HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Da Lat Days: The Town and the Trek

Da Lat was one of the last well-known places in Vietnam that I hadn't been yet, so deciding to head up there over my long weekend was a no-brainer. Located nearly 5,000 ft (1,500m) above sea level in the Central Highlands, Da Lat is famous for its mild climate and hilly terrain. The lower temperatures mean produce like strawberries and artichokes, which can't be grown in tropical southern Vietnam, are widely available in town. The area first became known when the French began to build villas in the town to escape from Saigon's oppressive summer heat. Today it is an extremely popular tourist destination, especially among domestic tourists, but it is well worth a visit for foreigners as well.

Da Lat, which could either be considered a large town or a small city, is surrounded by hills and low mountains that offer a wide array of outdoor activities: canyoning, trekking, mountain biking, etc. The French legacy is definitely noticeable in the rather European feel (at least for Vietnam) of the streets, and the Vietnamese have even built their own mini-Eiffel Tower, overlooking the central lake.
I went with my friend Lindsay, and our overnight sleeper bus left Saigon's District 5 at 9:30pm on Friday. While the sleeper option on the bus was definitely preferable to a normal bus, the 'pod' that you are given to 'sleep' in isn't exactly big enough for someone of my frame. After a few hours of fitful rest we were deposited into the crisp air of middle-of-the-night Da Lat.

After waking up the owner of the hotel we had booked (the HIGHLY recommended Thien An) we checked in and passed out for a few more hours. Once we got going that morning we walked into the center of town - the weather was amazing. We walked around the lake for a bit, fending off people trying to sell us crap at nearly every step, before stopping at a lakeside cafe for a drink. Storm clouds were moving in, and it looked like the afternoon would be unpleasant.

Just as we left the cafe the rain began, so we jumped into a taxi and told the driver to go to the central market, He laughed, and when I looked ahead I realized it was about 100 meters away. I sheepishly tipped him and we hurried into the sprawling market, which featured everything: dried fruit from the area; row after row of clothing stalls; and in the butcher section pig eyeballs, removed from their owner's body, were staring up at us from the stainless steel counters.

After grabbing a quick lunch at one of the food stalls we wandered back outside. The rain had slacked off, but 10 minutes later a torrential downpour began. We had booked an overnight trek ahead of time, and we were supposed to leave at 4pm. I called the trekking company and asked if we could switch it to the next day, since we didn't have much rain gear. The owner assured us that most of the trekking would take place the following morning, and we could borrow rain jackets anyway. After some hemming and hawing, we decided to just go ahead and chance it.

The guys from Groovy Gecko picked us up at 4 and drove us outside of town to a drop-off point by a lake. By this point the rain had stopped (fortunately, because the 'rain gear' they lent us came in the form of two paper-thin 5,000 dong ponchos), and we hiked 30 minutes along a muddy path to a cluster of bungalows scattered around a big central building overlooking the lake.
our kick-ass bungalow for the night

At 6 we headed to the main building for a huge dinner. We met our guide, Tung, as well as Axel and Ollie, two young Swedish dudes who are traveling through Southeast Asia on their gap year between high school and university.
After that we joined the people that were working/hanging out there and were immediately offered shots of rice wine, quickly putting the kibosh on my plans for this to be an alcohol-free trip. Either this version of rice wine was weak, or my tolerance has gotten dangerously high, because after about 10 shots I was feeling pretty normal. Although the scrawny young Vietnamese guys were faring much worse. There were 10 Vietnamese in addition to us four foreigners, and only two or three of the locals spoke conversational English. Ms. Hoa, the middle-aged matron of the place and the main raconteur, spooled up story after story that kept everyone entranced...except I couldn't understand a lick of it because she only spoke in rapid Vietnamese. Still, she loved us, and it was a great time.
me and the gregarious Ms. Hoa
whoever took this picture was far too drunk to use the zoom function
As the Vietnamese headed to bed, Lindsay and I played cards with the Swedes. At 9:30 someone turned off the generator that powered all of the lights, so we were basically forced to go to bed. It was pitch black out, and freakishly quiet.

I awoke naturally at 6:30 on Sunday morning to a gorgeous morning over the lake. This is what I wrote at the time: Rays of sunlight filter through the needles of the skinny, tall pine trees that shade the area. Evaporating dew catches the light. The placid blue lake reflects forests and hills as the horses we had seen the previous day frolick on its shore. There is no sound but the chirping of insects and the calls of birds answering each other through the trees. The sky is perfectly clear.

We ate breakfast and hit the trail at 9am, with a 12km (7.5 mile) 'jungle trek' ahead of us. A little ways in the guide, Tung, warned us to keep an eye out for leeches, something I had never been told before. Sure enough, 10 minutes later, I found one drawing blood from my right ankle. It didn't hurt at all, but it was tricky to remove it from my skin. After that we had to stop roughly every 10 minutes to check for leeches, and I received three more bites on the right ankle, while also having to pull at least half a dozen of the creatures off my shoes. Other than that, the trek was great, and after three hours of nothing but green surroundings, muddy footing, and peaceful quiet we were finished. The last stretch took us between fields of growing fruits and vegetables.

checking for leeches
checking for leeches again

While this certainly wasn't the best trek I've ever been on, it was still really enjoyable. Any chance to get a taste of the outdoors is relished by us Saigon-dwellers, and in this area the adventure didn't disappoint. We headed back to town for a shower and a bit of relaxation before doing more exploring. More on that later.


  1. Ah dear Dalat - I rather think of it as my "Asian Seattle". Indeed, my goal is to settle there when my EFL contract expires in July. The weather is so very similar to my beloved Seattle - I LOVE being able to wear FLEECE! ;)

    1. I was wondering if many (or any) expats live in Dalat. I really liked it there, but I don't think I could live there. The weather is fantastic to be sure!

  2. Great write up and photos on Dalat...I plan to head there for a few days the next time I go to Vietnam!

    1. Thanks, I'm sure you'll enjoy it. Was your recent trip here your first time in Vietnam?

    2. Yeah it was...first time at age 35! I was born here in the States, so with my recent trip, it was the first time I met with relatives outside my immediate family. It was quite a trip (no pun intended) and culture shock. My Vietnamese isn't that great, but I've been trying to self-study the last couple years in preparation before my trip. It did help!

    3. Yea I imagine that did help a bit - it's good that you were finally able to visit!