Our first impressions of Dalat, as our taxi took us from the airport to the Airbnb, were “Wow! This is a world away from anything we’ve seen in Vietnam so far!”. Dalat is located in the central highlands of Vietnam and is an important agricultural centre. The rice paddies we had become so used to were replaced by fields of strawberries, artichokes, flowers, tea and coffee, just a few of the produce grown here, along with grapes for the popular Dalat red and white wines. There was far less traffic although the exhaust fumes had been replaced by smoke from ‘slash-and-burn’ fires on the hillsides. Our Airbnb accommodation was some way out from the centre of Dalat but this made us explore some areas off the beaten track where only the locals would normally go. The area was a densely populated hillside linked by a maze of steep, undulating alleyways some of which were only accessible by pedestrians and scooters.
Our first stop was the architecturally profound ‘Crazy House’. A random Gaudi meets Tim Burton guest house designed and built by architect Đặng Việt Nga. It is difficult to describe with words, take a look at the photos! The girls loved exploring the different buildings, using the dangerous looking steps and bridges, and finding secret passageways. It was weird but fun! It is actually possible to stay overnight in the Crazy House but rooms have to be vacated during the day to make way for the hordes of visitors.
On another day, we walked 30 minutes to the cable car station that would transport us 2.3km over the pine forested hillsides to the Truc Lam Pagoda at the other end. We walked around the splendid gardens and active monastery before heading down to the huge Tuyen Lam lake. From here we took a taxi to Datanla waterfalls which were a lot more impressive than the guidebook made out. To reach the top of the falls, we took the exhilarating railed toboggan. From there, another cable car transported us further down the falls. An elevator took us down another level to the bottom of the falls. It has clearly been developed for tourists but we had the place pretty much to ourselves to enjoy the view. We did everything in reverse to get back to the entrance at the top rather than taking the footpath!
The following day we went to Dalat’s Crémaillère (cog) Railway. To pull trains up the steep mountains, rack rails were used in several sections. The original track, completed in 1932, ran 84km between Dalat and Tap Cham. Now only 7km remain and there are just nine daily trains that terminate at Trai Mat. The trains only run if there are a minimum of 20 passengers and they can fill up quickly if a tour bus turns up, so it wasn’t certain that we would get a chance to ride on it. Unfortunately, the train was just pulling out of the station as our taxi dropped us off. During the two and a half hour wait for the next train, we walked to the sunflower-shaped shopping centre, Big C, and bought some tasty cakes and pastries. The Vietnamese do bread and baked goods really well! We also came across a free exhibition of 3D wall art that the kids enjoyed having their photos taken in front of. Back at the train station, we discovered that the kids travelled for free so we splashed out on the VIP tickets for 100000dong (£3) more which got us comfy seats and a table! At the other end of the line, Trai Mat is home to the splendid mosaic covered Linh Phuoc Pagoda. One dragon sculpture is 49m long and 12000 beer bottles were used to decorate it.
The centre of Dalat is based around a huge four storey market selling much of the regional produce. On weekend evenings the streets around the market are closed to traffic so on our last night we planned to walk around and try some different foods from the multitude of street food vendors. We tried sausages and pastries but the winner was bun rieu cua; a very tasty noodle soup with pork and salad that we all enjoyed so much we ordered more.
We left Dalat on a sleeper bus – with seats that recline into a bed – which the kids were excited about going on. The journey between Dalat and Nha Trang treated us to some amazing views but the twisty mountain roads were enough to make the most hardened travellers feel a little travel sick. During our lunch stop it appeared that there was something wrong with the bus and 2hrs later a replacement bus arrived. A family of pigs and piglets kept the children amused during the wait and the loud Vietnamese karaoke music videos provided on the new bus kept them entertained for the rest of the journey!
Nha Trang, our last stop in Vietnam, is to Russians what Benidorm is to Brits (or Cancun to Canadians!). High rise resorts, most of which are still under construction, line the kilometers of beautiful beach front. We found Nha Trang had little to offer other than beaches, bars and shopping. We took the opportunity to chill out, spent some time on the beach and treated ourselves to a relaxing day at Thap Ba Spa where we soaked in a mud bath, mineral springs and warm pools. We also booked a Funky Monkey boat trip around some of the offshore islands. It actually turned out to be a bit of a ‘booze cruise’ where we could swim, snorkel and partake in the floating bar. We passed under the 3.3km long cable car, the longest over-water cable car in the world, which links the mainland to the Disneyesque Vinpearl Land Amusement Park located on Hon Tre island. A communal meal was served on the boat followed by live entertainment from the onboard ‘boy band’. Fortunately, we managed to avoid the enforced international karaoke!
Travelling the 30km to the airport, we had the luscious green mountains on one side and even more resort developments on the other. Unfortunately, Nha Trang seems to have lost it’s identity as it slowly transforms into Vietnam’s version of Orlando .
Despite the lacklustre ending to our visit, we thoroughly enjoyed our five weeks in Vietnam. It is surprising how quickly the unfamiliar becomes familiar. The scooters, the street food vendors, people sitting at child-sized plastic stools around coffee stalls, women selling fruit from baskets balanced across their shoulders, the conical hats, it all forms part of Vietnam’s identity. It is a self-sufficient country with a hard-working population who are proud of their heritage. The locals were always so friendly and welcoming despite the obvious influx of tourists. The diverse landscape from north to south and the vast choice of tasty, inexpensive food makes you want to keep exploring. There is still a lot more of this country to see, I’m sure we will return here in the future. Tạm biệt Viet Nam!
Next, our final stop, Malaysia…
Click here for more of our Dalat and Nha Trang photos.