The small mini bus wound up the curving roads, taking us higher and higher into the mountains. As we climbed the scenery changed from dusty villages to green trees, while fruit orchards sprang up around us everywhere. We were on our way to DaLat, Vietnam. After a long night on a sleeper bus from Hoi An to Nha Trang we hopped onto a mini bus from Nha Trang to Da Lat for a three hour ride to our next destination. We knew very little of DaLat – we had heard other travelers tales of waterfalls in a quaint French town and that it was a big vacation spot for Vietnamese tourists from Saigon. As we purchased our bus tickets, we even looked at each other for a second as we realized we hadn’t seen one picture of DaLat. Oh well, it’s part of the adventure.
As our mini bus climbed the peak, we looked down on beautiful green rolling hills on one side and on the other was a small waterfall flowing down the limestone mountain, splashing at the pavement as we passed. We didn’t quite know where we were headed, but we were so excited by the thought of going to cooler mountain weather. Hoi An had been almost unbearably hot for us. As we drove on, the restless sleep on the previous night’s bus and the winding mountain roads lulled us both to sleep.
When we awoke there were hundreds and hundreds of green houses as far as our eyes could see. They were set up in an intricate grid utilizing every inch of open space, even up the sides of mountains. Amazed by the vastness of farming in the area we began to enter the city of DaLat and it was a city, not a village or a town, as we were lead to believe. DaLat was a metropolis of brightly colored buildings stretching for miles with the outskirts surrounded on all sides by dense green houses. The green mountains had disappeared, the smog rolled in and the car horns echoed in the mini bus; we were a bit disappointed.
Fortunately the mini bus dropped us off directly in front of the hotel we were planning to stay at, Bihn Yen. You never know when you get on these busses exactly where in the destination you will end up, so you just have to choose a few hotels you would stay at, study your google map and of course get ready to carry your backpack some unknown distance. We lucked out this time, front door service.
We settled into our hotel room, which was one of our biggest yet. It had windows on three sides and views of the bright colored houses on the hills. Once showered and cleaned up our tummies were rumbling, so we headed out to find some food. As we began wandering the city, we realized our hotel was not in the middle of any “hot spot” and it took us 45mins in intense heat to find a street with restaurants and bars in an area that sort of seemed to be the tourist section. All the restaurants offered the usual fare of Vietnamese and western delicacies at the standard prices, but they were all white table cloth. It seemed like they were trying hard to be something that they weren’t, so we pushed on to find another place.
On the corner was a staircase that led up to a deck covered in trees and plants, we knew this was our spot and headed up. The Stones were blaring on the speakers as we took a seat. We looked around, surprised to be the only people there, it seemed like a cool spot, so where were the other travelers? The deck was full of orchids, flowering plants and above our table was a huge avocado tree loaded with avocados. We signaled the waitress, who we found out was the owner and avid botanist, over to our table to ask about the avocados. She was so excite to talk about them and even more excited for us to eat them. So much in fact, she brought us out a plate of at least three of the ripest avocados we had eaten in quite some time, even counting California. She also brought us some salt, pepper, mayo and crackers to go along with them. We were happy to have found a nice spot in DaLat, but as the same Rolling Stones album repeated for the 8th time, we decided to head back to our hotel.
As we wondered the streets we bumped into two other travelers, the first western people we had seen since we got off the mini bus. All four of us seemed to ask at the same time, “What is there to do in DaLat and where is everyone?” We talked about how there didn’t seem to be much of a tourist industry or at least not for backpackers. The big tourist attractions here were the Easy Riders and Canyoning treks.
The Easy riders are a group of older Vietnamese men, who lost their jobs in hard economic times in the 90s, and decided to give tours of DaLat from the back of motorcycles (not moto bikes). Their funny wit and knowledge of their surrounding area got them well known and some 15 years later their company had grown and was “the” tourist thing to do in DaLat. However at $45/day each and much preferring to discover DaLat ourselves, we knew it wasn’t for us . The other tourist attraction in DaLat are canyoning trips, which is repelling down waterfalls. Even though it was really chilly, we decided to price out a few of the trips and see if we could wrangle up some good deals, as we did on Cat Ba island. Though the trips seemed fun, they were incredibly overpriced at $30/ person for a half day of hiking/repelling/waterfall sliding and canyoning, and even with all of our awesome bargaining skills we could only get them down to $28. So we decided to do the next best thing, rent our own moto bike and go waterfall chasing ourselves (without the canyoning part).
The next morning we rented a moto bike from our hotel and headed out. The first time we rented a moto was on Cat Ba, which really only had one main road that was a giant loop around the island, DaLat was just a little bit bigger then that. Before we left we tried to study the map as much as possible, since we wouldn’t get turn by turn navigation. So David on front, Morgan on back and map in our minds we set off to find waterfalls.
We had read about a waterfall right outside the city, so we were heading in that direction. Driving in the city seemed a bit crazy at first, but we made it through round abouts and intersections with no lights like pros and pro back seat drivers. The city was behind us and we traveled back through the rows of green houses meeting up with the main road to the waterfall. The parking lot to the waterfall was packed with buses of tourists and their cameras, matching tour hats and little flags waving in the tour guides hands. Not wanting to hike to the waterfall in a line of people, we opted to keep riding toward a further waterfall.
Navigating through the few “highways” of the mountains wasn’t too difficult, though there were moments when we would make a wrong turn and just keep driving. Farms growing fresh strawberries lined the roads and the kids would wave and smile excited to see a pair of misfit westerners on a moto, one with a bushy beard none the less. Driving down smaller village roads we happened along a Buddhist monetary. We walked around the landscaped grounds and climbed a giant artificial rock temple with stairs leading to the top….that was our rigorous climbing for the day.
We drove around the outskirts of the city for hours, with no real destination but instead trying to get lost in the environments around us. But over our backs we saw dark storm clouds forming. David said, “Hope we don’t get stuck in the rain…” And just like that big drops starting coming down on us. We pulled over to grab a quick bite of food, but quickly decided it was better to beat what looked like an even bigger storm brewing in the distance. Full of street food, we hopped back on the bike and made it home just before the storm hit.
Later that night we decided to try a restaurant recommended on Trip Advisor (such a handy tool for travelers, which we have also been actively posting in as well). On our walk to the restaurant we found a cool small walking alley that went between buildings and down stairs and took us right to the neighborhood with food. We had been walking all the way around on these major streets and it took about 15 minutes, this little alley got us there in about 5min. Something that would have been awesome for our hotel to mention to us, but as we stayed there longer, we realized how unaccomadating and rude of a staff they were. So down the alley we went and found ourselves in a small fancy candle lit restaurant called, New & News Art Cafe (yes very weird and long name).
The restaurant is owned and managed by Mr. Bien, who is also an artist. The whole place was decorated in his paintings, even the ceiling and restrooms. His art was very colorful and we found out his technique was fingerprinting. So yeah, lots of colorful finger paintings everywhere, don’t think I need to say more then that. The menu on the other hand was blowing our minds at the moment. There were so many dishes and foods we hadn’t seen since getting to Vietnam: pork chops with creamy mustard sauce, mash potatoes, and beef stuffed with melty cheese. Vietnam doesn’t even have cheese, let alone melty cheese! All the dishes were 80.000 VND ($4) and there was wine for a dollar, we never get to drink wine. Needles to say we were excited! This was the fanciest meal we had in weeks. So date night it was!
The food was really good for $4 fancy food. All the veggies were fresh and locally grown, DaLat is the city of farmers after all. David also had the freshest strawberry shake we ever had, the strawberries probably came out of the ground that very afternoon. As our dessert, flan with ice cream , came out Mr. Bien asked if he could paint for us. This was clearly his “thing” he did for his customers. He got out his small table side easel and began to make us our very own black ink finger paintings. Imagine being an artist who isn’t making any money in their art, so you open a restaurant so you can make and give away your art all night. You will have the following you always wanted, and they give you money at the end of the night! It was a fun experience.
The next day we decided to take the moto out again, but instead decided to head to a remote waterfall we had found on google, the Elephant falls. The road was an amazing winding road down the side of the mountain overlooking valleys full of vegetation and rivers. The turns were hairpin, so each turn you have to slow way down and honk the horn rapidity, as this is the custom of letting other drivers know you are coming. Not knowing exactly where the waterfall was, we looked up the Vietnamese word for waterfall, thàc, and would ask locals at each town. “Thàc?” We would say, making a hand gesture like falling water, they would smile and keep pointing us in the right direction. About 45 minutes later we found Elephant waterfalls tucked into a small side street of a village. It was a great little hike down the side of the slippery rocks to the falls, where there was also a path to go behind the waterfall.
We also explored the Buddhist temple, which was right near by, but as we left we saw the black clouds forming in the sky. We knew rain was on its way.
We got back on the moto and the dark black clouds were closing in on us fast. We decided to head towards home and would pullover when the storm hit. We passed village after village and I kept urging to stop at different roadside food stalls, but David just kept wanting to press on as the storm was getting closer and darker. About 20 minutes later we zipped through a village as I kept saying, “We could stop there…we could stop there….” as David insisted to go a bit further. Passing the last food stall, I mention “last chance before the mountain road” but David was determined to push on. Just moments later giant golfball sized raindrops start coming down and we both look at each other with faces that say, “Oh shit, we need to turn around and get cover quick!” No moment too soon we take shelter at the small road side phò shack before the storm officially set in hard. The villages all have small food stalls/homes. Most people in these small villages utilize the front space of their homes to also sell something, weather it is food or petrol or snacks, this one was phò.
We pulled our moto under the metal roof, ordered two phò and settled in to watch the storm. It came minutes after we were under shelter and the storm came fast and hard, like a New York summer rain. This storm however was not letting up. The phò was so delicious and warm and we had three friendly dogs to share the fatty tidbits of meat with. As the rain continued and our bowls emptied, we ordered some coffee and started our typical time passer, cards. Before we knew it a heard of local guys rode up on their motos and took a seat with us. We weren’t sure if word got out that some westerners were in the village or that this was the usual spot these guys drank, but before we knew it shot glasses and rice wine were in front of all of us.
Rice wine is very popular in Vietnam and being easy to make, it’s their hooch or moonshine. It is an alcohol distilled from white rice and poured into 1 liter water bottles and sold at any road side shack for about $.25. The rice wine was cracked open and we began our new friendship with the locals. We would cheers and laugh with the older man, as he tried to speak the best he could with us. Before we knew it there were pickled eggs and fresh cucumbers being forced onto us, cheers, again and again. David had to keep saying “no, no I have to drive moto” as he made hand gestures of riding a wobbly bike. They would laugh and laugh and copy his hand motions as they said “moto!” David eventually had to flip over his cup and I took one for the team by having a few more shots for the both of us. After awhile the rain started to let up a bit but it was also going to be dark in about 45 minutes. Not wanting to ride back in the dark, we decided it was better to ride the last 20 minutes home in the rain. As we said our goodbyes to our friends, the older man offered up both his poncho and his sons for us to keep dry. We tried to refuse, but knew it was near impossible with this man, so we reluctantly took their ponchos.
Within two minutes on the road, we were really happy we took the ponchos, we would need them. The rain wasn’t coming down too hard, but on a moto bike even a drizzle will get you soaked. We took our time up the mountain side and not because of the rain, but because the large amount of moths that were flying eye level above the pavement. We would see a cloud of moths up ahead, slow down and then prepare ourselves to be hit. You couldn’t swerve or avoid them, you just had to hope they didn’t end up in your mouth or trapped behind your sunglasses, both of which we experienced. By the time we got back into town we felt like we deserved some sort of moto bike badge, bug dodgers! We both couldn’t stop smiling, what a great day it had been!
Back at our hotel, the man at the front desk informed us we would need to check out the next day, as the hotel was already booked. We had been warned about this back in SaPa, that the end of April is Liberation Day in Vietnam, and so the hotels get booked and triple in price. Liberation Day is the Vietnamese holiday that celebrates the south falling to the north during the Vietnam War, so we weren’t too sure why the south celebrates, but either way we knew we would have to move on. So we grabbed a bunch of buhn boà from across the street for dinner and decided on our next plan of action.
There were only a few more days left on our Vietnamese visas and we were concerned that everything in Saigon was going to be overly expensive, so we decided it was time to head to Cambodia! Our hotel helped us book a sleeper bus to Saigon for the next night. The bus would leave DaLat at 10pm and arrive in Saigon by 6am, from there we would take a 4-5 hour bus across the boarder to Cambodia into Phnom Phem. Once again we packed our bags and got ready for the sleeper bus adventure.
Goodbye DaLat and goodbye Vietnam, you were good to us but we are ready for Cambodia!