Da Lat - Vietnam's "premier hill station"
Mar 16, 2007
After a quick pitstop in Ho Chi Minh to say goodbye to Liz & Barry
, we took an interminable bus journey to Da Lat, an interesting town and area completely dominated by rich agricultural produce (strawberries, wine, all types of veg, commercial flower nurseries etc). At an elevation of 1500m, the air at night was almost cool, but pleasant (although the locals were very well wrapped up in furry hats, gloves and thick jackets, even during the day).
We stayed three nights at The Pink House Hotel,
possibly aptly named in deference the owner, a canny and extremely camp young man called Rot who we were later to take an evening's cookery course with. Rot took us to the local market,
ostensibly to buy ingredients for the dinner of Spring rolls
and curry but as his sister had already done the early morning run, we think it may have been perhaps in order to ensure enough provisions were purchased to feed the entire extended family, as it later turned out.
The next day, we visited the architectural indulgence of a French-trained architect called Heng Nga, who, due to being the daughter of a former President of the Communist Party, had got planning permission to build an extremely weird collection of 'Alice in Wonderland' type buildings
as a hotel (secondarily), but primarily as an outlet for her creative imagination. We don't know whether drugs were involve or not, but the end result of "The Crazy House" was indeed very wacky.
Leaving Da Lat, we caught a hair-raising bus down the mountain. Sheer drops either side and hairpin bends for many miles, at least we were happily distracted by the two people in front - a large, ugly but rather charming Malaysian man who was trying to chat up the sassy young Vietnamese woman next to him. Unfortunately, Miss Vietnam suffered badly from motion sickness and regularly threw up into a plastic bag which Mr Malaysia gallantly threw out of the coach window (yuk!) despite some tutting from us, his neighbours behind.
Saturday 17th March and we're sitting in the café of Rainbow Divers situated in the centre of Nha Trang, Vietnam's diving capital. Nha Trang is a holiday destination about 400Km north of Ho Chi Minh on the east coast. Its now six days since Barry and Liz left us, and we have joined the "tourist trail" to make our way up to the historical city of Hue and neighbouring Hoi An. At midnight we join the Saigon to Hanoi train, called the "Reunification Express" to take us to Da Nang, (nearest station for Hoi An). We have booked a soft sleeper and will be on the train for 10 hours sharing a four berth compartment but, hopefully, without the ubiquitous karaoke.
The "tourist trail" comprises cheap 'open buses' that ply south to north, and vice versa, dropping passengers off at many popular destinations. (For the same price as a peak period return train fare from Clapton to Liverpool St, this bus travels from Ho Chi Minh in the far south to Hanoi in the North, a distance of some 2000 km). Fortunately the government is enforcing speed limits so the journeys are very long and unfortunately even longer due to the "tourist stops' on the way where the bus companies pick up their profits from the commissions they earn from the sites and eating houses. Since we have ruled out flying as an option, we have made it here by bus with all the little hassles.
Our first stop was Da Lat in the Central highlands. Developed by the French as a hideaway from the heat and as a replica of pre alpine towns. Da Lat is situated at 1500m and the French built Cathedral has stained glass windows made in Grenoble. The colonial masters used this town as an early health centre. It is now a sprawling tourist city, still growing rapidly, where Vietnamese tourists flock to escape the heat and be entertained. Although strategically situated during the War, there was a pact not to bomb the city so all of the French architecture remains intact, surrounded by soviet style modern buildings. A mess really.
We hired a motorcycle guide called Tong, a cheery Vietnamese lad of about 26 with good English who spent much of the time telling us about his two girlfriends in different towns, and with vix and I on another bike
we had a really great day (about 80km) visiting the surrounding countryside. The soil is so rich and combined with the cooler climate, and the area now produces a vast amount of the country's flowers, coffee and assortment of vegetables
. We visited a silk producing factory
. and saw the mulberry trees/bushes grown to feed the silk worms.
After the war, the government moved many people, including minority peoples to this region to create a strong agricultural economy and to combat the independence of the Montagnard people (who fought with the Americans). In the evening we had a Vietnamese cooking lesson (spring rolls and chicken curry) which was fun but our chef was not of the Jamie Oliver standard which was a pity.
One of the highlights of the day was observing two pigs lying in a drunken haze.
The fuel for distilling rice wine was coffee bean husks. With no wastage, the pigswill, we discovered, was the leftover pure alcohol-soaked rice grains. The pigs, consequently, lay snorting and grunting on their backs, looking healthy, peaceful and pissed!