To Đà Lạt & All That | Episode I
To the mountains, and to a place where I once again manage to fall in love with a whole city
Another day brings another hostel breakfast; this time a fruit salad served with yoghurt. Again, I am frequently surprised by how over-sweetened foods are in Vietnam. This allegedly ‘natural’ yoghurt was almost sticking to my teeth. But I digress.
We started on the ritualistic waiting-for-mini-bus-to-take-us-to-wait-for-big-bus routine, and were soon getting our backpacks in the boot. Our embarking was temporarily delayed however, as a fight broke out on the bus.
The first rule of fight club, is do not tell people on the bus about fight club
Having been otherwise preoccupied, we missed the root of the drama, but it culminated in an older Asian tourist lunging at an employee of the bus company. His family held him back and a heated argument broke out; the man’s wife and a younger man in the group were trying to calm him down, whilst the employee of the bus company remained quite worked up, stood slightly away.
At this point we embarked, a couple of us Western tourists catching each other’s eyes and sharing the bemusement and sheer confusion of the movement.
We set off, and thought it was all over – until the employee went to deck the man! Some of the man’s group tried to hold back the bus employee; but the older man lunged forwards to retaliate. The man’s wife tried to throw herself between the man and the bus employee, only to be shoved aside by her neck: at this point everyone on the bus begins flipping out. There was a surge of people surrounding the wife to pat her on the shoulder (that’s not a metaphor, there were about four people patting her); there was an outbreak of shouting and cussing in at least two different languages; there was an attempt to calm the employee in a hushed voice – to which he responded by trying to deck the calmer in the face.
Eventually it all calmed down, another employee of the bus company came onboard to apologise, and we set off as if nothing had happened. It was a very British response to the most energetic and aggressive incident I’ve seen any Vietnamese people in.
Perhaps planned or perhaps a ploy to keep everyone happy, but soon after leaving the outskirts of the city we stopped at a restaurant set in some Japanese-inspired gardens. It was a brief, unremarkable stop, but marked the watershed of smooth roads.
Hold on to your hats – it’s a bumpy ride
At this point we began ascending; Đà Lạt is 1,500m above sea level. The road into the mountains is uneven, winding, and all over the place, but the views more than make up for the time you spend shooting out of your seat.
With low-hanging clouds shrouding the valley in a Romantic glow, I almost began to gasp in delight – until the minibus took a corner too fast, or tried overtaking the nimbler scooters or faster buses.
I was prepared for the colonial and European influenced architecture of Đà Lạt; I was not expecting such a difference in architecture made so clear on the route upwards. The houses on the way are different; the poverty is more visible. Shacks of corrugated iron, or tarpaulin stretched over a wood frame, crowd the roadside, overlooking newly-constructed village estates that house recently cleared villagers. They look soulless, infertile, dead.
Developed by the French as a holiday resort at the start of the 20th Century, Đà Lạt is known as the ‘Alps of Vietnam,’ and the colonial influence is immediately apparent. During both the French and American wars there was a general accord that Đà Lạt ought not to be bombed, so the architecture of the area remains predominantly untouched by conflict.
The buildings are narrow, and clustered together, much like the traditional Vietnamese architecture, but they tower above the city much like chalets in the sky. With European colours, windows and architectural adornments, Đà Lạt both embraces multiculturalism whilst maintaining its own identity.
A warm Vietnamese welcome ‘home’
We had been recommended a hostel by a rep from the bus company, but it wasn’t too far from a hostel that someone else had recommended us, so we made a beeline for the latter. En route, we stumbled across those two words that filled us with such joy: Com Chay.
Without an English menu, we were offered a “buffet;” again, a plate of rice piled up with all manners of tofu and vegetable goods. A bit more expensive than Hoi An at 40,000₫ each, but some of the tofu was so much like meat I felt it was worth it.
After eating we were soon hopelessly lost trying to find the hostel; that is until some locals gave us correct directions. Again, our presumptions were challenged and we were soon heading down the winding alley to Đà Lạt Family Hostel. Upon arrival we were immediately drawn into big welcoming hugs from ‘mama;’ the hostel’s crazy matriarch who is infamous amongst the backpacker community in Đà Lạt.
Slightly stunned, we were shepherded to have a seat and given sweet cold drink that tasted like a mojito without alcohol. As room availability was being checked, we chatted with some of the Vietnamese staff whilst Mama danced around the kitchen, singing, shouting, and smiling. It was as mad and over-stimulating as any family homecoming – and we were soon being shepherded off to our room on the promise of returning for “family dinner.”
Evidently, Đà Lạt Family Hostel is so popular that in order to accommodate the overflow of backpackers most of the neighbouring houses have a room full of bunkbeds. Our room had four bunkbeds right next to each other (almost like a quadruple bed), and the bathroom was entered via the neighbour’s utility room. There was a glass door peeking into their kitchen, which gave us a very voyeuristic glance into daily Vietnamese life.
We set out to explore the town, and were immediately befriended by an Australian on a longboard. “Come try this Vietnamese pizza!” Is not a phrase to which I can answer no. A circle of rice paper is grilled to crispy on a bbq-type grill, then an egg, a triangle of laughing cow cheese, herbs and some dried chilli are mixed on top to make a cheesy-omeletty topping. Served sliced here, but rolled up at night markets, you’ve got yourselves a Vietnamese pizza.
With our pizza pals, we headed to a “really trippy stone bar,” but unsure of which way to go the group dwindled until we decided to just call it a day. I headed back to the hostel for Family Dinner, which came in at 50,000₫. The room was packed; Mama was cooking about 5 different dishes whilst the entire hostel staff carried never-ending dishes of food up to the long table around which we crammed.
With plenty of veggie options, and plenty of people close by, it certainly felt like home.
There were Chinese teenagers chatting up “handsome English man,” Canadian Muslims looking to have a break up intense work contracts, Londoners looking to reinvent themselves. And that’s the beauty of travelling. If you complement meeting and chatting with locals, with meeting and chatting with fellow travellers, you’re well exposed to the diverse fabric of humanity.
I headed back to my room to change for an evening out exploring, but was interrupted with the entrance of a new friend. Through the kitchen door came through a Vietnamese toddler, who, unlike many other Vietnamese toddlers, was absolutely at home chattering in English to backpackers. Kicking his shoes off, he made himself right at home jumping on our beds, playing games and generally being a hyperactive toddler. Eventually we had to return him to his overly-apologetic parents, but nonetheless it was a pleasant afternoon.
On finding yourself lost…
We then headed to the Night Market, where I tried to buy a pair of jeans. Fortunately for the Vietnamese, they do not have Westernised body-shapes. Unfortunately for the Western traveller with chunky thighs, this was not going to be a success.
On the recommendation of a hostel receptionist, we decided to try 100 Roofs Bar, which hosted an unparalleled view across the city. On arriving it was quickly clear that this was the “trippy stone bar” that the Australian longboarder was so keen to bring us to – and it was easy to see why.
The owner spent 27 years carving the entire bar out of stone. It’s not just a stone bar though; it’s a maze. A maze that defies Escherian logic. Not realising what we were signing up for, I opted for a rum and cookie milkshake for 40,000₫ – hands down the singlemost delicious dessert and drink I had in Vietnam. At first, the claims of neverending games of hide and seek seemed ridiculous – there were only two staircases after all.
But soon that changed.
Very quickly we got very lost. Unable to tell how far up or down we’d gone, we took to trying every turning that we didn’t recognise. Areas were loosely themed, but poorly lit.
There were staircases and corridors; but also hidden ladders and holes that opened up into seeming nothingness. Fortunately with only one alcoholic beverage in my system we were able to navigate our way out, but for the more intoxicated punter there were both visible and hidden difficulties. We returned on the stroke of midnight.
My time in Đà Lạt has so far been so eventful, and so enjoyable, that I am concluding this post here. Stay tuned for part 2, coming tomorrow!