Having spent a week between Hanoi and Hoi An in northern Vietnam, Jeff and I decided to venture south for the second leg of our trip. A girl we met at a winery in New Zealand raved about the cooler weather and outdoor adventures to be had in Dalat, Vietnam, so we gave it a go.
Our first impression of Dalat was that it is much bigger than we had imagined. I think Jeff and I both envisioned something comparable in size to Hoi An — a town with modern tourist amenities (e.g. hotels and restaurants) but small enough to have village-y charm. Dalat, however, is all bright lights and bustling streets. It’s known among locals as the “honeymoon destination” for Vietnamese newlyweds, though Jeff and I never quite figured out why. It’s not particularly romantic, so maybe it’s more about escaping the oppressive heat?
In an case, we quite liked Dalat, if for no other reason than the Spring-y temps. On our first day there, we took the cable car up to the Trúc Lâm temple, which is also home to Buddhist monastery. Because Jeff was in shorts and my dress only grazed the top of my knees (the nerve, I know!) we were both given long skirts to wear around the Monastery grounds. Several groups of Chinese women, also visiting the Monastery, openly laughed at Jeff’s skirt. It was great.
From the Monastery, we walked about 15 minutes to Tuyen Lam Lake, a relatively peaceful setting away from the tourist chaos of the Monastery (it feels weird to write “chaos” and “Monastery” in the same sentence, but that’s what it was!). While at the lake, we found a quirky cafe-mixed-with-car museum and relaxed with our books for a couple of hours.
An aside on dining in Vietnam: I would characterize the food as 80% awesome, 20% mystifying. Some things you learn to expect; “coffee with a little milk” almost always materializes as condensed milk with a little coffee. Other things are less predictable. For example, in Dalat I ordered (what I thought was) a simple omelet. I received what I can only describe as a under-cooked egg scramble with pickles and corn…drenched in barbecue sauce.
We did have some excellent meals in Dalat, most notably at V Cafe (we actually went twice over in three days). The entertainment was provided by an American expat with a guitar, who happened to be well-versed in world music. After asking each diner where they were from, this guy proceeded to sing a song for each of us (including John Denver’s “Country Roads”; a Korean anthem; and a Thai song of some sort, sung in Thai).The experience is one of my favorite memories from all of Vietnam, and not just because V Cafe served tortilla chips (!).
To counteract our (frequent) culinary indulgences, Jeff and I decided to do a full-day mountain bike excursion. I was a little worried that the trip might be too hardcore for my tastes; I like a challenging bike ride, but I don’t need a high risk, adrenaline-fueled adventure ifyouknowwhatImean. While we definitely went on a difficult (read: HILLY) ride, the most nerve-wracking part of the excursion was actually en route to the biking trail by way of Dalat’s city roads (read: traffic). I have mentioned the utter chaos of motorbike traffic in Southeast Asia before; but this time, we were attempting to navigate through it — traffic circles and all — on bicycles. I swear I felt a tour bus graze the hair on my arm more than once.
While we enjoyed the mountain biking experience overall, we wished that more of the trip was spent on actual trails. Unfortunately, about two-thirds of the route was on asphalt or through Dalat’s surrounding villages. I appreciated the opportunity to see some of the local culture, but Jeff was hoping for something a little more hardcore in terms of the biking. Plus, about halfway through the day our guide got a flat tire and had to walk his bike several kilometers before he could get it fixed. Poor guy.
After several days in Dalat, we decided to make our way to our final destination in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). We opted for the six hour bus ride, both to save money and to use it as an opportunity to see more of Vietnam’s countryside. The bus itself — not the ride — turned out to be the real experience. Instead of the typical rows of 2-3 seats on each side of the aisle, our bus had people literally stacked on top of each other. Jeff and I both had “top” seats, meaning we had to crawl onto a tiny platform to our seats, above someone else’s.