It is situated anywhere from 6-9 hours north of HCMC, and we were told to wear pants and long sleeves because it gets cold there. HA! It was shorts weather if I’ve ever seen any – a perfect 76F and mostly sunny all weekend. It’s known for pine trees, strawberries, milk, and its abundant lakes and tree covered foothills. It provides temperate vegetables, flowers, and fruits to the rest of Vietnam and is particularly famous for a jam made from rose, strawberries, sweet potato, and mulberry.
It is the capital of Lâm Đồng Province, home to the Dà Lạt people, and is a popular tourist destination due to its mild climate and colonial past. During our stay we rented motorbikes, I learned how to drive, we toured the city, visited a temple, took a roller coaster around waterfalls, ate amazing food, and saw some incredible sights.
Hit the jump for a long post, and so, so many pictures!
French explorers came across the region in the 1890’s and asked the governor of the then-French territory of Cochinchina to establish a resort paradise – they were enchanted by the mild climate, the almost constant mists covering the valleys, and the pine trees (leading to its nickname of “City of Thousands of Pine Trees”). Consequently, villas, boulevards, parks, and other French colonial signatures came to define this city, most of which remain intact today. When my group came for the weekend, we stayed in one of these sets of colonial French villas!
A sleeper bus is just exactly what it sounds like. It was actually kind of awesome to experience. I wish that I’d had another person to ride with, but I managed the new experience ok in the end. Specifically, it consists of three rows of small double decker beds, with two walking rows, and then in the back of the bus there are five beds in a row on top and bottom. I was in the back, on top, next to the window for both trips – Not a bad proposition!
Around 5:30am my bus driver turned on ABBA Gold (yes, I actually knew what CD it was – sigh. So sad. Thanks, High School) and played it at full volume for the rest of the trip. I was just a tad disgruntled when we finally, FINALLY arrived at the Dà Lạt bus station (where I then lost the pillow, again, so sad), a mere 310 km (193 miles) away from what has become my home.
The sky might have been overcast at this point, but that’s nothing new here this time of year. Fortunately, we didn’t get dumped on at all, and the weather stayed consistently cool and mild. Again, an amazing change from being in the city! After coming back down the mountain (again, holy crap, it was so dangerous – but exhilarating!) we poked around the shop a bit, waiting for the next thing to happen: our visit and bbq with a tribe of the Dà Lạt people in the region, which was only meters away from the gates to Lang Biang.
We maneuvered our bikes down a concrete incline and around corners that I never would have thought negotiable, but somehow I didn’t embarrass the crap out of myself, like I was sure I would. The ceremonial show they put on for us was a lot like some of the native american pow wows I’ve been to in Wisconsin with my family. There was an MC on a mic, and the performances varied between instrumentals with or without singing on traditional instruments (some were pretty cool, but it was too dark for my camera) and traditional dances – some with only men, some only women, and a few with everyone. Everyone wore native dress. It was fascinating theatre.
The show concluded with alcohol and bbq. They brought around these clay jugs filled with a local alcohol (my guess is rice wine), which was covered with saran wrap. They then gave us these super long straws and everyone got to take turns poking in the straw and taking a shot or two of alcohol. The meat tasted like chicken, but it may have been pork. I wasn’t paying much attention – I spent a lot of this time trying to get a picture of this one insane bamboo instrument, but failed pretty badly. The ceremony ended with karaoke (of course… what were you expecting?) and this jumping game where you take a partner and try to jump down a corridor of rapidly moving bamboo sticks in a pattern. If you can get the pattern, and your feet to cooperate, it was pretty fun.
After this we went out to eat at what they call a “drinking restaurant.” These places bring you a massive amount of food in a community-style dining situation, and everyone’s passing and sharing. The goat restaurant was another of these restaurants. Usually, I’ve found that they feature a particular kind of meat or meats and vegetables that you grill yourself over the little firepits they bring you. The air is smokey, the beer arrives in plastic 30-count crates of bottles, and everyone splits the bill evenly at the end of the meal, no matter how much you eat or drink. It makes for a fun and entertaining meal experience, and I always enjoy them.
This particular menu was big on shrimp and crocodile, which tasted like chicken (no joke) but with a flaky, fishy texture. It was awesome (that’s it over to the right, after being dipped in the marinade). We dined and drank until late, and then came back to the villa to sit in the backyard and get to know each other better. We talked about politics, law, money, business (many of the Europeans are here on internships, and they’re almost always in business, law, or finance. I have met zero artists, unfortunately, but several other teachers) until late in the evening. When we adjourned it was decidedly sleepytime, and, despite only getting 4.5 hours the night before on a bus, I was just getting my third wind. Eventually I fell asleep – again, the mattress didn’t hurt! Like a DREAM, folks, a DREAM.
Sunday morning started with a beautiful, relaxing morning in the garden, eating a bowl of hot pho (normally not my favorite, but it was a little chilly – at least down to 72F. HA) and chatting with one of the women I didn’t get to know very well on Saturday. If this isn’t what it’s like to be pampered, I do not know the meaning of the word. We were surrounded by elegance and greenery, with Viet tourists in sun dresses and dress shirts chatting and taking their morning pho and coffee. It was relaxing and decidedly awesome. I got a couple pineapple juices to help me unwind, which was fantastic – I cannot get enough pineapple juice here. I freakin’ love it!
About noon we were kicked out by the cleaning ladies, who, predictably, were unhappy we were still there but unwilling to say anything. It always takes some craftily-worded conversation to find out what anyone REALLY wants here – this annoying trait makes me miss my homeland sometimes, where people will tell you what they think whether you like it or not. Go America! I went around knocking on doors and rustling everyone up to get out – many were still asleep (not really sure why I was up so early, but I was).
While everyone was packing up (and taking their sweet time), four of us who were all ready to go got on our bikes and went out into the country. This is where I REALLY learned to drive. The landscape was beautiful, the roads empty and winding, and the greenery, breeze, and view restorative in the extreme. I learned how to accellerate into turns, how to turn on a dime, how to find gas in the middle of no where, and how to stop and ask for directions when we needed them (only twice). We buzzed about on our bikes for at least an hour before heading back into the city and to our final destination, the Valley of Love.
I won’t go into the Valley of Love too much. It was a garden surrounding a lake that was FILLED TO THE BRIM with the ugliest, most tacky sculptures I’ve ever seen, really. It was like walking into a 99 cent Japanese hallmark card hell writ large. We got some banh mi and lychee and ate in a gazebo in the middle of the lake, which was nice. Everytime this one kid on a two seated bike went by he shouted “HELLO!” at us, so it was basically just like being in my schools, except quieter. Everyone was pretty tired at this point.
Our lunch completed we dropped off our bikes and got coffee while we waited for the bus to take us to the bus station. Our return trip took 9 hours (again, for an 8 hour trip. Time has no meaning here) with a stop for chicken soup around dinnertime. I got the same bed on the sleeper bus and passed out pretty hard, if only to block out the sounds of French chatter, missing my pillow all the more because of the shitty little pillow they gave us.
We arrived to the bus depot in HCMC around 1am, I think, and made our way home in a taxi (there were three from my house), and the next day I started my first day in the public schools. It was a crazy week, but the weekend was refreshing and calming and I enjoyed the trip a ton.
Overall, Dà Lạt was amazing. I wish I’d known my (amazing!) roommates Yona and Mickael better at that point, but our friendships were just beginning. If we’d gone today, the three of us would have been inseparable, I’m sure! I hope to visit Dà Lạt again soon – perhaps next spring, when the heat is in full force here and I’m sweating like a pig (again).
Until that day, I hope you enjoyed my VERY long post about my trip to Dà Lạt. If you ever visit Vietnam, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s only one example of the extreme climate variation in Vietnam, and one of the more refreshing places I’ve ever been.
Thanks for reading!!