Each place we visit, I find myself trying to summarize it in a few words. Mulu: caves. Cameron Highlands: tea, strawberries, hiking. Siem Reap: Angkor Wat, tuk tuk. Ho Chi Minh City: vibrant, coffee, motorbikes.
I think this is a pretty normal human action. This is why stereotypes exist, right? We like to bucket things. Make them easier to explain and understand. I know each of these places are much more than the words I use to describe them, but for me these are the associations each place brings to mind.
Sometimes, however, feelings for a place cannot be adequately summed up in a few words. Bangkok comes to mind. Bangkok is a freaking paragraph waiting to happen. Another place I have had trouble bucketing? Dalat, Vietnam. I’ve gone back and forth for the past month trying to come up with a short and easy way to describe Dalat. I couldn’t find the right words. And then I realized that’s because it isn’t best summed up in words.
Let me explain. There were several times during our stay where I just wanted to find somebody in charge and ask them, “BUT WHY?” and each time, in my mind, they would respond by shrugging their shoulders and smiling. After a few days I got used to this feeling and after a few more days I began to expect it. That is, I began to expect the over-the-top, unexpected, and just plain weird things that happen in Dalat.
I’ll go through some examples.
Dalanta Waterfall. Ok. Waterfall. Think about all of the waterfalls you have seen in your life. Now think about the process of HOW you came to see that waterfall. In my experience, the process of seeing a waterfall is pretty much the same regardless of which country the waterfall is in. First, drive to a parking lot or trailhead. Waterfalls typically aren’t in your backyard so you need to go to it. Next, if the waterfall is visible from the parking lot, you’re done! If the waterfall is not visible from the parking lot you need to find a trail to hike to the waterfall. Easy. To review.
How to see a waterfall anywhere in the world
Step 1 – transport yourself to the waterfall.
Step 2 – hike from the parking lot or trailhead to the waterfall.
Step 3 – enjoy the view.
The process at the Dalanta waterfall in Dalat is slightly different. Let’s see if you spot the difference.
How to see the Dalanta waterfall in Dalat
Step 1 – transport yourself to the waterfall.
Step 2 – hop on the self-braking roller coaster.
Step 3 – enjoy the view.
Did you find the difference? For those of you who answered roller coaster, you are correct. To get down to the Dalanta waterfall you can pay 50,000 dong (about $2.30) for a round trip journey on a roller coaster. A self-braking roller coaster at that. Yup, really. You hop in a two person car, the operator shows you the braking mechanism (pull up to break, push down to release the brake), and off you go! And this isn’t a super tame roller coaster either. I briefly considered not using the brake at all, but I truly believe you would fly off the tracks if you didn’t use the brake. I thought the ride down was exhilarating but I also couldn’t stop thinking, “BUT WHY?!?!”
Lang Biang. Lang Biang is a popular hike in Dalat. One day we rented a motorbike and drove out to it. There is a parking lot at the bottom of the mountain where you pay an entrance fee and park your motorbike (or car). At this point you can opt to pay to have a truck drive you to the top of a smaller mountain (not Lang Biang) or you can start hiking up to the summit of Lang Biang. This is a very Vietnam thing to do, BTW. More on that later. Also at the entrance to the park you have the opportunity to ride a horse. This is where things are Dalatified. The horse, you see, is painted to look like a zebra.
See? After reading that, I bet your first thought was, “BUT WHY?” And my answer is, “BECAUSE DALAT.” And if your second question is, “Are you sure it wasn’t a zebra?” Yes. Yes, I’m sure. The horse was being followed around by a colt – its baby. And the baby? The baby was not painted. It was a horse baby. Not a zebra baby. Dalat, man.
Valley of Love. If you read that in your best Isaac Hayes voice, you are doing it right. If not, please try again. Valley of Love. Ok, good. Now that we are on the same page, the Valley of Love is a huge love-themed park in Dalat. And when I say love-themed I mean over-the-top, kitschy as all get out love-themed. A sampling of the exhibits are listed below:
- A sculpture depicting a nude man and a nude woman (genitalia expertly hidden) passionately kissing. If I was walking through the park with my mom and dad
I definitely would have upped my pace a bit when walking by this exhibit.
- A field full of deer and giraffe lawn ornaments. Confused on how this fits the theme? Me too.
- A hedge maze in the shape of a heart.
- A small theme park for kids. With a roller coaster obviously.
- A replica of Cinderella’s carriage.
- A field full of metal butterflies.
- Heart shaped archways filled with flowers.
- Heart shaped cutouts to stand in front of. Perfect for pictures!
- Heart shaped holes in the side of an A-frame house. Perfect for more pictures!
- Heart shaped patio stepping stones.
- Have you noticed the heart shaped theme?
- And hundreds of other exhibits…
Do I need to say it? Ok, I’ll say it, “BUT WHY?” Answering my own question: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
So yeah. Dalat. It is a strange place. But it is also a wonderful place. It is our second favorite city in Vietnam after Ho Chi Minh City. Why did we enjoy it so much?
Well, it reminded us of a larger version of the Cameron Highlands (in Malaysia) except it was even better because Dalat has coffee. If you remember back to our post, the Cameron Highlands are all about their tea. Dalat has tea AND coffee because they know what’s up. Also, Dalat is a much bigger city than Tanah Rata, the main city in the Cameron Highlands. As such, there is much more to do, more places to eat, and the town is less centered around tourism (though definitely still touristy) which makes it feel like someplace you could stay for awhile. Oh! And it also has a gorgeous lake in the center of town, so that’s cool.
Overall, Dalat is super weird and we enjoyed every minute of it.
High Level. Ugh. Night Bus.
Detailed. Night bus from HCMC. This was our first night bus experience in Vietnam. “I just had a wonderful experience on that night bus in Vietnam!” is something nobody has ever said. However, since Vietnam is such a long country night buses are typically your best option (unless you want to fly or spend several days on a bus). They are also a backpacking rite of passage. If a fellow backpacker begins a story with, “One time on a night bus in Vietnam..” you just start laughing because there is only one way that story is going to end.
Back to our story. One time on a night bus in Vietnam…the bus left HCMC at 9:30 PM and was supposed to arrive in Dalat at 6 AM or so we thought. We ended up pulling into the Dalat bus station just after 4 AM. Awesome. Fortunately, Vietnam is a country full of early risers. Things are downright busy by 6 AM. However, this still left us a little under two hours of time to kill…with our backpacks…and no hotel…at 4 AM. We ended up finding a nice park bench and laughing at the situation (some would say it was more of a half-laugh, half-cry but who can really say).
Bahn Mi. We had a Bahn Mi lady in Dalat. She was swell. We ended up buying 12 Bahn Mis from her during our four day visit. Each sandwich was 10,000 dong ($0.50) and tasted like a little slice of heaven.
Bun Thit Nuong. I’m just guessing on the name of the dish. Situation as follows:
This is the morning we arrived by night bus. 5:30 AM rolls around (we had spent about an hour on the park bench by this time) and we decide to look for some food. We stumble into a tiny restaurant. And when I say ‘tiny restaurant’ I mean a house that doubles as a restaurant. No menus. No tourists. Nobody speaks English. We are tired and don’t care, so we point at a pot (I have no idea if the pot had anything in it) and the main lady pulls out 20,000 dong ($1.00) indicating this is how much it will cost. Roger that, lady, let’s do this. We sit down and within a couple of minutes two bowls of Vietnamese goodness are set down in front of us. Danielle and I both agree this was the best meal we had in Vietnam. Unfortunately, neither of us knows exactly what it was.
Congealed pigs blood. This one was all Danielle. We stopped at a random roadside restaurant on our way to the Valley of Love. Similar to the situation above, we just sat down and hoped for the best. We ended up receiving two bowls of mystery soup. Danielle’s soup had a piece of congealed pigs blood in it. She tried a bite and didn’t die. I pretended to see a dog running into traffic when she asked me if I wanted to try it.
Cam Ly Homestay. Lodging is cheap in Dalat. Super cheap. We had a nice room for $11 USD. This place was a bit out of the way, but it was close to Bahn Mi lady so I really can’t complain. Also, the owner rents out his mopeds which we took advantage of. Not the best mopeds, but better than having to deal with a moped vendor where you never know if they are going to try to rip you off.
Crazy House. Another “you have to see it to believe it” item. It has been described as “a cross between Gaudi and Dr. Seuss.” In our opinion, this description is spot on. The house is the work of a Vietnamese architect who originally intended the house to be her home. Due to financial issues, however, she opened the house to the public, charging admission fees in the process, and also turned it into a hotel. Now, it is one of the bigger attractions in Dalat and for good reason. The place is amazing. I’m not going to attempt to explain much more than that, just look at the pictures.
Me Linh Coffee Garden. This is a coffee plantation located a few kilometers outside of town with a nice outdoor café and gift shop where you can have a cup of coffee with a view. One of the more fun aspects of Me Linh is their collection of weasels. “Why do they have weasels?” you may ask. Because they make weasel coffee, of course! “What is weasel coffee?” you may ask (and you’re probably getting frustrated now because I’m clearly leading you on). Weasel coffee is coffee made with coffee beans that have passed through a weasel’s digestive system. I.E. Weasel poop coffee.
Backstory. One of my first questions was, “Who was the first person who tried weasel coffee and why did they do it?” According to some internet research, weasel coffee is an indirect result of French colonization. During colonial times, the French took all of the good coffee beans for their own purposes leaving shitty coffee (no pun intended) for the Vietnamese coffee farmers. Before the French could take the coffee, however, weasels would have at it. Weasels, like all animals, don’t care who owns the coffee beans, they just sneak into the fields and eat what they want. And it just so happens that weasels like to eat coffee fruits (the fruit part, not the bean). So, weasels would sneak into the fields and eat the best fruits. Then the weasels would pass the coffee bean through their digestive system and the Vietnamese farmers would find these beans, clean them up, and make coffee out of them. I’m not sure why somebody thought this was a good idea, but it turned out the coffee beans were fantastic. There is an enzyme in the weasel’s digestive tract that, among other things, results in the coffee beans having a less bitter taste. Weasel coffee is born.
When I first heard of weasel coffee, I was naturally reluctant to try it. But it is gooooooooood. If you find yourself wanting to try a cup of weasel coffee in the USA, however, good luck. I read one cup can fetch upwards of $30 USD. In Vietnam, a cup of weasel coffee at Me Linh will set you back $2.50 – $3.00 USD.
Lang Biang. I discussed the horse zebra above. The reason we went here, however, was for the hike. There is an entire TripAdvisor thread devoted to this hike (HERE). Because of this I was a little nervous about finding the path – if there is a thread devoted to a hike, this typically means the hike is tricky. In this case, however, I found the path to be very simple. Hike up the road until you get to a small hut. When you get to the small hut you might have to pay a fee (or not…nobody was in the hut when we went, so we didn’t have to pay a fee) and then you hike the rest of the way on a nice dirt path. The path from the hut to the top is hard to miss and there are probably three or four signs along the way.
Dalanta Waterfall. I described this above. The waterfall was very good by SE Asia standards. And I secretly loved the roller coaster.
Moped through the countryside. Renting a moped is a great way to explore the area since many of the sites to see are outside of Dalat proper. The surrounding areas are gorgeous making for a fun, yet slow, drive.
One run around the lake in town. Super easy run by Vietnam standards. No Strava data. Danielle was unable to partake in the run due to some ankle issues and when Danielle can’t run, Strava data gets deleted. (Danielle edit: If Danielle does not participate in the run, she is not going to pretend she did by including it on her Strava account. Get a Strava account Sam).
Me Linh. It has coffee and amazing views. What else do you need?
Valley of Love. I almost can’t believe I’m putting this into the “Yes, please” category, but the Valley of Love is something you have to see to believe. I kept on walking through the exhibits thinking, ‘’This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen.” [walks 10 feet] “Nope. THIS is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen.”
Bahn Mi Lady. God bless her.
Lang Biang. The hike was forgettable. Then again, Nepal has likely ruined all SE Asia hikes for us.
Eiffel Tower antenna. There is an Eiffel Tower shaped radio antenna in Dalat. Everybody together now, “BUT WHY?” Well, this one makes a little more sense. Vietnam was once a French colony, and Dalat was where the Frenchies would go to cool off in the summer. There is probably more of a backstory into the what, when, and why out on the internet, but I didn’t care enough to research. The fact that it is there is enough for me.
Coffee in Vietnam. Vietnam is a huge coffee exporter. Huge! The 2nd largest coffee exporter in the world. They mostly export Robusta beans which is the reason they are not a well known coffee country abroad. If you walk into a coffee shop in most places and order a cup of joe, the beans used to make that coffee are likely Arabica beans. Robusta beans are more bitter and higher in caffeine in comparison to Arabica beans. As such, beans produced in Vietnam (Robusta) are typically used for instant coffee (Nescafe!) where caffeine is desirable and bitterness shrugged off. Interesting, no? HERE is a short BBC article on how Vietnam became such a large coffee exporter.
Vietnamese Words. Viet Nam. Da Lat. Ha Noi. Da Nang. When the word ‘Vietnam’ is written in English in Vietnam, it is written as two words: Viet Nam. When the word ‘Vietnam’ is written in English in the USA, it is written as one word: Vietnam. Same thing for Da Lat (Dalat), Ha Noi (Hanoi), Da Nang (Danang), and on and on. What is the correct way to write these words?! Somebody please educate me!