Monday, 15 October 2012

The Paris of the East

We spent a good forty minutes wandering around the winding streets of Dalat before we finally found our hotel. When we did we were pleasantly surprised that the hotel was just what we were looking for. It was clean, friendly and in a pretty good location despite it being so difficult to find. There was one small issue when the bathroom decided to attack me, I was merrily having a shower when the light blew up. I think it knocked out all the lights on our floor of the hotel. Other than that, no complaints.

Coming to Dalat was a last minute decision, we had heard so many negative reviews of our intended destination, Nha Trang, that we started looking at good alternatives. Dalat is a small city in the central highlands of Vietnam dubbed the Paris of the East. It was originally an escape from the hustle and bustle of Saigon for the French during their colonialism. They built beautiful villas and huge wide highways across the entire town. As we drove into town it was clear we were entering somewhere completely different. It was like a cross between a quaint Vietnamese city and a town in the French Alps. The city is smack in the middle of a huge pine forest, and pine covered hills stretch out in every direction, the air is cool as the altitude is so high (at night we even wore long sleeves), and there is a tranquil lake in the center of town. It has a reputation for being a little avant-garde and kitsch, but that’s right up my street anyway. We were sold on the place from the minute we saw the lake sparkling underneath the sunset. The majority of tourists that visit Dalat are actually Vietnamese so it was nice to divert from the Western tourist trail for a while and experience somewhere more quintessentially Vietnamese, even though it felt more like Europe.

A fine example of the kitsch and niche style of the place is the ‘crazy house’, this was the first stop on our first day of exploring the town. Designed by the daughter of an independence war hero the ‘crazy house’ is a fantasy house art project that bears similarity to Dr. Seuss books, it felt quite Disneylandish. There are several different rooms of the house that you can walk around, some of which aren’t even finished yet. We spent a good hour here taking photographs and gawping at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. One of the most striking things about the crazy house and indeed the whole of Dalat seemed to be the invasion of the killer spiders. If you looked up at the sky from beneath the trees of the crazy house you could see streams of webs with giant spiders in them, spiders with yellow stripes are usually best avoided and I won’t lie, they freaked me out. Natalie was fascinated of course, and I had to drag her away from the insects, fish and lizards on many occasions during our stay. Once we had finished exploring the Vietnamese version of Wonderland, and once I had managed to convince Natalie that the spiders are dangerous and we should probably leave them alone we headed out.  

We took a taxi across town (and he didn’t even try to scam us, win) and arrived at Thien Vien Truc Lan (it’s a bit of a mouthful) in fact, I would have liked a mouthful of some delicious food but we arrived just as siesta time hit so we had to wait an hour before everything reopened. From here you can take a cable car to a hilltop monastery deep in the mountains and you can also visit a natural lake. We waited for the cable car to start running again, Natalie played with a worm (I might have her institutionalised) and we let our tummies rumble.

When we eventually got on the cable car it was clear that it was worth the wait, it was a long cable car ride to the monastery but it was incredibly scenic, the beautiful greenery sitting alongside pristine winding roads and Vietnamese farmland was beautiful from high up above. When we got to the monastery we strolled around for a while and did the clich├ęd tourist things and then headed out into the amazing pine forest to find the lake. It really didn’t feel like we were in Vietnam, and if it wasn’t for all the Asians I might have believed that we weren’t. The forest was spectacular and it did feel quite European until we got to the lake and saw the dog restaurant on the corner. Yeah, yeah the Vietnamese eat dogs, so do the Koreans, can we move on please? As a matter of fact, the Vietnamese will eat anything (see previous blogs).

We got some beef pho on the lakeside (no dog), it was pretty delicious, but the view was the really stunning thing. Soaring hills covered in pine trees stretching upwards from beneath the gentle water, several small boats cruising along the lake and clouds creating soft mist on the peaks of the mountains, it’s what I used to think Asia would look like before I came here. We slowly made our way back stopping off at a silk shop on the way and chatting to the owner for a while. That night we had dinner on the lake in the city and I tried a deer stir fry whilst Natalie lapped up some sweet and sour squid. Glutinous pigs.

The next day we took it pretty easy and we walked around the lake and eventually ended up at the Dalat Flower Park. More Disneylandish kitsch I hear you cry, well, yes, but it was pretty and we spent a good couple of hours walking around the giant flower park with views across the whole city, we swung on some swings and we smelt some flowers, we didn’t go for a horse ride on a Cinderella carriage, but we could have had we felt the need. After the flower park we did go for a swan ride on the lake, not a real swan, it was one of those cyclo boats shaped like a swan in an effortless attempt to be romantic. I tried to annoy Natalie by getting her wet but I didn’t have much luck, as usual she was too interested in the frogs and dead fish floating on the surface of the lake. Rather unnerving dead fish might I add, the lake didn’t look at all polluted but the fish told a different story. It was gorgeous though and I got a little sunburnt from the whole affair. We were pretty beat by the end of the day, the lake was bigger than it looked and we must have walked and cycled for miles before we finally got back to the hotel.

The next morning we hopped on our eight hour bus ride to Saigon, oh joy. The ride actually went pretty quickly thanks to the Ricky Gervais podcasts and a pretty good view out of the window. We got dropped off right on the backpacker strip in Saigon which was perfect. One old lady in floral pyjamas pulled us over and told us she had a room for ten dollars, in for a penny in for a pound, we took a look. Nooooo, thank you. The rooms looked pretty shabby and the whole place had an untrustworthy vibe, so we walked around for a bit and eventually found a lovely hotel for fifteen dollars, with all the amenities one could ask for, hot water, air con and finally some decent wifi, Facebook was still blocked though. Vietnam has a firewall much like China that blocks access to certain websites that the government doesn’t like, Facebook is one of them. There are ways around it of course but it’s always slow and glitchy. We didn’t see much of Saigon as we were only there for the night, we headed out the next morning towards Cambodia, and we made it. Cambodia is a story for next time, but we are here and having a great time, happy to be in yet another new and exciting place. Let’s just hope I won’t have to pull Natalie away from too many insects… 

1 comment:

  1. Hey Sean,

    This has nothing to do with your all. But I had to share, that if you are coming back to London soon, you should go to the British Library. There was a "On the Road" exhibition there. It was really cool, they had his original scroll out on display. Also, I saw Matilda the Musical and it was Brilliant. Hope your travelling is going swell.
    - Sarah