I took a series of buses from Hội An to reach Đà Lạt, a hill station known for it’s eternal spring weather. I was looking forward to this leg of my journey to get a respite from all the heat and humidity of the northern half of Vietnam. What I found was a city full of beautiful flowers and bewitching architecture, unexpectedly cold weather and warm people, oodles of hill station charms and an amazing blend of foreign and local tourists. Falling in love with this city was effortless.
The bus reached Nha Trang early in the morning, around 5 AM. The connecting bus to Đà Lạt was at 7 AM so I dumped my bags in the office and rushed to the beach that was just two lanes away. It was still dawn and I hoped to catch a nice sunrise on an empty beach. Turned out, the entire city was to be found at the beach! There were people walking, jogging, doing aerobics and what not! The sea was also full of people enjoying a dip at this hour. I mean, who swims this early in the morning?!
I could not see the sun because of the clouds and gave up the task because I was getting hungry. I went around the block and ate a bowl of Pho. All the sign boards and shop names here were in Vietnamese, Russian and at times English. 😋 The Russian presence always makes itself felt.
I went back to the Sinh Tourist office and waited a while for the bus to turn up. This one was a sleeper as well and I actually got some much needed sleep on this one, though I missed out on quite a lot of scenery. I kept waking intermittently to find the world around me changing. The plains gave way to hilly contours; the road was wavy and flanked by greenery; the rains imparted a cosy touch to it all. We reached Đà Lạt in a couple of hours since having started from Nha Trang. The city looked very pretty and we made our way to the bus company’s office. There was one small trouble though; it was raining continuously. I stood under a shelter at the office trying to figure out where I would stay. I had not booked a hostel thinking that I could walk around to find a place, but the rains were playing a spoilsport and I needed some more rest.
Once the rain let up a bit, I walked in a certain direction that seemed to have a few good hostels. The rains resumed shortly and I took out my poncho. I came upon the YOLO hostel first and went in. They had a dorm bed available in a huge hall with mattresses laid out on the wooden floor. I liked the setup somewhat but they gave me the room for a price of the smaller dorm and some haggling around the agoda price. I decided to stay here just for the night. I kept my bags and worked a bit while I waited for the rains to ease. Then I went out to get something to eat.
It was uncomfortably cold outside. I was not prepared for such a weather, neither mentally nor with my wardrobe. I would have to buy a sweater, but first, I had to eat! I crossed a small cafe near the hostel and took a look at their menu. The lady who ran the place pulled me in and I ordered a Bun Cha at her suggestion. This lady was something of an eccentric character. She told me that the Bun Cha here was very different from Hanoi’s. Then she went to cook a fresh plate which took a while and once she came back with the food, she showed me several pictures of the food she had prepared throughout the day. 😝 The Bun Cha was somewhat different from Hanoi’s but I could feel certain similarities. In any case, my craving for the delicious dish simply refueled rather than being satiated.
Bun Cha (not quite) Hanoi
I walked further after having filled my stomach a bit. An Easy Rider fellow caught hold of me while I was walking about. I had heard so much about this service that I was curious enough to ask him what it was all about. He explained the concept to me. It is basically a motorbike tour to places in and around Đà Lạt. The customer rides pillion with the rider and the prices seemed to be pretty reasonable for the duration and the services offered. However, I was not much of a pillion rider, so I just thanked him for the information and went into another eatery that looked more local. I thought I ordered a Bun Cha here as well, hoping to savour a more local taste of the same dish. But silly me did not know that Bun Cha Ca was much different from Bun Cha. 😑 And so it was that I found another way that the Vietnamese do the noodle soup.
Bun Cha Ca
I walked around the roads after this, trying to trace a big circle back to the hostel. I think all the hill stations have similarly haphazard roads. There is very little planning that can be done in the mountainous terrain. I saw a peaceful Buddhist temple and a church. Then I walked around the roads lined with shops searching for a sweater to save myself from the chilling winds.
Chua Linh Son
I saw a shop that was selling sweatshirts for 100 kVND and went to check it out. The designs were not bad and the bargain seemed well worth it but I did not get any, deciding in favour of checking more options. I walked up to the main market. Right before the market building, there people selling clothes on the street; Janpath style! 😆 I witnessed a scene where a police van’s approach sent everyone scuttling away and then they slowly resumed sales when the van went out of sight. I browsed through some jackets here as well. Not the best of quality but, once again, cheap.
A stall at the market
I went into the market building and walked through it. There were better shops inside but I knew I was looking for a cheaper option. I went out the other side of the market building. There were lots of shops selling various items of daily need, dried food, fresh meals, flowers and plants, vegetables, tarts, jams and what not. I finally found a decent jacket worth 100 kVND in one of the street-side places. It was a flimsy thing, something of a stylish windcheater. I put it on and it did the job of keeping me warm. I ate a Bánh Tráng Nướng on my way out. This was the famous Vietnamese pizza, a local specialty, which was somewhat like an egg roll. It was good but not really a cheap snack that I had supposed it would be.
Bánh Tráng Nướng - The Vietnamese Pizza
I walked back to the hostel which was nearby and spent the rest of the evening indoors. It was raining outside and the blanket felt really cosy.
Đà Lạt on Foot
I woke up the next day and took a much needed bath before checking out. I had booked a cheaper room in another hostel that was a 15 minute walk away. I saw a place advertising Bun Cha Hanoi on the way and obviously felt compelled to stop for a bite. 😅 I am such a sucker for that dish! But there is no Bun Cha to be had that is as good as Hanoi’s. This one came pretty close but was not quite the same.
Vietnam Tip #8
Eat as much Bun Cha as you can when you are in Hanoi! Trust me, it is the right thing to do.
The new hostel was much better than the last one. The lanes that led up to the place had the typical touch of the alleys of a small hill town. I really loved the quiet location and the friendly staff. I was invited for lunch with them and their family and friends. I met two girls from Saigon, Mandy and Cindy, and talked to them a bit. I had little to eat because I was already somewhat full with the recent breakfast.
I went out walking after the lunch and all through, I thought of how wonderful the hill towns were. There was so much love in the air here. One found couples walking hand in hand and it seemed so much in keeping with the mood of the place. It seemed as natural to the hills as is a man rushing about in a city. I encountered a short spell of rains and spent the time sitting in a cafe drinking some amazing coffee and writing. I resumed walking when the rains stopped and went till the Xuan Huong Lake. It is quite a big lake and I walked around it clicking pictures.
Xuan Huong Lake
I turned into a park and walked through it to a palace which is now used as a guest house. Đà Lạt has some beautiful houses which were turned into hotels or restaurants. The architecture is charming and compliments the scenery really well.
Beautiful parks and buildings
I saw more beautiful buildings and pretty flowers all the way till the Summer Palace, where I was headed to. The city was mesmerising and vast.
Streets of Đà Lạt
I bought a 15 kVND ticket to the Summer Palace of Bao Dai. This was the kind of ticket fee that makes me a happy tourist. The palace was really nice. It was more of an open house with everything preserved the way it used to be when the royal family lived here; the bedrooms with their beds made up; the halls and sitting rooms with beautiful decor; the well maintained gardens. There was not much history to it but the house is pretty enough to contemplate the lives of it’s erstwhile residents. I walked around for a good long hour without getting bored.
Bao Dai's beautiful Summer Palace
There are many more pictures of Bao Dai’s Summer Palace in the album at the end of the post.
I walked back to the hostel after seeing the palace. It was getting dark and I was somewhat tired from all the walking. I had planned to see the Crazy House but left it for another day. As I was crossing the main market, an older man called out to me and waved hello. Then he shouted something which I did not hear properly so he asked me to stop and made his way to me. I was expecting a sales pitch, perhaps another offer for an Easy Rider tour.
“Hello! Where are you from?" he said with a smile.
“India. Ấn Độ." I replied
“Oh! You speak Vietnamese?"
“No no” I laughed. “Very little."
“Okay. You a movie star?"
“You very handsome. Haha!" he laughed.
I laughed in return and thanked him. I was expecting the sales pitch next.
“Okay then, bye."
Whoa! I asked him his name. Mr. Bean. 😂 I walked away amused. You gotta love the hills! I ate some Japanese snacks, Takoyaki, from a street side cart and drank some cold milk tea with jellies, Tra Sua. Then I returned to the hostel to rest and write a while.
Japanese Takoyaki be 💕
I went down to the common room later in the night. Everyone was jamming to some Vietnamese and English songs. I tried playing the cajón there but it was a little difficult as I did not know how those Vietnamese songs would progress. Mandy and Cindy were there and two Dutch siblings also came in, Rose and William. Rose had been interning at a nearby coffee plantation for the last 3 months and had recently finished. William had just joined her and they were planning to travel through Vietnam for a while before returning home. I enjoyed a couple of beers with everyone and then headed to the room to sleep.
Note Hostel common area
I rooster had been cock-a-doodling in the middle of the night. I had a tough time falling asleep and then I woke up to find everyone around me up and about. I thought it would be late in the morning but it was just 6:30 AM! I cursed under my breath and tried to sleep some more. I woke up again at 7:45 AM and found the room empty. I suspected that the mobile’s clock was off and checked my red watch which I had not been using for a while. It said 10:45! I had planned on going to Pongour waterfalls with the Dutch at 10 AM today. They might have left already and I needed to get going as well. So I got out of the bed and brushed my teeth. While I did my toilet, I realised that I had seen the stopwatch on the red watch which had been running for almost 11 hours for some reason. The time was still less than 8 AM in the morning. But there was no returning to sleep from this.
I went down around 9:30 AM and was given a coupon for free breakfast, something that I had not known about! The breakfast was in the hostel next door and the lady here, a good natured woman whom we called Mama, gave me a few options. I chose the bread, butter and jam with coffee. There were three more people at the table. An English-Canadian couple who were working in Dubai and a American woman who lived in Hawaii. I started talking to the American when she asked me “Hablas Espanyol?” No I did not, but I felt that this was the comparison that made the most sense. She had been to India and it was her favourite place. She was a “yogini” and a vegetarian which might be a reason for her profound love for India. I can see how our country is such a paradise for vegetarians. She asked me if I did yoga and I had to tell her that not every Indian did yoga and that the “world famous” yoga gurus were not so famous within the country. She expressed surprise as to how we could have given the world something so amazing and forgotten about it ourselves. I told her that our materialistic pursuits were far more important at the moment, but hopefully things would change soon. Anyway, I helped her plan her itinerary for her northward journey through Vietnam while we had breakfast.
I rented a scooter from the hostel and joined the Dutch for Pongour Waterfalls. There are a few waterfalls around Đà Lạt and Pongour is the one farthest away and considered the more beautiful by some. The English-Canadian couple also joined us and we set out across the city. The English woman was riding their scooter and was having a little trouble coping with the Vietnamese traffic. But she was coping well and learning fast! We went slow and steady in order to stay together. The highway after the city was not much of a ride because a long part of it was under repair. There was a lot of dust and rowdy trucks that did not help the case. We finally left the highway for a more beautiful road that went through picturesque fields and led us to the waterfall.
Beautiful road to the waterfalls
We bought the entry and parking tickets and walked the rest of the way after leaving the bikes in the parking lot. A few Easy Riders had also come in with their customers. Contrary to the jungle trail I had been expecting, it turned out to be a paved pathway all the way to the falls. There were a few small shops and eateries just before the falls. A barbed wire fencing around the pool and sign boards warned the visitors against getting into the water. I do not like such controlled places. How difficult is it to let nature be? This being the condition of the least touristy falls, I did not really want to go see the rest.
The falls themselves were beautiful though. The water cascaded down in steps and was pleasantly cold. Everyone was clicking pictures of the falls and themselves. I jumped about the rocks and decided to ignore the board asking people not to climb and went one level up into the falls. The view was even more beautiful from here.
The Dubai couple left a little earlier than the rest of us. The Dutch and I left at the same time but they were going back to Đà Lạt and I planned to take an alternate route to the north-west of the town (we were south of Đà Lạt right now) before heading back to the hostel. Probably the most interesting part of this outing was talking to William. He had read a lot about India and wanted to go there. He said found India interesting. How so, I asked? He said it was because of the cultures, religions, how they treated their women, history, etc. I told him that what made India really interesting was how all those things were never the same but varied as per the given place, time and socio-economic class. He wanted to know about nature in India. I told him I found it much better than here. He was impressed by these falls so I guess it was much better than his part of Europe as well. Anyway, we said goodbye at the parking lot and I took the alternate route back.
I turned into a dirt track soon after leaving the falls. The dirt had turned into mud in the patches where the rain water had accumulated. The entire route went through such tracks and tarred roads of varying qualities. It also provided views to amazing countryside and rural sceneries. The locals were amused to see a foreigner on the off-road and smiled at me when I caught their curious stares. I went off track once when I followed the road, mesmerised by the beautiful buildings in the village, instead of turning into yet another dirt trail. But it was all an amazing and beautiful experience. I stopped at a random place to eat some Com Binh Dan and it was here that I first had the amazing beef cutlet - Bo La Lot.
Off route highway and it's rewards
The second half of the journey had better roads. I was passing by Đà Lạt which lay on my east. The hills began soon enough and I hit upon patches full of greenhouses. Out here there was barely any ground to be seen on the slopes of the hills; there was the translucent white roof of the greenhouses that covered the entire landscape at times. At places, the hills were marked with the reddish muddy scars of where they had been cut out to make farms. It was interesting how these hills had been modified to suit the human need.
Car DIVING ahead?
My destination had been a certain spot marked on the map as Golden Valley. I got to the entry and paid 40 kVND for the ticket. I rode on to the parking and continued thereafter on foot. There were a lot of tourists here, mostly Vietnamese. There was a path leading up into the hills which I took first. The only term I have to describe the entire setup is : a big park. The hill had been turned into a big garden like setup with a flowing stream, wooden bridges, horses and costumes to get oneself pictures clicked with, flowers, shed, broken carts and many more beautifications of the vein! I walked to the top of the hill expecting to see something here but there was just a trickling pipe which was labelled as a “waterfall”. 😒 The lake was on the other side so I worked my way back down and headed towards it.
The area around the lake was also heavily decorated. Flowery gardens, paddle boats, suspension bamboo bridge, pretty walkways and cafes. I personally do not like such made up nature but I could see the value in this. Đà Lạt was catering to a particular industry of local tourists, mostly couples and families. This is that intrigued them and I could see all of them happily spending time all over the place, clicking photos and enjoying their walks.
Now that I was here, I thought I might just as well make the most of it. I went and sat in a bamboo shelter at the edge of the lake. I guessed that the “golden” in the name of the valley came because of the muddy waters of the lake. I rested a bit and observed the tourists all around. I also clicked some photos, trying as many angles as I could without leaving my spot. 😜 I headed back towards Đà Lạt when the sun was about to set behind the hills.
The city was close enough and I reached the hostel before it got dark. I returned the scooter and went out to eat. A particular place caught my nose with it’s amazing smell of barbecue and I went in. I had barbecued pork with rice, a simple and delicious meal. I was sharing the table with a young girl who showed me how to clean the cup and poured me some tea after the food. I thanked her and she kept giggling in reply. 😄 Kids!
Cơm Tấm Sườn Bì Chả
I also had a couple of Hot Dogs after dinner. This dish is not actually a hot dog but simply a toasted cake with cheese or chocolate inside. Since I had not had either cheese or chocolate in a while, I got one of each and munched on them on my way back to the hostel.
A different kind of Hot Dog
The guys were jamming and singing as usual in the common room and I sat with a beer. Some of them were planning to go to a bar nearby and I initially thought I would join them but later decided against it because I was too tired after the long day. I hit the bed a little later but stayed up to watch the Portugal vs Poland match.
Đà Lạt Nights
I had slept late because the match had gone into penalty shootouts. Then I woke up early again because everyone in my room was up and about. I did not get why everyone woke up so early every day! I struggled to sleep and eventually got out of bed “late” at 10 AM. I got some breakfast and moved to another hostel. I wanted to extend my stay by a day and the manager informed me that they were completely booked. She shifted me to a nearby hostel which was not too bad. There were just 4 beds per dorm and I was the only one in my room when I got there. I decided to head out to the supermarket near the lake after dumping my bags. I needed some basic ration and wanted to check out the peculiar looking place as well. My walk to the C-Mart went without much event; just a drunk man offering me some rice wine in the middle of the afternoon which I had to decline with emphasis. The supermarket was built entirely underground and the area above had been converted into a quirky looking public square. I took some pictures and then went in.
I went about the supermarket getting more things than I had initially planned to get. There were a couple of things that I wanted to take back to India which I got got here. I am a sucker for supermarkets anyway. I sat in the food court eating a Hu Tieu and trying to stuff my shopping into my tiny bag. I managed it somehow and then headed back to the hostel to drop off my purchases. I had a roommate by the time I got there; a young boy from HCM. We exchanged hellos and I tried taking a bath in the broken down bathroom with a door that would not lock. I went out to a good cafe nearby to sit and drink some coffee and work a little.
Work and Coffee (please don't judge the Windows 10)
I went back to Mama’s in time for some “family dinner” that I had been invited to. Everyone had already gathered by the time I reached. There were the Dutch and the couple from Guernsey. It was amazing how I was coming to know about so many new nations. I had no idea about Channel Islands before today. The food was quite delicious and I ate a couple of bowls of rice before calling it quits. The Dutch told me that they had gone to the cable car today and I told them that I had done nothing worthwhile all day. 😎 After dinner, I went back to the room to work some more.
I went to Note Hostel around 9 PM. I grabbed a beer and talked to some young folks from the provinces around Đà Lạt who were on vacation here. They were trying to speak to me in their limited English and I was trying my best to understand and reply. There was the jamming and karaoke again. I liked the energy and enthusiasm. The Dutch were asked to sing a few songs first and then it was my turn. The guitarist and I did Lucky Ali’s “O Sanam”. I somehow managed to pull it off with my laughable vocal skills. 😁
A few of us decided to go to Maze Bar(or 100 Roofs Bar). We took a cab while we could have easily walked the distance, but the cab was cheap enough. This bar is one of the major tourist attractions of Đà Lạt and not without reason. It is really amazing. There are staircases going everywhere and the entire building is made like a maze. The pain and effort put into making the place is extremely evident. We grabbed a few drinks and sat in one of the corners to enjoy them. I got talking to the guy from Liverpool, Alex, who had come in earlier that afternoon. He used to be a mechanical engineer and had quit his job when he started travelling. He had been on the road for quite a while now. I also came to know that William and Rose were not twins as I had previously thought. Rose was just 20 and William was 5 years older to her. We finished our drinks while trying to guess the number of people in the bar at that moment. It was a difficult task because there was not a single seating area and we agreed on a number between 150 and 200.
The Maze Bar
We went to another pub after this one. Linh, the Vietnamese staff from Note Hostel who was accompanying us, took a cab again while this was actually just a 5 minute walk! None other than Rose minded a lot though. There was live music here and it sounded a bit too loud to me initially. The drummer was high but extremely good. I eventually got myself a beer and we all enjoyed the band till it was time to close at midnight.
We headed back to the hostel and made Linh walk the 600 meters despite his laziness. We talked about our favourite Vietnamese food on the way and said goodbye in front of the hostel. I went to mine and sat watching Wales crush Belgium in the Euro cup. This was one of the better matches.
I had slept better today and woke up much more refreshed. There had been no cock-a-doodling in the middle of the night and no girls making a ruckus early in the morning. The young man from Saigon asked me if I wanted to join him for breakfast and sightseeing for the day. Unfortunately I was going to get the free breakfast and then planning to head out of Đà Lạt that day. It would have been interesting to walk around the town with him though. I went to get the breakfast and also booked a ticket to Mũi Né. Rose had suggested that I go to Vung Tau but there was no direct transportation from Đà Lạt. I would have to break my journey in Mũi Né and get another bus from there. I went to the market to withdraw some money from the ATMs and it is a very disturbing task at times. I tried an Eximbank ATM that did not work; then an Agribank did not work; and then a Vietcom refused transaction. The messages are so cryptic that it leaves you wondering whether the problem is with the bank or your card. Eventually the next Agribank worked and I sighed with relief. Then I walked hastily back to the hostel.
The Dutch were also leaving that day. They were making their way northward. Everyone in the hostel killed some time taking photos. Then I checked out of the hostel and sat outside talking to everyone and waiting for the pickup for my bus. The Dutch left first and then Mandy handed me some pamphlets for an English Center that was looking to recruit foreign teachers. She was a manager in one of the centers. I asked her if I could apply. She told me that they preferred native English speakers or ones with some kind of certification but since she knew I had decent command over English, I had a chance. They required a minimum commitment of a month. I told her I would think about it and left it at that for the time being.
Think about it was all I did for the rest of the day. A guy came to pick me up on his motorbike when it was time for the bus. I forgot my jacket right outside the bus when I kept it on a scooter while handing out the ticket. I slept and discussed the offer out with Parul. This would mean serious alterations in my travel plans but it was something that was different from what I did and definitely excited me. I reasoned it as a new experience; I was doing this entire trip for the experiences, then why shut myself to this one just because I had made some travel plans? The bus stopped briefly at a small place for some overpriced food. I slept the rest of the way till Mũi Né. When the bus dropped me, I had made my mind to take up Mandy’s offer.
I sat near the bus service office to look for some viable lodging options nearby. The last bus to Vung Tau had already departed and I would have to stay in the town for the night. The options with better online ratings were seemingly fully booked. There was just one other girl at the office at this time. She was searching for a particular place where her friend was working. She told me that it was a really beautiful hostel right by the beach and they had dorms for 4 USD. I helped her out by offering my phone for her to talk to her friend. It was only after I had agreed that I found out that the place was 20 kms from the town and it would make no sense for me to go that far in the evening just to return early next morning. The girl was Athena, a Canadian with Asian genetics. She had sold her stuff back in Canada and planned to go live with her ex-roommate in Costa Rica, grow and sell weed there and then use the money to travel around. They could even marry so that he could work in Canada. I don’t know whether she will be able to do as she plans but that’s an interesting take on life. She had had a rough week with stuff getting stolen. She had also managed to leave her wallet on the bus and I sat talking to her while the bus returned with it. Then she went to withdraw some money and I decided to check out some cheap dorm options nearby.
I walked into one that was advertising beds for 5 dollars. It turned out to be the same double room on a sharing basis setup. My roommate this time was an English guy from near Manchester. His name was Robert and he was doing south to north on a motorbike. I talked to him for a bit and then took a bath before heading out for some dinner and to enquire for rates to Vung Tau. This town had more Russian signs and the same pestering motobike drivers with their weed peddling offers. I was glad to be staying just a night.
The Russian Town
I was also expecting there to be a sandy beach out here but there was just a concrete embankment and lots of sea food shops next to the sea. These seemed to be extremely popular with the local tourists.
I sat in a cafe next to the hostel and troubled the tripping owner to make me a Ca Phe Sua Da. I chatted back home and did some writing before heading back to the room. Robert and his friends were smoking up outside. Mandy had replied to my message and I finalised a few things with her. My month long visa was about to expire so I needed to do a visa run before joining her center. The thing was that they wanted me to join as soon as possible, so I decided that I would head out straight to Cambodia and come back in a couple of weeks. I could always do Vung Tau and remaining southern Vietnam later. That settled, I got myself a bottle of beer and sat watching a boring Italy-Germany tactical match.
Whether you enjoyed the post or not, do leave a comment!
Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Đà Lạt leg of the trip.