Our French Mountain Retreat

Elephant falls

A few days in da lat.

We left Nha Thrang (the Vietnamese here spoke Russian as there second language and road signs where in Cyrillic script as well as Vietnamese, this was a Russian holiday town) in a mini bus that was rather uncomfortable, small seats no leg room and hot. After stopping of for lunch in the most beautiful rest station I have ever seen (full of koi ponds, little red bridges and amazing Bahn mihs) we started our mountain ascend. Our journey took us higher and higher into the mountains and our little bus was struggling more and more to conquer the road, occasionally giving up entirely. The views from the windows allthough stunning where somewhat scary as there was a huge drop next to the road and if the bus should fall down it would not end well for us. Waterfalls and impressive rock features could be seen between the jungle driving up this road. As we reached the highest point the climate and vegetation changed rapidly, jungle turned into pine forests and the humid air dried up. This landscape reminded me more of the Mediterranean than what we had driven trough earlier. After one more unplanned stop (on of our tiers had not survived the journey and needed replacement) we started seeing hundreds of greenhouses growing many things but especially known for their strawberries and flowers. Then in the distance we could see our destination, the mountain town Da Lat.
As our bus drove through the town we could make our first impressions, which where very positive. The town is a lot cleaner than the rest of Vietnam and full of beautiful buildings such as the old train station the French had build. Furthermore the local council seemed to invest money in landscaping as the parks where beautifully groomed. Da Lat is very popular with Vietnamese couples who get married or spend their honeymoons here. Accordingly we saw many couples, wedding photographers and other business that is matrimonial in nature.
After the bus dropped us of we walked to our hostel through a quiet part of the city. One area we walked into was a gated community with a lot of old empty French villas. It turned out that this was a dead end and the only way we could avoid having to walk back and around was to climb over a large gate protected by rusty iron spikes. Our bags went over first and we followed quickly after. We executed the climb perfectly apart from a few cuts and a slightly ripped t-shirt (nothing to worry about as we had tetanus injections prior to leaving home). Shortly after we found our hostel, we had a 10 man room to ourselves for the whole stay with a nice view and a lovely family that ran the place (for around 2$ also on the cheaper end of the hostel price spectrum).
We were told that the Bahn Mihs would get better the further south we go and that was certainly true for da lat. Bahn Mihs on the street would be sold for 7.000 baht and in a nice bakery for 15.000 (60cent). In these bakeries we also discovered something we had not seen since leaving the home which was pastries. Throughout our stay here we would repeatedly come back to this bakery and devour their produce.

Jamie showing us how it’s done

On our first day in Da Lat we decided to go to the Elephant waterfall which is about an hours drive from town. We got there by taking a local bus that was, as busses here usually are, rather uncomfortable and somewhat scary as the road was build on the side of the mountain and the driver often undertook risky overtakes that could have ended up with the bus plummeting down a cliff. Once the bus stopped it started raining extremely heavily (having learnt from the Hai Van experience I had brought a poncho) and we started walking to find the waterfall. So in the pouring rain we walked on a gravel road that then turned into a dirt track and then a small path in the jungle. Soon the rain stopped and we reached the bottom of the waterfall. This waterfall was not what I would consider beautiful like the one in Sapa but powerful and impressive. Enormous amounts of orange water came thundering down the cliffs landing on giant boulders. Luckily for us it had been raining a lot recently which made the sight even more impressive. At the bottom of the waterfall we were climbing on these boulders jumping from one to the other over raging water. We even found some caves we could explore (with the aid of the torches on our phones) and found the area behind the waterfall. However this part was a lot less magical than it sounds as one would get drenched standing there. We found a path cut into the rocks fortified by iron railings leading upwards. As we climbed up the cliff we found a viewing station and saw the first human since being here (who took the picture accompanying this blog). As we got even higher we had an impressive view of the waterfall and saw a little restaurant at the top. We left trough a big entrance gate that we must have missed during the rain storm. This had saved us from paying the entrance fee and allowed us to see the waterfall from an area you would not normally. (The ethics of not paying the entrance fee was discussed by us on the bus back to da lat; our conclusion was that because of the large amount of rubbish floating in the water and around the fall and the lack of infrastructure meant that we should not lose any sleep over this matter).
Something I have noticed so far in Vietnam and especially in Da Lat was that there are a lot of old ladies working low paying jobs such as walking around collecting rubbish, and so far I have not seen as single man or young women do this. I recon these women are war widows but that is only an assumption. Also in Hoi An I saw quite a few amputees, all in their 50’s and 60’s working hard physical jobs such as bricklaying (one guy with no legs and another with only one arm). This goes along with a certain mentality I have witnessed in Vietnam that can best be described by the fact that I saw fewer beggars in Vietnam in a month than in Bangkok on a 15 minute walk.
On the next day we decided to take the gondola over the forest something Archie and Adam, our friends from school who we had met in Hoi An recommended we should do. To get a feeling for what the town was like we (and to avoid paying for a taxi) we decided to walk to the station. This supposedly thirty minute long walk turned into an hour long Odyssee past pine forests, mountain roads and fruit plantations. The last stretch of this journey was particularly interesting as we were walking through a very wealthy part of the town that overlooked the city below. Apart from an amazing view it was interesting to see that in this area big four by fours and sport cars had replaced the mopeds and rickshaws of the town. From up there one could see why da lat was chosen to be the mountain resort for the French, beautiful pine forests and a city build on many levels surrounding a clear blue lake made this town ideal for a retreat from the heat of the lowlands and the coast (it was about 26 degrees during the day here and not as humid as the rest of Vietnam). Shortly after marvelling at the view of da lat we reached the Gondel station and bought a ticket (quite pricey at 80.000 VND but we thought it would be worth it). As we got into the gondola I noticed that it was produced by the same company as the ones I knew from the alps. From the gondola we had a lovely view of the countryside below, lakes and forests, rivers and farms could be seen on this quite long journey. As we ‘landed’ we walked around for a bit until we stumbled upon a monastery. At the bottom of which was a big pile of cloth with a sign saying that shoulders and knees should be covered and as I was wearing shorts I had to wrap myself with one of them (I thought it looked rather stylish). As we walked up a very long and wide marble staircase we saw the first building, a small temple with a giant bell inside. These temples not only looked beautiful but also gave of a soothing sound from chimes hanging of the roof that where dancing in the gentle wind. In the Center of this monastery stood a larger temple with a Buddha statue inside and a giant drum. In front of this drum stood a monk dressed in orange holding a baton with which he beat the drum. I would not describe the sound it made as loud but rather wholesome and deep, so deep in sound that it seemed to echo forever. What I found so impressive about the monk was that he only beat the drum once every 5 minutes or so in an incredibly slow motion, for the rest of the time he just stood there waiting until it was time to beat the drum again. This self control and calmness impressed us a lot. We continued to walk around the monastery and looked at beautiful gardens with brightly coloured flowers and ceramic pots containing carefully grown bonsai trees. Walking through this area felt relaxing as the air smelt of incense and flowers and the sound of chimes and the drum felt hypnotising. We could also watch the monks in orange robes work in the monastery tending the gardens. This place felt timeless. It was also nice that there where hardly any non monks at the monastery, and the few tourists that where here came to pray. Me and Harry found a wide staircase that lead away from the monastery in the forest through a series of golden gates. While the top of the staircase was still carefully cleaned the bottom was covered in a carpet of pine needles. As a fence blocked the way we had to continue our journey through the forrest until we reached a road with a few shops on it. Coming out of this dreamy monastery back into the real world felt odd and the first moped that beeped at us somewhat woke us up out of the trance we where in. Walking over the road we saw a small strawberry farm which had two ladies wearing rice hats waving at us in. From the strawberry field we saw a giant lake and decided to walk along the shore. The lake was very impressive as it was surrounded by beautiful hills and as we got there it started raining slightly, that with the wind created an impressive water surface. We sat here for quite a while just taking in the view. As we walked back we saw what we believed to be a water snake in the shallow water, I will upload a photo of it that I took on my GoPro once I am home. After we took the gondola back we decided to take a taxi back to town instead of the hour long walk which cost us around 40 cent each.
Tired from the long day we took a well deserved nap back at our place until it was time to get supper. Jamie stayed in the hostel as he was ill (one of us being ill is a regular occurrence here, it normally goes away after a few days) and me and harry went to the bakery we went to the day before. The grilled chicken Bahn Mih we got there was by far my favourite in Vietnam. After this we decided to go to a bar we had heard a lot about.
Da Lat is famous for something called the “crazy house”, a sort of art installation, and there is a bar in town that is build in the same style. Before entering one had to buy a beer, priced at about 2$ more expensive than normally but after all it was the entrance fee. As we walked in the bar we found a path that led into the basement, the walls where lined with fantastical creatures such as giant octopuses and the ceiling was full of stalactites. The paths going through this building became incredibly small and we kept getting lost as it was build like a maze. We found tiny staircases or ladders going to the next level that we could barely fit through. As we continued our way through the maze we had to occasionally open heavy metal gates in complete darkness while at other times we had to go back on ourselves through neon lit passages as we walked into a dead end. After a while longer of walking through level after level of this surreal three dimensional labyrinth we found an opening on about the fifth floor where we found the first people we had seen since entering the bar. From here we had a great view of the city and talked to the other backpackers that where enjoying the view to. One of them told us that he went to the crazy house and that it was very crowded and that he preferred it here. Thinking that we had reached the top floor we went to the back to get down until I found a passage that led upstairs away from the building. From here we saw that the maze was build around a fictitious tree that made its way through the many levels of the building. This passage led us out of the back of the building and we found ourselves outside (this house was build against the mountain) and walked across small bridges and further paths build like the magical cave like interior. However here there was no music or light apart from that given off by the stars. Furthermore it looked like no one had been here for a while as the paths and bridges had crumbled and there where old building materials and equipment scattered around the place. As the torch light from our phones guided us further away from the bar it felt like we where walking through a grave yard. Soon we reached a rusty overgrown fence and behind it saw an abandoned villa. Although tempted to explore it we decided to head back to the bar and go to the night market the people we met on the balcony told us about (they looked at what we where wearing add told us if we wanted more clothing like that the market is where we should go). The night market was busy full of food stalls selling pancakes and meat roasted on small barbecues. After Harry and I walked through this market for a while we decided to head back and go to bed. The journey back was interrupted by several stray dogs getting very close to attacking us. Vietnam is full of stray dogs but we had not yet encountered as many as we did in da lat. Apart from the obvious annoyance of getting barked at or attacked, getting rabies is also something we would prefer to avoid. Our dreams that night where full of magical creatures and fantastical beasts inspired by that very peculiar bar we had visited.

Harry in the “bar of a thousand roof tops”

Like most places we where sad to leave Da Lat, our hostel was very nice owned by a lovely family, the weather in the low twenties was extremely pleasant and there was a lot to do (and the Bahn Mihs where great).

And so the three of us jumped on a bus to take us to the next stop on our journey, the old capital of the south. The journey there was extremely uncomfortable as a driver was a mad man, honking at everything that moved, not once but three times in a row. Dogs, people, cars on the other side of the road and even his own shadow where honked at, which made the journey extremely unpleasant for us as we sat near the front. On this journey however I could examine an increasing amount of churches, some rather ugly but many big and beautiful ones. Catholicism holds a much greater grip on the south than the north as all the christians fled persecution from the communist north when the country was divided.


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