Dalat – To live up to

From Nha Trang, travelers who started in Hanoi and are going west have three main choices. You can continue on the train directly into Saigon, or take a bus to a smaller beach town call Mui Ne, or take a bus up into the Central Highlands to the town of Dalat, which is what I did. The bus ride took about 4.5 hours, including two long and mostly pointless rest stops. In a country like this I expected bus drivers to behave like amphetamine-crazed long-haul truckers, but it seems that they all stop for a long break about every 90 minutes.

The main reason I chose Dalat over Mui Ne is the promise of some cool weather. According to the Accuweather page I’d been looking at, Dalat, which is in the mountains at around 5,000 feet, gets to about 85F each day and down to about 65F each night. While that might not sound cool to most people, I’d just been in a series of cities where it’s around 90F or more every day, and around 85F at midnight, and always somewhat humid too. The thought of being able to possibly sleep with a window open and no air conditioner really sounded wonderful.

It turned out Accuweather must have been using a reading from the airport, which is about 20 miles from Dalat down the hill. It took the first couple of days in the city to realize that the temperature was within a few degrees of 70F every minute of every day. It stayed like that the entire 18 days I was there, punctuated by quite a few heavy late-afternoon rainstorms that cooled things down even more for a few hours. It was lovely and my fairly luxurious hotel had double-pane windows but no A/C at all since it wasn’t needed.

The guy who ran my hotel in Nha Trang actually warned me from going to Dalat at all. He said people get sick when they go there, and that I should trust him because he knows all about it. At first that all sounded ridiculous to me, but after thinking about it I realized that people who never experience temperatures under 80F their whole lives probably do get a bit of a runny nose when they spend a few days in a place where it’s 67F at night.

Impressions of Dalat

In addition to the mild weather, I’d read quite a few times that Dalat was like the “Paris of Southeast Asia.” After my first few days there I decided those people must not have been to the “Paris of France,” because the similarities are few.

First off, Dalat is in the mountains, and it’s somewhat hilly even in the middle of town. There aren’t many backbreaking hills to climb up, but it’s still set in a way where you notice it every time you go walking. And normally hill towns are very scenic, and while parts of Dalat definitely are, it’s actually a very dense and crowded city with 3 to 5 story buildings lining every street, so unless you are on a high floor or a hilltop, it just looks like a crowded city.

Fortunately, the hotel I moved into after the first three days put me into a 5th floor room with a nice view of some mountains to the west of the city. It was also the only room on the top floor of the hotel, only shared by a big Jacuzzi and two saunas for guests to use, so the fact that there was no elevator was a minor inconvenience for the other benefits.

I actually spent the first three nights in a different hotel on a main street a few blocks away. I arrived on Reunification Day, which starts a major 3-day holiday all over Vietnam. Many hotels had tripled their prices for that weekend, so I booked a place that was only $23 per night, which I later found normally went for $8 per night.

It was clearer in those first three days than it was in the remaining 15 days that Dalat is a very touristy city that seems to attract about 98% Vietnamese tourists compared to 2% foreigners. It’s a strange feeling, passing hotel after hotel and restaurant after restaurant where I can’t read a single word on any of their signs. I wouldn’t say it was uncomfortable, but I would say it was unusual to be in a place with so few English-speaking tourists.

Once at the second hotel I was in the center of the small cluster of Western-oriented hotels and restaurants, so it was a fun little enclave, which turned out to have several really great restaurants mixed in. For me the only thing about Dalat that reminded me of Paris was that most (but not all) of the restaurants I went to had French-inspired dishes on their menus, and also rather fancy tablecloth service.

I finished the first writing project I was doing after a couple days there and started on another, so I was working 30+-hour weeks while I was there once again. It’s really quite nice to be able to afford to stay and eat in nice places by working a bit at the same time, and then having more money in the bank at the end that when you started.

Attractions and highlights

Dalat doesn’t actually have too many tourist attractions. The most popular thing to do seems to be a one-day tour around the city, done on the back of a motorcycle ridden by one of the many Easy Riders (a motorcycle-guide group in Vietnam), or in a minibus. On these tours you can literally see all the main highlights of Dalat in about 6 hours, and most of those are actually outside of the city itself.

Here’s an overview of the main ones.

Ho Xuan Huong

This artificial lake dominates the center of town. It’s around 4.5 miles in circumference, and much to my surprise, it had been drained “for cleaning” in January of 2010, and won’t be refilled until January 2011. Evidently they do this once per decade, so I just got unlucky.

It’s really strange what something like this can do to one’s first impression of a town. I’d imagine that when filled-in the lake is really lovely and serves as a centerpiece around which many people stroll. But this way it’s basically an ugly construction zone that much of the town is pointed at. Neither of my hotels had anything close to a view of this lake, so I only saw it when I’d go trundling over to that part of town, but if I did pay extra for a “lake front” room I would have been extremely disappointed.

The central market

Just up the hill from the lake is a big outdoor market that is really the true focal point of the town. I admit that I only walked through part of it once in Dalat. These kinds of markets are literally in every city, or even every neighborhood in this part of the world. The first few you see are fascinating and really colorful, but they are also crowded, loud, and usually a bit smelly too.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed walking through many of these things before. It’s just that most of it is highly perishable food, which doesn’t have much appeal for someone staying in a hotel indefinitely. And mixed in with the food are various dry goods stalls that sell everything from soaps to souvenirs. The ones that sell souvenirs are always scanning for tourists, so it’s rare not to get a somewhat aggressive sales pitch each time you pass by. Largely for this last reason, I choose to minimize my town market visits.

The TV tower

All over Vietnam you see these communications towers, and I think the taller ones have TV and radio antennas mixed with the mobile phone transmitters. In Dalat there are a few in the center of the city, and the tallest one looks a bit more like the Eiffel Tower than most of the others. It really does make for a good photo if you can find something interesting for the foreground.

I walked to the base of the big one and wasn’t really surprised to see nothing there at all but a locked fence. If they built one with an elevator or even stairs that you could climb it would be a really nice attraction, but this is just a TV tower.

The Crazy House

This is a classic “roadside attraction” except that it’s in a mostly residential neighborhood. I walked the 2 miles to it early in my trip, and then went there again as part of the bus tour I took near the end.

The story goes that there is a local woman architect who is obsessed with building the weirdest house possible, and she’s well on her way. Big chunks of it are still under construction, even though they started building like 15 years ago, so this is like the Vietnamese Sagrada Familia church.

Most of it really looks like a mansion that you might find in the town of Bedrock. It’s all molded into a cave-like structure, except there are weird stairs and tunnels between each room, and some of the rooms are maybe 4 floors off the ground.

It cost only 75 cents to get in, so it was easily worth it, but the Lonely Planet book warned that the novelty gets old pretty fast, and they were right. There’s almost no explanation in any language, much less English, and no guides either, so visitors just walk through this unusual twisted house, and you draw your own conclusions.

Only on my second visit did I learn that it’s also a hotel too, and that you can rent any of the weird rooms inside for prices starting around $25 per night up to almost $100 per night. That might sound cheap, but in Vietnam that money can get you a far nicer place with less novelty, and in a better part of town. I think it’s mainly used for romantic getaways for Vietnamese people, and during both my visits I didn’t see any signs that any of the 20 or so rooms was actually occupied.

City tour

I quite like driving motorbikes around myself, but I don’t feel comfortable riding on the back when someone else is driving, especially since it’s unlikely that they have much experience with someone my size on board. So instead of the Easy Rider tour I booked a minibus tour, which basically goes to all the same places in the same amount of time, and cost $17 for the whole day, similar to the Easy Riders.

My group turned out to be fun, and I mostly chatted with a Scottish woman who used to be a schoolmate of Bill Forsythe (director of Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero etc). There were 5 other people with us, and I was again the only American. We had about 8 stops and most of them were in a valley about 30 minutes from Dalat, so here they are in order…

Flower farm

Dalat is known for having very fertile meadows and fields around it, so they produce tons of vegetables, fruits, and flowers, which prefer milder temperatures and a bit of shade, I suppose. Our first stop was a flower farm with these huge covered fields filled with various flowers. I’d never been to anything like that before, so that was quite nice.

Minority village

Our next stop was in a “minority village” which is basically one long street of homes and buildings owned by these hill people who really do look very different from the Vietnamese people. It’s only one block off a main highway, so it’s not too exotic, but interesting to see nonetheless. Weirdly enough, these buildings actually look more like US houses than Asian houses, so this small mountain-people minority had something in common with me.

The brochure promised a stop at a cricket farm, but our guide (there was a guide and a driver) told us there was nothing to see at this exact time of year, so he spent about 10 seconds with a confusing explanation of how a cricket farm works, and that was the end of it. This was while driving to the next stop, rather than in front of the cricket farm, by the way.

Coffee plantation

We are also promised a stop at a coffee plantation. I’d seen a full-blown one in Guatemala, so I knew what to expect, except that in this case we just stopped by the road and the guide pointed out some coffee plants with mature berries on them and some other plants with no berries on them. Evidently Vietnam producers more coffee than any country on earth besides Brazil, and the coffee here is quite good, but on this tour we just looked at the plants, got a quick explanation of the process, and moved on.

Silk factory

In perhaps the most interesting stop of all, we parked out in front of a few old buildings, and entered a silk factory filled with busy workers (even though this was Sunday). It was incredibly loud and the equipment inside appears to have been designed and built perhaps 100 years ago, no joke.

There was one station where they’d take the cocoons with the worms still inside, and they boil them to kill the worm quickly. Then someone strips out the worm carcass, which gets turned into animal feed or something, and then someone takes the cocoon and hooks it up to a big machine that begins turning it into thread.

Several steps later and they are making silk cloth right there about 30 feet away from where the living worm was murdered. It’s quite amazing to see and hear it all at once like this. I’m pretty sure that in most of China they have modern factories to do all these same steps, but here labor is so cheap that there isn’t much incentive to spend a fortune on new machines. I’d guess that these women were making no more than US$2 for a 10 or 12-hour day, but it might be as high as $3 for the day.

When we were led out they took us near two stalls where we could buy silk goods, but within two minutes or so we were all back in the van. On tours like this just about everywhere else in the world they consistently lead you through overpriced handicraft shops and other gift shops, since the tour guide makes about 20% off everything the group spends there. Here in Vietnam they have yet to master that strategy. From the perspective of the traveler this is actually much nicer. It’s just that it’s really unusual since everyone else in the world seems to be pretty hardcore when it comes to that unfortunate aspect of organized tours.


Next up was a rice-wine distillery. It was still late in the morning, but that wasn’t too early for a tour of a small alcohol factory. It’s fairly primitive, and the main equipment is in this barn-like building with animals roaming around. The still itself looked a couple of sizes larger than the one Hawkeye owned on MASH, and otherwise similar.

The rice wine first made me think of sake, but this has 65% alcohol so it’s way stronger than sake. Of course, we each got to sample some of it and it was much better than any of us expected. It was more like a whisky or a good tequila than like sake.

They sell a full liter of the stuff in a lovely ceramic bottle for $3, which would have been great if I was headed home the next day, but that’s a lot of rice wine and the bottle was too heavy to drag around. An Australian guy in our group asked if they has smaller sizes, and they told him they’d sell him half a liter in a plastic bottle for $1.50. He got one, and then I got one a bit later. It mixes really well with Red Bull, as I discovered.

Elephant waterfalls

I’ve seen many waterfalls in my day, and I’m usually surprised by how entertaining they tend to be, considering that all they are is a river changing altitude suddenly. Supposedly the best one of the many in the area is Elephant Waterfalls, and I was looking forward to seeing it, but I ended up passing on the close-up view, along with a few other people in our group and another group at the same time.

They parked the van and we were led to the top of the falls, which look impressive enough, and then were guided down a path toward the base of the falls. After one steep and treacherous portion I noticed that the next sections of the path are actually way worse. These “steps” are just sections that are sort of carved out of big rocks, often with drastically different distances between them. There was a guardrail on that really bad part at one point, but all that was left now were the rusted posts that used to hold it up.

Everyone in our group that went down did so safely, and chances are I could have too, but they also said it’s not all that special down there and playing it safe was the right move. In addition to being a big and tall guy with big feet, I was carrying a backpack and a fairly expensive camera, and there is a lot that could have gone wrong.

One very major difference between traveling in the “developing” world and traveling in the “developed” world is you can’t really trust their sense of safety. When I got back to my hotel I googled Elephant Waterfall and found a blog post by a couple who visited just a few days earlier, and the guy in that couple missed a step and slid about 10 feet down a rock before he got wedged into a place to stop. He cut up his leg pretty bad, and that kind of stuff happens a lot in places like this, partly because there are no lawyers or insurance policies involved at all. If you hurt yourself, the tour company will probably bring you back to the city and maybe even to a hospital, but that’s about it.

All of this “tourism on the edge” stuff is fine with me, it’s just why I am also very careful in places like this. If there were serious hiking injuries every few days at the Grand Canyon, they’d shut the thing down and rebuild it, but here there’s little or no incentive to do such things.

Pagoda and Buddha

Adjacent to the Elephant Waterfall was a large , new-looking pagoda with a couple more Buddha statues behind it. We were sent in to have a look, and it was all stuff I’d seen several times before, and once again stuff that would have been far more interesting with some kind of explanation.

All the tours and attractions in Vietnam are very cheap, so it’s hard to complain, but one thing I wish they did a better job at was the guide should provide more of an explanation about many of these things. Perhaps the problem is that anyone in Vietnam who speaks English really well already has a more lucrative job. So the guides seem to work mostly from prepared scripts, more or less, and they are often unprepared to answer deep and spontaneous questions.

These pagodas and statues all look alike, so while the first few you see are really exotic and entertaining, the next dozen feel a bit like reruns.

Embroidery demonstration

Next we had lunch at a mediocre restaurant near the first hotel I stayed at. We ordered and paid ourselves, and I think the tour company must get a small percentage of what we spent, but it was fine and the prices were okay. Next we went to the Crazy House, which I described above. After that the last stop was an Embroidery Factory or something, which turned out to be in the absolute center of Dalat, and that I’d passed in front of many times before without knowing what it was.

It turns out they make these complicated needlepoint things there, which come in all sizes and start at around US$40 for the smallest ones, and hundreds of dollars for the larger ones. They were nice, but nothing I’d ever buy. This was the only stop on the whole trip that felt like we were mostly there with the hopes we’d buy something. We did get to see workers upstairs making these things, but it was mostly a big series of showrooms. I guess if they sell something to every 100th person who walks in it’s still pretty good money in this country.

After that our tour was done, and even though a few parts of it were mildly disappointing, I had a very nice day with a good group of people, seeing things I won’t soon forget.

Two days later I took a long bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City, which everyone here still calls Saigon.

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