High country, South Vietnam: Đà Lạt

Any town that molds itself into a hilly region via a chaotic, windy, no-rules streetplan gets immediate bonus points for charm, and Đà Lạt is no exception. Combine this with welcoming residents and beautiful temperate countryside and you have a winner destination unique in Southeast Asia. French colonial influence is constantly apparent here with the gardens, architecture, and coffee. The surrounding mountains are sided with clean pine forests, coffee plantations, and a cornucopia of flower and vegetable farms. The zig-zag streets are lined with all kinds of blooming trees and bushes.

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It’s not exactly a genuine old Vietnamese town. Đà Lạt is a product of French colonialism – they wanted a nice cool place to vacation and the idea caught on. But the vestigial colonial influence only goes skin deep (or not even, if we’re speaking literally). Once you’re talking to the locals, eating the food, or simply people watching, it’s quite apparent you’re still very much in Vietnam. And while it’s touristy, nearly all the visitors are Vietnamese – you know you’re a bit off of the beaten path for Westerners when broken attempts to speak earn you a laughing smile and a pat on the back rather than tired indifference.

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Phở stop. The little cake-donut things that look like bread get torn up as croutons, it’s delicious
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Mì Quảng, a new one for us

Đà Lạt is a popular destination for folks looking to do outdoor activities: hiking, biking, canyoning. I (Gregor) really wanted to get on a bike and Elaine wanted a day off so I went off for a mountain bike day with a local guide. ~$30 gets a day with a new Trek bike, lunch, and a guide who can add a lot of color and context to what you’re seeing – good deal! Even though he’s only been learning English for a year, Ho (the guide) was quite adept. It turned out I was the only one who signed up today so it was just us two.

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We got rolling out of town and into a nearby park. About an hour in, Ho’s chain broke, and judging by his perplexed expression he hadn’t encountered this issue before. I asked him if he had any tools, and despite the fact that he was carrying what turned out to be a really heavy pack including enough food for 4 and a huge floor pump – no tools. Ho, rather distraught, eventually decided on a solution.

“I think, we keep going.” Gestures forward.

“But,” I point out the obvious, “you can’t.”

Pause. “I will run for you.”

You can’t be serious. But of course he was. There’s no way that was going to happen but he was honestly trying to do the best he could for my day. Let’s try something different:

“Can you call the company? We can go back to the road and they could bring a new bike?”

“I think,” he considers, “this is a good idea.”

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Calling in for backup

Excellent. Ho managed to get in touch with his coworkers and we hoofed it back a couple kilometers to meet a van and swap out his bike. We only lost an hour or so and were back on our way. Problem solved! We wound up and down through pine forest, catching views of the surrounding mountains and family-owned farms growing all sorts of produce. From the park we went out onto a road past coffee plantations into a neighboring town that’s traditionally been home to a local ethnic minority. More farms, hillside views, and flowers everywhere. Everyone smiling and having a good-natured laugh at us hauling ourselves around. It was a great way to see the countryside around Đà Lạt!

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Mountains, pine trees, and coffee plantations

As I mentioned it’s relatively cool up here, meaning for me I can exist outside comfortably in a t-shirt and shorts. For Vietnamese however this is frigid weather and puffy jackets are in use everywhere. Even Ho was sporting a sweatshirt on our hilly mountain bike ride. “How can you wear this?”, I had to ask him in between panting. His response: “It’s better for me.”

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Ho and the pile of food he brought for us

A popular site to visit in town is the “Crazy House”, a unique organically-themed architectural work of art. It’s a whimsical fairy-tale like set of towers with windy stairs, funky colors, and absolutely no regularity. The result is reminiscent of Barcelona’s Gaudí sights, and while not as refined, fun nonetheless!

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Crazy house. Not all perspective distorted photographically.

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Đà Lạt has a modest night market in the center of town where a lot of the produce and flowers from the surrounding farms are out for sale. Strawberries are especially prevalent. There are also plenty of food carts and we tried out some interesting wrap-like things made with rice paper, egg, onion, dried shrimp, and a few other goodies grilled over a fire. It’s crunchy, creamy, savory, and fishy.

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night market with low-hanging clouds passing through
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grilling up a bánh tráng nướng

Our accommodations in Đà Lạt were on the less charming side of the overall experience. We ended up I think in a popular place for Vietnamese tourists to stay after hitting the numerous karaoke joints in town, and the walls were paper thin. Add in the very excitable insomniac dogs on the street and several roosters (at least one of which we were pretty sure was living inside the hotel) and it wasn’t exactly quiet! Ah well, at least it was clean and cheap.

Interesting eats here included “beef on tile” which involves getting a wicked hot charcoal brazier at your table (indoors, whatever) with a roofing tile on top where you grill yourself some beef. The whole setup is mounted in a nifty handmade arrangement that tilts the tile and deflects oil off into a bowl on the side. Super fun!

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Tabletop barbecue

We spent an extra night in Đà Lạt so we could catch a flight to Da Nang (near Hội An, our intended next destination). Otherwise we would have had to spend 2 long days travelling by bus and possibly train, and since there aren’t destinations we’re interested in between here and there we decided to skip that and fly. So anyway we had an extra day so we went for a hike with a small group from the same outfitters I biked with a couple days ago.

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Elaine loves crossing sketchy bridges

It was a nice way to spend the day and get some exercise. The hills around Đà Lạt aren’t epic but they are beautiful, punctuated as they are by coffee plantations and pine trees and churning rivers. We hiked down into a valley and along one such river (though by Vietnamese standards it is only a stream), crossing it a couple times via hanging bridges. The second such bridge had recently been damaged and was undergoing repairs by the local farmers but that didn’t stop us from crossing!

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It’s fine!

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There isn’t much in the way of large wildlife around Đà Lạt. The largest animals we saw were the mutts that every farming family has as pets, guarding their shack or running alongside a motorbike. We did see plenty of insects though, of all weird varieties (most too hard to capture by camera) as well as some interesting birds. We sampled some underripe passionfruit – very sour – which they grow overhanging coffee plants and alongside avocado and persimmon trees.

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We circled back to finish at Tiger Waterfall. While there our guide Hong told us a sobering story of his friend – also a tour guide – who organized canyoning trips to this waterfall despite it being illegal. (This is an activity where folks rappel down falls, among other things). It’s not permitted at Tiger falls because upriver is a dam which can open without warning, and three months ago Hong’s friend was killed there along with a tourist when this happened. Hong lit some incense for his friend and then we headed back into Đà Lạt for our last evening.

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Tiger Waterfall

True facts about Đà Lạt:

  1. Every third building houses a cafe.
  2. Flowers are on, above, and in everything. All flowers are always blooming.
  3. It rains every day, but not before 2pm.
  4. Any object remotely tall and pointy must be decked out like the Eiffel Tower. If this is not feasible, a Moulin Rouge windmill is acceptable.
  5. Wherever there are stairs outside there must also be a scooter ramp. The preferred method for making said ramp is by drooling concrete onto a perfectly good set of steps.

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We continue to meander our way north through Vietnam. This morning we hopped a flight up to Da Nang to visit nearby Hội An where I’m wrapping this up from. We got some great views both of the hills around Đà Lạt on takeoff and blocky meandering rice paddies on descent. Later!

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Đà Lạt hills on takeoff

Specifics: Phu Tho hotel is noisy. Dreams hotel on Phan Dinh Phung was nice. Groovy Gecko are the folks we did the day trips with. The night market is a good place for bites and we liked relaxing with some beers in Cafe 13.

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