compeltly new beat altogether.  Like someone has been given the sheet music of a famous song, but not the time-signature and been told to play it on the keyboard.  Which is probably exactly what it is.  It makes for hilarious games of name that tune.  Quite why they all play this genre of music is beyond me, maybe its a communist thing?

We departed on our first true night sleeper bus, and were given seats right at the back, on the bottom bunk, where it was much more noisy, cramped, hot and bumpy than our previous trips.  Playing some cards and listening to Alex's somewhat bizarre musical playlists. It looked set to be a long night.

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Da Lat
photo by: Biedjee