We left New Zealand excited about the next leg of our journey, although we had set ourselves what was potentially a tiring start.
We left on an eleven hour flight from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur at 1am and then grabbed a couple of hours sleep in an airport hotel (most Asian airports have several onsite facilities which allow for this). We left Steve’s bike and most of our luggage with the hotel (who were happy to store it for a month), and we set off on a three hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam with 7kgs of carry on luggage each.
We arrived in HCM City in the evening and having spent three days there a few years ago we felt our time would be better spent elsewhere. In fact, that was our plan for Vietnam in general. Having been lucky to visit the country twice before, this time we were trying to visit places we had not previously seen. So after some food, a sleep and a quick refresher on how to cross the road (more on that later), we were on an early morning flight to the mountain city of Da Lat.
The airport was an hour on the local bus outside the city. So by the time we arrived at our hotel we had been on the go, on and off, for almost 36 hours, and we had walked around Auckland for 10 hours before starting out. We were pretty whacked.
However, there is nothing like the excitement of turning up in a new place to re-energise you. So we set off exploring our new destination.
Da Lat is set high in the mountains in South Central Vietnam and at over 5000 feet the air is far less humid than other cities in the country. It is also home to half a million people and although very popular among Vietnamese holiday makers it isn’t all that established on the international travellers route.
Our first day was ‘Crazy’. First stop was ‘The Crazy House’. Where do we start with this one? Designed by an artist/architect with, shall we say a vivid imagination, the house and grounds are a mixture of some form of sprawling giant tree. It twists it’s way around a scene, something vaguely like a cross between a fairytale, the Hobbit and The Little Mermaid.
You walk up and down, in and out, over and under, never quite knowing what is around the next corner. One minute we found ourselves loving it, the next not really understanding it and the next thinking it was all too much. Even now we are not sure about it, but it definitely goes down as an experience!
After the Crazy House, we went to The Crazy Bar or Maze Cafe or 100 Roof Tops Bar. Things in Vietnam can sometimes have more than one name, or more than five names. As if things weren’t confusing enough.
We just called in for half an hour, for a drink and to see what it was about. After entering the bar and buying a drink you go down a staircase and into a tunnel network underground.
It’s pitch black initially, so we had to use the light from our phones to navigate. Then you come up into a series of dimly lit passage ways that gradually wind up and up passing small alcoves which have seating areas.
Eventually you emerge into daylight on the roof top, but the paths continue on up the hillside until you reach a small patio at the very top with a view over the whole city.
We were joined by a Dutch girl and her recently retired father who were travelling together for five weeks in Vietnam and a couple of Danish guys who were digital nomads making their way around South East Asia.
Three hours later we were still there, swapping stories and experiences. We had a great time and we were all crying with laughter. Steve thought it’s a good job he is now fluent in Dutch and Danish …. Seriously though, it never ceases to amaze and embarrass us how unbelievably perfect some Europeans can speak English, even their accents are great. It’s easy to forget you are speaking with Dutch, or Danes, or Swedes etc etc.
Our second day in Da Lat involved what has become one of our favourite pastimes, travelling on local transport.
There are always organised tours available to see the sights. Sometimes these are the only way and sometimes they are the best way as you need the expert information to fully appreciate what you are seeing, especially if it is something you are really interested in.
However, most of the time there is enough information out there to piece together a tour of your own. This is always at a fraction of the cost of an organised tour and invariably throws up some new, unforseen issue or experience. So now we have time on our hands it is our preferred and default method of sightseeing and they have become known to us as ‘Crossley Tours’. “Who knows what you will get!”.
We planned a trip to see The Elephant Falls and the nearby statue of Guanyin, a prominent figure in Buddism.
These were about 40km out of town. First stop was the bus station, which wasn’t really a bus station as such, just a wide part of the street where buses stop. It’s probably a good time to mention that our grasp of the Vietnamese language extends to two words, Cam On, meaning Thankyou and Ngon, meaning Delicious (the last one is used mainly out of politeness!). These, however, are two words more than 99.99% of the Da Lat population can speak in English.
So asking a bus driver if the bus is going in our direction was the first obstacle. Google Maps help, but firstly it’s in English (imagine being presented with Google Maps in Vietnamese! I’ve seen it and it isn’t pretty). Secondly, a lot of people are not good at reading maps.
Anyway, once we are on the bus, the real fun starts. Buses in Asia, as in Central America, are not just used to transport people. They are a sort of postal and courier service for anything and everything including birds (live), fish (live), insects (live), letters, small parcels, big parcels, motorbike (engines), motorbikes (whole). We have seen all these things on buses and most of them on this particular bus. Someone flags the bus down, gives the conductor the item, an address and some money. Then someone flags the bus down further down the line and collects the item. Steve was laughing so much he forgot to take a photo of Sarah helping three locals get a motorcycle off the bus!
Steve was following the progress of the bus on his phone and looking a little concerned and we both burst out with laughter when, after 20 minutes, we turned a corner and we were right back where we started!!
Steve tried to speak to the driver who nodded and gave him a thumbs up. Five minutes later we were off again. This time Steve looked much happier as we left the city and headed off into the countryside, in the right direction. The conductor came and showed us a Vietnamese bank note. We found this to be the way costs are communicated. Steve gave him the equivalent back and the conductor nodded and gave him the thumbs up!
The bus stopped here and there, people got off and on, parcels were delivered and collected and after about an hour the bus stopped and the conductor indicated for us to get off. Steve nodded and gave him the thumbs up!
We then sort of stumbled into the entrance of the falls at the back of a roadside cafe where we paid the equivalent of £1 each for the entrance fee and a coffee.
The Elephant Falls were better than we had expected. Other people we had spoken to had visited some smaller falls close to the city and had been disappointed. They had, in true Vietnamese fashion, been over commercialised and they resembelled a Disney theme park. Elephant Falls were still pretty much natural and we enjoyed them a lot.
The Guanyin statue just down the road didn’t seem to appear in any tours but it was fantastic and the adjacent pagoda and grounds was also impressive.
The journey back was a lot easier as all buses were heading back to the city. So it was just a case of standing by the side of the road, waving at the first bus to come by, then having the visual display of bank notes to establish the price and finally the nod and the thumbs up and we were off.
The centre of Da Lat is taken up by a large lake which has a perimeter of about 6km. A pathway and a wide road run around it and it is a favourite place to walk for locals and visitors alike. So we thought we would join in. After about ten minutes we heard a Police siren on the opposite side of the lake and saw a Police car with flashing lights moving very, very slowly. We then became aware of dozens of Police Officers in cars, on motorbikes and on foot. Then they started putting on road blocks and diversions and the incredibly busy road was all of a sudden deserted. “It must be some sort of visiting VIP”, said Sarah. Then in the distance we saw a runner. Not an Olympic athlete dressed in lycra, but some guy in local Police Uniform. Then another came by and then another, all of them with numbers pinned to their shirts and most wearing some old gym pumps from the 70’s.
It turned out the big operation was to facilitate twenty or so local officers having a race around the lake, non of whom appeared to be serious athletes. In fact, we were a little worried about the condition of a few of them as they collapsed at the finish line.
We continued around the lake visiting the much touted Flower Garden enroute which was a nice stoll around but in all honesty nothing special.
On our way back to the hotel we had to cross a main road. Now, in Vietnam this is a skill in itself, which we thought we had mastered pretty well. The city roads are always busy and the number of lanes is determined not by road markings but by how many motorbikes can fit side by side. There are several things to remember when crossing. Firstly, the traffic WILL NEVER STOP FOR ANYTHING!! Next, when you start to cross you keep going at the same speed and finally do not stop or turn back.
The first step into the traffic is always the scariest and on this occasion we were struggling to commit. Then out of nowhere an old woman appeared, she must have been 80 years old if she was a day. She grabbed hold of Steve’s arm with a fierce grip and dragged him into the road and through the oncoming, swerving traffic all the way to the otherside. Sarah jumped on the procession and we emerged unscathed. Then the woman disappeared as quickly as she appeared. Vietnam is great in so many ways.
Our final day in Da Lat was spent visiting a pagoda on the outskirts of the city. This was a pretty good place to visit and had been very well decorated in a broken glass and mosaic tile design.
However, the parking for the coaches bringing the tours was directly in front of the pagoda, maybe two metres away. So getting a good shot for a few photos took some imagination and patience by Sarah.
The highlight of that day was the journey back. We had read about an old train that runs three times a day. We had missed it on the way up because, suprise suprise, the online timetable bore no resemblance to the actual timetable. However, we checked at the station and managed to catch it back.
For £1.50 each we travelled in the VIP section with deep leather seats, dark wood decoration and a big smile on our faces.
Our final evening was spent strolling the night market. This wasn’t like a lot of night markets we have visited in Asia, it was aimed much more at locals and holidaying Vietnamese. No “Good Morning Vietnam” T-shirts here. Hundreds of stalls lined the main street selling mainly cheap clothes, flowers and food which we could only guess at the content.
After three days here in a City with a population of half a million, we had seen easily less than 30 people who may have been white European and we kept seeing the same few people over and over. It’s a phenomenon we have encountered before and it’s bizarre really, but you find yourself waving to each other in some kind of strange alliance.
We came to Da Lat to have a little bit of down time and to relax, but we didn’t realise how much it had to offer. We felt like we had been at it non stop. Maybe our next port of call might be different …. but then again, maybe not!