Peace, quiet, forests, waterfalls and a happy Lee & Caroline

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March 27th 2009
Published: March 27th 2009
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Peace, quiet, forests, waterfalls and a happy Lee & Caroline - Dalat
20th - 22nd March 2009

This is my kind of place; cooler climate, endless forests of towering pine trees, the beautiful smell of pine sap in the unsullied air, twisty roads, dirt tracks to explore and minimal effort required to escape the crowds. It’s been so long since I’ve been anywhere similar I’d almost forgotten just how much I love places like this. I was born for the hills; when I used to compete in cross country running and cycling years ago the hills were my forte, they’re where I feel happiest and most relaxed and the type of scenery I appreciate most - more so than any city, beach, flatland or desert - and the subtropical hills surrounding Dalat provided us with the days of respite we’ve been craving since being almost constantly on the move having crossed into Vietnam three weeks ago.

It seems not everyone particularly likes Dalat. We’d only met a few travellers en route who’d recently visited and they had mixed views. We quickly discovered why; those who are impartial or even nonplussed by the hype of the place stay in the town and don’t get out exploring - those who appreciate it get out into the countryside and enjoy the fruits of the rich and diverse landscape around. We certainly fell into the latter group!

In a similar vein to the unfolding story of our ongoing trip through Vietnam, our first day, having arrived at the ungodly hour of 6am from Quy Nhon involved finding a hotel to catch a necessary quick snooze after an uncomfortable night bus journey and dump our mass of luggage before beginning our day. Dalat is small, everywhere is within walking distance and we quickly found a cheap and friendly hotel to stay at.

Riding through the countryside surrounding Dalat really was a pleasurable experience. We hired a fairly shoddy Chinese manufactured motorbike, which actually I quickly began to like despite its chronic lack of power, and we gently rode through the hilly roads at a sauntering speed appreciating the sights and smells we experienced along the way. You really don’t have to venture a great distance from Dalat and you’ll find yourself enveloped in a sea of green trees, light foliage and graced by dappled light as you pass along the tree lined roads. We had no particular destination in mind and just took which ever turning looked the best or most intriguing, frequently stopping along route to rest our backsides and admire the views. None of the pictures taken even begin to capture what the place looks like. You can only appreciate it in person when taken as a total picture.
We came across a sign to ‘Tiger Den’ waterfall and decided to take a look. After taking a few wrong turns due to abominable sign posting thereafter, we eventually found ourselves going down a one in four gradient dirt path, formerly a tarmac road, for what seemed like an eternity - the whole time wondering if our Chinese wonder machine would have the guts for the long slog back uphill. The bottom of the hill revealed we’d thankfully gone the right way as we arrived at a dilapidated looking ticketing booth of which apparently we were the only present visitors - not another car, bike or bus in sight.

Strangely the place actually represented a recurring observation among all tourist attractions within and around Dalat in that everything seemed dilapidated and in a relative state of disrepair. Every place we visited in this area was in need of some restoration or renovation - almost like Dalat had received a huge amount of investment to make it more attractive to tourists about ten years ago, after which the idea was promptly forgotten.

At the waterfall were the remains of what looked like a beautifully landscaped retreat where most if not all of the thatched huts had fallen into disrepair. All of the signposts around Dalat are faded away, and even the tiled pagodas around Xuan Hoang Lake in the centre of the city all have holes in their roofs. And the flower garden - well… that was just an abomination, perhaps it was nice once upon a time, but that’s well past its prime now. The lake is filled with mud after some heavy downpours I would guess, the boats on the lake have all sunk or are rotting on the lakes edge, the water fountains have all been turned off and most of the flowers seem to grow in greenhouses rather than actually in the semi-landscaped garden - contrary to what you might expect given the place’s name. Strange given Dalat is actually a very popular tourist destination for both domestic and foreign visitors alike.

At the waterfall though, my day was made when we ended up having the place to ourselves for the entire two hours of our stay. The weather was spectacular, not a cloud in sight and the sky a heavenly deep blue colour, the scenery just beautiful in its peace and tranquillity and the waterfall was not only an impressive sight but easy to climb and swim in too. That’s the kind of place I like! Caroline unfortunately forgot her swimming costume, but I happily lazed in all the different pools of the waterfall for ages and could have done so for an eternity. It’s moments like that where I relish living in the present and appreciating all of life’s niceties and trivialities. I think we captured some great photos of the place, but trust me, they don’t do it justice! (Or perhaps I’m just getting carried away having been living in a Chinese city for the last year?)
Sunrise the following day revealed a day as fine as the former and we decided upon venturing to the local LangBien national park where we would ascend the 2169m high (7150ft) slopes of LangBien Mountain. It’s really not as difficult as you may (or may not) imagine since the plateau is already quite high before starting - as testament to that statement; it only ended up taking a little under two hours from the park entrance to the summit.

The start of the trail follows a tarmac road which if your Vietnamese they’ll offer to drive you up. We’re not Vietnamese so walked and followed the trail which eventually veers into a dirt path and it’s necessary to follow for the next hour or so. The trail passed through some beautiful forest/ jungle scenery eventually leading to some incredibly steep and rutted trails where both hands and feet are necessary for the final 20 minute slog. Being inside the forest means no wind and serious humidity so it certainly got us perspiring!

En route we passed a few people who’d already made the summit descending who told us ‘there’s a surprise’ on the summit and the next people we passed told us it was a ‘little crowded’. I was imagining a whole group of locals hawking water and chocolate at exorbitant prices, but actually we just found a group of perhaps 40 Vietnamese students all crammed upon the tiny garden sized summit. It always makes me laugh just how different European and Asian attitudes can be when it comes to the countryside. In Europe we believe in respecting the countryside for the fact it’s quiet, clean and pure in comparison to towns and cities and do as little as possible to change that. Asian people seemingly believe it’s their duty to bring the city to the countryside; burning plastic, running generators, smoking, listening to loud music, talking on mobile phones, shouting, littering etc. I’m not tarring all Asian people with the same brush, but it’s been a common theme in all of our year and a half in Asia and represents a considerable difference of culture. I’m never quite sure whether to laugh or cry!

The view from the top was quite incredible and gave a bird’s eye view of the entire surrounding landscape with all its lakes, rivers, forests and towns. The weather quickly changed with thick black clouds mounting above our heads, the ominous sound of thunder in the distance, and imagining the steep route down in rain soaked conditions prompted us to make a premature descent having
The ramshackle bridgeThe ramshackle bridgeThe ramshackle bridge

There were signs saying don't cross, but actually it was just fine!
only spent a short, but rewarding five minutes atop. We ended up getting a drenching, but however infuriating in the instance it was still worth it in retrospect. I don’t think I looked too pleased returning to collect our motorbike which the woman looking after our motorbike found most amusing.

After some time contemplating our options of next destination we decided upon Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta and booked a requisite bus to Saigon which would leave at close to midnight of our third day.

Our third and final day in Dalat we spent exploring the city itself. I guess it doesn’t have a great deal to offer but it was nice to walk some of the seven kilometre circumference of the lake and appreciate the changing light conditions caused by the beautiful clouds in the sky, but in reality I guess Dalat is the least charming of any Vietnamese town or city we’ve visited yet. It’s the countryside that’s champion here. The reminder of our time in was spent relaxing in café’s, reading and writing - something our lifestyles are getting well accustomed to!

Mekong Delta next! I’ve been looking forward to this for ages. Our trip so far has been fantastic and these last few days have reignited an appreciation of my senses that living in China had slowly forced me to suppress. It’s nice to appreciate what I can see, smell, hear and taste again.

The Mekong Delta represents the archetypal Vietnam I’ve always imagined and I can’t wait to see it. Should be great!

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