Thursday, 24 January 2013

Dalat - Spring City of Flowers and Coffee Plantations

Linh Phuoc Pagoda

Dalat is a city in the south central highlands of Vietnam.  Being located quite high up in the mountains has a very pleasant year round climate - warm days and cool nights;  the perfect conditions for growing coffee, flowers, coconuts, bananas and all manner of other vegetables.  And a welcome break from the hothouse that is Saigon.

The city was built by the French in the late 19th century who developed the area as a resort; a retreat from the oppressive heat of Saigon. Before this, various minority tribes had called the area home for centuries so deals were done between the French and the various chiefs, and building soon began in earnest.  Wide boulevard like roads, luxurious French style villas, hotels, spas parks, a lake and a golf course were all part of the design which earned itself the nickname Little Paris.

It became a popular holiday destination for rich French colonialists and Vietnamese royalty (one emperor built 3 royal palaces in Dalat which can still be seen today).  A railway from Saigon was planned in the early stages but building delayed until the 1930s.  Sadly the railway no longer runs although a small section of 7km was rebuilt for tourism purposes and takes visitors to the small village of Trai Mat and from there you can wander up to the Linh Phuoc pagoda which really is something worth seeing.

The Xuan HuongLake in central Dalat
We caught an early bus from Saigon and the trip took 8 hours on fairly good roads.  It was a scenic journey which took us up into the mountains, through the coffee plantations and past cafés where seats are dispensed with and hammocks provided in their stead.

On arrival at the bus station we caught a cab to the Villa Pinkhouse Hotel which was one of the best value places we had stayed so far - £11 a night for a huge room, large balcony and breakfast included.  It was a really well run hotel with views across the city from the balcony where we sat every evening watching the sun set over the mountains in the distance.

We had booked 5 nights and when we arrived we were a bit flummoxed as to what we were going to do in that time. 

A dragon in the flower garden
So, on the first day we did our usual marching around the town including around the 7km perimeter of the central Xuan Huong Lake, stopping half way round to visit the flower park which is a lovely way to while away an hour or two.

The second day we headed over to the old railway station where we were hoping we would time it right for the tourist train up to Trai Mat.  We were in luck as there were already 9 people waiting to take the trip and once we arrived, they had sufficient numbers to head off.  A few years ago they had a steam train which pulled the carriages but sadly they did away with this and we had to settle for an old locomotive pulling a couple of old carriages they picked up from somewhere (Switzerland rings a bell). 

Paul in our little old fashioned railway carriage
Well, we loved it.  We chugged along, further up into the hills, past all the poly tunnels where the flowers are grown, and through the farmland where local people have smallholdings neatly growing crops of their choice.  
The destination station is Trai Mat and from there we visited the Linh Thuoc pagoda which is a massive pagoda, beautifully and intricately decorated with mosaic china and glass.   

Trai Mat is a tiny village and when we arrived the children were finishing school and cries of “hello” followed us up and down the road.  The pagoda itself is definitely worth a visit and really quite impressive.  Once again, it seemed to be made out of Granny’s best China and the workmanship was amazing.  It was a shame we didn’t have longer to explore but the train only waits for 45 minutes before returning to Dalat.

Children making offerings to Buddha
On our third day we decided to hire a taxi to take us the monastery just south of the city from where we would take the cable car across the city.  Yes, it was another cable car but we had discussed this at length and frankly it looked like a doddle compared to some of the Chinese cable cars we had survived, and it was Austrian built which always helps.  However, once we had mooched around the monastery, chatted to a friendly, smiley monk, and walked around the beautifully tended gardens, it turned out the cable car was shut.  We are still not sure whether it was just closed for lunch (everything in Vietnam closes for lunch, even cafés and restaurants who actually serve lunch) but we didn’t spot it working that afternoon when we returned to the hotel so assume that some major fault had been discovered and our lives saved at the eleventh hour.

So instead of risking life and limb in yet another dangly box hanging from a piece of string we managed to get another taxi to the Datanla Waterfall, another attraction just outside of the city which we were warned would be mad busy unless we got there early.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get there early and arrived about lunchtime fearing the worst.  We were keen to see the waterfall but, to be honest, more keen to ride the toboggan/roller coaster up and down to the waterfall.  Granted, this was a bit of a Disney like addition to a perfectly good natural attraction but we had enjoyed the toboggan so much at the Great Wall in 
Inside one of the monastery temples
China we were eager to compare the two.

We duly arrived (after a bit of a detour back into town due to a misunderstanding with the taxi driver but it was soon resolved) and paid the entrance fee and bought tickets for the toboggan.  Unfortunately our experience of the toboggan was marred somewhat by a rather large Russian lady who was about 4 cars in front and who was inching (literally) her way forward, obviously terrified.  Everyone behind her (including us) were stuck waiting patiently behind her and what should have been an exhilarating 5 minute ride turned out to be a 15 minute tedious crawl.

So we reached the bottom rather more slowly than we would have liked and set about exploring the area.
The main waterfall is indeed quite impressive, as was the number of Russian tourists.  There were so many of them (Russians) that all the gift shop and café workers could speak Russian.  And they could all speak it rather well.  We had heard rumours about the Russians moving into Vietnam and this was the first evidence we had seen first hand that they have clearly definitely arrived en masse.

The first waterfall
Russians were everywhere but still the place was not that crowded.  We took a few snaps and then sat down for an iced coffee and an ice cream.  As we were cooling off in the shade we spotted a very small, quite elderly looking cable car in the corner.  It was quite hidden from view, and appeared not to be working (or closed for lunch of course).  Unless you looked really hard you didn’t really notice it was there.

We continue to relax with our coffee when 10 minutes later we noticed that the cable car had in fact re-opened so our lunch theory was probably right.  We decided to investigate and peered along the little narrow valley down which the cable wires descended and decided we would take our chances and see what was down there.

So we purchased tickets and as there was only one actual cable car and it had just left, we waited 10 minutes before it returned and unloaded a family of Chinese.  We then clambered inside and were taken down the slim gap in the rocks and to the bottom where we disembarked to see what we could find. 
And we were rewarded with another waterfall, just as spectacular as the main attraction, but completely deserted.  We were able walk to a ledge and along a path which led us to an elevator.  I pressed “call” and the doors opened so in we hopped and we were taken down to the valley floor from where we had an amazing view of this other waterfall.

The second waterfall
We were completely alone, the cable car wasn’t advertised in any way (in fact it was all but hidden from view in amongst some trees to the side) and we spent about an hour or so exploring this part with no-one else around.

After a while we headed back to the main area to discover we practically had the whole place to ourselves – almost everyone had gone.  There were just a couple of people wandering about but the warnings to go early were certainly unfounded.  It wasn’t exactly swarming with people when we first arrived but it was positively deserted when we returned from our little adventure to the second waterfall.

The trip back up to the top involved either climbing the stairs (never an option) or being hauled up by toboggan.  So we hopped in again and were taken back up to the top with ease, in comfort and without doing our knees in.  In fact we liked it so much, we paid to do it again!  It was much quieter and no-one else was on the toboggan track so we could go as fast as we wanted this time and it was much more fun second time around.

As we left we wandered outside to find a taxi to take us back to town and found that the taxi driver who had brought us here had in fact waited for us (which was a result as there were no other cabs hanging around).  We climbed in with gratitude and headed back to town to look for a beer and a bite to eat.

Paul on his toy bike
There are lots of cafés in Dalat but they are just that – cafés serving tea, coffee, beer, cold drinks and cocktails – and not many restaurants that we could find.  We traipsed up a hill to a place recommended by the Lonely Planet but we nearly fell over when we saw the price of a salad was 165,000 dong -about $8 which is not budget price in Vietnam.

We managed to find another restaurant which seemed a bit too posh for us but the prices were very unposh so we stopped by.  The food happened to be excellent and the service amazing - because they were late serving garlic bread we were given complimentary profiteroles (very yummy) but the restaurant itself just wasn’t our cup of tea so we never went back.  The bill came to about $8 which was a bit more like it!

It seems once somewhere is mentioned in the Lonely Planet the prices triple and the service nosedives.  We noticed this in Vietnam quite a lot.

Dalat is also home to Easy Rider where you are taken on a tour of your choice on the back of a lovely looking but not actually very powerful motorbike.  Many people up and down Vietnam offer this service (and indeed the hotel offered their own similar tour but this involved a 7 o’clock start and a 12 hour day starting and ending with team bonding exercises which we are just really not cut out for).  We would probably have gone with the hotel’s tour were it not for that but we ended up contacting the original Easy Rider company and on our last day headed out on a tour with one of their guides, David.

A massive gold Buddha in Dalat
Paul wanted to ride his own bike but was disappointed that it was a 110cc scooter type thing which he considered to be half a pair of roller skates.  On the other hand, I got to ride pillion on a 250cc proper motorbike with a backrest and everything.  Many times I turned around to see Paul following in the distance behind us, head down, full throttle, struggling to get up a hill.  Complete strangers found his mode of transport a source of great hilarity, not thinking twice to comment “I think you need a bigger bike, mate” or, in the case of Vietnamese, just laughing and pointing.  A lot.

David took us around Dalat city, telling us a lot about the city’s history, the fact that it escaped relatively unscathed in various conflicts, and how Dalat (and indeed how the whole of Vietnam) relies heavily on agriculture and the export of its products for a sizable proportion of its economy.

We were taken to a coffee plantation where we sampled the famous weasel coffee.  I should explain here that the coffee beans are eaten by weasels and collected, err, afterwards before being ground for consumption.  Can’t say we noticed the difference.

Overlooking farmland
What we enjoyed most about the day was the spectacular scenery.  Much of the area around Dalat is farmed, but there is much that remains wild with native forest.  There was a lot of mist around and while it doesn’t make for great photos, it sure as hell adds to the atmosphere when you are actually there.  It was amazing riding around the mountains, up and down the winding roads, made more enjoyable and sightly less terrifying by the fact that the roads are relatively quiet compared to the rest of Vietnam. 

David also took us to see another waterfall, Elephant Falls (waterfalls abound around Dalat).  This visit involved a lot of clambering around up and down rocks following a path which, if we had been left to our devices, it is unlikely we would have tackled.  David was like a mountain goat, jumping from rock to rock and clearly knew the place like the back of his hand.  It was another beautifully scenic spot and again quite deserted but for a handful of tourists.

Paul with David, our Easy Rider guide
As the sun goes down the air cools quite rapidly in the mountains and riding back to the hotel at around 6pm it was becoming decidedly chilly.  Many people opt for longer trips over 2 or 3 days up to weeks at a time, touring around Vietnam by bike and, had money been no object, it would certainly be something we would have liked to have done.  As it was we enjoyed our day exploring Dalat and its surroundings by motorcycle.

By the end of our last day in Dalat we were wondering why we weren’t staying longer as there was so much to see!  We had grown fond of the city during our time there.  It seems a world away from the rest of Vietnam partly because the architecture is so European but also as the climate is so different from the rest of Vietnam.  It is still gloriously sunny but quite a few degrees cooler and not nearly as humid as Saigon.

Dalat seems to have been protected somewhat from Vietnam's tragic history over the last 100 years or so, built and protected by the French and then shielded by the Americans when it was their turn to wreak havoc on the rest of Vietnam.  You are reminded that you are in Asia when you venture to the outskirts to the Buddhist monastery and visit the pagoda but otherwise when you visit the so called Spring City it feels decidedly like an Alpine town in the summertime, and very different from other places we visited in Vietnam.

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