May 25, 2003

Strawberries, waterfalls, cool weather and the beach

choosing a guesthouse to look at

The bus we took from Saigon to Dalat was the first leg of what they call an "open tour" from Saigon to Hanoi. Basically, travel companies in Vietnam will sell you a ticket that allows you to get on and off along the way as you travel between Saigon (in the south) and Hanoi (in the north). There is always at least 1 bus per day, sometimes more, so you can pretty much decide how long to stay in a place as you go along. These open tours also advertise various sightseeing stops along the way, most of which sound pretty good on paper beforehand. Our first such sightseeing stop was at a floating village on a small lake. The stop was only for a few minutes and since we had just spent two days looking at much larger floating villages we weren't too excited by this one. It was at least a nice stretch break though. As we wound our way further north and inland, the terrain gradually became more hilly and before long we were climbing up a mountain pass. At our lunch stop we were able to purchase some fresh, ripe avocados (which can't be grown in the hotter climate of lower elevations) for about 25 cents per kilo from a roadside vendor. Avocados combined with baguettes (also purchased from roadside vendors) made for an excellent lunch.
aren't they cute?
The last few miles of the trip to Dalat were very scenic with lots of switchbacks and a constant climb with pine trees and good views along the road. Dalat itself is situated in a valley around a lake, although the elevation is fairly high (1500m, nearly 5000 feet) and you feel like you are climbing most of the way there. Upon arrival our bus was yet again met by at least 10 different people all wanting to show us to a guesthouse. We met a couple of other travelers on the bus and eventually negotiated the price of $20 for three rooms for two nights. The rooms were really nice with hot water (much appreciated because the weather was cooler), TV and balconies. We also arranged to rent motorbikes from our guesthouse for the next day, for just over $3 per bike. This brought the total per person for 2 nights lodging and a motorbike to $5. As an added bonus there was a day care directly next door to our guesthouse, and we enjoyed visiting the smiling Vietnamese kids who were very cute and friendly.

paddle boats on the lake
After getting settled in to our rooms we headed out to explore the town a little. We had read in our guidebooks that the local market had vegetarian food stalls, which we definitely wanted to check out. On the way to the market we walked along the shore of the local lake and some in the group were actually cold, even while wearing sweatshirts. I wore a long sleeved shirt and was comfortable for a change. On the lake they have all kinds of tourist attractions that are mainly geared towards local Vietnamese tourists including swan shaped paddle boats. Along the lake we found a vendor selling hot soy milk which a couple of us decided to sample. It was the first time in quite a while that I actually enjoyed the "hot" part of a hot drink! The market in Dalat was very interesting to explore as they sell all sorts of dried fruit, nuts and candies which made for great snacks. Strawberries were also in season and were priced quite reasonably. Although the size and quality didn't really compare to what we get in the States, they were still great and I really enjoyed getting some fresh berries.
snake wine anyone?
Other less appetizing "delicacies" such as snake wine were also available. The snake wine is rather expensive but is purportedly an aphrodisiac, the effects of which some compared to viagra. We eventually found our way to the food stall section of the market where we were delighted to find cheap vegetarian food. The small stands had a normal Vietnamese style menu, complete with meat dishes listed, but all of the "meat" products were actually made from vegetables. Rather than trying just one dish we all got to sample a variety of dishes (all of which were good) at a cost of about 50 cents per person. After supper we wandered through the market a little bit and then a couple of us went on another long walk. We basically just wandered around town, but ended up in a University neighborhood where we met and visited with several students. A few of the students were majoring in English so were excited to get some practice with us foreigners. Back at our hotel I was really glad for hot water in the shower and had an excellent night's sleep curled up under a thick blanket.

enjoying vegetarian food in the market
The next morning after a bit of confusion due to some miscommunication we eventually got our rental motorbikes and headed out of town. Our first stop was at a monastery situated on the shore of a very picturesque reservoir. The monastery gardens had lots of flowers and pine trees while the water in the reservoir had an aqua tint to it which added to the beauty. After wandering around the gardens and lake we found a vegetarian restaurant similar to the food stall we had eaten at the night before, only this time the price was 25 cents per plate of food, and it was even better. It was good enough that most of us had a second helping in fact. After lunch our next stop was a waterfall which we reached by hiking down into a ravine. We had the area almost completely to ourselves so enjoyed climbing up to the top of the waterfall and explored some other trails in the area as well before hiking back up the hill to our bikes. A few kilometers down the road we arrived at yet another waterfall, only this one was more built up as a local tourist attraction. In the area surrounding the waterfall they had set up paddle boats, a cable car ride, a small zoo (with bears, crocodiles, gibbons, monkeys, etc), a raft with a sail on it (photo spot), a rock garden, a tribal gift shop with weaving demonstrations and an area where you could try "tribal sports" like archery. They also had plenty of food available and the whole area was landscaped with several statues, a couple of fountains and lots of flower beds. It certainly wasn't the typical waterfall setting, but was interesting in its own way.
weaving traditional hill tribe textiles
The Vietnamese definitely have an affinity for all things kitsch. After spending some time exploring the waterfall area (think gaudy Disneyland), we drove back to Dalat and got a few snacks before heading out of town in a different direction. This time we didn't really have a destination in mind, but enjoyed exploring the countryside. Much of the area surrounding the town is used for agriculture, with many crops being grown that thrive in the relatively cooler climate. We ended up on a very nice road that had probably been built recently as part of a hydroelectric power generation project. The road wound through the countryside away from any villages and even followed a reservoir for much of the way. On the way back we enjoyed the sunset and arrived in town just in time to see the moon rising above the local replica of the Eiffel Tower. For supper we bought some more fresh strawberries, and afterwards took another walk around town (with more than one ice cream stop) before heading to bed.

dalat agriculture
Bright and early the following morning we began the next leg of our open tour. We were headed for the beach resort town of Nha Trang, so the first part of the drive was very scenic with a winding road full of switch backs and a stop along the way to enjoy the view. Once we reached the base of the mountains the rest of the trip was fairly flat. We had two more stops, one at some ancient ruins and another for lunch at a restaurant, before arriving in Nha Trang. Upon arrival we got sick of the touts and decided to leave all our bags near the beach with part of the group while a couple of us searched for a room. When you walk around town with a backpack on you are automatically followed by several people trying to take you to hotels, but without bags it is easier to go to a hotel on your own.
this road was fun since it was so nice and new
In some cases touts will try to get a commission from a hotel that you go to on your own, just by following you and showing up at the same time. If you can manage to arrive without touts, you sometimes can get a lower price on the room since then the hotel does not have to pay a commission to anyone. We ended up with a room that was a bit more "expensive" at $10 per night, but it had AC, a fridge and TV. It also had enough beds for the 4 of us, so it was still just $2.50 per person and we only ended up staying one night. Without AC we probably could have had a similar room for $6 or less, but electricity is expensive, and AC uses a lot of it. After dropping off our bags we changed into swimming suits and headed to the beach for a relaxing afternoon enjoying the sand and surf. In the evening we met up with some other travelers and ended up eating at an amazing restaurant called the Cyclo Cafe. It is run by a man who used to work in a fancy restaurant, but now has opened his own place with excellent home cooked Western and Asian food at great prices. For example, a large pizza was $2 and a large hot pot meal cost about $1. After supper we went for a long walk, coming back along the beach.

there's nothing like fresh strawberries!
In the morning we took a while to get up and out of the cool (thanks to the AC) hotel room but eventually made our way back to the Cycle Cafe for breakfast. I brought along the last of my strawberries from Dalat and ordered some frozen (slushy) homemade yogurt, which combined with the strawberries to make my favorite meal of the entire trip. After breakfast we decided to reconfirm our open tickets for the next leg of the trip, but discovered that the bus we were planning to take had been cancelled. After much discussion we finally decided to take the night bus north instead of leaving the following day as we had originally planned. The decision was a bit harder to make since it also meant that we would be leaving Jonathan about 12 hours earlier than we had planned. He eventually decided to catch a night bus to Saigon, so left Nha Trang an hour or two after we did, but going in the opposite direction. He didn't take as much time off from work as the rest of us so needed to get back to Phnom Penh. After getting our tickets sorted out we had a few hours left to spend on the beach, getting massages and relaxing a little bit. Just before catching our bus we ate one more excellent meal at the Cyclo Cafe.


Posted by andrew on May 25, 2003