To Đà Lạt & All That | Episode II
Đà Lạt episode 2, or “When a city is so good you could probably write a novel on it”
It may have only been my second morning in the place, but I was in love with Đà Lạt. Even when the early morning drilling started, and even when the room was thrown into a panic as the canyon daytrippers realised they had a bus to catch.
Like dinner, breakfast wasn’t included but I decided to eat at the hostel. Less organised than the family dinner (it seems dancing all night wears Mama out and she is absolved of breakfast duty), the long table ensured the mad family atmosphere remained. Except without Mama, service was more fragmented, and I would advise against ordering juice as it may well never appear.
You can veer from the beaten track, but you still have to follow some rules
Due to the extremely high prices of the only legal travel company that goes out to the waterfalls, we chose instead to rent a motorbike and find some waterfalls on our own volition. We found a stall on the street that offered us a bike for 100,000₫ for the day, and soon we were off. We’d just hit the highway when the error of our ways became apparent.
We hadn’t filled the tank up before going.
On a highway with a village only in the distance, the bike sputtered to a stop. At first, we walked with the bike. Then, we sat on the bike and scooted it along with our feet. We stopped to ask for directions to fuel and before we could set off two farm workers took pity on us, and offered us a tow. Vietnamese bike towing is different to what you may imagine; it involves the lead towee holding onto the back of the tower’s bike with one hand, whilst holding onto the bike with the other:
Not only did this feel a lot more precarious than canyoning, but it also attracted a lot of amusement from locals passing by. Nevertheless, we were soon at a petrol station, and decided to stop for tea/coffee and look up where the waterfalls actually were.
We checked our maps again and realised we were still a further 50km from the waterfalls we had been aiming for. Fortunately, we came across this blogpost and realised we were less than 500m from Lien Khuong waterfall, billed as ‘off-the-beaten-track.’ Entrance was only 15,000₫; you’re led down through the shop, then through the family’s home, to a steep and narrow staircase.
With the exception of two cattle, we were alone.
We clambered boulders (I took more coercion than I would widely admit but I DID IT ANYWAY) and just soaked in the solitude. There’s something so beautiful in being so well and truly alone.
After leaving we soon found a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant; tissue on the floor, flies on the limes and Buddhist posters all around. With no English menu, we again had “buffet” for 20,000₫, and once again were staggered by the sheer variety of meat substitutes on the plate.
We arrived at the next waterfall, saw the associated supporting gimmicks of tourist-trips, and rode straight on to a nearby lake. En route, I finally mastered “taking photos and videos whilst not holding on.”
The lake was filled with Vietnamese tourists, who come down to Đà Lạt for an instagrammable weekend away (yes, really). The size of the lake meant that photographing tourists and reflecting tourists could peacefully co-exist, fortunately.
We made it back to Đà Lạt with only two map checks (a new record!) and quickly called in at the accommodation. Waiting for us was our neighbour, this time equipped with a football, and Gangnam style. Quite soon, we were all gangnam styling around the room, left looking like lemons as the little guy kicked off his sandals and decided to start tumbling on the beds. His English was better than that of the French students in the room, which is quite the accolade for an under 4.
Having bid our goodbyes to our cheeky neighbour, we decided to chase the sunset. We made a rekky to a hilltop pagoda, which unfortunately hosted too many trees to see. At this point I felt ready to tackle the maze again, so we decided to find the elusive rooftop bar.
Armed with a 40,000₫ rum and coke, this time I felt a bit more confident about tackling the maze. The route we took was a fusion of old and new for me, and soon we had made it to the roof garden. The views were stunning. This time, we found the direct exit route, and headed to the night market.
The delights of Đà Lạt’s night market
Between the two of us, we managed to try the majority of the market’s vegetarian offerings.
My personal preference for sweet and salty was well catered for; greenish coconut rice was placed on a wafer, topped with dessicated coconut and salted peanuts and rolled for what may be my favourite street food snack ever. Only 7,000₫. At a BBQ stand, a whole barbequed sweet potato set you back 10,000₫, whilst a sweetened potato cake was only 5,000₫. A Vietnamese pizza without egg, but with extra chilli sauce, was served rolled up for 15,000₫. To finish was a strange, stretched coconut candy that was dusted in icing sugar, put on a wafer, topped with dessicated coconut, black sesame seeds and chocolate sauce, and sandwiched with another wafer, coming in at 10,000₫.
Having seen some French-style boulangeries in the town, we set off to find one for breakfast. Unlike most Vietnamese cities (perhaps because it has a more weekend, resort timetable), Đà Lạt doesn’t do early mornings. Most of the town was shut, but we stumble across a Vegetarian restaurant.
Still not acclimatised enough to opt for noodles or rice for breakfast, I was chuffed to see a French-Vietnamese fusion breakfast food. A standard vegetarian dumpling, stuffed with tofu and veg, but instead of steamed in sticky dough, it was baked in an enriched brioche-like case. The result was so good, I bought 2, at only 10,000₫ each.
We make it back to the hostel and it’s still early – we ask around about a big mountain we are intending to hike up but everyone else has got to it through a travel agency. Based on the progress made with navigating yesterday we decide to rent a bike and find it ourselves, remembering to fuel up this time.
Sometimes getting lost is the best part
After a number of wrong turns and repeated roundabouts, we finally hit the highway. We hit the highway but it soon becomes apparent that we were nowhere near the mountain. We stop in a dusty town, where the housing ranges from colonial mansions looming over green estates, to houses with no windows, constructed of wood or corrugated iron.
We stop at a corner-store style shop where a small gathering of children watch us from behind a fence. The woman who runs the shop immediately runs to put some meat on a barbeque for us, but we hastily (with pen and paper) explain that we are vegetarians. She shakes her head, gives us a long look, and points: “Đà Lạt.”
We use her internet to work out how wrong we’ve gone – 50km wrong in fact – and began to reroute. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas; soon we were dodging massive raindrops in a bid to make it inside somewhere before we got de-roaded.
We make it into a café walled with corrugated iron, where the coffee is small, cold and over-sweet, and the regulars were overjoyed to meet a real life Australian and Brit; all that for only 10,000₫ each.
The rain stopped as suddenly as it started, so we ventured back. As we looped round a corner on the outskirts of Đà Lạt, we took a brief photography break.
There was something in the buildings and their reflections that seemed to sum up the tranquillity of Đà Lạt – with dead bloated fish serving as an ominious warning.
Upon returning to Đà Lạt, we stop in at An Café for a guava juice and a coffee – slightly expensive at 37,000₫ each. A French man greeted us with paper and crayons, “in case you fancy drawing.”
A silly question.
As the rainclouds dispel the sun began to set, so we rushed to a deserted under-construction house that my travelling companion wanted to climb. Fortunately for my wariness towards danger and illegality, it was too well-locked for even the most intrepid of explorers. With the clouds threatening to reappear, we called off the sunset chase for another day.
Having been so impressed with my breakfast bun, we headed back to the same vegetarian restaurant for dinner. A dish of small spring rolls to share came in at 20,000₫, and pho was 20,000₫. On the way back to the hostel we booked an open ticket to Ho Chi Minh via Mũi Né, looking to set off first thing next morning.
Whilst meandering back to the hostel, I spied a sticky rice shop and memories of mango sticky rice drew me back in. Unfortunately, the family was all watching a soap and deeply reluctant to leave it. In focusing on the soap, my order was misheard, and the woman began to heap mystery meat onto what I’d been hoping would be a dessert dish. The confusion was soon rectified, but unfortunately peanuts and savoury sticky rice just don’t have the same effect.
Thailand beckons from afar with the promise of proper mango sticky rice… But tomorrow Mũi Né beckons with dramatic sand dunes; read about it here.