Two months ago (!) I joined a number of people from my housing association and took a memorable trip (so memorable, in fact, that I’m about to recount it all to you, right now, two months late!) to Vietnam’s central highlands, the most prominent city of which is Dà Lạt.

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!

The villas have been fantastically preserved and renovated over the years, but the ones we were in still retained their colonial feel – hardwood furniture, enormous bathrooms, chandeliers, and linen covered everything. We were two to a bed, but I can’t complain too much, it was just so comfortable!
The date of the trip had originally been on a weekend I couldn’t attend because I had to work, but at the last minute it was moved up a weekend. I decided to go all in and travel, but had to take a later bus by myself because of my late sign up. I ended up catching a sleeping bus at 1am, and arrived in Dà Lạt at about 7:15am – a trip I’d been told would take 8 hours (I later found that these discrepancies are totally normal here).

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! 

They give you a blanket and little pillow, and your bed has the option of reclining up or going almost totally flat. There are curtains on the windows to keep out the streetlights and such. I brought my Finn the Human backpack pillow (fashioned from my halloween costume from last year) but LEFT IT ON THE BUS LIKE AN IDIOT. The sadness as I watched the bus drive away could have served as an alternative energy source, it was so palpable. I’m surprised the people around me didn’t get excruciating cases of ennui just from being around me at that moment. After 4.5 hours of sleep, it was just a little more emotional that it should have been – it’s just a pillow!

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.

Upon arrival I boarded a smaller bus that took everyone to their destinations and a few short minutes later I was getting off at Dalat Cadasa Resort. I was pretty impressed. I remember thinking that this must be what holidays as a regular grownup feel like (at least lame grownups that don’t prefer to live in their own juices in a tent in the woods for weeks at a time… of which I am one). There were pines everywhere and I arrived just in time for breakfast. It was the first time I had met most of my traveling companions, and, as usual in these groups, I felt a little reserved and shy as I got the hang of the group dynamics. I had Banh Mi Op La – baguette with two sunny side up eggs and soy sauce. I highly recommend it.
We consisted of 10 French (well, 8, and then 1 Italian and 1 Viet, my landlords, who both speak French), 2 Germans, and myself. I spent a lot of the weekend just trailing after the others, listening to them converse but unable to participate. I really can’t blame them for speaking in their native tongue, it must be nice to find countrymen in a foreign land to share your culture and tongue with. Still, by the time we were headed back on Sunday I was pretty sure that if I ever heard another word of French it would be much too soon. Sorry, French friends who are reading this! I still think your language is beautiful, but I wish I knew more.
To my delight, my companions were largely awesome, and when I did talk to them we had good times together. I met some really cool people. Many of them have moved away by now, only a few short months after we met, and I’ve come to realization that so many of my friendships must necessarily be extremely short term here – an odd thought. I play friendship for keeps, and when I want to be friends, I’m going to do my best to stay in touch. Hopefully I can maintain some of these friendships over the years – I relish the thought of having friends from around the globe!
After learning how to drive a bike for the first time we tooled about the city for a short while before heading to a Buddhist temple in a rural area not far from the city. It was utterly packed with tourists – an unbelievable amount of people were visiting this place. Some were there to pray and be buddhists together, but so, so many more of them were tourists, just like us, come to see one of the more famous temples in the area. The grounds were enormous and incredibly beautiful. (In many ways, this region reminds me of Northern Wisconsin – sandy soil, pines, crisp air, and greenery everywhere.) It was on the side of a large hill and surrounded by pines (again, thousands of them here) and the perfect weather made for a great, relaxing time as we explored and poked around.
Down the hill, following a winding path of cobbled stones and steps, we came across a good-sized lake, where boatmen would take people out on skiffs (I think that’s the appropriate term) for a small fee. The group chilled out on the bank of the lake, and we took short catnaps and snapped pictures, lazily talking and laughing about nothing. It was a nice break. I wandered off and got some surprisingly great pictures of native flowers with my crummy iPhone camera, and after a while we gathered the strength to ascend again, climbing roughly ten million tiny stairs back to the parking lot and picking up the stray members who had wandered off.
Following this we got back on our bikes and went a short distance – practically around the corner – to another tourist hotspot. This place was famous for its 7 waterfalls of various heights and intensities, and was well worth it, no matter how touristy it was. They offer this hilarious little roller coaster thing (the Italian referred to it as “Vietnamese Machine” which struck me as pretty hilarious) that takes you to the bottom of the ravine, and then from there you can eat lunch, enjoy the view, and wander across bridge after bridge looking at the different waterfalls. We got some good group shots in front of waterfalls and were able to laze our way around the grounds, snapping pictures and dipping our toes in the water.
The area is completely lush and green – a feast for the eyes and a treat for the body after being in Saigon’s heat and concrete for two months. It was completely refreshing to see some actual nature that wasn’t manicured into bizarre geometric shapes (although one thing I found funny was that, although the fences are shaped like bamboo, they are actually concrete) and to simply be out of Saigon’s pollution was like a holiday in heaven. Leaving behind the constant beeping and vrooming of motorbikes felt like sloughing off a dead skin and reaching nirvana at the same time – it was awesome.
There were the usual tacky Vietnamese trappings – in one area there was a concrete stylized tiger coming out of a cave, and I couldn’t figure it out until I went around a stand of bamboo and found this guy, pictured at right, dressed in a monkey costume and smoking a cigarette. It must have been a reenactment of some kind of myth or fairy tale – we never found out, since he just kept chain smoking while we were there. 
Opposite the monkey man was a cowboy, in full Western cowboy regalia. I haven’t figured out this obsession with cowboys and cowboy clothes (especially hats, which were everywhere), but this guy had it all, right down to the six shooters and western style saddle. It was totally odd… and this wasn’t the last time we would see “cowboys” on our weekend adventure. Prior to ascending in the “Vietnamese Machine” for lunch, many people took off their sandals or shoes and dipped into a stream feeding a rather large waterfall and chatted for a minute – a great break. Even with the weather as nice as it was, it was still good to laze around a bit – this is holiday, after all!
We returned to the hotel for mid-afternoon naps and relaxation. By 3pm we were up and at ’em again, this time tooling around the city a bit more before heading out of town and to Lang Biang, yet another major tourist attraction here. Although they offer camping, climbing, hotels, restaurants, paragliding (!), and more, our goal was the top of the mountain, which provided a breathtaking 360 degree panorama of the surrounding valleys, lakes, and the city of Dà Lạt itself. While we were waiting, we were encouraged to pet the horses and zebras that were roaming the parking lot. The two german girls got attached to one particular “zebra” and only after petting it for 10 minutes realized that the stripes were SPRAY PAINTED ON. It was a FAKE ZEBRA. I guess the real question was, is it white with black spray paint, or black with white spray paint?? The world may never know (my bet is white with black spray paint).
After the worlds fastest, most scary, crazily-inclined jeep ride to the top of the mountain, we got 20 minutes to look around and take pictures. We had a view of EVERYTHING! Here’s Dà Lạt below us:

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!!