Vietnam: Dalat, Central Highlands

I mentioned in my previous post that I had briefly considered skipping Dalat. I am so so (yes it deserved 2 so’s) glad that I didn’t as this place turned out to be the highlight of Vietnam for me and probably the best part of my travels so far. In addition to the fact that the area was so nice and there was so much to see, I think a big reason for this was the hostel I stayed in, called Tiny Tigers, had some great staff that worked there and their aim seemed to be to help give you bit of an experience rather than just a bed to sleep in. I also met a great mix of people during my stay here.

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I had read up a little about Dalat in my travel guide and apparently it was a mountain based town, built originally by the French during their colonisation of Vietnam, and they started building villas there mainly as a high altitude holiday escape from the oppressive heat and congestion of Saigon and over the years it had just developed from there. When I arrived there, I did actually feel like I had been teleported to some quaint town in the French Alps and it was easy to see their influence here. It was very different to anywhere else I had seen in Vietnam, mainly in terms of the architecture of the buildings.

I took a stroll around the town looking for an ATM and stumbled across a tourist attraction known as “The Crazy House”. This place was indeed pretty crazy and I don’t really have words to describe what it is. Will just let the pictures do the talking.

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After my fairly inactive time in Nha Trang due to the rain, I felt like I wanted to do something in Dalat so when I got back to the hostel I signed up for a countryside motorcycle tour the next day which has almost perfect reviews online. Due to this tour, I was intending to take it easy that night but although there were not many people staying at this hostel it was highly social and they have some pretty friendly staff that work there. I went down to the reception intending to go out for dinner and next thing I knew I was having a few beers with some of the local Vietnamese staff that work at the hostel and also on the motorcycle tours. They told me about the “family meals” the hostel do where for US$3 they cook dinner and everyone from the hostel eats together in a group. I agreed and went upstairs where much to my simultaneous delight and despair I discovered that they offered free beer from 6PM – 7PM. Well I got stuck in of course – when in Rome and all. The Vietnamese guys up there were very entertaining and I also met two sound German guys up there who were also eating and were following a similar route to me. They spoke perfect English and were from Hamburg so as always it was great to meet some fellow travellers.

As seems to be the way when socialising with Vietnamese, it wasn’t long before the rice wine came out and shot after shot was poured with shouts of “Hai, Bai, Ma, Yo” before each drink which I think means One, Two, Three, Cheers. After the meal, the two German guys invited me to go with them to a bar called the Maze Bar. This was a strange bar to say the least and well basically you had to walk through, around and up a maze to get to the roof top bar which was actually quite a challenge. At the top, we met an American guy called Brad and then next thing I knew we were at another bar called Woody’s, with about 10 backpackers from various nationalities who were all staying where the American was – Australia, German, Canadians, Brazilians, Israelis and the American. I was having a really good time chatting to everyone but several beers later and one unnecessary cocktail which made my head spin, I suddenly remembered the early motorbike tour I was on and went home shortly after midnight.

I woke up with a headache and met my guide for the private motorcycle tour. As usual, I hadn’t asked all the important questions when booking my tour and I thought I would have my own motorbike and would be following him so at first I was a little disappointed when he parked me on the back of his motorbike but that disappointment faded throughout the day as it turned out to be one of the best days I have had in Vietnam so far or at least in the top 3. I am not going to give a long narrative about the day – I will just show the day with some pictures and captions.

One of the main reasons the day was good apart from the sights and activities was the guide – he called himself Jimmy Bond and he was very informative, enthusiastic and funny and made everything seem pretty interesting. Also the sun was now finally out and shining in all its mighty glory! It was so nice to feel the sun on my arms and back while riding around. It had been nearly 2 weeks since I had last seen it.

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Jimmy Bond said that he would drive careful as there are too many holes in the road in Vietnam already so he doesn’t want my head to make another one – “the tourists make too many holes in the road” he said. He was a Manchester United fan and it was his dream to one day travel to England and visit Old Trafford.
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First stop of the day – he dropped me off and basically told me to walk up this massive hill and when I got to the top to turn left and meet him further along the road. I was still a bit hungover so this seemed like a challenge.
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HILLTOP SELFIE! I  nearly died walking up this hill but it certainly burned off the hangover.
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It was worth it in the end though because the views of Dalat and the surrounding countryside were epic. I was the only one up there.
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The way down was very slippery. My £80 hiking shoes didn’t seem to be working very well.
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These are coffee trees. I wasn’t really sure if I would have much interest in this until he told me about how they make Weasel coffee which is very popular in Vietnam. I still cannot quite believe this is a thing and am baffled about the whole operation to be honest as I will explain……….
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Basically, they grow these coffee trees and harvest a certain type of coffee bean from them………
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………Then they feed these coffee beans to Weasels and they basically collect the sh*t from the Weasels. They feed them other normal stuff too but give them the coffee beans for desert. It seemed a little cruel keeping them in these cages to produce coffee but apparently they do let them out every day for a long run in a large outside area………..
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This is the weasel sh*t which is cleaned, burned and used to make the coffee.
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Weasel sh*t coffee with a view. I must say this is probably the strongest coffee I have ever tasted. I still couldn’t get my head around the production process that had just been explained to me but it was a bloody good coffee.
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VIew was something special. The guide sat next to me here and we spoke a lot about football. He loved talking about football. Apparently, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs had signed up to train people in Vietnam he told me. I hadn’t heard about that before but googled it and turns out it is true.  They are setting up some sort of Training camp here.
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Next stop was the cricket farm.
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I honestly thought we were just going to see some crickets………
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………..but I should have known that of course I had to eat them too. They tasted as expected – absolutely disgusting.
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Next I was shown how they make the infamous rice wine which I had drunken so much of with Vietnamese people. Turns out you pretty much just boil the rice and somehow the steam comes out and it makes it into alcohol. Not sure quite how that works but hey ho.
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Next was a silk factory. I know I am going to sound really stupid here and deleted this sentence once already but no point in lying in a personal blog – I honestly didn’t know they made silk from worms. I know right. Hope I am not the only one but I probably am. These are silk worm cocoons. If left, they will hatch into worms but here they take the material off them to make silk.
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Lots of silk worm cocoons.
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These people work very hard – 9 hours a day with their hands constantly in hot water. I am not quite sure how the process worked but this was basically where they got the silk threads off the cocoons.
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Lots and lots of silk worm cocoons.
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Next was a visit to a Pagoda. Another Pagoda I thought at first, but these were the most impressive pagoda / Buddha statues I have seen in Vietnam, they were huge and very well crafted.

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Usually you are not allowed to take photos in these places but for some reason it was allowed here.
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At first I was surprised when I saw a swastika on the chest but then I remembered a documentary I had seen many years ago which explained the Swastika was actually used before the Nazi’s in Buddhism as a symbol of spirituality and peace; now a symbol of hate and fascism in the west. This one is at a different angle to the Nazi symbol though, as my guide explained.
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Happy Buddha!

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Next stop was the Elephant Waterfalls. No idea why they were called that.

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They are not so hot on health and safety in Vietnam!

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I was very impressed with these waterfalls so I had to take a selfie………..
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….and then he took me to these and the Elephant Falls seemed pretty tame in comparison. This was Pongour Waterfall and I think my guide said they were the biggest in Vietnam. Don’t quote me on that though.
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When you see a waterfall, you just gotta get that camera out and take a selfie.

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Next stop was the mushroom farm. I didn’t think I could be interested in this but Jimmy Bond didn’t disappoint and I found myself engaged.
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And here are some they prepared earlier.
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Next I found myself in Chicken Village which a small village habited by an ethnic minority people called the Koho Tribe I think. The unusual thing about this village is there is a massive statue of a chicken which they claim to be the biggest statue of a chicken in the world (or the only one I was thinking?). Now this is why it can be good to do a tour sometimes because if I had just passed through myself, I would have just seen a big chicken, got a photo and that would have been the end of that but my guide proceeded to tell me a fascinating story about Chicken Village and how this Chicken came to be here. I have no idea if the story was true or if it was just a legend but basically in this village, the culture is that women are the dominant sex and the women are always the ones who would ask a man to marry them rather than the man asking. When a man agrees to any proposal, he has to leave his birth family permanently and move in to live with the brides family. For some reason, he also loses contact with his birth family and now is only a part of the brides family. For this, the brides family must pay the grooms family with a gift, usually chickens, which my guide called a dowdry. If the brides family couldn’t pay this dowdry, then the bride would have no husband. The story here is that there was a particular couple many years ago and the brides family couldn’t pay the gift to the grooms wife as they wanted a certain type of rare chicken so the bride herself sneaked off from her family and went into the forest / mountains to look for said chicken so she could marry her love but never returned. The proposed groom went after her when she didn’t return and he also  disappeared. They were both found dead in separate places some months later as they had got lost and died from the elements. After this the village abolished the dowdry system and this statue was built as a tribute to that couple. I have just told the facts of the story but the way my guide told this Romeo and Juliet type of story was so interesting and captivating that I looked again at the big chicken with wonder and awe, whereas before the story I had just felt amusement and slight indifference.
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Next I met a local villager in a shop in Chicken Village who was weaving something on a machine which looked incredibly complicated. My guide explained they have slightly browner skin then normal Vietnamese as they probably originated in Malaysia or Indonesia.
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Next was a walk round a beautiful lake.
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I look quite rough in this picture, it was quite a heavy night and I do remember feeling very tired at this point!

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This was my guide Jimmy Bond. Definitely glad I did the tour, although it was mainly just seeing the usual sights, I think it was the guide that made the day. I mean he even made me have interest in a mushroom farm. The scenery around Dalat is well worth the trip too.

Another noteworthy encounter of the day was when we had lunch after the Elephant Falls. Inside the café, my guide got chatting to another guide who was with an American traveller called Miles, so I got chatting to him and he said that he had recently been to Myanmar. I was on the fence about Myanmar but during that half hour lunch he completely sold it to me as he spoke about the place with such enthusiasm that I think I am definitely going to make the place a part of my trip. My cousin had also said it was one of the highlights of their travels. He said I should start in Mandalay and go south to Rangoon. The reason he liked it was because it is the most beautiful country he has ever been in and still untouched by tourism so now is the time to see it. He also said it was like going back in time to the 60’s. I am loving getting tips like this off other travellers and using them to guide me on my travels, I was actually in Dalat due to a tip from a Polish guy from a Russian bar in Nha Trang and having a great time.

After the motorcycling tour, I went up again for the family dinner. There were two new arrivals, a couple of girls from Israel. The rice wine was out again and after a few “Mai, Bai, Mo, Yo’s” and a game or two of pool the German guys told me that the backpackers we met from last night were going to a big Karaoke bar a bit out of the town.

I must say I was expecting this to be a kind of Vietnamese, local Karaoke bar I had seen so many of with plastic stools and a rudimentary sound system. Instead, when we arrived at “King Karaoke”, I saw a very large, modern, highly sophisticated Karaoke bar like you might see in Japan or Hong Kong. We were taken to a private room which had the full works – luxury leather seats, several microphones, very large high-tech looking speakers and an I-pad to select your songs or order drinks from and several ice buckets. I murdered several classics in that room but there was a good crowd and everyone got involved. As well as the ones from last night, there was also an English couple from Nottingham there too. The American guy, Brad, was completely over the top and very funny.

After the Karaoke bar, we made our way to a nightclub and when we went inside we discovered that it was a proper locals club – it was packed and we were the only Western group in there. This attracted a lot of interest, I mean the whole club turned and stared at us for several minutes, and quite a few of the local guys came up and tried to dance with us. For some reason though, there were about 7 security staff surrounding our group though and they seemed to want to keep us separate from the Vietnamese crowd which was a shame. Not sure why they felt the need to do that exactly, anyway it was a good night!

On my very last day in Dalat, I was feeling pretty exhausted so I had a bit of a chill out day and I thought I would skip the family meal that night because I knew it would most likely turn into another drinking session and I needed a night off. I took a walk around the town looking for somewhere to eat when to my surprise, whilst walking quite a bit of distance from the hostel, a motorbike pulled up beside me and I heard “Daniel, come on get on bike please, we go for tour of town and night market”. It was the hotel receptionist who had driven around the town looking for me! Turns out you were not allowed to have a night to yourself when staying at this hostel. Next minute, I was on the back of this bike and on a night tour of Dalat. I am really glad they did come and get me though as I met a sound Canadian couple and a nice French girl who was travelling solo, and had a very enjoyable tour around Dalat which included a night market, stopping for local soup, a visit to a bakery for some nice cakes, a stop for a coffee and then a couple of cheap, cold beers on some steps in the town where all the locals hung out. The guide then asked if we wanted to go to the pub but the other travellers didn’t really fancy it which was probably a good thing because 3 hangovers in a row would have been a bit nasty.

Yeah, Dalat takes the top spot of the trip so far for sure.

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Beer stop on the steps where the locals hang out.

Next stop: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

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