Perched in the Southwest highlands of Vietnam, the first thing that strikes you about Dalat as you climb off a cramped bus in the early evening is the cooler temperature. We arrived just as the sky was turning pink and all had jumpers on within about five minutes before making our way to our hostel: Mr Peace’s (a hostel that I’d definitely recommend to anybody staying in Dalat, if only for Mr Peace’s company, which is quite frankly top banter).
Most activities in Dalat involve biking off on meandering roads through pine-studded hills but there are some things to see in Dalat itself, notably Hang Nga Crazy House, which we went to the day after we arrived. It is one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever been, a twirling concrete mass of turrets and towers, twisting bridges and precipitous walkways with vines and cascading shapes like molten lava. It is like a dark Disneyland on some kind of drug trip, filled with lost tourists, many of whom are taking selfies at every bridge, stairwell and pond. Lots of tourists asked to take photos with us, presumably because we were Western (this happens a lot), and one lady from China gave me a lucky charm, wrapped in tissue paper and covered in Chinese calligraphy, telling me to take it with me for good luck. I’m not sure how much luck it has brought me so far but I still have carried it with me everywhere I’ve been since. On the subject of crazy architecture, another highlight of Dalat was a bar called ‘100 Roofs’, which we went to on our last night. My guide book muses that perhaps there’s something about the cooler mountain air that inspires mad creativity and perhaps that’s true. 100 Roofs is hands down the coolest bar I’ve ever been to – there are so many floors of sprawling stairwells and underground it’s a stone labyrinth of stairs and secret passageways and Aztec-like faces grinning down at you in the pitch darkness. Getting lost is inevitable and hilarious. If you go, make sure there’s a light on your phone and also bring your own booze. It’s an unmissable experience.
During the day, we embarked on Mr Peace’s ‘Secret Tour’, a motorbike tour which winds around the hills surrounding Dalat – at the start we weren’t sure exactly where Mr Peace would take us but it had been highly recommended so we decided to have a bit of faith and just do it. Climbing onto the back of a moped for the first time was nerve-wracking – I won’t lie – but I trusted my friend who was driving and, within about 10 minutes of riding, was unbelievably glad I’d done it. We soared round snaking bends through forests of pine and valleys of bright vivid green, our hair streaming back in the wind. Our first stop was a village growing the flowers we’d seen all over Vietnam: roses, lillies, gerberas and sunflowers. Flowers, a main Vietnamese export, of all different shades lay in neat rows under greenhouses introduced by the French during colonial times. Then flying on to a coffee plantation, another big export, surrounded by jasmine trees, their fragrant floral scent filling our nostrils. We were shown the two main types of coffee (Arabica and Robusta) and got to eat a Robusta bean straight from the tree – violet, juicy and sweet on the inside, like a coffee flavoured berry. We learnt how the Vietnamese wasted nothing during the coffee-making process: when the coffee trees no longer produce good quality coffee, the wood is made into furniture or used as fire wood; the coffee husks can be used as fertiliser and the nectar from the flowers feed colonies of bees which produce rare, incredible quality honey. The coffee farm specialised in civet coffee, famous in Indonesia, where the coffee beans are eaten and digested by civet cats, which can then be processed to make amazing-tasting coffee. We saw the civets sleeping curled up in cages next to the cafe where we could try the coffee with beautiful views of the surrounding fields and lakes: it was probably the best one of the best cups of coffee I’d ever had. Next was a cricket farm which also made rice wine – again, the process exemplified how resourceful the Vietnamese people are: nothing is wasted at any stage. Instead it is used as animal fodder to grow pigs for pork (a staple) or as fertiliser. We tried crispy fried crickets with chilli sauce which, surprisingly and somewhat frighteningly, weren’t bad when you didn’t think about what you were eating. I wasn’t much of a fan of the eggcup of rice wine which was passed around our table – a Canadian French woman who was riding pillion with one of the guides put us out of our misery by knocking it back.
Our next stop was the Happy Buddha temple, an impressive building at the top of a set of stone steps with huge statues of gods gilded in gold and surrounded by offerings: flowers and fruits and the swirling smoke of incense sticks. It was quiet apart from the occasional metallic echoing of a gong hit for prayer, some people getting down on their knees in silent meditation. Around the corner of the temple was the Happy Buddha statue which was almost monstrous in size – swollen with happiness, we put our hands on its barrel-sized toes, which we’d been told was lucky. We learnt about the dawn of Buddhism and two of its main principles: ‘hiue’ and ‘tam’. ‘Hiue’ belongs to family, our guide told us. When you survive by hieu you make your parents proud and smile. ‘Tam’ belongs to everyone on the world, and means a ‘willing’ to bring happiness to people. Something about those two words and the spirituality of that place made me think about my own life and how best to live it. Down the road from the temple was Elephant Waterfall, a huge cascade of water tumbling with force into a large pool amidst a jungle of twisting vines and smatterings of purple flowers, sending spray into the rocky canyon we’d climbed through to take a closer look. Grassy mounds rose up from the river below, sparkling in the midday sun with tiny droplets of water.
After a stop for lunch, we rode on dusty bumpy roads visiting a pepper farm, climbing plants studded with red and green pepper berries, sweet on the tongue until you got to the crunchy centre which was unmistakably peppery spice. We saw cotton plants and mango flowers, a shower of pale yellow blossoms and a 100 year old Catholic church in a deserted rural village. On dirt tracks through fields of flowers we rode, jasmine mixed with the occasional smell of manure, gently sloping mountains silhouetted against a perfect blue sky. Then finally onto Pongour Waterfall, what we were looking forward to most about the ‘secret tour’, which was rumoured to pass by here. Admittedly, the waterfall would have been a better experience if it wasn’t for the swarm of tourists, but despite that it was still beautiful, little rainbows glinting in the spray of lots of little showers of water spread across a wide face of reddish rock. We clambered up to the fall at the top and stood underneath the torrent and dancing spectrums of colour before climbing down to a vast shimmering green pool on the other side of the waterfall where we could swim in the calm cool water, washing off the dust of the day on the bikes. On the way back to Dalat, we stopped off at a lake, where we watched the the sun dip below the hills, the sky a gentle marbled mass of purple and orange clouds, the last specks of blue mirrored in the lake’s rippling surface. The light was fading on the ride back, and the temperature had dropped considerably, but the evening sky was stunning. The moon was a graceful crescent sliver, hanging weightlessly in the sky as if by an invisible silk thread, pink clouds wispy and twirling against a backdrop of violet-indigo. Nobody said much on the way back. We took in the scenery silhouetted against that beautiful highland sky and felt content. With the wind in your hair and the sun on your face, there are few better ways to see the charm of the Vietnamese countryside other than on the back of a bike.
N.b. For avid followers of my blog, you will be pleased to know that my aforementioned purple toetail fell off during my time at the waterfall. As an honest blogger I thought I should inform you.