February 2 – 7
From Hoi An, we hopped on a quick flight about 375 miles due-south to Da Lat. Da Lat’s location in southern Vietnam’s central highlands gives it an appeal as a temperate respite from the rest of the country, a reputation it has held for several centuries: The French colonists turned it into a resort area where they could escape the heat in the lowlands, and the tradition was upheld during the American War when high-ranking officials from all sides would go there to stay cool (there was an unofficial peace in Da Lat during the war, because of its position as a resort town for all of the wealthy officials). We actually had to break out our jackets and jeans for the evenings in Da Lat, and I could have even done with another layer or two. We were in town for five days and experienced a wide breadth of what the city has to offer.
Da Lat, also known as “Little Paris,”(in Vietnam) draws an interesting variety of visitors, from domestic honeymooners, Russian tourists looking for a curated “Vietnamese” experience, and western tourists looking for adventure and beautiful scenery. There are still fancy French colonial-era hotels, and even a cell tower meant to look like the Eiffel Tower. It’s also Vietnam’s wine country, for better or worse. We visited the Flower Park expecting an informational botanical garden but found instead a mini knock-off Disneyland, complete with knock-off character statues of the Fantasia brooms and the Seven Dwarves. There were also a ton of beautifully-planted flower beds and an amazing array of bonsai trees, and we spent a few good hours alternately embracing and laughing at the kitsch, plus marveling at the blatant use of unauthorized Disney images.
One of the highlights was taking the cable car from Robin Hill to the Truc Lam Monastery. The cable car was like a ski resort gondola, which sparked memories for us of hiking in the Alps last summer and taking the lifts to avoid some steep hills. We got some pretty amazing views over the pine forests that surround most of Da Lat proper, as well as of Xuan Huong Lake and Tuyen Lam Lake.
The monastery was a welcome respite from hustle and bustle of Da Lat, especially once the bus loads of other tourists left for lunch at noon. We spent quite a while wandering through and then sitting and enjoying the immaculately planted gardens and the peaceful pine forest, watching the monks wandering the grounds and listening to the calming bells.
Since Vietnam is such a long and ethnically diverse country, its food is very regional. We enjoyed getting to do several different food tours and cooking classes across the length of the country, learning more about Vietnam and its history through food. Which is to say, we did yet another street food tour in Da Lat and were not disappointed. This one was a small group and the company is just one guy who takes people to his favorite eateries; his girlfriend even joined us for part of it and had a great time playing with the one-year-old son of some of the tour’s participants. We got to try a bunch of different things, and in reasonable portions so that we had enough room to taste everything!
Highlights include: “Da Lat Pizza,” a piece of dry rice paper grilled with egg and assorted toppings (I even got to try my hand at being a “Da Lat Pizza lady” and attempted to make one); nem nuong, grilled ground pork that you eat wrapped up in rice paper with fresh herbs, crunchy noodles, and pickled daikon; a BBQ restaurant where you pick whatever skewered foods you’d like to eat (we didn’t go too crazy here, but the options included chicken feet and intestines) and then cook it yourself over a little, mini grill; and grilled bananas-in-sticky rice, served with warm coconut tapioca. Everything was quite tasty but we loved the nem nuong and the grilled banana best and went back for more on our own.
We spent a morning exploring the Hang Nga Crazy House, whose unique architectural style is described in Lonely Planet as “Gaudí and Tolkien dropping acid together,” a very appropriate description as we learned. The architect, who has a PhD in architecture from Moscow, is the daughter of the man who succeeded Ho Chi Minh to be Vietnam’s second president. It is open to visitors to just wander around, although it is also a hotel with a few rooms where guests can have a certainly unique experience. Like Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, it is still under construction and you can watch it getting weirder and wackier by the day.
It is an impressive and sprawling construction, with mazes of staircases and raised walkways which are barely wide enough for one person and are definitely not kid-safe! It is all meant to be reminiscent or indicative of the natural world with rooms and structures that look like—among other things—caves, trees, and the ocean. It was pretty impressive and creative, and we had fun getting lost around the myriad corners and marveling at how none of it would be allowed in the U.S. One evening we also checked out the “Maze Bar,” a cafe and bar in Da Lat that was designed by a protege of the Crazy House’s architect. It was quite fun although it wasn’t busy when we were there and the dark, empty corners felt a bit creepy. The garden though was really neat and if we had had more time I would have liked to go back during the day.
Da Lat is also known for the beautiful natural landscape that surrounds it, with plenty of impressive waterfalls to explore and adventurous outdoor activities to take part in. So we made sure to get out of the city and do some things outside.
We signed up for a canyoneering trip which turned out to be quite fun and a nice way to beat the heat of the day. We were picked up from our hotel in the morning and found out that we would be spending the day with a bunch of twenty-something girls, Martin and our local guides being the only guys for the day which was unexpected given the nature of the activity. After an hour or so in a van, we arrived at the end of the road and all of us hopped into (or onto) a Jeep and we had another 45 minutes of bumpy off-roading to get to the outfitter’s base in the middle of coffee plants and pine trees.
After getting suited up in our wetsuits and going for a bit of a walk, we practiced some rappelling and then we were off! We did four rappels in total over the course of the day—not very many but with nine people each one can take a while—three of which were down waterfalls, and one dry. The longest rappel of the day was 65 meters, down a waterfall, which was quite a feat! It was a fun day but definitely challenging as the wet descents were very slippery which made the rappels really frustrating. Martin and I were the only ones with any prior experience and some of the other girls ended up hiking down because they felt like it was too much, which was totally understandable. We both came away from the experience with some minor bangs and bruises, plus some terrible sunburns and really sore quadriceps.
Another day we decided to get out for a motorbike tour around the area. There are tons of services around Da Lat (and around Vietnam in general) where you can hire a guide with a motorbike and you just ride on the back while they take you on a tour of wherever you want to go. It was kind of a late-morning decision so when we went to go hire a guide there was only one driver with a bike. So, instead of trying to find another driver we ended up just going to the guy’s house where he had another motorscooter that Martin could ride; I rode on the back of our new friend’s bike (it was a nice motorcycle which had been a gift from an American who had purchased it for a longer tour with the guy and then gifted it to him at the end of the trip). So, with me on the back of this guy’s bike and with Martin on his own little scooter, we visited a handful of waterfalls and toured around the countryside.
The scenery in the countryside was pretty amazing, although we ended up on a main road for a while and Martin was driving white-knuckled with the traffic coming from all directions. We went to four waterfalls, of varying degrees of size and kitschy-ness: Datanla Falls, Prenn Falls, Pongour Falls, and Elelphant Falls. At Datanla and Prenn, the waterfalls were the attraction in name only; in reality, the falls are more of an afterthought for the visitors. At Datanla Falls, you could skip the half-mile walk by opting for the rollercoaster through the jungle, or take a zip-line through the tree canopy. At Prenn Falls, you could go on an elephant or ostrich ride, then get dressed up in traditional Vietnamese garb to have your photos taken by the waterfall, all followed by some bumper car racing. Prenn in particular was geared towards Russian tourists as all of the signage was in Russian with only some being also in Vietnamese and maybe English.
Pongour and Elephant Falls were actually more impressive and less built-up into kitschy attractions than the other two. We could see the beginnings of development at Pongour but the main attraction was still the waterfall itself; there were also some nice pools perfect for swimming but where swimming was not allowed, and we spent a good few minutes watching the park guide throwing things at the Australian? Russian? American? tourists who apparently couldn’t read the “no swimming” sign. I think Elephant Falls might have been the best, certainly the least developed as we had to climb down the hill with only some pretty sketchy and rusty railings between us and the cliff side. But it was worth it for the view back up at the falls.
I do have to confess one thing of our time in Da Lat… We went out for Italian food one night. I know, I know! We are here to try the local foods, but we had read good things about this one place in town that is actually owned and run by an Italian guy and his Vietnamese wife. They make their own fresh pasta and have a woodfired pizza oven, and we indulged one evening and it was so worth it! We absolutely enjoyed the food in Vietnam but sometimes you just need some comfort food that reminds you of home, and some legitimate homemade ravioli certainly did the trick. I was a very happy camper!
Da Lat confused us both at first glance, with its bizarre kitsch, but I think we both ended up quite liking it in the end! It was a good place to close out our time in Vietnam.
See more photos of Da Lat here, and stick around for the next post about our visit to Angkor Wat!