We're back. This time in the south. We flew from Kuala Lumpur to Saigon and checked into our usual hotel on Bui Vien in the affectionately named - "backpacker ghetto". It's actually not that bad. Plus our hotel's familiar and the staff know us as the English teacher from Haiphong. When we arrived our room wasn't ready so we dumped our bags and did the only decent thing we could do - went for a beer. We wandered along the street dodging motorbikes and sunglasses salesmen and settled on a flimsy plastic chair outside a bar. In the space of one Saigon beer we'd seen more mopeds than we had in the proceeding 6 weeks...and after two beers it felt like we'd never left.
Our week in Saigon was spent meeting people in various schools and discussing work. More on that in a later blog. Anyway, as Vietnamese new year was approaching (Tet) it was evident that there would be no work until after the holiday. We realised we may as well leave the city and explore the south - so boarded the bus for the mountain town of Da Lat.
I heart Da Lat
Da Lat is famous in Vietnam for a number of reasons. For one it's the home of Vietnam's vineyards and Da Lat wine. Second, it has a lot of flowers. But majorly, and perhaps in combination with the wine and blooms - it's the romantic honeymoon capital of the country.
We'd heard a lot about Da Lat from people in Haiphong, particularly in speaking tests - "Where's your favourite place in Vietnam?" - "Da Lat! I love Da Lat! It's very romantic!". In fact, students would profess a love for the town even when they'd never even been, such is its fame. So, we couldn't miss out on a chance to visit.
A romantic stroll by the lake...?
Undoubtedly, Da Lat is a pretty little town with a great climate. During the day it was warm and sunny and at night - due to the altitude - cool enough for us not to need air con and for the locals to need thermals and woolly hats. On our first day we explored the place on foot. We'd heard there was a big, beautiful lake where cute, snugly and very-much-in-love couples (you know, like me and
The lake in Dalat
sadly lacking water.
Kate) can hire swan-shaped pedalos. Well, what could be more romantic than pedaloing around a lake in a swan-shaped plastic boat? Hmm. So you can imagine our disappointment when we found the lake was no longer a lake but more of a muddy hollow in the ground because they'd drained it before we arrived. Being British, we made the most of it and walked around the muddy hole hand-in-hand in the full glare of the midday sun. We even stopped to rest on a lakeside bench at one point and took in the view of the brown lake bottom with waterfowl looking depressed around a nearby puddle.
Da Lat flower garden and crazy house
Flowers are big business in Da Lat. They're grown there, shown there and shipped from there to the rest of the country. After our visit to the 'lake' and the inevitable buzz of romance that followed we headed to the flower garden. This was much better, with perfect weather, multicoloured blooms and even some abstract sculptures to browse. One half of the garden seems to serve as a garden centre and a pushy woman got really annoyed with me because I wouldn't buy
some pansy seeds. Sorry, but pansy-growing isn't my thing. She clearly disagreed.
Another walkable attraction of note is the crazy house. When Kate and I met in Liverpool there was a nightclub of the same name - except crazy was spelt with a K (extra crazy you see, like spelling Chris with a K...) and we were there many Saturdays. I don't know if it's still there, but what I remember of it is that it was spread out over several floors of smoky dancefloor and at some point in the night it was inevitable that friends would lose each other in the gloom. It also had death-trap stairs where most people I know had fallen down at least once (an even more dangerous stunt if you fell on the "metal" floor, what with all those studs and spikes everywhere). Anyway, Da Lat crazy house couldn't be like that, could it?
It isn't as it happens. But it is pretty crazy and hard to describe. It's a privately owned house set in grounds with the weirdest architecture and feels a lot like stepping into a Disney film. There are actually rooms you can stay in overnight...though some are
a bit creepy. For us it was enough just to have a look around. Have a look at the pictures, it's easier than trying to describe anything. Needless to say, it's like nothing I thought I'd see in Vietnam.
Long lost relatives underground...?
We went to Da Lat to escape the hustle and bustle of Saigon and figured it'd be early nights and early morning hikes. It was, to an extent, but one night after dinner we decided to check out a bar called Subterrain in the basement of a restaurant. The place was empty when we arrived and we reckoned on a quick beer and then home to bed. Then we met the resident barman - an Australian called Al - and before we knew it, we were playing a bizarre three-way version of paper-scissors-stone, with the loser having to drink shots of vodka. Then more people arrived. Then Al's wife, Yen, turned up and various other games ensued, including tug-of-war in the bar and a vicious game of hand slaps - which Yen generally won enthusiastically.
It later transpired that Al's surname was Kirby, like mine, and I realised it's the first time I've
ever met anyone of that name outside my family. We went on to discuss how we had nothing to do with the Kirby vacuum cleaner company and that neither of us had a hand in the invention of the Kirby hairgrip. We saved discussion of the Kirby Nintendo computer game character for another time and Kate and I headed back to our hotel before more complimentary vodka appeared.
Motorbikes, noodles, silk, rice wine, coffee and Vietnam
Da Lat is home to the Easy Riders. These are basically English-speaking tour guides who take you on trips around the central highlands on the back of their motorbikes. These can either be one day trips or much longer road journeys to neighbouring regions. In Da Lat town it's hard to walk down the street without being approached by one. "Hello! Where are you from?.....England?? Beautiful country! Lovely-jubbly!....What are you doing tomorrow??" ....which eventually leads to the offer of a countryside tour or a lift to Nha Trang.
We eventually relented and booked a couple of easy riders to take us on a 1 day tour of the local countryside - not entirely sure what this would entail. It ended
up being great fun. It was a full day starting at 830 and taking us through loads of Vietnamese countryside, agriculture and small-scale industry. We learnt the difference between the robusta, mocka and arabica coffee bean in a plantation. We visited the village of local minorities who even speak their own language (not Vietnamese). We went to small factories and learnt how Vietnamese staples like silk, noodles and rice wine are made. We saw temples and Buddhas and waterfalls and stunning views. We even heard first-hand accounts of the battles of the region during the Vietnam (American) war *. On top of all that, we got to whiz around on the back of motorbikes with some cool blokes who seemed to know everyone. It was well worth it.
My only complaint was the tiny helmet I had to wear which left a nice red line in my forehead. Of course, with my big English head it's not the first time I'd experienced this in Vietnam, but I was pleased that I didn't need it for the next journey - a bus ride to Nha Trang and the beach! *
At one point my guide pointed out a
long trench by the side of the road. "Viet Cong tunnels." he said "Like the ones at Cu Chi" referring to the network of underground hideouts used by the communist guerrillas during the war.
"Really?!" I gasped, assuming the roof of the tunnels must have collapsed and wondering how dangerous it was to walk around there.
"No." he replied dryly. "I'm joking. They're laying electricity cables." Then he pointed out the now obvious cables snaking into the ground.
"Oh yeah, of course." I smiled, pretending I knew all along...
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