Thursday, 2 June 2011

Dalat, Into the Valley of Love, 31 March - 2 April 2011

Marianne, Victoria and I stood there amongst a lot of other gringos waiting for our night bus that would take them to Nha Trang where I was going to leave them and move on up the hills and into Dalat. I was in charge of getting the bags safely stored in the compartment underneath the bus whilst Marianne and Victoria were going onto the bus and securing some decent beds for our journey. It so happened that we got the beds at the back and I was sandwiched, unfortunately I know, between Victoria and Marianne and with two more girls to the right of her. Hard times for Andy... The problem with the night buses are that the temperature always fluctuates dramatically, you go from sweating your areolae off to freezing your toes off, which is not pleasant when you've got five bodies squeezed into the back of the bus. The bus journey wasn't too bad despite the infestation of some unknown insects crawling over us which made the two other girls go a little crazy shouting “KILL IT, OH MY GOD KILL IT!” in their London accents. We arrived in Nha Trang early the next day and were lucky enough to see the sun rise over the sea from the bus. A wake up view I hadn't seen since on the train in Siberia. The bus pulled up and I said a temporary farewell to Marianne and Victoria as I would be meeting them again in Dalat over the next few days.

Nha Trang Beach early morning
My bus wasn't due to leave for another hour and half so I decided to take a walk to the beech to have a look at the only thing Nha Trang has to offer apart from the party nightlife. It was a nice beach and it was good to witness the numerous Vietnamese undertaking their morning warm up ritual before heading to a hard day's toil in the office or such like. I sat on the beach wall looking out at the waves crashing against the sand and ate my Dairylee on bread breakfast which has become a dangerous addiction of mine since the Belgium couple gave me that one slice on the bus from Dien Bien Phu to Son La. I made my way back after a while to find a café for a quick coffee before heading off on the bus up the hills. A rather large coffee shop full of policemen on or off duty, I don't think it matters, was open and was just a short walk from the bus stop so was a perfect choice. I sat there on my laptop typing up my next blog and drank my rather strong Vietnamese coffee which I had become quite accustomed too since Niek introduced me to it one morning in the small café beside the cathedral in Hanoi a few weeks earlier. After it was finished, I wasted a few moments trying to get onto BBC to see some news before heading back to the bus stop and get onto my connecting transport.

View from the bus window
The bus journey from Nha Trang to Dalat takes around four hours and it passes some absolutely fantastic scenery on the way up through the mountains. It's best described through a photo, so I'll put one somewhere around here.... The road was in very bad condition making it for a bumpy ride at some points and as the driver didn't slow to avoid any, what he considered to be minor pot holes, the ride was also a little frightening. As we neared Dalat we slowed down as a man was waving franticly for us to stop. A couple of cars were stopped around a motorbike that laid on its side in the middle of the road and beside it, a the motionless body who I could only imagine to be the rider. The bus driver did not stop. You could see him think about it but realised that he couldn't have helped, especially with having a bus full of passengers. A little further down the road we got pulled over by traffic police who wanted to see the drivers papers, passenger list and more importantly, a bribe. Every time you get on a bus in Vietnam you have to write your name and nationality on there manifesto which is used for, either just keeping track of our movements or help identify our bodies should the bus crash. This time, we arrived safely without incident or breakdown in Dalat.

Dalat from high up
I'm not sure whether I've pointed this out before or not, but the only problem with buses is they can drop you off anywhere they choose to meaning you have no idea where you are in the town when you arrive. This time it was inside the compounds of a hotel which obviously pays the driver commission to do this. I had a look at the room in the hotel and it was actually quite nice, satellite TV, ensuite bathroom, double bed, wi-fi. All a man could want, so I negotiated on the price to save £1 and took it. Having not had much sleep the previous night, I soon retired for an late morning snooze before I dragged myself into town to see what's what in Dalat, the honeymoon capital of Vietnam.

A rather Francais roundabout
The city is an obvious escape for the Vietnamese as it's located in what they call 'The Valley of Love' which holds some extremely beautiful mountains scenery that are dotted with extraordinary waterfalls and the altitude means the harsh humidity is subdued with fresh mountain air. The unlucky thirteenth emperor Bao Dai built his summer palace in the forested hills just outside the busy trading streets of Dalat. Bless him, he did need a place of solitude where he could relax during the countless coups from the Viet Minh to gain control of Vietnam from the French colonists. Bao Dai was eventually ousted as Head of State by Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem following the rigged 1955 referendum held in the Southern Vietnam. He spent the rest of his life living in exile in Paris until his death in 1997.

The entrance to Bao Dai's palace
On my first full day in Dalat, I rented a motorcycle from the hotel manager and with my rather sparse Rough Guide map in hand, I hit the road and the first stop was Bao Dai's palace. After missing the correct road a few times, I found the gravel road that elevated me up towards the palace. The modest art-deco style palace was built in 1933 and sits amongst green wooded surroundings atop the crest of a hill that looks out over the rolling mountains. The palace has been left exactly as it was the day it was last used by the emperor and his family. After walking around the palace and grounds for a while, I hopped back onto my motorbike with the disgusting Arsenal sticker on the front and headed onwards towards, well I didn't exactly plan on getting anywhere in particular.

Tuyen Lam Lake
I headed out on the same road that led me to the palace and just hoped that I would find something. The roads elevation increasingly fluctuated and became more winding, I stormed past an entrance to something that looked popular as there were tourists buzzing round and buses parked up in the car park. I thought this needed further investigation, so I turned round and tried to head back up the hill to the entrance. It was a little more difficult than it sounded, the hills gradient was too much for the weak motorcycle to handle and I really had to struggle with it to get it back up. I eventually made it, found a parking space for it and followed the rest of the tourists up some elongated steps that stretched smoothly up the side of the hill. At the other end I was confronted with quite a modern temple complex, a temple that I wasn't too interested in as there are only so many temples you can see in Asia as the majority of them all look the same. I walked swiftly through the mass of crowds worshipping and groups taking endless photos of each other in the typical Asian pose with two figures erected in the peace sign and found a path that led through the forest. The refreshing walk through the trees led down to the Tuyen Lam Lake, an artificial reservoir created by a damn built in 1980. I thought this was a perfect place for a break and an ice cream by the lake.

The disappointing artificial waterfall
Time was passing quickly and so I got back on my bike and headed back towards Dalat to visit one of the waterfalls closer to the town centre. I chose wrong, as the chosen waterfall was not only dry but seemed to be a man made creation with animal statues, tourist tack shops and even horses painted like zebras that you could take for a ride. At least it didn't cost much to get in as I wasn't in there for any more than ten minutes and on the way out I made sure to warn some incoming tourists that they may want to reconsider and go somewhere else. I hopped straight on back on my bike and head along the road a little further to see what was there and came across a terrific war memorial. This is why getting a bike is good, you have the freedom to discover random places and not be reliant on your guide book which gets a little boring in the end as you just feel as though you're seeing places because you're told to.

Crazy House
On the way back to my hotel, I visited one of the best pieces of architecture I have seen. Hang Nga Crazy House sits in the quiet suburban streets of Dalat and by it certainly earns the title of 'crazy'. As soon as you walked through the front gates of the house, you feel as though you've walked into Wonderland and are late for the tea party. It's rabbit run of steps lead you through the houses bedrooms and other rooms that are all bizarre in their own way. The house is like the Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona, it looks as though it will take a lot longer to be completed as more and more annexes are being joined onto the house. Hang Nga, as she is known locally, gained a doctorate in Architecture in Moscow where she lived for 14 years. Her buildings have been somewhat controversial in Vietnam as the designs are far from the drab socialist architecture they are used to. The house for me stands for free thinking and freedom for people to reach their goals despite governmental restraints imposed upon them. Hang Nga's father, Truong Ching, was Ho Chi Minh's successor and became Vietnam's second president from 1981-88 when he died. With this in mind, Hang Nga must be given a certain amount of freedom from the party that no ordinary person would usually have. The house is scattered with photos, newspaper cuttings and memorabilia to honour her father's successes. I think a few photos will explain the craziness of this house better than my words so here are a few.

Stairwell leading up to more rooms
The stairs inside...
The artists vision...

Another part...
Wonderful chalet
Later that evening I visited V Café to celebrate my day with a nice meal and a drink whilst listening to live music. The cosy restaurant that can only sit at best twenty people was just a few doors from my hotel and I had heard good reviews about it from the internet and lonely planet. As I was sitting there an Australian man sat down at his piano whilst his partner, a Singaporean lady, grabbed her microphone and began to entertain the five of us currently in the restaurant with smooth sounding jazz. I spent quite a bit in that restaurant as I had a main, desert and a few beers which I don't usually have but the waiters were very attentive and made me feel at home so I sat there catching up on my blog, listening to great music and enjoying great food and drink. Highly recommend the restaurant if you're in the area! I finished the evening off by taking a stroll through the streets of Dalat which fill with market tradesman at night time as the central roads are closed off to traffic. I really enjoyed the feeling of the city as it was so chilled out yet bursting with life.

View from the cable car
The next day came around and I decided to hire the bike again to visit a few more places dotted around the area. Firstly, I wanted to take the cable car which was supposed to reach a beautiful lake at the end of it. So I followed the directions I had set out for myself in my head and eventually found the start of the cable car and bought my return ticket. There was hardly anyone using the cable car, so there was no queue and I got straight in and got on my way across the valley towards the said lake. The view of the valley and Dalat below was fantastic and the journey took around twenty minutes to complete. I disembarked and made my way through the standard tourist trap toward the exit. Once I reached the exit, however, I suddenly realised that I had been there before, the day before in fact, it was the entrance to the temple and to the lake that I had visited. Although I was disappointed, I couldn't help but laugh at my ignorance. I didn't bother walking through the temple to the lake again and instead stopped for a quick bite to eat at a restaurant by the cable car station which turned out to be a pot noodle in disguise and got back on the cable car for the return journey.

After the nice ride on the cable car, I returned to my bike once again and headed further down the wonderful road weaving through the trees towards Datanla Falls which were a few kilometres away. I pulled up into the car park and paid the man the compulsory 3000 Dong so could write on my seat in chalk and 'look after' it whilst I was walking around the falls. The walk to the falls follows a path through the forest for around 500m until you reach some steps that lead down to the base of the waterfall. There is an alternative, which unfortunately I didn't know until I had done the walk, and that is to take a toboggan down as rails have been set up that weave through the trees. Oh well, just think about the exercise and all that! The falls were worth it, not the most beautiful but still stunning as they ate one of those magical things of nature. I sat at the bottom of the falls for a while and enjoyed a refreshing ice cream whilst looking at my guide to figure out where to head next.

Without me in the way...
Having not decided where I should go, I just got on my bike and headed further out along the same road. The view didn't get tiring, but as I descended further and further into the valley, the cars and trucks began to pick up speed and pass me a phenomenal speeds around blind bends without any consideration of what was coming the other way. I got to the bottom of the valley where another waterfall was, I procrastinated for a while as to whether I should go in or not and came to the conclusion that I wouldn't. I turned around and headed back up the hill but for some reason, I never passed the waterfalls, the cable car and the road was unfamiliar. I was stunned when I arrived back in Dalat at the other side of the city to that I left. To this day, I am still in complete quandary how that happened. It was one road down and one road up, I don't remember consciously taking any turn off. Or perhaps that was the problem, I was in a trance at the time?

Beautiful Temple
Despite ending up at a different side of the city, it turned out to be a good thing as the next item on my improvised agenda was to explore another road out the other side of Dalat where there seemed to be a few temples and other things. The first temple was a small, local temple that had no tourist trade whatsoever. It had a small hill behind it that had several shrines on it and held tremendous views of the valley. After taking solitude on top of the peaceful hill for a while, I had to move on as the afternoon was moving on swiftly. Around ten kilometres further down the valley was a small town and I followed a small lane off the main road that seemed to have a lot of people on it to a temple that was completely nothing like I have seen before. It was decorated in what looked like broken ceramic pots of different colours. Again, pictures tell a thousand words, so here's one. The complex consisted of the main temple, a bell tower, a garden and a giant standing Buddha that was covered up at the time for renovation. I climbed the bell tower and listened to the service that was being held at the time from the top whilst considering whether this was the best temple I had seen and whether it could be beaten.

The pagoda standing tall and colourful
The sun was beginning to fall lower in the sky and I had one stop left to make before I called it a day. The last stop was the Lam Dong museum that was supposed to hold a lot of beautiful and interesting historical artefacts, including musical instruments which I must admit was the thing that enticed me. I got into the museum and it was interesting as far as old odds and ends go but didn't overwhelm me or impress me in the slightest, so it was a rather quick walk around. I got back on my bike and carried out the last task of the day, find a restaurant to have a meal in before heading back to the hotel. Before I got back to the hotel, I decided to use up more fuel by just taking a ride around the lake in the centre of Dalat which is wonderful at sunset as people are going their to chill out after work and the fresh evening air refreshes you. I stopped for a few minutes to take in the peacefulness and the view of Dalat's very own, although slightly smaller, Eiffel Tower, which is actually a radio tower in the shape of the French landmark but is treated the same as it's dramatically lighted up in the dark and is a treasured sight of the city.

Lucky female lion
As soon as I returned to the hotel I received a text message off Lois asking whether I would like to meet up with her, Marianne, Victoria and Jonas for something to eat and drink. Typical, these messages always come after you've eaten so I arranged to meet them a little later for a drink after they had finished their meal. They text me the name of the bar they were in and the street it was on and with my non-existent photographic memory of Dalat's streets I set out to find the bar. It was surprisingly easy and despite one wrong turn I found the bar and them having a drink with their hotel manager. It looked as though it was a karaoke joint, but I was corrected and told that it was a semi-professional karaoke place where the performers apparently got paid. The manager of their hotel was a nice guy who spoke great English and got us all up to dance, although he insisted on picking each one of us up and spinning us around (Yes, I know! Strong man!). He then called it a night as the clock struck ten and tried to get the girls to go back with him and have an early night as they were going on a motorbike tour with him the following day. They refused and we went to have a couple of drinks and a few games of pool in a small bar that Jonas found the night before. A perfect end to my time in Dalat as I was leaving for the beach the next morning.

Next time, Mui Ne, Sand Dunes and Faries.

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