Dalat: a Mountain, a Lake, a Charming Town

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November 22nd 2012
Published: November 22nd 2012
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Town, Lake, MountainsTown, Lake, MountainsTown, Lake, Mountains

Simply Charming
We wanted to travel to Dalat to get away from the coast a bit and see a different side of Vietnam. The medium sized city of 200,000 is located in the Central Highlands of Vietnam at around 1500m altitude. The climate is much different from the coast with most days not going above 25 celcius and the evenings getting as low as 10 celcius.

Dalat is the honeymoon capital of Vietnam so it is usually full of local tourists. It has also been referred to as Le Petit Paris due to its French Colonial influence that is evident in the abundance of French Colonial architecture and streets of French villas.

Our early departure from rainy Nha Trang meant we would get to Dalat in the early afternoon and still have plenty of time to explore before the sun went down. Due to our maniac bus driver - who had a close relationship with the left side of the road – we zig zagged through the mountainous highways at break-neck speeds and made it to Dalat before 11am. Since there isn't really a tourist area in Dalat we were dropped at the bus company's “headquarters” and it took us a minute to find our barrings. A kind English-speaking Vietnamese guy pointed out where we would be able to find a hotel. As we mentioned, Dalat is in the mountains so heading towards a hotel meant walking up hill with our packs on. We stopped by the Central Market to have some pho for lunch then continued on our search. Luckily it wasn't too far before we found a street full of hotels and settled in at Huong Viet on the 4th floor (actually the 6th since they don't count the first two). Since the room didn't have a window, it is low season and we knew we were going to stay at least three nights we haggled down the price a bit.

Once we dropped off our things we went out into the streets to see what Dalat had to offer. We had one small map of the city to go by in our guide book that, as Tyler put it, “looked like a plate of spaghetti”. There isn't the usual grid system for the roads in Dalat, they kind of just go everywhere. Since it is in the mountains, roads need to weave around slopes, the river and the lakes. Instead of traffic lights, there was usually a roundabout with 3 or 5 roads intersecting. We were a little thrown off at first and went in a circle before being able to decide where anything was. After wandering around a bit and talking to a few travel agents (we had no idea what to do with our last week in Vietnam once we left Dalat) we were back at the market.

Unlike the rest of Vietnam where the majority of the crops are rice, Dalat's rich soil grows most of Vietnam's local fruit including strawberries, blackberries, grapes (they even have a local wine) and many tropical fruits. The market is surrounded by merchants selling fresh fruit and beautiful locally grown flowers. It was pretty hot out so we didn't venture too far into the market on our first day in Dalat; instead we just window shopped and took it all in.

After our little “wander” we headed back to our hotel room to plan the next few days. One of the travel agents we talked to gave us some great insight on what we could see on foot around town and we definitely wanted to climb Lang Biang, the highest mountain peak in the region; that would mean two pretty full days. All that thinking made us hungry so we went in search of dinner. A recommended local dish is the claypot, you can get it seafood, vegetarian or really any meat sauteed with vegetables. It's basically a bunch of deliciousness all cooked together in a flavour-enhancing clay bowl sp Tyler really wanted to try it. We to Da Quy, a restaurant that has high-class dining with low-class (aka cheap ass backpacker) prices. Both the service and the food were marvelous! Tyler ordered the seafood claypot with a local beer he hadn't tried yet and Rebecca ordered the vegetarian curry with a glass of Dalat's red wine. We were so impressed with our dining experience that we gave it 5 stars on trip advisor. Okay, so the waiter asked us to recommend the restaurant and actually brought out a lap top so we could do so, but they totally worked for and deserved it.

As in many Asian cities, Dalat came alive at night. The market was closed but there were just as many people in the vicinity. Locals were serving up lots of great looking street food and the vendors stayed open until late selling clothes clothes and more clothes. We called it a night shortly after dinner in preparation for or busy day coming up.

The next morning we woke up a bit late. With no window or clock, it's pretty much impossible to tell what time it is. Our late start meant that we didn't get out until just before noon but we had an itinerary and a much better full city map (purchased for less than a dollar at a variety store) in hand so off we went. First we wanted to walk around the lake. There is a lake literally right in the middle of town. It's man made with a damn to the river on each side but a pretty good size nonetheless. We walked around half of the lake before heading back into the streets to get to the train station. The train station in Dalat is the oldest in Vietnam. You can pay to take the train like 5km and back to see the scenery around Dalat but we just wanted to see the old station. There was a small bridal party taking photos at the train station and for good reason. With the old locomotive stationed beside the small platform it makes for some nice photos.

Next we walked along a street full of sprawling French villas. Most of them appeared to be empty (we assumed it's because they are seasonal homes and it's currently the tail end of rainy season in Dalat). From that street we were also able to get some nice pictures of the lake that somehow ended up below us. The windy hilled streets are very deceiving, thank goodness for the “Eiffel Tower” to act as a navigational point. Onward we went, but not before refuelling with a banh mi.

Crazy house is probably the most visited building in Dalat. A war veterans daughter went a little crazy with her imagination to create the “house” that is really a work of art. Most people compare it to Alice in Wonderland or something from a Dr. Seuss book but we felt like we were in the lost boys tree from Peter Pan. Either way, you get the point, it's very unique. We were pretty upset because so much of it was under construction during our visit but we still got lost in the fairy tale like setting.

Crazy house was our last stop and by that time we were pretty pooped, we hadn't quite realized just how far we walked until that point. With sore feet we headed home to rest and recuperate. Our dinner on the second night wasn't nearly as fancy, we just snacked on a bunch of random street food before snuggling into our window-free damp room.

Waking up to rain is not so encouraging when you planned a full day of hiking and sightseeing. Since our plans had to be postponed, we stayed in most of the day, going out only to eat. The rain also meant that we had to make some final decisions with our plans for the next week. We weren't sure if we wanted to go to Mui Ne (another beach town) or HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon) next. The decision came down to: beach or Mekong Delta? Spend or save money? Cross the border into Cambodia by boat or bus? With all of these questions (and an afternoon that appeared to be clearing up) we went to another travel company to compare prices and ask about
Streets at nightStreets at nightStreets at night

Right by the central market
weather for the next few days. We had been contemplating this for weeks and now we actually had to make a choice and buy the bus tickets.

We decided to go to the beach and save a few bucks and you obviously aren't surprised, but that's for another blog. On with Dalat!

Since the afternoon had cleared up but was still a little chilly, we took the chance to see more of the market. It is deceivingly large! One moment we were in a food court then around a corner we were surrounded by pants, we turned again and all we could see was bedding and linens – and that's only the second floor. The first floor was mostly selling dried fruits, jams or other local specialities. It was really cool and reiterates the reason we love to explore local markets. You are usually in for a pleasant surprise.

The rainy day postponed - but didn't cancel - our mountain climbing expedition. When we awoke the following morning to sunshine we knew it was “go time”. We dressed in proper attire, packed a backpack of fruits and potential rain gear, grabbed some hearty breakfast and rented a motorbike.

The Lang Biang mountain is only about 12km from town. It is the highest peak in the area and is part of a small range of 5 volcanic peaks. We definitely picked the perfect day; there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the temperature was ideal. When we got to the base of the mountain we had to pay a small admission fee before parking our bike and setting off on foot. For about $2 you can pay to get driven up the mountain in a Jeep but we welcomed the challenge. Since so many tourists just pay the $2 that meant we had to walk up a road. It wasn't as scenic as we had hoped. We were still hiking through a beautiful pine tree filled forest, but the paved road definitely took away from the natural setting. When we saw what looked like a foot trail we tried to take that in hopes it was an alternate route. In about 5 minutes we were completely lost and had to turn around. Luckily after not too much more hiking up the road we came to a real trail. It turns out that the road goes to
Lang Biang trail signLang Biang trail signLang Biang trail sign

evil signs... what felt like at least half a km later we came to another sign that said 450m. Who does these measurements?!
a different peak than the one we were climbing to so the second half of the trail was much nicer. Shortly after getting onto the real trail our surroundings started to change. It was the weirdest thing; one minute we were smelling that beautiful pine tree smell with soft pine needles under foot and the next minute we were in a jungle walking along orange clay, tree root stairs, moss covered trees and vines hanging everywhere.

Walking up the road was rough. Since it's made for a vehicle that can go up fairly steep inclines as long as you push the pedal our legs were aching not long into the trek. When we came to the nicer trail it was much better. We actually got to walk on some flat land and with the scenery change, had lots to look at. However, a mountain is never easy to climb and our little break was short lived before the terrain got more difficult. Nature turned it up a notch and we found ourselves climbing rather than hiking up the last 1500m or so of the trail. There were signs every couple hundred metres to let us know how much further
Jungle Tree2Jungle Tree2Jungle Tree2

Not sure why they are fuzzy, but it sure looks cool!
we had to go, but they seemed to get further and further apart the higher we climbed. The final 700m was just stairs. Not real stairs of course, but planks of wood put in place to hold enough mud in to make a step. It was hard. Much harder than Rebecca thought it would be and she made sure to express these feelings by complaining whenever she found time to breathe. While Tyler was up ahead for most of the hike/climb he always made sure to wait for Rebecca to catch up.

We made it to the top together. The cool breeze was just what we needed as we made it out of the damp jungle. We sat at the top for quite a while snapping some photos of the surrounding area that we had a full 360 degree view of and munching on our snacks. It was refreshing to sit on the top of that mountain just listening to the wind run through the long grass, feel it drying the beads of sweat on every inch of our body. There weren't any of the sounds that we have got so used to hearing; no motorbikes, no children playing or crying, no locals trying to sell us something... it was just us and nature.

Climbing down was much easier of course and even fun. While climbing up the large steep stairs was like a cardio blast workout, working our way down using vines and trees to stabilize our footing was almost like a game.

After getting back to our hotel and cleaning up we went back to Da Quy for dinner and again both had great meals. Since it was our third time there in two days they even gave us 10% off the bill.

The next morning we were up bright and early to catch our bus to Mui Ne... soon we were going to be hearing that calming sound of ocean waves.

Xoxo Ty+Becs

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Streets at night2Streets at night2
Streets at night2

Just another Friday around here

14th April 2013

it's my hometown

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