Monday, July 31, 2017

July 31 – The Drive to Dalat

It was wheels up at 7:15 am and we were back on a bus – this time one with seats, which was quite the novelty. Our destination was the mountain town of Dalat, known for its high elevation, cool temperatures, kitschy romance themes, and cool weather vegetables that are not available elsewhere in Vietnam.

The regular seats allowed me to do some writing, so for much of the four hour trip I had my head down, pecking away, looking up only when Ana pointed out something interesting to see (such as fields of aloe vera plants, banana plantations, herb farms and even the odd pasture full of cows) or when Magnus started heaving and I had to find a Ziplock bag (fortunately, without holes) for him to barf into after the rattling bus and twists and turns soured his stomach. Another passenger on the bus did some vomiting into a plastic bag and her husband tied it up and chucked it out the window of the moving bus. I hope he didn’t hit anybody on a scooter.

As we entered the city, we were a little surprised to see some people wearing full winter jackets, gloves, hats and even scarves. I didn’t even bring along a single long sleeve shirts so I started having horrible visions of Ana dragging me through markets, making me try on clothes. To my great relief, as we walked off the bus the temperature was absolutely lovely, probably 21 or 22 degrees and it was a refreshing change from the tropical humidity.

The taxi we hired drove us to our hotel – the Himalaya Phoenix, which seemed to be on the fringe of town as it was well away from the action. The girl at reception had a beautiful huge smile and was very cute, in the way that it was impossible to tell how old she was. She could have been 18 or 48. Our room was very large, with great beds, but we were back to the all in one bathroom with the shower directly beside the toilet and one large floor drain.

We set out for an initial exploratory walk and to find someplace for lunch. We found a number of local pho places, but the kids weren’t really up for that so we continued walking the hilly streets and adjusted our course towards a popular tourist attraction called the “Crazy House”, hoping there would be a restaurant nearby. And indeed there was, right across the street so we sat down, enjoyed a great lunch and met a very nice English family seated next to us. I also tried a glass of the local Dalat red wine and it was…drinkable.

The English family had a great story. They had taken a bus from Nha Trang to Dalat and after their bags were all loaded in the cargo compartment they saw the driver load in several boxes of cargo. After a while on the road they started smelling fish sauce and weren’t sure where it was coming from, but assumed somebody was eating something laced with the magical mixture. Fish sauce is truly powerful stuff. It is made by filling a vat with anchovies and salt and then letting it ferment and liquefy for a couple of months. The juice is then pressed out and packaged up into jars or buckets, ready for the market. The highest quality fish sauce should have very little odour, but the garden variety can really pack a punch. Well, when our English friends got to their destination they discovered that the cargo had indeed been fish sauce, of a particularly low quality, and the dad’s backpack was right in the low spot so soaked up a deadly amount of it. We all groaned and grimaced when we heard the punch line. But then I told him there was indeed a way to get the fish smell out, without having to physically cut out parts of his bag. He was intrigued, and looked at me anxiously, waiting for me to divulge the secret. I told him all he had to do was to find some overripe durian, mash liberal amounts of into the bag, and he would hardly notice the fish smell anymore.

The Crazy House is so weird it almost defies description. It is equal parts carnival funhouse, hotel, and architectural showpiece. If Doctor Seuss, Anthony Gaudi, and Salvador Dali got together to drop acid and listen to some Primus, this is probably what they would come up with. We spent over an hour there exploring the rooms, walking the curved bridges, climbing to the top of the towers, ducking through winding tunnels, and trying to squeeze past tourists in the narrow staircases. It was very neat and we’ve never seen anything quite like it. The folks on Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls would drool over this quirky monstrosity.

We walked into the city centre and found a gigantic market selling everything from pastries to fish heads to fidget spinners. Stella found herself a pair of flashy sneakers and Magnus talked me into buying a credit card knife, after his mother told him he really shouldn’t be buying any more knives. It looks like a credit card, and fits in your wallet, but folds into a small knife, perfect for cutting baguettes or slicing tomatoes or fighting off rabid monkeys – an excellent backpacker tool.

The town was indeed hilly, but the temperature was perfect for walking so we explored many streets of Dalat. At one point we found a scooter that had a mobile bird store loaded on it. There must have been twenty bird cages, full of birds of all varieties. There didn’t seem to be much tourist infrastructure here, and we did not see many Westerners at all, although I suspect there were probably many Vietnamese tourists here. We started looking for a place to grab a snack and had to walk for quite some time to find something suitable. At times it felt like we were missing something, like maybe going in endless circles around the true town centre, but never finding it. We did finally find one street that had a series of interesting places – art galleries, adventure tourist shops, bars and restaurants, so perhaps that was the street we were looking for. The restaurant we ate at was very good and the server was incredibly friendly.

Although it was not even 7 pm, we decided to take a taxi back to the hotel to book a day trip for tomorrow and our onward bus tickets. As usual, the friendly man at reception was extremely helpful, and within a few minutes we had our day trip booked, bus tickets and seats reserved, breakfast ordered for the following morning, and the entire lot including our hotel room paid for. He also asked if we had any Canadian coins as he was a coin collector, so Ana dug through her wallet and found a single toonie ($2 Canadian coin) and gave it to him, despite his protests to pay for it.

So after our first day in Dalat…we’re not entirely sure about this place. Let’s see how it goes tomorrow.

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