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Published: June 25th 2009
It is referred to as “Le Petit Paris” although we thought it looked much more like Switzerland. Regardless, Dalat is a little slice of Vietnamese Nirvana at 4,425 feet above sea level in the Central Highlands region of the country. It is refreshingly cool and dry, with average summer temperatures hovering around 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit. When we arrived in Dalat, we had an overwhelming sense of relief to be out of the oppressive heat and humidity of the lowlands. We were dumbstruck to see the locals in winter hats, gloves, and parkas at night when the temperature dropped to a chilly 65 degrees F!!!
Dalat’s charm is not just in its cool temperatures. As the official “honeymoon capital” of Vietnam, the city is literally brimming with the most spectacular, brilliantly colored flowers we have ever seen. There are so many that Joe and I wondered whether it was possible to get sick of looking at flowers after a while (we concluded that it was not possible). The surrounding countryside is also one of the most productive farming regions in the country. Just outside the city center, the hills have been transformed into thousands of terraced vegetable farms which sit alongside
innumerable greenhouses full of tulips, roses, and daisies. The Dalat region is so fertile that it supplies most of southern Vietnam with fruits and vegetable. Avocados are particularly abundant in Dalat, as are artichokes (artichoke root makes an outstanding tea; we are sending some home, and we are happy to share!). Coffee beans also thrive in this region, so much so that Vietnam is now the second largest exporter of coffee behind Brazil.
Dalat’s prosperity has been a relatively recent phenomenon. We understand that, as recently as 1992, there wasn’t enough food grown in Vietnam to feed everyone in the country, and people were hungry. Around that time, the government opened up the country to foreign investment and tourism. Agriculture exploded in Dalat, and today 1 in 10 farms in the region are free to grow flowers instead of food! Just one other historical note - although Dalat was attacked in 1968 as part of the Tet Offensive, it was largely spared during the American war primarily because the military officers from the north AND the officers from the south took their holidays there - each in villas on opposite sides of town!
Our stay in Dalat got
off to a great start with 2 short plane hops from Phu Quoc Island back to HCMC and HCMC to Dalat. On the latter leg of our trip, we hung out with a super friendly, formerly retired (before the economic crash) man from California - Charles - who has traveled extensively in Southeast Asia on business and gave us the lo-down on Dalat. The hotel we chose happened to be one of the best we have ever stayed in, and we stumbled upon a lovely, family-run vegetarian restaurant where we ate the tastiest and most interesting Vietnamese food for about $4 per meal (so we ate dinner there 3 of the 5 nights we were in Dalat). During the days, we spent most of our time walking and bicycling around the city and surrounding areas, trying to shed our newly acquired “Vietnam weight” - a consequence of too many delicious spring rolls, too much cheap beer, and the fact that vigorous exercise has been nearly impossible in the blazing heat and paralyzing humidity.
On our first day, we set out to walk the 7km perimeter of Xuan Huong Lake which sits in the center of Dalat and is bordered
Pool Hall - Dalat
It was fun to play but we are definitely out of practice!
by loads of flowering trees and shiny green topiary, not to mention one of Vietnam’s most coveted golf courses. At the top of the lake, we found Dalat’s Flower Park and strolled through garden after garden of hydrangeas, hibiscus, begonias, impatiens, orchids, fuchsia, flowering cactus, lilies, birds of paradise, and lots of other tropical flora. After the lake, we wandered around the city, largely lost, but managed to stumble upon the Dalat Cathedral where we happily rested on a pew and listened to some extraordinary Vietnamese musicians practicing for the next day’s mass. And, although we were looking for some emperor’s palace, we found Dalat’s “Crazy House” - Vietnam’s take on a “trippy” Alice in Wonderland village, which was conceived of by Hang Nga - the daughter of Vietnam’s second president who holds a PhD in architecture and apparently gets a kick out of pushing the buttons of Vietnam’s government officials.
We rented some nifty mountain bikes on our second day and pedaled over 18 miles through Dalat’s rolling hills - first to the little village of Trai Mat where we visited the very colorful and funky Linh Phuoc Pagoda, and second to the site of Tiger Falls where
We have not only mastered crossing the streets here, but also riding bicycles alongside the trucks, cars, motorbikes, cows, dogs, chickens and whatever else we find on the roads!
we found an uninspiring waterfall, redeemed only by the lovely soft pine forest surrounding it. Our little exercise program continued on the third day as we hiked up to Dalat’s cable cars (the closest we’ll probably ever get to a zip line) and rode them over to Quang Trung Reservoir and the Lam Truc Meditation Center. The latter was a delightfully schizophrenic scene juxtaposing throngs of Vietnamese tourists trying to get that perfect family photo against a backdrop of a blissfully peaceful and picturesque Buddhist center. We had loads of fun with all the super cute kids who came over to us to say “Allo” and “Where you from”? Some of the kids came over on their own, some seemed to do it on a dare from their friends or siblings, and still others were cajoled by parents who wanted them to practice their English. Its been very interesting to see how people (especially kids) stop to examine us, sometimes with wide eyes and open mouths, and then point to us and giggle with their friends and family! More often than not, we get a big smile out of passersby, particularly if we smile at them and say hello, and
we frequently get the peace sign or a wave hello!
Our visit to Dalat culminated in a day-long motorcycle tour of the area with two of the city’s famous “Easy Riders.” This is a group of independent guides who specialize in motorbike tours through the Central Highlands. They are a persistent bunch who manage to find each and every new tourist in town and try to sell them a tour. We were skeptical at first, but our two guides, Heip and Titi (pronounced “Hip” and “Te Te”, respectively), were so knowledgeable and interesting that they quickly won us over.
The day of the tour was overcast and at times rainy. We began at a popular Pagoda in town where Heip gave us quite a bit of background information on the history of Buddhism and told us very interesting stories about what he saw in Dalat, as a child, on the night of the Tet Offensive. Next we were off to the countryside where we were treated to multiple vistas of the surrounding farms and were privileged to tour several family run businesses including: a flower farm, coffee plantation, oyster mushroom farm, rice noodle making, broom making, a silkworm
farm, cloth weaving business, a bamboo basket making and a rice wine operation (one quick note about the rice wine - after the wine is made, some of it is fed to the pigs on the farm who get really drunk and fall asleep for a couple of days. Because they sleep so long, they are really hungry when they wake up and consequently eat a lot. This is how the pigs get nice and fattened up for slaughter! We were given a taste of the rice wine ... at 65% alcohol it was like jet fuel.)
The most striking aspect of the community of businesses was that they all either relied on the surrounding environment or each other for part of their operations. The brooms were made from a local reed type of grass. The silk worms eat Mulberry leaves that are from local plantations. In additin, the silk worms are raised on the bamboo baskets made in the community and all the operations that require a heat source in the various processes, such as rice wine making, silk making, and rice noodle making burned coffee bean shells to create heat (we were told but have not verified
that all electricity in Vietnam is hydroelectricity and the excess is sold to Laos).
During our visit to the broom making business it started to rain too hard to get back on the motorcycles, so the wonderful family invited us into their home to wait out the rain. As you can imagine, the lack of a common language quickly killed the conversation. So to fill the void (and to the delight of the mother and young daughter we were visiting with), Nancy decided to sing along to the Vietnamese Karaoke program on the television. Everybody had big laughs and we were fast friends!
The next to last stop on the tour was Elephant Falls, a truly magnificent waterfall with a treacherous descent to the best viewing spot at the bottom of the falls. It appears that at one time there might have been a path but it’s long gone at this point in time. The climb down was along a boulder strewn “trail” which required jumping over rushing whitewater and climbing over vines, roots and logs while trying not to slip on the wet, mossy ground. Heip was a great guide and made sure that we knew exactly
where to step. His advice cracked Nancy up: “Step here … but hold rock … for guarantee.” The view of the falls from the bottom was great but even better was the cave we would soon visit that was behind the waterfall. The noise in the cave from the falling water was deafening but worth the trouble for the view of the falls from behind.
The last stop on the tour was another Pagoda with a 50 foot laughing Buddha at its center. In the end, it was a 30+ mile long journey into the countryside with a couple of new friends to explore Vietnam on a more personal basis then we could ever have done on our own.
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