Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Vietnam – Dalat, A cool haven in the hills

Walking in Dalat Sunshine
Arrival...Darkness is falling quickly, as has the temperature. We arrive at the bus terminal just outside of town and walk into town. Our legs need stretching and the coolness is refreshing. We check at a hotel and they show us a room for $15 USD but we decide to look more central for a place to stay. It’s Sunday evening and all the holiday makers should be gone by now. In Singapore, Monday is a workday. We didn’t want to arrive on the weekend as we feared it might be busy although Dalat is quite far from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), so we can’t imagine that many people would drive 6-7 hours each way for a short overnighter?!

Around the cathedral, we start to ask about rooms, none available. Humm…maybe they don’t want to rent to foreigners or are harbor illicit affairs? Well after asking about 15 hotels and getting the same full response, we started to realize that finding a room in Dalat would take some effort and pain.

Patrick positioned himself in a café and Julane put on her battle gear and took off to hunt down a room. Lightweight (in both backpack weight and lack of food) she went into each and every place along the way. She found only a couple of places which were hyper-inflated in price and not too appealing so after returning to Patrick, they decided to take a taxi to the first place which was much better, in second thought now, despite the distance from the town center. By now, it’s about 7:30pm and the thought of sightseeing is out of the question. Well, lo and behold, our “first” hotel is full. This town is crazy. So Patrick is deposited again with all the gear while Julane goes out once again to bang on a few dozen doors.
Hmm, which way now?
By now, it’s getting ridiculous. She’s decided to take whatever is available going into every hotel possible. Even passing the large cathedral which is a French legacy to Dalat makes her contemplate asking if they have space…after all it’s Sunday and mass is over!

But luckily the next hotel has a free room. The guy outside looks a bit shady even. Can’t tell if he is a tout (a tout is a British word that mean a salesman mixed with a con artist!) or works there or…he doesn’t really speak any English, but he directs Julane to follow him. She wades through a busy and messy restaurant to get to a set of stairs leading to the rooms. It doesn’t even look like a hotel: no reception desk with a faded sign outside. No, it doesn’t look promising… but, beggars can’t be choosey at 9pm. Julane had already inquired at so many hotels and wandered up and down so many hilly streets that she just didn’t care anymore. Patrick was back at the last hotel researching on the internet the options, one of which was a night bus to Ho Chi Minh City which runs every hour until midnight.

Well surprise of surprises…the room is great huge, clean, new and spotless. Unbelievable! She tells the man that she will take it and tries to make him understand that she needs him to call the hotel where Patrick is to inform him to take a taxi to his hotel. He finally understands to dial the number on the card she has given him and hands her the cell phone. Of course the guy who picks up doesn’t speak a word of English either. So Julane simplifies her English repeating, “Patrick, Patrick, Patrick!” into the receiver. Finally Patrick hears her voice on the phone from where he is seated and he knew Julane was supposed to call. So she tells him she is at Hotel 68 near the Cathedral and will wait outside at the curb for him.
Hotel or Socialist Party HQ?
Taxis right now are nearly impossible to get but after about 30 minutes, she is worried that he might have gone to the wrong place. The hotel guy ends up being quite nice (and not so mafia-like anymore) and offers to take her to find Patrick on his motorbike! But Julane realizes that the risk of changing the game plan might worsen the current situation. Finally guess what happens next? Patrick comes lugging all our gear down the sidewalk. He was carrying all the gear: 2 huge backpacks weighing a total of 30 kgs, plus 2 daypacks weighing another 12-15 kgs dangling from each hand. He looks like the Michelin man stomping down a sidewalk that is nearly the same width as he is.

Why did he walk the 2 kms? Well after finally getting a taxi and loading the gear into, a policeman stops the driver before he even starts moving. And after a few minutes, Patrick realizes that this might take a while, so he takes out the luggage and starts to walk hoping to find a taxi along the way. Nope, every taxi is full!

These sandwiches taste better
than they look.
So after searching over 60 hotels and walking about 8 kms in a period of 3.5 hours, they know that it’s time to eat. Already our hotel’s restaurant is closed. They find a few cafes and but nothing that serves meals is still open. They end up buying two baguette sandwiches (called Bahn mi) stuffed with all kinds of unusual and mysterious ingredients: pate, a spam-like substance, some cilantro, sauce, lettuce, etc. Then they supplement that with some instant ramen soup and beer from the shop next door. It’s a feast for tired bones and empty stomachs.

Of course in the morning, we need to repeat the same ordeal again. But we are hoping that by the morning, there will be a mass exodus of most of the holiday tourists. We wanted to find a quieter place without the inflated price tag.

Luckily, the morning task was not too complicated and there were quite a few places with empty beds and rational prices. So we were actually able to be choosey again and we ended up finding a family run place that was newly opened.

And it was just opposite our soon-to-be favorite haunt: a delightful local coffee shop that overflowed onto the sidewalk. Great for people watching while drinking the incredibly rich coffee that Dalat and the greater region is famous for.

Coffee maker: Vietnam style
Coffee here is an art. I’m sure most people have seen Vietnamese coffee filters already, which are metal contraptions that fit on the tops of the glasses. It’s like a cup and saucer where the metal cup has fine holes and sits in the indentation of the equally fine-holed saucer. One fills coffee powder into it and then adds boiled water. So this double filter effect actually stops the sediment from passing through and produces a thick and rich coffee. Our favorite version was the “Ca phe sua” which includes a thick amount of condensed milk added to the thimble-like glass of dark coffee, which can also be served in a bigger glass filled with loads of ice… voila, cold Ca Phe. It reminded us of a coffee caramel.
Coffee or Tea?
In Dalat they serve both together

Oh, the funny part is that you also get a glass or pot of the local tea to go with it. Tea to wash down the coffee dessert? I never heard of combining the two drinks in one setting but it fits somehow here, and I must admit the tea was equally delicious. Most hotels also have a teapot filled with leaves and a thermos of hot water beside a collection of teacups. It kind of reminds me of China in this respect, where a thermos of hot water is always available (mainly because you can’t drink the tap water in these places).

After the house hunt
So now we have a place to stay for the rest of our stay (not charging us double of what we think it should cost), so it’s finally time to go and explore Dalat. This former French holiday resort is at about 1500m above sea level, and thus quite cold at night and refreshing during the day. Since we have not really been practicing our sight-seeing “a la pied” for a while – since Phom Penh to be frank – it was finally time to do some serious walking around Dalat.
Nice gardening work
The topography of Dalat is quite hilly, featuring a man made lake near the center. Our first day of exploration was to just get acquainted with the area near the market, absorbing the colors, the flavors (and in Patrick’s case also the sun as he didn’t think he would need sunscreen to wander around… as his reward he looked like a British tourist on his first day on the beach… red as a lobster tail served on a white plate).

Tandems: an unusual sight in Asia

Dalat is mainly a local holiday town, thus the majority of tourists were Vietnamese, this was even more so as it was Chinese New Year, or as they like to call it here: “Vietnamese New Year”. We did see some western folks, but only a handful; especially away from the usual gathering points (Lonely Planet recommended hotels, food and drink places). This made for a pleasant time, not many touts were after us up here. The only exception was this group called the Easy Riders. They are basically motorbike salesman selling their countryside tour of the area. They dress in khaki camouflage and drive much larger motorbikes than the motorbike taxis use. Perhaps only a 250cc bike, but they embellish it to look more powerful and then they proposition you with a kinda folksy American accent. We were even greeted by an Easy Rider with the phrase, “Good morning Vietnam.” We didn’t take one as that would have meant two biker boys and sitting behind them. We tend to prefer to drive ourselves. I don’t know if Patrick could have handled being behind a kamikaze Vietnamese driver.

Bao Dai Palace
We spend two more days just wandering around, checking out the Art Deco train station (now just only having a toy train going for 5km to the next town), the former Palace of his majesty King Bao Dai (which looked on the outside as if it was designed by a first grade student of the socialist architect school). We also visited a place designed by a local architect called the Crazy House (need we say more… see the pics) and of course the man-made lake with the gorgeous swans (check the pics too).

Why do they call it "Crazy House"?...
Seems that Walt Disney was here...
Crazy House room for rent.
Nope, the swans are not part of Crazy House,
they are official lake vessels

Dalat is famous for its flower gardens, and we must admit, it’s colorful. It felt like springtime (perhaps why the New Year is actually translated to mean “Spring Festival.”
Flower capitol of Vietnam
Everyone cleans and decorates their surroundings to greet in the new year and then spends lots of money during the week to enjoy it properly (while impressing family and friends). So everything was in full blaze. Every business and hotel decorated their entrance with red banners and flowers. It even seems that they replace the flowers daily as each night we saw loads of flowers discarded in the rubbish. They were still in good shape. So perhaps this is a tradition to start fresh each day in order to display one’s wealth.

Since Dalat was really not much more than a tourist Mekka for the Vietnamese Elite (after the Colonial French left, that is), we had to find something else to pass our time. Luckily it didn’t take us very long… COFFEE (as mentioned earlier) became one of the main themes and pastimes of our stay.  How could we not resist the wonderful rich taste combined with the loud music of the coffee shop next door to our hotel? Communing with the locals while they played card games or Chinese checkers, watched tv, or smoked their cheap cigarettes.

Street Vendor
Dalat is apparently famous for strawberries and also mulberries, which are grown only in  the cooler moderate temperatures.
During our five years in Singapore we have never seen Vietnamese strawberries for sale, most of the supply in Singapore comes from Korea, it seems that the Vietnamese ones are all sold to the local tourists. We’ve seen people buying literarily several shoeboxes full of the mostly unripe looking berries. Soon we figured our that the strawberry barometer was a good indicator of how many people were about to leave Dalat… not surprisingly, the number of guesthouses displaying “rooms available” could be directly linked to “shoeboxes” sold. We were very amused observing the haggling that went on at the market. The Vietnamese use much more dynamic body language than do southeast Asians. Sometimes we were not sure if they negotiated the price of strawberries or engaged in an oral fight. Then suddenly all the merchants packed up hastily…what is going on? Why this sudden commotion and abrupt ending of the trading activity?
From the local market?
What's wrong with this
Jacket Mr. CK?
A few minutes later, we saw these hideous green uniforms walking about, the local police were apparently enforcing a law that restricts the traders to the very outside perimeter of the sidewalk. It was extremely funny to observe this cat and mouse game: Wherever a policeman stood the traders, they either packed up or neatly scouted back, leaving plenty of room on the sidewalk.
Less than a minute after the policemen were a few footsteps away, they all moved back to their “prime spot”, which basically means taking over the whole sidewalk again. The irony was, that it was a big roundabout… just like a Merry go Round, they moved constantly back and forth. A truly funny sight that was probably going on every day at dusk.

In Dalat, we experienced first hand that Vietnam and China have quite bit in common, especially the love for noise. A tour group moved into our guesthouse on the first day, they immediately took over the entire building and decided to make it theirs. Probably occupying 12-15 rooms they engaged in a big discussion about something. For the next hour or so, there was yelling and screaming throughout the building. And as you do when you are moving into a guesthouse as a group you, leave your room door open and talk to all the others using the echo of the corridors to your advantage. We happened to be staying across the hall from what seemed to be the gang leader’s room; we couldn’t understand a word they were saying, but clearly heard all the sub-leaders reporting to HQ in a loud and shrill voice. Our loud bus “assistant” from the other day would have been proud of them, they definitely were in the same league competing for the loudest and most annoying vocal ability.

Our "noise refuge", coffee stop
and Blog office
Since we are quite tolerant, we just tried to ignore the noise. First we turned on our TV and cranked the volume up to the max, still not being able to drown out their voices, we decided to leave our room, seeing refuge at the coffee shop next door. It’s loud there too: street noise, loud music, endless honking of the motorbikes going by… but at least you can hear your own voice. When we got back from dinner the group had left and we didn’t hear them coming back. But then at 6am, the commotion when into high gear: They must have given one person the wakeup call task.
Our latest Blog contributor,
Mr Crazy House Croc
Before we knew it, the whole hotel was louder than you can imagine. Out of the HQ room next door, there were at least 20 different loud voices yelling out at the world and the rest of the group.
The noise got more, more, more… Julane and Patrick were awake from 6am onwards, and about 30 minutes into the “Good morning Vietnam” drill, Patrick walked over to the HQ room, politely knocked on the door and made it very clear in hand signs and words that they needed to shut up. His polite request was returned by a group of 20+ surprised pairs of eyes… Why would anybody complain at 6:30am if a large group makes deafening noise in a hotel?  And why would anybody ask that their neighbors to close the door to their room when they were having an early breakfast club debate in there?

But it did work, they somewhat toned down the volume, at least to the point where earplugs would actually start to somewhat blank out the residual noise. Our conclusion: the people in Vietnam must be born with chronic hearing disorder, that’s why they speak so loud that a normal hearing person is at risk of fracturing their eardrums. This must be THE future marketplace for hearing aids (and noise canceling aids for those that actually do have hearing).

As long as the table top is clean...
The proximity to China and the similarity in culture was also very apparent when walking by the street-side restaurants. Everything that doesn’t go into the mouth goes straight on the floor; where else? In most of Southeast Asia, people pile up used napkins, seafood shells, fruit peel, or waste on the table. In China and Vietnam, it goes straight onto the floor.
Quite an unusual sight for the western traveler to see a table with lots of rubbish below it, especially since the cleanup only appears to be happening at the end of the day. Patrick was especially amused to see that even at fairly upscale establishments with shiny tile floors, the family of the shop owner was throwing all the shells of the sunflower seeds straight onto the floor (basically the floor of their own living room).

The most non-sense sign in Vietnam
Nobody is quiet here!
Our guidebook said that Dalat is a good place to escape the loud noise of the big cities such as HCMC… if this is considered quiet here, then we definitely don’t look forward to the volume levels of the rest of the country. But five nights in Dalat is more than enough… time to go south.

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