Dalat is a small mountain town, 6 hours north of Ho Chi Minh city. It’s cool climate produces pine forests, waterfalls, and familiar fruits from home. A bike can take you to the main sights around town and through the green hills around it. Dalat has the fresh food, kind people and great views that you’re searching for, and became one of my favourite places in Vietnam.
We stayed in a cosy hostel run by a brother and sister, who made sure we were part of the family. The hostels run like tour agencies, offering bike hire, transport, maps, activities and any questions or advice you might need. In some places, buses can be booked through the company which is often the cheapest way, but thats not always an option and for the sake of 50p it’s easier to arrange it through the accommodation (they’ll even pick you up from reception). We managed to hire a bike for a day and book a canyoning trip. In Dalat, let them help you, they know what they’re doing.
Thai Yoi (Elephant Waterfall)
35km west of Dalat town, the Elephant Waterfalls are beautiful, Orange and refreshing. You can climb to different points and even go behind it! With our little hostel map and just-in-case raincoats, we biked there. The route is vague, and our map was basic, but with lots of smiling and repeated thank yous, some friendly locals showed us the way. Just remember to keep going and good luck.
You start at the top of the water and can follow the steps down to the other viewpoints. Wear sensible shoes and bring a raincoat because you will get drenched. There’s a great viewing platform where you can squint through the spray and see the whole thing. Then, slowly slowly, you can go down to the water below. (James did his usual trick of falling over the rocks at a waterfall, the rocks really are an ice rink, so slowly!) It’s bright orange, I think because of the ground it tears through beneath, and quite powerful. Not the place for a swim. The best par t for me was going under the falls. Squeeze between the two big rocks, shuffle along the root between them, and carefully slide down another rock. There’s a cave that’s just magical. The water is everywhere in the air and the noise is unbelievable. I will never tire of waterfalls, of the force of water and the wonders of nature.
The Flower Gardens
Back in town, we navigated the roads with me on the map shouting directions in his ear and James on the driving. The roads are ruthless in Vietnam, a sort of every man for himself attitude, even in the small towns like Dalat. We made it to the flower gardens, got a ticket and went in for a tranquil stroll. The gardens cover a massive area of land, and are very well done. I was impressed by the different sections, including a cactus garden, bonzai tree area, topiary, vibrant flower beds, fountains, a wood and central lake. There are cafes for those who want a rest stop, and some horses too. It reminded me of the park at home, and had me feeling very relaxed. Another similarity was the huge black cloud on the way over. We did a quick loop and got on the bike, running away from the rain.
Dalat was our first big discovery of Vietnamese food. Lots of guest houses do a ‘family dinner’, where you pay a set amount and sit down to home cooked buffet with fellow bunkers and your hosts. This was one of my favourite things. I threw vegetarianism out the window and tried it all, pork baked in leaves, tomato tofu, crispy chicken, vegetable soup, cabbage, spring rolls, pumpkin soup, morning glory, rice, sauces and spices…. all refilled by the bucket load. It was the definition of sensational. Made all the better for the friendly company and cheap beer. We later found out that karaoke is a big part of Vietnamese culture, and were roped into the nightly show. Wherever you can, especially in Dalat, go for a family dinner, it’s the food of dreams.
Another thing we ate in Dalat was Bun Thit Nuong – beef noodle salad- consisting of cold rice noodles, BBQ beef, a little salad, nuts, mystery herbs and a light thin dressing. It’s to die for delicious. We discovered it by accident, ducking into the mini shop to avoid the rain. The menu had three options, all in Vietnamese, so we pointed to one and hoped for the best. And it was the best; fresh and light, but filling and tasty. Available all over the country, and a nice change from Pho, it’s now my favourite Vietnamese dish. Cold noodles, don’t knock it til you try it.
The Crazy House
One of the big attractions in Dalat is the Crazy House. It’s a hotel, made up of three different buildings linked together. The fun is in the architecture, which oozes Gaudi. From the high vine stairways, to the melted-honeycomb looking tunnels, the under the sea entertainment area and higgledy piggledy ‘house’, the whole things is indeed crazy. The entrance is 40,000 dong, and I will say that if you’re on a tight budget you could probably skip it. It’s still under construction, and some of the finished parts look at bit slap-dash, not quite got the wow factor but a bit of fun to see anyway.
The Night Market
Unlike other markets in south east Asia, Dalat market doesn’t sell elephant trousers. The stalls are full of woolly jumpers, hats, scarves, knitted toys and thermal layers. Other surprises are strawberries, blackberries and winter jams. The market is pretty big for the size of the town, and has hot pot food at the far end. We were tempted by the thick soft tracksuit bottoms, dreaming of cosy nights on the sofa, but winter warmers are a no no.
For James’s 23rd birthday, we booked a day canyoning. Although I’ve gone outdoor adventure activities before, I was more than a bit nervous about canyoning. When we reached the start, we had a safety brief and then got kitted up and headed off. The day consists of three abseils, a cliff jump and rock sliding. Between sites we walked through the jungle and bobbed along the river, making it a full day of activity. The abseils are pretty high, and get -slightly- easier each time. The cliff jump is 11m high, with a 7m option for the nervous ones. I took a lot of coaxing, but with James on his third jump and all his limbs still attached, I did the jump. I’m falling, I’m gonna die I’m gonna die, splash, let’s do that again. Something I’ve never done before was the rock slide. Helmet on, you lie in the rushing water and let yourself go. It’s a natural water slide that is a blast from the past. The day is wobbly kneed moments mixed with massive highs, worth doing and easy to organise. The trip includes transport, lunch, equipment, instructors and all your bits and
bobs. Really glad we did it, bring on the next challenge.