Downpours in Da Lat

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June 28th 2015
Published: June 29th 2015
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Nick: Having taken a few long bus journeys in South America, the prospect of our 6-7 hour overnight trip from HCMC to Da Lat wasn't especially daunting. At around 22:30 we left our hostel, showered and refreshed for our impending journey and walked the short distance to the bus station. As it turned out, there were plenty of buses going to Da Lat from this station, perhaps every twenty minutes or so; however, given that they were all unsigned and arriving/departing at assorted degrees of lateness from their scheduled time, it was no mean feat working out which of the buses we were meant to be on. This wasn't exactly helped by the two individuals working for the bus company who - completely independently, mind - took a look at our preferred tickets and waved us away, and over to another bus. We dutifully barged our way to the following bus, only to receive another head-shake and finger point back to where we'd come from! Given that our first bus was now packed up lock, stock and barrel and looking every inch like it was ready to bugger off without us, we got back over there quick haste and told the driver in no uncertain terms that we were getting on the bus! Rucksacks slung in the hold, we got on the bus and found our seats. Phew.

The bus itself had an unusual layout of reclined seats - they were arranged in rows three wide, separated by narrow aisles running between them, and stacked two high like bunk beds. All except our seats that is, which were a row of five occupying the very back of the bus, set in a recess that was about two foot high and directly over the engine. Contorting ourselves into the alcove that would be our bed for the night, it rapidly became clear it was going to be a looooong journey. The 'beds' themselves were very small, with fixed armrests on either side that I was just about able to wedge myself between; lying straight, my legs hung off the end, jutting out of our alcove by a good foot and a half, or so, with my bare feet (footwear removal enforced at point of boarding - no idea why) a few inches from the headrest of the beds in front...luckily for the passengers in those beds, some sort of raised plate thing at the end of my bed meant it was hideously uncomfortable to drape my legs over it. Sarah, with the back of another chair in front of her was in the same boat (so to speak) and eventually we both settled into a sort of sideways foetal position.

Unsurprisingly, what with the engine noise, cramped quarters and all the rest of it, we didn't get the best night's sleep, but with a little on and off snoozing the journey went quicker than I'd expected. At around 05:00 the sunshine was beginning to light up the sky outside, and as we approached our destination the driver cranked up the music, blasting out thumping dance music, presumably to wake people from their slumbers. Given that it featured an air raid siren, it was an effective technique. Looking out the window as we rolled into Da Lat, it was clear that the town would be different from HCMC. For starters, we were further inland now, in mountain country, with plenty of green rolling hills around us. To reinforce the 'mountain holiday' feeling, there were plenty of houses about that looked like Swiss or Austrian mountain chalets, giving the place a very European feel. Despite the early hour, it was no bother finding a transfer bus to drop us at our hostel, nor gaining access to the hostel itself; the door itself was unlocked, and a sleepy-eyed chap made an appearance, giving us our key and telling us the room was already ready if we wanted to go for a lie down. Result! We were straight up to our third-floor room, chucked down the bags and were very soon getting a couple of hours of much-needed shuteye.

Waking at 09:00 or so, we went upstairs to the rooftop terrace for breakfast. Sounds classy, right? In truth, it was a bit like eating breakfast on a picnic table surrounded by the contents of a much-neglected shed. That said, the view over the town was probably one of the best breakfast vistas we've had yet, even if the regulation egg-and-bread was pretty basic. (As an aside, I've begun fantasising about breakfast when I get home, and increasingly indulge myself in waking dreams of muesli with fresh, cold milk and a proper - a PROPER - mug of tea.) After brekkie, we wandered out to explore the town and had a general wander around. It's a nice place to amble about, with plenty of pretty little garden areas, well tended and there seems to be a good sense of civic pride. Don't fret though, as I can reassure you it still had the obligatory streams of cars and mopeds and honking their horns and occasionally making crossing the road seem more like an extreme sport than a way to get from A to we were still very clearly in Vietnam! After a few hours of pottering about, exploring the local market and the adjoining streets, we decided to grab some lunch before going for a walk around the decent-sized lake a short walk from the centre.

We plonked ourselves into an all-but-empty place, perhaps in some haste. It was evidently very much a locals place rather than targeting the tourist market, and we hadn't a clue what food was available. Fortunately, a lady appeared from somewhere and asked us if we wanted pork or beef with our noodles - Sarah went for the former, and I the latter. Five minutes later and we had a couple of steaming bowls of 'pho', the Vietnamese noodle soup dish, served up with a plate of shredded cabbage to add to the soup, and pepped up with helpings of chopped red chillies. On the whole, I enjoyed it (despite having gotten a bit carried away with the red chillies), although it did have a block of foamy, brown stuff in there, which looked like some sort of chocolate mousse, but which I knew from our previous Cambodian food tour was likely to be a sort of blood-based 'pudding' so I gave that a miss (despite being partial to a bit of black just looked a bit rough!). Sarah's looked tasty enough but had a few unusual, unidentified meat things in there, and in the end it wasn't the best lunch she's ever enjoyed, let's just say.

Comestibles consumed, we went back out to begin our walk around the lake, only to find that the rain had set in for the afternoon - not an uncommon thing around these parts, apparently. We tried to ignore it at first but the drizzle turned into proper rain and we knew it would be best to forgo our walk for another time, instead heading back to the hostel for some cover. On the way, I ducked into a barber shop for my now routine haircut-and-beard-trim, whilst Sarah, who had started feeling a bit ropey after her lunch, headed back to the hostel for a lie down. Suitably clipped and trimmed, I made my own way back as well, eventually; without my Chief Navigator, and not having paid attention to the way we'd come on the short walk into town, I got myself muddled and spent a good fifteen or twenty minutes wandering about the area I thought our hostel was, before eventually jumping on the back of a motorbike and being whizzed down the road in the opposite direction, to where our hostel actually was. Fortunately Sarah was feeling better after a wee lie down and a nap. With the rain continuing to come down, the afternoon was not much to write home about, and whilst we took refuge from the elements we took the chance to read, catch up on news from home, and so on. We also caught up with 'Vu', the friendly chap who owns and runs the hostel (alongside his family). He also took the chance to sound us out about going on the 'Easy Rider' motorbike tours that he and his colleagues also offer. We said we'd think it over (in the end, we politely turned out to be a bit pricey for our liking and just not what we were after at that time). With the rain having at last stopped, we were about to wander out for a drink and look for a suitable place for dinner when he told us to be back for 18:30, for a 'family meal'....

Since it was already getting toward evening time, we stayed fairly local and found a cafe to sit down and have drink, wondering what to expect for our dinner. Getting back to the hostel at about 18:35, we walked in the front door to see four other fellow travellers sat around a big picnic rug on the reception floor, with bowls of spring rolls, tofu, rice, and various other bits and bobs in front of them. We were duly scolded by our host, Vu, for being late and keeping everyone waiting - awkward! We sat down with our new neighbours as Vu said "Okay, you can finally start eating now everyone is here"! To repeat: awkward. Thankfully it was all said in good nature and no-one else seemed to mind at all. The food was delicious and ample, and for a refreshing change, vegetarian. Over dinner we got to know the others round the table, and once the meal was finished everyone was feeling suitably convivial such that the group all moved to the roof terrace to chat well into the night, over shop-bought beers. It was a lovely evening.

There was more awkwardness in store for us on Friday morning. The rest of the group had all decided they would be up early to get cracking on assorted day trips and tours, whilst Sarah and I had a more relaxing day planned. As such, when we went up for breakfast on the roof terrace there was nothing but the crumbs of earlier diners and no signs of life. When we realised nobody was coming, we wandered down to the ground floor reception area to see what was going on - after all, we'd been told that breakfast was served between 07:30 and 09:30. Running into our host, he told us (with something of a reproachful, even admonitory, tone of voice) that everyone else had been up early, and implied that we'd 'missed breakfast'. Bit annoying, to be quite honest, given that we'd been told otherwise. Still, he sorted us a couple of rolls with a triangle of dairylea (cue more fantasies of cereal and milk) so we didn't go hungry. In the interests of balance, it's also only fair to say I've probably painted a bit of a stern picture of Vu, who in actual fact was an entirely amiable chap and always seems keen to help us in any way he could. Indeed, after brekkie, as we made our way back from the local laundry service, we clocked him and a colleague at a local cafe and he invited us over for a drink, which he insisted on paying for. It was nice to spend half an hour or so knocking back the super-strong black Vietnamese coffee (grown in Da Lat, no less) and having a chance to chat with them about this and that, exchange dirty jokes, and learn a few things about Vietnam in the process. Not that they missed the opportunity to try and get us on their motorcycle tour! Which, again, we politely declined.

By the time we'd finished our coffees, it was getting on for mid-morning and definitely time to get out and about. First stop was the 'Crazy House', which crops up everywhere when looking for things to do in and around Da Lat. A good line I saw somewhere, perhaps online or in our guidebook, was that Da Lat has no real attractions, only a series of distractions, and the Crazy House was certainly that. In short, it is a property that was designed by a Vietnamese lady, a daughter of a previously incumbent Communist Party official (leader?) who was a trained architect. It was apparently designed in the spirit of 'getting back to nature', and to shamelessly steal from our guidebook* once more has been described as 'Gaudi on acid'. Hmm, well, it certainly was odd, which is probably the best I can say for it except perhaps to add that as with most things around here, it was thankfully very cheap to get into. Aside from that, I would describe it as a mildly diverting oddity that brings to mind a theme park but without any rides. We spent about twenty, twenty-five minutes ambling about the place, which essentially consisted of three 'trees' (buildings) which each contain a series of small rooms with a different theme, and are interconnected by winding, very narrow (and very elevated) 'beanstalk' pathways. Not for the vertiginous, most assuredly, nor for clumsy, large western men who dislike walking down wet miniature steps in size 12 flip-flops. The saving grace: the gift shop sold plastic ponchos dirt cheap, so we picked up a couple just in case we got caught out in another downpour. Ten minutes later, as we made to leave the Crazy House, down it came and we donned our new rain gear.

It was getting on for lunchtime, and with the rain in full effect, we decided we'd get some grub down us before beginning our walk around the lake. Another bout of slightly aimless wandering brought us to a cafe with a mix of local and western grub, and couldn't resist sharing a pizza between us to counter the chilly, damp weather. It took a while to prepare, but not long at all to scoff; by the time we were finished, the rain had eased a bit and we headed off down to the lake. The walk itself was pleasant enough, offering some good views of the town across the lake, and the path ran the entire length of the lake to its opposite end, which provided a blessed relief from the traffic. At the far end, we found a large public 'flower garden' that was sufficiently large and impressive (we presumed) to warrant a ticket office. We paid our dues and went in. It certainly was large, taking us a good while to meander about exploring its many different nooks and crannies; happily, it was also impressive and well worth the (typically cheap) entry fee. There were plenty of locals in there with us, many of them wearing their 'Sunday best' and seeming to be there to take portrait photos against attractive flower beds, fountains and suchlike. The park was large enough that there were plenty of pleasant areas to wander away from the crowded central bits for a bit of a break. After a short rest on a bench, far from the madding crowd, we made our way through a big garden of bonsai trees and back toward the park entrance and the lake; there's only so long you can admire flowers for!

We walked back down the other side of the lake, and back toward the town centre and our hostel. By the time we'd finished our walk - not to mention climbing those perishing flights of stairs to our room! - we were suitably tired and spent an hour or so relaxing in our room before getting ready to go out for the evening. You may have noticed from this blog entry, and probably most of the others since arriving here in SE Asia that we seem to spend most of our evenings out and about. As opposed to many parts of South America and certainly Australia, the very low price of food here means that travellers tend to eat out; as such, there's far less of a culture of cooking in the hostel, which we had previously been used to. For all the benefits of having your food prepared for you, and no washing up to worry about, we are both agreed that we miss our even occasional hostel cooking and have decided that at the next possible opportunity we'll be booking ourselves into somewhere with a half-decent kitchen! For now, however, it was another dinner out on the town. Fortunately, we'd been given a top tip by three young blokes from York that morning, a cafe in the town centre called 'V Cafe'. We decided we'd give it a punt, and were rewarded with an absolutely cracking meal. Once again, the very wide-ranging menu offered up a mix of local (and other asian) dinners as well and an entire range of western dishes and even some South American ones too. To boot, there was some really good live music being played, a really talented guy knocking out old and new western classics on his acoustic guitar, occasionally joined by an American (Canadian?) chap that seemed to work there, who played along - agains very well - on his harmonica. Scouring the menu, we couldn't resist taking the chance to partake of a little taste of home once again (yes, yes, I know, but to be fair we've eaten enough rice and noodles to sink a ship over the last month or so, and by this stage I was ready to give my kingdom for a potato, if I had one to give). After much agonising, I put my faith in a beef steak served with mashed potato and a creamy mushroom sauce, whilst Sarah put hers in a baked cannelloni dish, with plenty of cheese on top - a brave move indeed, after the 'Khmer lasagne' disaster! Both dishes were top-notch and really scratched the itch for something different. I tried a bit of the Vietnamese wine that is produced around Da Lat as well, which, whilst never going to set the world on fire (enter your own cheap alcohol joke here), was a perfectly drinkable, fruity red. Extremely satisfied, we went back to our room at the hostel to digest and rounded off our indulgence in home comforts by enjoying a rare hour of watching TV online. "Poi-fic".

Saturday morning, and we were up slightly earlier than the previous day, to avoid any potential brekkie-related awkwardness. Fed with regulation egg-and-bread, showered and packed up for the day, we were out and about in good time. For a change, there were few clouds in the sky and the sun was shining. We walked for half an hour or so away from the town and, after a bit of searching around - signposts not especially popular here - found the cable car station. Apparently built by an Austrian company, there is a cable car that runs from the outskirts of Da Lat over the surrounding hillside of pine trees and up to a local pagoda. We bought a couple of return tickets and jumped straight on. The ride up lasted a good ten minutes, and was a fun way to take in the wonderful view of the town. With some of the aforementioned alpine-style chalets visible from our cable car, as we ascended the hillside, we could be forgiven for thinking we were on a walking holiday during the Austrian summertime (although the hordes of Vietnamese tourists milling about the place might have been at least slightly unexpected in Zell-am-See). At the top, we passed a little barbecue stall and walked straight through the wonderful-smelling smoke it was generating. After our basic brekkie, we were unable to resist buying a small serving of some meat and veg skewers and a cooked sausage to keep us going, all coated in a lovely chilli sauce - it was a decided improvement on brekkie! Afterwards, we explored the pagoda for a short time, but rapidly ran out of patience with the overcrowding. Da Lat is reportedly a popular domestic tourist destination, and the cable-car/pagoda are seemingly top choices for the visiting throng; certainly it seemed that way, and we struggled to separate ourselves from the jostling elbows, so took our leave pretty quickly, instead opting to walk down the hill to a nearby lake.

We walked along one side of the lake for a while, beginning to wilt a little under the midday sun, although it was thankfully not quite as scorching as we'd experienced in Cambodia. Sadly, as seems to have been the case with a lot of places around here, it wasn't really given over to walking. Most tourists tend to dart between destinations in tour buses, or astride motorbikes with local tour guides. Having run to a dead-end trying to get around the lake, we decided instead to explore a little and find a waterfall that was meant to be found in the local area. Taking some very elementary directions from a young lady in a nearby ticket booth, we started making our way away from the pagoda and the lake, on a dusty dirt road that wound away and uphill into the surrounding hills. Thirty minutes or so later, very hot and sweaty, there was no sign of the elusive waterfall. We hadn't met another soul in the road that was pushing further and further out into the sticks, although there was no shortage of tour buses and motorbikes passing, throwing up clouds of dust, their intrigued passengers staring out to look at the funny westerners who seems to enjoy walking through roadworks. Rounding one final corner and seeing nothing other than yet more road ahead of us, with no sign of our targeted destination, we called it quits and began to make out way back.

By the time we'd made it back to the cable-car station, enjoyed the trip back down to the bottom and then walked to our hostel, it was getting on for mid-afternoon. Our tasty meaty snacks had kept us going until now, but with the day rumbling on we were ready for a late lunch. Picking a well-reviewed cafe in town, we were back out the door and half an hour later sat outside said cafe, in the sunshine, working our way through a mix of fried veggie rice, noodles with assorted meats and seafood, and - fast becoming a joint favourite - a plateful of chopped, delicious morning glory with soy and garlic. After our exertions of the morning, we happily whiled away the afternoon in the cafe, sipping ice tea, reading, catching up in blog writing and - as ever - formulating our plans for future destinations. As evening approached, we decided that a quick jaunt back to the hostel for restorative showers was in order. We'd walked a fair way away from our lodgings and our legs were still heavy...not a problem in Da Lat! We were very soon astride a pair of motorbikes, each riding pillion behind one of the many motorcycle taxi drivers to be found around here. A brief but entertaining journey later and we were stood outside our hostel - all for around a quid, all told.

Once showered and refreshed, however, we were straight back out for the evening. Our afternoon foray across to a new part of the town centre had uncovered a great area with plenty of cafes and restaurants...we were starting to realise that we'd probably based ourselves in not the best part of town, but that was of little consequence now, given that it was our final evening in Da Lat. Despite our new found cache, however, we simply couldn't resist one more visit to the wonderful V Cafe! Once again, the live music kicked off shortly after we arrived. Surprisingly for such a good restaurant in a Saturday, it was largely empty, although with the music playing it didn't feel at all uncomfortable or devoid of atmosphere. As before, we had a spot-on meal, me satisfying my pasta craving with a huge portion of lasagne (which was most assuredly better than the now-notorious Khmer Lasagne), and Sarah was suitably impressed with her very cheesy aubergine and Parmesan. Stuffed full once again, we took the opportunity to walk it off on the way back to our hostel, where we spent the remainder of the evening relaxing in our room.

There's not a huge amount to say about the following morning, really; we had booked tickets through our hostel for a bus that would take us to Nha Trang, a four or five hour trip up the road and on the coast. After breakfast, bags were packed and we checked out of the hostel. Unsure of whether we'd have an opportunity to eat lunch on our journey, we popped out for a coffee and some food before the bus turned up just after midday. When a minibus turned up at the hostel, we realised we might be in for a bit for a squeeze for a few hours! We squished ourselves into the tiny seats (a running theme over here) and sat tight as the minibus, over the following thirty minutes, wound its way around Da Lat picking up the rest of the passengers. Any hopes that it wouldn't be a sell-out were quashed as the last two passengers jumped on board to fill the last two seats. Ah well, on the plus side it was to be far from the longest road trip we would need to do. Fully loaded, we were at last heading out of town, watching the last of the alpine-style chalets rolling past and as the road began to wind and hairpin through the mountains, the sky darkened and, of course, the rain began to fall...

*Lonely Planet's superb 'Southeast Asia on a Shoestring', reference-fans.

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21st July 2015

Catching up
Just been catching up after Homs and great backlog of work. Your description of the bus gave me the panics on your behalf. I think I would hVe been off the bus if I had to squash into a little space!! Really enjoying the changes as you move about. It must be a sing to feel like Austria and somewhat unexpected! All well here except poor Ted has just been ill with some obscure(and some may suspect self inflicted ) illness. He is, you may not know, the dig who ate a whole Jcloth earlier this year and scared me to death when he regurgitated it - still folded as the vet informed me!! I thought it might have been his stomach!! He obviously enjoys rubbish or it may be a secret fetish he has. He's been pretty sad but now on the mend.......until the next time! Much love to you both. Looking forward to seeing you before long. XXXXXX

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