We caught a 7.30am bus from Saigon to Dalat the morning after returning to Saigon from the Mekong Delta. The last 1.5 hours of the journey took us through some mountainous highland country and coffee plantations. Very different from anything we had seen in the south. When we arrived in Dalat, it was mid-afternoon…and COOL! This was a welcome change from the muggy tropical conditions we had sweated through in Saigon and the Delta. The hotel immediately adjacent to the Singh bus terminal was clean and cheap ($13 per night with breakfast), so we didn’t bother investigating further afield.
Once we had unpacked, we joined some great folk (hi Anne and Shai) we had met on the Delta tour for a walk uptown in search of a laundry. We passed some scrumptious-looking street food – marinated chicken grilled over coals – which I determined to sample during our stay (unfortunately, this was not to be). Closer to where we eventually located the laundry, I bought some fried chillie-infused banana from a street vendor, then a sugary doughnut-like fried treat. Greasy but nice.
We were amused to note that the locals were all wearing coats or jumpers. It was temperate, but not cold – we were still comfortable in the summer gear we had worn down south.
Later, we wandered down some steps towards the central market. There were few other tourists about – in fact, I don’t think we saw any. Street food vendors were out in force. We paused to have a closer look at the mysterious (to us) food items they were selling, and were quite shocked when one of the vendors, a middle-aged woman, shouted “Go!” and flung her pointed finger at us in an unmistakably hostile gesture. We went!
None of us had encountered anything like this in Vietnam. I reasoned that the woman was probably sick of curious tourists lingering over her stall and obstructing locals who might otherwise have bought food from her. The female contingent of our foursome was unconvinced, and less forgiving.
As we drifted around the market and adjoining streets, we observed that the locals looked physically different from the Vietnamese in the south. They tended to be darker, and their features vaguely reminiscent of American Indians, or Mongolians. We postulated that this may have been due to genetic pooling with the indigenous people of the region (or ‘minority people’ as they are known in Vietnam). They also seemed less affable, generally speaking, than the Vietnamese we had encountered in the south.
Outside our hotel, we were approached by the Easy Riders. These guys are legendary among travellers to Vietnam for their private motorbike tours, which venture far from the well-worn tourist track. My partner was into it, but I had decided I would not be getting on the back of any damned motorbike. Too dangerous on these mountain passes, and my back and knees would seize up after hours on the back of a bike, and…
By the time we had talked it through with these affable and knowledgeable guys, I was in. You only live once etc etc. Anne and Shai elected to take a 3 day Easy Rider tour down to Nha Trang, while we decided on a day tour around the Dalat region, taking in a minority villlage. I couldn’t believe I had acceded to this Easy Rider thang, but was excited at the prospect. We arranged to meet the Easy Rider crew late the following afternoon to finalise the deal.
That night, we ate at a nearby restaurant raved about in our guide book, The Rough Guide To Vietnam. It was a major disappointment all round. Bland, boring, and relatively expensive by Vietnamese standards. I’ve never had any faith in guide book restaurant recommendations. Why should travel writers have a clue about food, particularly unfamiliar cuisines? Well, in my experience, they don’t, and this was another case in point.
Next morning, my partner and I went exploring around the town. I snapped a couple of pics:
We took a break at a restaurant that proudly proclaimed its Lonely Planet recommendation in prominent lettering. We ordered coffee and a pancake, neither of which were anything special. However, the testimonials of travellers who had dined there were impressive – wildly extravagant, in fact – and we decided to give it a try for dinner that night.
When we duly arrived that evening, the place was packed with westerners in evening dress (WTF?), with a queue of others spilling out on to the street waiting to get in. Trying one of Dalat’s many other restaurants was not an option, apparently. I get the sense that many people slavishly follow every glowing recommendation in Lonely Planet, and see restaurants like this as boxes they just have to tick – an Essential cultural experience, without which they wouldn’t have properly ‘done’ Dalat.
How essential a cultural experience is a fucking Western style restaurant serving up food that only Westerners are prepared to pay up for? The locals were evidently eating elsewhere.
Anyway, we gave it a miss, and supped at another restaurant further down the street, which was not listed in Lonely Planet but boasted a book of equally gushing testimonials from past patrons (all Westerners). The food was eccentric – and awful. But the four of us had a fantastic night revelling in each other’s company, and discussing some Big Stuff. We were generations apart, but it felt like we were peers, close friends with much in common. A rare meeting of minds that I cherished, and one of the highlights of the trip for me.
It was all downhill from there. I was bedridden with severe diarrhoea and fever for the next two days and saw nothing more of Dalat. My Easy Rider breakthrough was not to be, and neither was that marinated chicken I had promised myself.
The Easy Rider guys were fine about my having to cancel. One of them gave my partner a couple of antibiotic bombs and some Chinese herbal pills to give me, and wouldn’t hear of taking money for them. My partner gave me a note from Shai and Anne and was lyrical in her description of them taking off over the hill into the morning on the back of the bikes. Maybe next time…
No more pics of Dalat, goddamn it – was intending to go mad with the camera during our Easy Rider tour. Still, travelling is undulating in its emotional highs and lows. It was my turn to cop it, and that’s just the way of things.
More posts in this series on Vietnam:
Travels in Vietnam 2011: Intro
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: The Cu Chi Tunnels
Travels In Vietnam 2011: War Remnants Museum, Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Mekong Delta
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Nha Trang
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hoi An
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Sleeper Bus Nightmare!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hue
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Eating and Drinking!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hype vs Reality
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Reflections & Wrap-up