I take a 7am bus out of Saigon & head for Dalat, a town up in the central highlands I'd heard good things about. I'm the only westerner on the bus but I don't mind, the bus boy speaks a little English and hands me a bottle of water and a refresher towel as I board. Now this is service I'm not used to! What a refreshing change from the crowded stuffy buses, packed with motorbikes & refridgerators, people sat on the floor etc. This is a new coach, air con fully working and the staff even have a uniform!
I booked my open tour bus ticket yesterday which basically means I can travel South to North from Saigon to Hanoi, stopping at all the main cities on the way for the bargain price of £30. I really wasn't expecting the buses to be this good but am pleasantly surprised! Little did I know it was all about to change but I'll get to that later...
I meet a nice group of Vietnamese on the bus and we chat away. They are going to Dalat as well as it's a popular place for locals to go on a weekend
break, and they tell me their hotel is pretty cheap & quite central so I decide it's as good a place as any so stay there.
Typically just as I'm about to head out the heavens open and I'm stuck inside for an hour until the rain passes. (Rain isn't just rain here by the way... When it rains it really
rains. The sort that gets you soaked within 10 seconds of being outside.)
When the storm eventually passes and I head out to explore I'm a little disappointed. I was expecting a pretty mountain town set around a lake (as described in the guide book) but as beautiful as the lake is, the town itself is busy, scruffy, full of cars & motorbikes, just as difficult to cross the road as in Saigon, no cute shops or yummy bakeries... I am beginning to fall out with The Lonely Planet big time! Don't get me wrong, their books are great as a reference tool and the maps are pretty easy to follow, but the person that wrote that Dalat was "a pretty mountain town dotted with elegant French colonial villas" is obviously the same person that wrote about
Vientiane in Laos being a "city with an easy ambience more akin to that of a town, with it's sunbaked boulevards and locals playing petanque" - Whereas I would describe it as "The worst city I've ever been to in my life" (and that includes Grimsby)... We clearly share very different opinions!
Still, from what I saw from the bus ride in, it is the scenery around Dalat that is the biggest draw so I set out to find a tour for the next day. Most places are offering a similar itinery but half of it I'm not interested in seeing and I'm a bit sick of mini buses so I get chatting to a guy from a well known company in Vietnam called The Easy Riders. These guys cruise around the hills & mountains on their motorbikes and you can either ride on the back or have a group tour, for anything from a day trip to a three week stretch up the length of the country.
There are also an abundance of "unofficial" Easy Riders who hang out on street corners, that you can't walk past without at least 4 of them shouting after you "Easy
Rider! You want motorbike?"... Clearly riding off the back of the success of the original company, these guys have even tried to imitate their jackets too but the logo on the back is written in Tippex which has cracked and is peeling off slightly so it's a bit of a give away they're not the real thing. Still you can often get yourself a bargain with one of them, however there's nothing but rave reviews of the original Easy Riders on the internet and in their customer book so I decide paying the extra could make for a better tour and give them a whirl.
My driver Tahn, picks me up at 8am and we ride off into the hills. The air is refreshingly cool at this time of morning and I'm loving the fresh breeze as we travel through lush mountains & forest. It's great being in the open air rather than on a stuffy tour bus!
We make our first stop at some waterfalls which are very pretty, though after seeing so many in Asia it will probably take until I see Igazu falls in South America before I'm impressed by one again! Nevertheless, it's a
beautiful spot and as I walk back up to the top the mountain back drop is perfect. We head on to a monastry where the pagodas are a picture postcard set in a garden of colourful flowers overlooking the lakes & hills beyond. I'm completely chilled as we take a slow ride back into town and as it's only midday I choose to take the bus that same afternoon to Nha Trang, deciding that I've seen all I wanted to see of Da Lat so time to move on.
So much for me raving about Vietnamese buses earlier on, I end up waiting for a bus that is 2 hours late and is certianly not the big posh bright red air con coach I'd been promised when I booked! A withered looking minibus, with several dents in the side pulls up and we all pile inside. It's pointless protesting - these bus companies are all bent in one way or another and I figure I must have just got lucky with the one from Saigon.
I'm still feeling ill and the painkillers I took this morning so I could enjoy the Easy Rider tour are wearing off fast,
so it doesn't help having my knees squashed to my chest for five hours while whizzing along mountain roads, which all of a sudden don't seem quite so beautiful when every second corner is a near miss from a cliff edge after swerving the big truck that was hurtling straight for us.
Despite setting off 2 hours late, we still arrive in Nha Trang on time, though unsuprisingly after that journey! As soon as we step off the bus we're accosted by the usual swarm of moto drivers offering free lifts to hotels they get commission from for taking you to. Normally I ignore them but one flashes a posh looking leaflet in front of me and it catches my eye.."Ten dollars for a room" he says, so I ask one of the girls, Ebony, I'd been chatting to on the bus if she wants to share for the night. She agrees so we both jump on the back of the motos and whizz round the corner to the hotel.
My head is pounding by this point but I need to eat so we head out for an early dinner and another early night. I must admit I've
not been much of a party animal this past month! What with being ill on and off it's really taken it out of me... I'm just desparate to feel normal again! But at least two good things about not drinking is that one, I save money, and two I save calories! Both of which I can afford to spend more of on cake!
The next day I'm not any better and as lovely as the beach is, the thought of sitting in the sun all day is already hurting my head so I decide to head to the mud baths nearby, figuring a little pampering might perk me up. It's a relaxing day spent soaking in mud & various other mineral pools and I'm pretty chilled again when I return to the hotel... That is until I find out that the receptionist has taken it upon herself to check me out of our room when earlier she said we could keep it until 5pm. "But your friend check out already"... "I know this, but I'm getting on a nightbus tonight and I need a shower!... Not to mention a lie down.." I'm too ill to argue, but she let's
me use her shower and after an initial strop I get over it, and head out to find a pharmacy to try and get something to make me better. Easier said than done when none of them speak English! I try two, after miming that I have swollen glands & pain in the back of my head, one offers me Panadol and another offers me something for Arthritis! I'm not convinced so I try a third and after trying to understand eachother for 10 minutes she turns to her laptop and using Google Translate we manage to have an in depth conversation about my symptoms & what she recommends. She sells me the anti-biotics for about £2, which ironically say "Prescription only" on the packet and writing this a week later I'm absoloutely fine. Thank God for those clever blokes at Google!
I down a couple more painkillers to prepare me for the dreaded nightbus journey ahead and wait at the hotel for my pick up. Only 10 minutes late looks promising but then that is before we are dropped at a random office to sit on the floor with our rucksacks for two hours until the actual bus
arrives. We eventually climb aboard and I go to take a seat. This is a sleeper bus so the seats are on two levels, fully reclining so they're in a laid down position and are positioned 3 across the width of the bus with an aisle down the middle in between each row. Therefore everyone has their own space, their own nice little bed without having to sleep next to a stranger. That is apart from the 3 beds at the very back of the bus which are crammed into a tiny space... And of course this is where the bus boy wants me to sit. It was never going to go smoothly was it..? I attempt to squeeze into the small space which a tall guy and his girlfriend are already occupying but I can't actually fit! It's ridiculous! Of course Tina being Tina, expresses her outrage in the only way she knows possible and pretty much the whole bus hears about it this time. "Nope, not happening" I say bluntly. The man gets really aggressive with me before I've even started a full on Tina tirade. "You sit there or you get off!" He shouts... "Look! I'm too
ill and too big to go in there!" I shout "There's 20 other people on this bus smaller than me.."(refering mainly to the pocket sized Vietnamese who were all lording it up at the front of the bus in the extra wide seats with their complimentary water which, by the way, they "forget" to give the Westerners. "I'm sitting here and that's that". I say and climb into an empty seat by the window. "Just refuse to move". A British guy in the next seat advises me "They do this all the time, they're arseholes for it.." he says. It's nice to have some support and not feel like it's just me that ends up in these situations!
Luckily, after listening to a few other traveller's tales I find out other people have been getting wound up too about constantly being lied to & treated like cattle on these tour buses. I don't know if it's just because I'm ill or because I've been in Asia nearly 5 months that things like this are really starting to grate on me, but I grin & bear it (or on this occasion sulk, listen to my iPod & bear it) and
look forward to waking up in Hoi An the next morning.
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