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Published: February 17th 2011
The mini-skirted girl jerked the terry-cloth towel from my middle-aged loins with a hard pull and flung it away. It spiraled like a storm tossed spinnaker into the far corner of the room. She motioned me onto the table with a flick of her cobalt-blue fingernails and got ready to go to work. She kicked off her shoes and climbed onto the narrow table, straddling me. I pressed two tightly-balled fists to my eyes and cried out for my Mother.
Sixteen days in Saigon. After having watched our hotel fill and empty for the fifth time we figured that it was time to think about moving on. We have a ninety-day visa and we plan, eventually, to make our way north to Halong Bay but after reading a news report about 5,000 head of cattle freezing to death in the Hanoi area we decided to push that portion of the trip to the end of our stay. A Floridian's tolerance for cold weather is anemic at best.
We had heard good things from other travelers about Da Lat, located in Vietnam’s central highlands. It was the only push we needed. Our London friends Dina and Zuby had already
left town and our Canadian farmer friend, Gary was heading for Danang. We booked bus tickets with our hotel’s ticket service. The fare from Saigon to Da Lat is $9 US. If we had bought the tickets directly from the bus company the cost would have been $7 US. Planes to Da Lat are available. The one-way fare is approximately $65 US and the flight takes about 45-minutes. The bus ride is a somewhat tedious 7-hours. Being cheap by nature and blessed with time we opted for the less expensive alternative.
9 AM Valentines Day morning found us aboard a large, comfortable bus operated by Phuong Trang bus lines. One of the largest transportation companies in the country. Reclining seats and a large screen TV made the time creep by a little more quickly. We fought the traffic out of Saigon and headed northeast on Highway 20. There were two rest stops at 2-hour intervals. One near Long Khanh and the other outside Bao Loc. Da Lat sits in the central highland mountains at an altitude of approximately 5,000 feet above sea level. Along the way we passed countless produce farms, orchards and fields of tea tended to by
Karen at Tu Anh's Cafe
Good looking place with surprisingly mediocre food.
cone hatted women wearing large baskets on their backs. The picked tea is set out to dry in the sun on large tarps that line the roadway. It is a beautiful and memorable drive. When we arrived at the bus station in Da Lat the bus company had a fleet of mini-vans waiting to ferry us to our various destinations. This service is included in the price of the ticket. It’s a nice touch and one that deserves mention.
Da Lat is a Vietnamese gem. Originally established by a protégé of Louis Pasteur’s named Alexandre Yersin. A man who is near and dear to my heart as he is the discoverer of the bacillus that causes Bubonic Plague; Yersinia pestis. I worked in plague research for the US Army under Col. Dan C. Cavanaugh back in the 1970’s at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. But that’s another story. The town was founded in 1912 and was referred to as Le Petit Paris. There is even a small Eiffel Tower here. Over 2,000 French villas are scattered about the city. The town is hilly and crisscrossed by winding, tree shaded lanes that beckon to walkers. Parks and fountains abound.
Don't ask. We don't know.
The average temperature is 23 degrees centigrade. Overnight temps rarely dip below 15 degrees centigrade. It is a beautiful and romantic destination for a holiday. The ratio of Vietnamese tourists to Westerners is 10:1. Most of the westerners are French. The natives here are quite friendly but only after you make the first move in saying hello. They are very similar to the folks in the Mekong Delta. Even the stoniest poker face will break into a huge smile as soon as you say; Seen Chow (phonetic spelling of ‘hello’ in Vietnamese). Nothing makes them happier than the sight of a smile on your face. They will always respond in kind.
We had made a reservation at the ‘Dreams’ hotel located at 151 Phan Dinh Phung
( email@example.com, Phone: 063 3833748) It is a family run operation and well regarded by all of the Vietnam tour guides. We were met by Dung (pronounced Yoongk) and her two year-old granddaughter. It is without a doubt the best hotel we have stayed in in Vietnam. A new building with large, sun-filled rooms. Hardwood floors, refrigerator, cable TV, WI-FI, hot water, multi-headed showers, two double beds, desk, wardrobe and phones in each
Zuby and Dina
Our London friends took us out for dinner on their last night in Saigon. Vaya con Dios amigos and may all of your experiences on the road be happy ones. Smooches, Karen and Mike
room. Front rooms with balcony are $25 per night. The smaller rooms at the rear are $20 per night. Small single rooms with one small window are $15. There is both a steam and a dry heat sauna as well as a spa for the use of guests. Breakfast is included and what a breakfast it is. The banquet-sized breakfast room table groans under a wide assortment of fruits, cheeses, breads, jams, yogurt and cereals. Eggs are cooked to order and are accompanied by bacon and ham. All you can eat. Make reservations before arriving.
I headed out solo in the morning darkness and headed for the center of town. I saw a few cone-topped women sitting on the street with an array of vegetables for sale. I crossed over to check them out when I got a surprise. Behind them, on a broad concrete stairway, sat hundreds of other vendors extending all the way down to and encircling a large statue in one of Da Lat’s many traffic circles. The sound of commerce bubbled in the air as flower, meat, fruit, and vegetable sellers crowded together with an equal number of buyers brokering the day’s harvest. The quantity
Even the vendors in Da Lat who do not have the luxury of a stall that is under cover, take the time to carefully arrange their wares. This attention to detail is what makes the Da Lat market the best that we have discovered in SE Asia.
and variety of cut flowers for sale was amazing. Glads, tulips, mums, marigolds, zinnia, and huge bundles of red and yellow roses were piled in round heaps of tied bundles in front of savvy local growers. This is a farmers’ market and it is the largest I have ever seen. The market starts up at 2 AM every day and closes at 6 AM when the sun rises. As soon as these people clear out, the regular Da Lat group takes the space back. After 6 PM these people leave and are replaced by a third group selling clothing, food and toys. It’s a 24/7 operation and it is huge. I took Karen out to see it the next morning. We stood at the top of the stairs and marveled at the sheer industry of it. Threading our way down through the stacks of produce we took refuge at a small table behind some flower sellers where we sat on tiny blue plastic chairs drinking small glasses of dark strong Vietnamese coffee prepared for us by a woman with a kettle and a glowing charcoal brazier. By 6:30 AM you wouldn’t have known that anything had happened here as the
Da Lat Cafe's
Beautiful cafe's line the main avenue through town. Hotels on the street above them.
city workers have, by that time, come through with their big orange trash carts and stiff willow brooms preparing the stage for the next act.
At night the town shimmers under the weight of hundreds of neon signs. As colorful as the morning flower market. Higher priced cafés line the incline of De Lai Hanh with stunning views of the city and the lake. When I say higher priced I mean that a coffee here will set you back $1 US and a dish of ice cream runs $2 US. Once you’re in you’re in. You can sit at your table unmolested for hours enjoying the lake breeze and the views.
On the downside I have to report that the restaurant choices in Da Lat are abysmal. Western oriented restaurants like Peace, Arts and Tu Anh’s café abound and all sport signs in their windows boasting of their being recommended by Lonely Planet. (a popular tour guide embraced by backpackers) Their menus are fat with handwritten notes from other tourists all vouching for the eatery’s phenomenal offerings. These people are either liars or are suffering from ageusia, a condition that causes a complete lack of taste. Having tried
By 6 AM the show is winding down and farmers are heading back to their fields.
a number of these establishments I can tell you that their offerings are pedestrian at best. The food is pricey by Vietnamese standards and service is spotty. Karen and I ordered Coq au vin at Tu Anh’s and received a mish-mash of minced chicken and carrots that had not a drop of wine in it. If you’re going to eat in Da Lat you are best advised to visit a street vendor where you can at least see what you are going to be eating. The best meal we had in Da Lat was at Bingo’s pizzeria located at 51 Truong Cong Dinh just around the corner from the Peace Café and two doors down from Tu Anh’s. The pizza was surprisingly good and they will cook to order. I wish I had better things to say about Da Lat’s food but it pales in comparison to Saigon’s offerings. If you insist on going to one of the 'regular' restaurants then 'Arts Cafe' will probably be your least offensive choice.
On our last day here I decided to get a massage at one of the local places near the market. Five years ago Karen and Stacey had to drag
One of the many that make Da Lat a great walking town.
me kicking and screaming into a Thai massage parlor. An hour later I was a full fledged rub down addict. Massages became my daily ritual in Thailand. Nowadays I’ll get one when the mood strikes. After a day of hard walking in the heat there’s nothing better to calm the soul. I have discovered, however, that going to a massage parlor with my wife and going solo results in completely different massages. The same friendly masseuses who the day before had attended my wife and myself in a courteous and professional manner would suddenly become slinky deft-fingered femme fatales when I came in alone. Today I went solo. The girl at the desk quoted me a price of $5 for an hour and this had to be paid upfront. This should have been my first clue. Most massage operations won’t ask for payment until service has been rendered. A ruddy complexioned man in a leather jacket came to collect me and took me via elevator to the top floor of the building. I was given a towel and a locker. There were no other people to be seen. After undressing he took me to their steam sauna which was one
Gary and Mike
Our last night in Saigon.
of the hottest that I have ever encountered. I could have brought in a bushel of crabs and made a meal of it. Could not see my hand in front of my face. After a 15-minute cook-off I took a shower, wrapped a towel around myself and searched the empty halls for my attendant. I found him sitting in a corner texting. He took me to one of the six private massage rooms and left, closing the door behind him. Shortly thereafter a 20-something girl in a white mini and a blue top tottered in on 5-inch stilettos. Oh my word! Not the shy type I took my disrobing in stride and lay face down on the table. Unlike their Thai counterparts, Vietnamese massage involves a lot of treading on one’s back. Two curtain rods about a foot apart are affixed to the ceiling so the walkers have something to hold onto whilst they jog back and forth on your spine. So far so good. No sly smiles or groping occurred during phase one. She had me lay on my back and seemed somewhat confounded at my apparent lack of enthusiasm for her ministrations. She asked me how old I
Karen Catches Up On Her Journal
Our room at the Dreams hotel. Nice place to call home.
was and where I was from. After I told her she murmured to herself and slowly tapped the enameled tip of an index finger against her lower lip. She seemed to be giving the matter some serious thought after which she went for my ‘junk’ faster than a TSA worker having a bad day. I did the quickest sit up of my life and told her in slow, perfectly pronounced Vietnamese “Khong (No, not in your lifetime, ain’t ever gonna happen) sex. She smiled in understanding and in the end the massage was pretty good and I ended up with a great story. Next time Karen goes with me.
Just before I left town I had a coffee at a small café I had found on one of my morning forays. It’s on a quiet cobble stoned lane. The owner’s ancient threadbare calico cat sleeps on my foot while I patiently wait for the hot water to finish its IV paced drip through the coffee grounds into a small water glass. A woman passes by honking a small horn fashioned from a liquid detergent bottle. Her bamboo yoke holds two large baskets which she hopes to fill with discarded
Our bus driver on the way to Da Lat seemed to have trouble keeping his eyes on the road while the TV was on.
plastic collected from residents heeding her noisy call. Every once in a while a scooter will rumble by laden with huge bundles of herbs and bags of vegetables from the farmer’s market. Two Vietnamese men sit near me in the café silently sharing my little metal table. The three of us wait for the coffee to settle while we bask in the morning sun. Suddenly from our right a half-dozen muscular young Japanese men appear jogging up the lane. They are dressed in neon bicycle racers’ outfits. Across their backs is written: Orange Racing Team. The Vietnamese men at my table stare at the athletes in amazement until they disappear from view. The man across the table looks at me with a knowing smile and says quite simply; Da Lat.
Tips for travelers:
The sidewalks roll up at 10 PM so do whatever you're going to do before that time. Food is hard to come by after hours.
There is a store next door to Dreams Hotel that sells snacks, fruit and clothing. You can't miss the place. They have two giant speakers outside pumping out the hits.
Easy Riders. Lonely Planet goes on and on
Bus Stop Bathroom Instruction Manual
The only time I have ever seen one of these and unlike most notices written in English in Vietnam this one has nary a mistake in spelling.
about these guys as if they're the best thing since sliced bread. There are 60 Easy Riders dressed in blue and black jackets harvesting the streets of Da Lat for clients. You will be approached by them an average of 5 times a day. They are tenacious little devils. I have never ridden with them so I cannot judge their services but I can judge their prices. Two Canadians in my hotel booked them for a two day camping trip in the mountains. Their total cost came to $600 US. Easy ride indeed.
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