Vietnam: Dalat

After the pollution and chaos of Ho Chi Minh City, it was nice to go somewhere completely different: Dalat, an old French hill station town in the southern highlands. When I arrived, I hauled myself up one of the many hills to my hostel, and was pleasantly surprised at how lovely it was. Nice big dorms with lots of natural light, comfy beds with privacy curtains, a hangout area, great breakfast and fab staff. I can highly recommend Mooka’s Home.

The hangout area mural at Mooka’s Home

Bags dumped, I teamed up with an English guy who’d also just checked in and we wandered into town to explore. We headed for Dalat’s most famous attraction: the Hang Nha Crazy House. It’s a building (which also serves as a hotel – the rooms are really weird and cool, Google it) designed by a Vietnamese architect who studied in Russia, and it was built as a statement against the irresponsible use of finite materials and resources. It’s absolutely bizarre. The first thing you see when you walk in is a giant giraffe on the side of a part of the building which looks like it’s melting. There are a series of stairways and bridges and weird little compartments joining it all together, all in different materials, colours and shapes. I’ve never been anywhere like that before. For 50,000₫, it’s worth the trippy stumble.

Trapped in tha Hang Nga Crazy House…
…a truly weird and wonderful place

Managing to find our way out of a building that could easily trap you forever, we wandered past the lake into the town centre, and stumbled upon the market. It’s much smaller than the others I’ve been to so far, but still with the array of Vietnamese teas, coffees and miscellaneous dried fruit of every colour in the rainbow. We walked on and found a little bakery for lunch, getting a banh mi for the walk back up to the hostel. Aside from the usual chaotic motorbike driving, the city definitely has an old European feel about it, paired with some fresh mountain air. It’s a nice place to be.

In the evening, I got involved with what the hostel calls ‘family dinners’: three times a week they put on a rooftop bbq for anyone in the hostel who wants to join (though I wasn’t quite prepared for what ‘rooftop’ might mean in Dalat. It was much cooler up there than anywhere I’d been so far, which made it pleasant for daytime wandering, but pretty cold after the sun goes down! I think I might need to buy more clothes as I head further north…) They prepared a spread of chicken, pork, beef and vegetables with some lovely crusty rolls and some cold beers. They then have embedded hot plates in the long table, almost like mini built-in charcoal bbqs. They were fired up and we were given tongs and told to get stuck in. It was all delicious, and a great thing to join as a solo traveler: I got chatting to people from Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands. It seems a few hostels in Dalat might offer something similar; I’d recommend looking for it in hostel research if you’re traveling solo.

The bbq spread at one of Mooka’s rooftop ‘family dinners’

The next day, I decided to make the most of one of the main draws to Dalat: the outdoor activities. I teamed up with some German brothers I’d met at dinner and a Swedish friend of theirs to go cycling. We’d woken up to torrential rain, but luckily it stopped by the time we got started! Managing to swerve the motorbikes and get out of the city, we first cycled to the Datanla waterfall. Here, we descended to the falls in style on the ‘rollercoaster’: a fairground-style brake-cart on rails. Good fun whizzing down through the forest, and I successfully put the GoPro accessories to the test to capture it.

The waterfall was relatively busy with the usual Chinese selfie-takers and some tour groups, but it was quite picturesque. We clambered around in the spray before we headed back to the rollercoaster cars – which handily hauled us back up to the start. At 50,000₫ for one-way and 60,000₫ return, it’s a no-brainer…

At the Datanla waterfall. Feeling short.

We had some lunch in the restaurant at the top, which had some great views of the surrounding woodland and valley. Then we hopped back on the bikes and sailed down to another waterfall called Prenn. This one wasn’t quite so pretty, and was surrounded by something trying to be an amusement park: elephant rides, a fairground-style archery stall and a weird little plant house. We avoided this like the plague, opting to climb steeply up into the woodland opposite the waterfall where there were three little temples. They were very pretty and well-kept, though all quite bizarre as they had several golden statues of Ho Chi Minh sitting like Buddha. Seemed a bit of a contradiction in terms for a communist country, but all part of the mystery I suppose! If you have a motorbike, I’d recommend going to Elephant Falls instead of Prenn from what I’ve heard from other travellers, but it’s quite far to cycle, so depends on your wheels. Statued-out, we headed back to the bikes to start the journey back. Which was to be a challenge. The 11km to Datanla and Prenn from the city had all been glorious downhill, which left a daunting return journey. We took a different road which had less traffic, and sweated our way through a continuous 12km climb back up to Dalat. We only stopped once, and I was quite proud not to be at the back of the group as the only woman! When we made it back to the hostel, I had a nice hot shower and fell into my bed to relax for a bit – it’s the most exertion I’d done since I got ill so I was pretty exhausted, but it felt good to have done some exercise.

Still smiling, 2km into a 13km climb. Ignorance is bliss…

The following day, I stayed in active mode and went white water rafting. I knew I wanted to do it here as I haven’t been since Costa Rica in 2014, but I couldn’t find anyone else in the hostel who wanted to go and it has to be a minimum group size of 2. I contacted one of the adventure travel agencies in the city, Pine Track Adventures, which had really good reviews and they put me in touch with an American woman who was also solo and looking for a raft-mate. If you want to go rafting as a solo traveler and have limited time in Dalat, it’s worth contacting travel agencies in advance to see if there are any other groups you can join. Pine Track Adventures, Phat Tire and Highland Sport are good places to start. Picked up after breakfast, we drove about an hour and a half south of Dalat to the river, inflated the rafts, had our safety briefing and were off! The water was cold but luckily we’d been given wetsuit jackets to go over clothes and under life jacket which really helped.

We got paddling, and as luck would have it, we fell out of the raft hard on the first big rapid. Took a bit of a bashing to the leg and knee, but luckily the cuts weren’t too deep. They doused us in iodine, and we had a rest and a picnic of bananas and coconut cake before we set off again. We were on the river for another 2 hours, and luckily didn’t come out again, though my pal did manage to smack me in the face with her paddle on one rapid, so I’m due a nice bruise to the nose. Just to add to my other ailments of late.

Wipeout cam:

When we’d finished the course, we towelled off and put on a deliciously warm and dry set of clothes, before we were driven to a place nearby for lunch. We had traditional Hanoi-style food: sour fish soup (still yet to find out why it’s called sour!), rice, crispy chicken, vegetables, pork ribs and omelette. A bit of a random spread, but all very nice and filled the adrenaline hunger hole after a few hours on the chilly river.

We drove back to the city and I enjoyed a long hot shower before settling onto my bunk with a podcast for a bit of a rest. I packed ready to leave bright and early the next morning, praying my clothes would dry out a little overnight. Naturally, they didn’t, and as I write I’m in overnight transit to my next stop, so my bag is going to smell real good when I open it…

Next up, a quaint serving of history by lantern-light…

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 7, including an Irish girl who ruthlessly planned the rest of my Vietnam itinerary for me.
Interaction was: like an audio version of Lonely Planet, in the language of good craic.

One Woman and her Backpack x

Follow me on Instagram @ellielfield

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