Highway to the Danger Zone

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May 30th 2013
Published: June 14th 2013
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The sleeping bus ride to Dalat was not particularly enjoyable. The bus was laid out with reclining seats and triangular foot holds that are quite hard and restrictive on the inside. Nevertheless, we both had a better night's sleep than we had on the train and the ride was much cheaper. We had an hour and a half stop to change buses at Nah Trang where we had pancakes and coffee at a café run by a rather high and completely mad man who wanted to take us diving. I could not imagine a man I would less like to be underwater with.

Having reviewed the Hostels on Hostelbookers I had booked us into Pink Villa House which although slightly out of town had fantastic reviews partially based on the “Secret Tour” run by its owner the likeable Mr Rot. We grabbed a taxi up the hill and for the first day enjoyed a quiet morning catching up on lost sleep and hiding from the torrential rain. In the evening we went for a wander around Dalat, Vietnam's premier honeymoon destination although neither of us could see why. The centre of town was rather disappointing having come from Hoi-Ann, however the rolling hills and beautiful waterfalls by the side of the road from Strange were incredible. It was truly the most beautiful road I have ever been on.

After wandering around Dalat we stopped into a local bakery and bought pizza breads and a cake for dinner coming to £2.50 in total. Good times.

Andrew and I uhmed and aahed all afternoon about whether to do the Secret Tour. The online reviews were fantastic but there were two main considerations – one, it was a motorbike tour which required us either to ride a bike or ride on the back; and second it was $10 dollars more than any of the other city tours. When we got back to the hostel we decided to have a go on the bikes. Now, to calm the fears of many avid readers, the bikes were actually automatic scooters and we only attempted to ride them around the courtyard near the hostel. I will admit that I really enjoyed it, although I was as ever not particularly good with the smooth acceleration but after a few laps I was getting the hang of it. Andrew was feeling much more comfortable with it and took to it quite naturally. I decided that I didn't trust myself to be able to turn properly at 40kmh (the maximum for the trip) and so decided to ride on the back of a bike with one of the experienced tour guides. Andrew decided that he would ride the bike.

All I can say is the decision to go for it is the best we have made all trip. The day was probably our and definitely my favourite day so far.

We got up early and were down for breakfast by 7 am. At 7.30 we met the rest of the group outside where we did some introductions and chanted a Buddhist prayer whilst holding hands, praying for a safe journey. The group consisted of a friendly Australian couple, a couple from the Netherlands, two young Americans and an American girl travelling alone and the tour guides. The first stop was to a village market. This was great fun, and there were no other tourists. Mr Rot clearly knew all the market traders and he spent an hour explaining the different vegetables and their uses in cooking as well as the skills of bartering in the market. In Vietnam it is the women who do the shopping and bartering, and a shop will start the day with items at the highest price. It is bad luck for a Vietnamese shop not to sell at the highest price in the morning as is it bad luck to barter for a lower price in the morning. We were advised by Mr Rot that the best deals are to be had in the afternoon. All the market stall owners smiled as we went through, happy to pose for photograph and clearly pleased to see Westerners in their local market.

We learnt that the delicious doughnut like balls we had tried on the streets of Hanoi were made with rice flour and cooked on a street oven before being rolled in sugar. We also tried some slightly peculiar but very tasty fried eggs with rice flour and a sweet green coconut bean purée.

The most bizarre information we discovered on our market trip was that, the large aluminium coloured cardboard 3D houses and horses we had seen hanging everywhere were not children's toys but gifts for the dead. The gifts which included Mastercards, hotels, horses and even cars are burnt in the temples so that they can be sent to their loved ones on the reincarnation. You can also buy paper Dollars and Dong which explains the seemingly fake money lying in the streets. It is a Vietnamese tradition that families will throw this paper money after a hearse for good luck. The Government in the interests of preventing littering has attempted to ban this tradition aided by children who enjoy running behind the hearse and collecting the paper money to sell, or in the cases of richer families, the real money to line their pockets.

The road running through the mountains was very quiet at this point and the feeling of climbing up them on the back of a bike gave me the same freeing feeling you get from cycling downhill at speed on a push-bike. Andrew was concentrating heavily, and when I wasn't heavily concentrated on making sure he was behind us and doing well, I was able to enjoy the stunning views of the central highland countryside.

Our second stop was at the only grasshopper farm in Vietnam. The Vietnamese, famous for eating dog and cat, have come up with a more environmentally friendly way of protecting their crops from pests, namely by catching them and selling them for food at the markets. One farmer has taken this one step further and is breeding grasshoppers in an indoor farm before deep frying them and selling them to the market. When presented with a plate of grasshoppers and chilli sauce my immediate thought was, “brilliant I can now say I've eaten something wacky in Vietnam”; Andrew's immediate thought was “I'm not touching those.” I can genuinely say that I enjoyed them. High in protein and tasting a lot like crispy chicken skin, I may have finished off the plate that the rest of the group was struggling with. As a snack, I would highly recommend you try them.

Then back on the bikes our next stop was the Elephant Falls or as it is known by the Vietnamese “the Volcanic Falls”. This involved a bit of a scramble over some rocks but was the best view of the biggest waterfall I have ever seen.

We then stopped at a silk factory to see how they made the silk. The female guide in our group, Sun, was hilarious and constantly playing practical jokes on people. The one she played on me involved a silk worm. To take the silk off the cocoons, the silk worms are boiled inside the cocoons and the silk is threaded off using a machine. The boiled silk worms are then sold to the market to be eaten. Having rather enjoyed the grasshoppers the tour guide having seemingly eaten a silk worm passed me one to eat. Never one to falter at an eating challenge at the first hurdle, I ate the worm which surprisingly tasted and in texture was very similar to mash potato. Not something I will be having again, unlike grasshopper.

The main reason we had decided to go on the Secret Tour was that the amazingly talented and incredibly funny Mr Rot was fluent in both Vietnamese and the hill village dialect. Having been born in a remote hill village in Dalat, at the age of 13 he was adopted by a family in the town who paid for his schooling and university where he studied tourism. His adopted parents ran a hotel and he has since made the hotel the star attraction in Dalat for backpackers, being the only guide mentioned by name in the Lonely Planet. After only a few hours with him we could see why. Constantly sneaking up on people and poking people in the market before running away to let us deal with, he gave us a better insight into the people of Vietnam than I had ever hoped for.

On returning to the village where he had grown up, we visited the house now lived in by his Sister, a practising monk who moved from the temple back to the village to help with the poor in the locality by feeding them and sourcing clothes. She made us lunch which although a fairly basic meal of noodles and tofu (which unfortunately disagrees with me and I had to pick out) was tasty and filling after three full platefuls. After relaxing for half an hour we headed into the village to meet the locals.

Mr Rot asked me to go and ask one family of women if we could come and visit their house in the village language. I learnt the phrase and myself and the group were welcomed into the house of four sisters and their friend. The women invited us to sit, and we sat around on wooden benches facing them and a low stone stove. The house itself was made of wood and had a roof not dissimilar from thatched houses. With Mr Rot as translator, teaching us the phrases in the village language so that we could then ask the questions ourselves, we learnt the names and ages of the women who in return then asked us our names and where we were from before saying that they were astounded that we wanted to sit with them in their house. Mr Rot then spent over an hour explaining to us the village culture, speaking to the women and translating for us. Most of the village folk now work on the coffee farms but life is particularly hard for the women in poor families. Unlike in England back in the times of Jane Austin, it is the women who must pay for the men. A good mix of children is therefore the aim of most families, who sell off the boys in order to obtain good husbands for their daughters. Most of the marriages are still arranged with some marriages occurring when children are as young as 10. Nearly all of the women are married by the age of 21. In the village it is also seen as unlucky to touch a mother during child birth or in the following 10 days. This means that the mother will normally deliver her own baby in the confines of her hut before cutting the umbilical cord with a sharpened bamboo cane. The Vietnamese Government is trying to encourage the women to give birth in hospitals with medical attention, but the village tradition is holding firm and a very small percentage visit the hospitals. Following the birth of a baby most of the women return to the farms within about 5 days of a having a baby with the baby strapped to the front of their chest.

The men do not have it easy however. A large, hard-working man will fetch a high price, whereas a lazy, sleepy looking man will find it difficult to find a wife. The family name passes down through the female line so if a family only has boys, the name will be lost. Most of the men in the village work long and hard hours. We did not see any men in the whole time we were in the village as they were all out working.

Of the women we were speaking to only one was married with the other three sisters having sacrificed and saved for the youngest sister to be able to buy a husband. Mr Rot was constantly joking away with the women who were all speaking over each other and getting very agitated. He later informed us that this was because whenever he asked a question they kept saying to him “have you forgotten everything? You are from this village!” but that he feels he ought to ask to be polite and inclusive. The main joke for Mr Rot was due to both sides inability to understand what he was asking us to ask. On one occasion, he had one of the women say to he Australian that she wanted him to stay with her for the night. On another he got one of the girls to say the house was very dusty. The result of his antics was normally a lot of laughing and on the odd occasion where he was very rude, one of the women hitting him.

Later the women showed us how they wove the cottons into beautiful skirts and rugs with designs representing fishing boats, bow and arrows and the mountains surrounding the village. We watched as she used a bow to spin the cotton and then as she bought out an old weaving loom and made a skirt faster than most machines.

We thanked the women for speaking to us and welcoming us into their house and then sprinted back to Mr Rot's house through the start of a torrential downpour. Mr Rot went for a kip and his step-sister Sun explained to us how the Vietnamese culture was completely different from that of the village folk. She also gave us some good tips on body language in Vietnam, including the fact that crossing your fingers as we do for good luck, is the same as giving someone the finger here, and that putting your hands together as if in prayer to wish someone well is a prayer to the dead and when pointing at a person means that they or someone close to them is near to death. The most useful body language tip though, was that the Vietnamese call people towards them by stretching out their arm with their palm face down and drawing their fingers in (essentially very similar to how we tell people to shoo, just with the fingers rolling in the opposite direction). This means that most tourists when telling salesmen to go away are actually inviting them closer. The way to send people away is to spread your fingers and to shake your hand at the side of your head in a way similar to telling someone that they are crazy. This means you have no money and as I tested it regularly in Ho Chi Minh, I can assure you that it works! We also learnt that a slightly different intonation, (normally being six different intonations for each word) has a completely different meaning making it almost impossible for foreigners to correctly pronounce even the word hello without telling people to go do something, somewhere.

Our final lesson came in identifying the various fruits from the garden and trying them. I have to say that for someone who doesn't particularly like or eat fruit I was impressed by how many Andrew tried. There was the potato apple which resembled a potato but tasted somewhere between an apple and a sweet potato, jack fruit, rambutans, lychee, Dragonfruit and my favourite the Mangosteen. Having tried everything else that day and realising that as Father had suggested the fruit I had eaten in Singapore that I believed to be Durian was actually Jack Fruit, I put the smell aside and tried it. I can confirm that I have never enjoyed a food less in my life – it was even worse than Mum's lentil and ham soup (joking – sorry Mum!).

The ride back was great fun even if the roads had got a little busier. I got my driver to slow down on a couple of occasions so that I could see Andrew behind us. We got back to the hotel and played a couple of quick games as a warm down including a kick the motorbike helmet outside of the circle while running in circles holding hands game and a chuck a water bottle at each other while running in a circle game. Mr Rot had already told us that he would be singing folk songs in a local bar that evening and that if we wanted we could join him for dinner at a nice restaurant. All being game,, we got clean and headed out to a rather swave looking restaurant set on the third floor of a hotel. The only downside being some of the horrendous karaoke taking place inside the bar. Mr Rot offered to order a full spread of traditional Vietnamese dishes to try, some of which didn't feature on the menu. All in agreement, we feasted on clay-pot fish with a sweet turmeric sauce, fish baked in salt for making spring rolls, deer curry, artichoke soup, sweet and sour prawns, chicken and flower salad which was eaten on top of prawn crackers and more dishes which have momentarily escaped me. After we had eaten our fill we headed to a very traditional Vietnamese bar, where Mr Rot in his fancy jacket and trilby sang some traditional folk songs alongside a rather beautiful woman in a rather short dress and extremely tall heels. Next a man got up and sang “Let's Twist Again” and the Australian bloke decided that this being for our benefit, we should get up and get down. Never one to turn down dancing to an old classic, I proceeded to drag up all the others and soon we were twisting and Mr Rot decided to put me into a lift and swing me around his head much to the amusement of everyone besides the women whom I nearly accidentally kicked in the head as I was swung. Knackered by this stage and wanting at least some sleep before our long journey to Ho Chi Minh City, we said our goodbyes and headed to bed immensely happy and utterly knackered.


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