Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Mountains and motorbikes

Sleeper buses are significantly less comfortable than sleeper trains. Once again, I'm very glad to be a short person, as the beds on the bus are basically reclining seats with a sort of footlocker underneath the seat in front, where you can fit a very small bag, and your feet. Total length of each unit probably less than 6 feet.
My travel buddies for this trip were Daniella, Niamh and Andrew - the former going as far as Na Trang, the rest of us changing buses there for Da Lat.

Niamh had no foot locker on her seat, so a sling system was improvised out of a sarong in an attempt to ensure that erratic driving didn't catapult her into the lap of another passenger.
Glad to be skipping Na Trang - the Vietnamese Benidorm, as far as I can tell - after getting in at 5.30am, we waited for the bus to Da Lat over an iced coffee, while watching Na Trang wake up. (Note: I loathe iced coffee. Vietnamese iced coffee is pretty good. It tastes mainly of chocolate.)

We were all expecting Da Lat to be a small town, given that it's up in the mountains - it's not. It's a beautiful, very European-looking city.
All of us were staying at the Dalat Family Hostel. New, and without many reviews online, it was something of a gamble - albeit that the few reviews were outstanding. They were accurate. It's an amazing place, run by fantastic people: Anni, Phuong and Mama Bear (Anni's mother). Anni and Phuong are natural teases, and very affectionate and open - they seem to just thoroughly enjoy having a house full of Westerners to wind up, but they do so in such a lovely way! Dinner there is $2, and everyone staying eats there. The atmosphere is amazing.

The first day, after arriving, we wandered around town with another new arrival - Tom - helping him take photos for Christmas cards for his friends:

We decided to hire motorbikes the next day, and take a tour around the surrounding area. At dinner that evening, our group of intrepid explorers grew to 8, as other guests decided to join in. Duly, in the morning, 6 bikes arrived: Niamh was pillion with the guide, and I rode with Andrew, with Tom, Hamish, Josh, Aline, and Michi going solo.

Taking photos from a moving bike is quite tricky, but I did my best. The cloud lifted, and it was the best weather there had been for any of us in a week or so.
Da Lat is the only place in Vietnam with the climate for flower cultivation, and so supplies the whole country with fresh flowers, as well as having some of the best climate for coffee plantation. The weasel-poo coffee was beyond everyone's budget, but we sat and had some of the second-best stuff - moka-bean coffee is amazing.

Elephant Falls was the next stop, and the last before lunch:

The weather threatened to turn after that, and as much of the road back had roadworks, our guide decided to shorten the exploration a little. We nipped to a rice wine distillery:

Rice wine and whisky distilling: same same but different

and then to a silk factory, before heading back to Da Lat.
Niamh left the next day to return home, Andrew delayed his flight to stay on in Vietnam a few more days, and Tom, Andrew and me kept hold of our bikes to go exploring the next day, too. Hamish has bought a bike, which he's riding to Ha Noi, so he came along with us again. Same same but different, we headed out on our own to try to reach a national park close to Da Lat. The roads started off excellent - smooth tarmac and twisting bends around lakes and mountains. They degraded after about 20km though, so we changed plans and ended up going off route and exploring. We found one small town, with a friendly local who gave his name as 'Handsome', who we met in a coffee shop. He led us to where we had lunch, and although we paid massively over the odds for it (probably 3 times what a local would have paid), I had a good time enough not to mind. It was still only about $3, so it's not too bad when that happens. It just reminds you to look out for it.

We stayed one more night in Da Lat, before getting the bus to Saigon on Christmas eve. The last day, we hung around the hostel, helped with dinner, and got taught smatterings of Vietnamese by Mama Bear. In the evening, Phuong showed us around Da Lat, including taking us for hot milk and cakes at a cafe - the milk was some kind of green bean derivative - we think maybe edemame - and was utterly delicious. I need to find what it was and get hold of some when I'm home. Even if I have to import it myself. It's that good.

I don't have the time to stay longer in Da Lat. But I'm going to miss this place:

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