Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Fish are Communist.

Dalat is a quirky little place set in the central highlands of Vietnam at an altitude of around 1400m. Dalat is blessed with a climate of eternal springtime, the days are lovely and sunny mid twenties (with occasional wind and rain) and at night time the temperature drops to the mid teens. The landscape surrounding Dalat is covered with farms and greenhouses growing vegetables that are only available in this region and flowers, flowers and more flowers. All of this is set amongst panoramic mountains and valleys painted in a lush green hue. The city of Dalat itself is like nothing we have seen so far, more like the idealistic European mountain village, the city sprawls across the hills covered in French style villas, not just one or two, every house fronting the narrow and winding streets is in some way an architectural work of art.

Dalat is known locally as the Honeymoon city. Before we even arrived at Dalat we found the truth in the statement as we boarded the bus to take the “new road” we noticed that all of the other passengers on the bus were young Vietnamese couples, possibly on their honeymoon. Our other observation was that the level of wealth had risen amongst our fellow travellers and again we were the only westerners on our bus, a trend we have noticed while travelling through Vietnam is the rise in domestic tourism. With the bus mostly empty we spread out across two berths and enjoyed the scenery as we travelled the “new road” to Dalat.

The new road is the four hour trip between Nha Trang and Dalat, the other option is the “Old Road” which is a five to seven hour journey via Phan Thiet? The new road is actually quite new, only opening a year and a half ago and winds its way through the beautiful mountains and valleys, reaching into the clouds at its highest point and dishes out panoramic splendour at every turn. There is one catch… The “new road” is so new, they haven’t actually finished it yet. For the majority of our trip we bumped and bounced and gripped the armrests as we narrowly missed oncoming trucks, buses, scooters and bulldozers while the driver crunched the gears and mashed the brakes as bitumen gave way to gravel, and gravel gave way to dirt all the way avoiding giant holes in the road and certain death from a drop off the cliff. It was a great adventure though… Today as I write this we are on our way back from Dalat on the old road as two days ago the new road collapsed (again), and I must say from the two hours we’ve travelled so far, the old roads isn’t much better and is quite difficult to type this while sliding from left to right, not top mention being distracted by the view.

We were transferred to our hotel by the bus company and the ride through Dalat was another trip full of “ooohs” and “aaaghs” as we soaked up the atmosphere of this tranquil city. We chose our hotel from the Lonely Planet guide book based solely on the promise of Vegemite for breakfast, and were delighted to find a nice comfortable hotel. We hired a scooter for three days and set out to explore the town, our first stop was to the local markets as we were in urgent need of warmer clothing as Dalat was actually quite cool, especially when riding the scooter. Prue managed to get a pair of pants that were taken up for her while we explored the rest of the markets for a warm jumper each.

Our time in Dalat was spent mostly relaxing, Prue had caught a flu and was feeling shit, a flu she probably got from me a week earlier, although my ear had cleared up after poking it with toothpicks at a rest stop on the way to Dalat while a very friendly bird hopped around on our shoulders… Either way we spent our first two days going at an easy pace, heading out to indulge in the local restaurants and exploring the surrounding hills and town at cruise pace on the scooter. The traffic was a lot thinner in Dalat although the narrow winding streets created a new challenge when turning so we stuck to our mantra of “don’t look, just go”. With a decent wireless connection we also found time to Skype home and touch base with our family.

A couple of solo explorations of the town presented a few interesting occasions. Leaving Prue at the hotel curled up with a book feeling sick I ventured out on the scooter. Wringing the neck of the scooter I played “Vietnamese Slalom” ducking and weaving through the streets and hills of Dalat and at one point found myself launched twenty centimetres off the ground after getting air from a pothole down a dirt road that led to nowhere… On my pink scooter! My other solo adventure was to find a bar to have a quiet drink. Dalat isn’t well known for bars and even the guide book mentions its lacking nightlife. With this in mind I headed out to find myself a pub, I passed up the multitude of seedy looking Karaoke bars and local cafes and eventually stumbled on a place advertising a “Beer Dungeon” with free pool and music. Walking past the front I was pulled inside by an eccentric French-man called Nono with a genuine smile behind his long pointy beard. At the back of the building I was led downstairs to the dungeon hidden behind a large padded door.

The bar inside wasn’t much more than a brick room with a bar on one side, a pool table at the end and a few barstools scattered around tables. However the atmosphere was exactly what I was looking for, with a room full of like-minded travellers, an Aussie Ex-Pat publican, pumping tunes and walls covered in the scrawling graffiti of every traveller who had passed this way before me.

I found a little sanctuary to chill out before the infectious insanity of the bar absorbed me. I watched as Nono the French-man tried to convince an English girl that you can’t crush an egg with one hand by squeezing it, then watched as egg exploded in every direction across the pub followed by cries of astonishment and a barrage of insults from the Aussie Bartender who cried bloody murder as that was the last egg and someone upstairs had ordered a Carbonara 45 minutes ago. I had to defend my Bic lighter from being pocketed after it was explained that Bic lighters are a valuable commodity in Vietnam and upon the Aussie Bartender learning that I had a full black Bic at home in my backpack he swiftly offered me any bottle from behind the bar in exchange. Knowing the value of my lighter I declined his offer and left the bar at the strike of midnight and the start of curfew for the pub to close.

For our last day in Dalat we hired an Easy Rider Motorcycle guide named “Joseph” to take us on a tour around Dalat and the surrounding countryside. I rode my trusty pink scooter and Prue (still not feeling well) rode on the back of Joseph’s ‘big’ 125cc Honda. Big bikes aren’t common in Vietam (or much of anywhere in SE Asia) the Police ride 250cc bikes which are considered “big” by locals and I had a chuckle when negotiating our guide as he asked if I could handle a “big bike” like his 125cc. The main reason is the cost of the licence for a larger bike being roughly the equivalent of US$1000.00.

Joseph spoke English, French and Vietnamese and was an absolute gold mine of local knowledge as well as a very informative political commentator. Wherever we stopped he would tell us stories about the war, the government and its communist doctrines. I felt a little left out as Joseph liked to talk so much he Chatted away to Prue while cruising through the winding mountain trails surrounding Dalat. Of course I could hear none of this following behind on my scooter, but Prue filled me in the important parts later on. We visited a local temple with a gigantic flowing statue of a Dragon that largely resembled Bendigo’s Sun Loong and travelled out of town through the hills covered in tiered fields of Vegetables to a scenic spot by a lake.

Travelling up again into the mountains we stopped at a panoramic lookout of the valley and mountains with a small town perched in the cradle of the hills in the distance. Joseph explained about the effects of Agent Orange and how the Pine Trees we were seeing everywhere were planted by the US many years later as they had destroyed the jungle with napalm so that VC Snipers picking off convoys using the mountain roads had nowhere to hide. We slowly wound our way down the mountain dodging the occasional truck and into the small town occupied by the local ethnic group Kho (Koho).

We scrambled down a make shift staircase engraved into rocks, clambered over and between more rocks and squeezed through a small opening to reach a cave behind the Elephant Waterfalls where the spray swept back on us cooling us off. Then we clambered back around to the front of the waterfall along a path, that wasn’t really a path, more like a collection of stepping stones placed at random heights and the challenge wasn’t just finding the next one, but also trying not to fall off the slippery and muddy stones.

Back at the top of the falls we chatted to Joseph for a bit while we caught our breath and he told us stories of Police corruption before directing us to some local Kho people weaving ornate designs by hand. Prue fell in love with one of the scarves (which she bought for about $10) once she learnt the larger pieces can take up to two months to make. We were then treated to a massive spread of lunch in a nearby cafĂ© where we sat next to a small lake full of very hungry fish that ate all of the scraps that the local dog didn‘t want. Our lunch was a large spread of about a dozen different local dishes which were place on the table for the three of us to sample. Our meal cost just 30,000 Dong each (about $1.70).

After lunch we went to a Silk factory where we saw silk worm cacoons being turned into rolls of fine silk, we rode through the fields of coffee stopping to watch an 84 year old lady weaving baskets and then riding through hills covered in greenhouses we called in to wander through the flowers and watch the local family prepare the flowers to me shipped off to the markets in Saigon. We had a fantastic day with our guide Joseph and his relaxed pace and wealth of knowledge made the day so much more enjoyable and after a cruise back through the mountains and into Dalat, our day was topped off with a trip to the Crazy House.

The Crazy House is one of Dalat’s tourist attractions, it is actually a house and the lady who designed and built it still lives there, she also rents rooms out for the night like a hotel. But the Crazy House is not a house. The crazy House is like its namesake, absolutely crazy. Prue giggled and squealed like a four year old as we explored the labyrinth of free flowing staircases leading to rooms with strange themes like the kangaroo room which has a large sculpture of a kangaroo with sinister looking glowing red eyes. There are no square traditional rooms or windows as everything has been rendered and sculpted with concrete and gives the place an almost organic feel.

After eating dinner for our last night in Dalat I dragged Prue to the Dungeon Bar “Subterrain” where we played a few games of “Prue’s-rules-pool” and chatted to the Aussie bartender where we played “who do you know that I know” only to find that even though we both lived in the same places in Melbourne we didn’t know anyone. Prue gave Nono the French-man optometry advice (as you do) and we left again just on the strike of curfew leaving behind my trusty (but almost empty) blue Bic Lighter to much thanks and shouts of victory by Nono the French-man.

As I type this I’m still on the “old road” bus heading back to Na Trang, we’ve survived the hazardous mountain pass road, dodged cows, scooters and ox drawn carts while bouncing up and down all the way back to the coast. We have started heading north sitting behind a truck while the driver continues to mash his horn at all of the oncoming traffic. The TV on the bus is playing the Vietnamese version of “Dancing with the stars“ and again we are the only westerners...

Sorry 'bout the long post, we have photos to post but Vietnam has no access to Facebook at the moment, although the Government has denied blocking it. Will put some photos up again when it is working.