Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Da Lat - Same Same But Very Different

As our bus made its way to Da Lat I noticed the scenery gradually changing. Everything became a lot greener, the rice fields were replaced with greenhouses and the flat ground gave way to rolling hills. As soon as I stepped off the bus I noticed that it was considerably cooler, I was even slightly chilly in my shorts and T-shirt. This was a nice relief and also gave us the freedom to be able to walk to our hotel rather than relying on a taxi.

We did not have too much trouble finding our hotel, since it is a lovely pink 4-storey colonial house on top of a hill, appropriately named Villa Pinkhouse. Michael and I were soon introduced to the hotel's flamboyant and eccentric tour guide called Rot. He is famed for his motorbike tours of the country-side and for taking guests out for drunken karaoke. Unfortunately we didn't get to take him up on those offers but he was very helpful in pointing out the sites and good places to eat. He also gave us an ENORMOUS room with 3 double beds, since they had overbooked and did not have any double rooms left. This was fine by us since we decided we would sleep in a different bed for each night!

We didn't really do anything worth mentioning on the first afternoon, apart from trying some interesting meals for lunch. Rot had given us a map of the immediate area, with a bakery, a vegetarian restaurant and a Vietnamese restaurant marked on it, and we had intended to go to the Vietnamese restaurant. When we saw beef, chicken and seafood on the menu we thought we were in the right place. Apart from a slightly funny taste, Michael's marinated beef was spot-on, however my fake prawns and chicken were a dead giveaway. Sure enough, we double-checked Rot's map and realised that we were in the vegetarian restaurant!

The next day we started off with a scenic train ride on the Cremaillere, which is a partly restored cog railway that was built by the French between 1903 and 1932. It used to go all the way to the coast, but was closed in the 1960's, due to either American bombing or sabotage by the Viet Cong, depending on who you listen to. Now the train ride and the beautiful colonial station building serves as a tourist attraction. It was quite pretty with views of the hills and greenhouses, but nothing spectacular. The train line stops at a village called Trai Mat which we were planning on seeing, however a torrential downpour kept everyone confined to the old-fashioned carriages.

After the train we went to the Hang Nga Guesthouse and Art Gallery, better known as the Crazy House. I don't know quite how to explain it, kind of like a Disney movie made into a hotel. Designed by a Vietnamese architect who studied in Russia, there are about 12 rooms spaced out around the complex, which is a crazy construction of ferro concrete, reminiscent of an enormous, sprawling tree-house. The rooms have different themes based on various animals, like the bear room, the termite room etc. One even had a really creepy kangaroo with glowing red eyes. Here are some pictures so that you can get an idea of what it is like, but the photos don't quite do it justice.

After the crazy house we walked into the centre of town to get something to eat. Looking down onto the street from the restaurant, we could see a mass of people further down the road. After dinner we went down to see what all the fuss was about, and found a giant pedestrian market which took up a few blocks. Apparently this happens every weekday at nighttime, and all of the traffic is blocked off which must be a nuisance for local businesses.

On the way back from the markets, we noticed a commotion ahead of us on one side of the street. Not wanting to get involved, we crossed to the other side of the street. I noticed a large oil spill on the road as we were crossing, and as I stepped over it I saw a motocycle helmet. Before I had finished stepping over the puddle I realised that it was actually a very large pool of blood, and that the commotion on the road must have been due to an accident. I turned to tell Michael but he also had just stepped over it. Later he mentioned that he had also seen a pair of motocycle goggles on the ground. Until we got to Vietnam we had not seen a single accident during our travels. Now, in the space of nearly 6 weeks we have seen 2 very serious accidents, which makes us believe the statistic that 35 die every day on the roads in Vietnam.

The next day, Michael had intended to do one of Rot's famous motorbike tours, however we had not been able to get hold of him, so had the day to ourselves. We started off with an unfortunate incident where we were refused entry to a local restaurant for being foreigners. Michael had a go at the manager as he refused to admit that we were not allowed in because we were Caucasian. He left with the remark that it was their loss and we would take our money elsewhere. Imagine if I opened up a restaurant in any western country and refused entry to all Asians?? I would probably be sued and then lynched - and rightfully so! What makes them any different??

After that, we took a taxi up to the local cable car for a spectacular view of the town and surrounding countryside. On the other side was an interesting looking temple which we walked up to. However, there was a giant drawing out the front of a scantily dressed Caucasian couple with a huge red cross through it, which we took to mean that we were not welcome.

Feeling a fair amount of ill-will toward Vietnam in general, we made our way back to our hotel and did not venture out until dinner time, where we headed toward a western restaurant reviewed in the Lonely Planet. I tried the BBQ deer, which was very tasty but a bit chewy.

The next day we boarded a bus to Mui Ne, having somewhat enjoyed our stay in Dalat. However the discrimination left a bad taste in our mouths, and I would say that the only worthwhile thing worth seeing was the Crazy House. Normally it would be a very attractive city as there is a beautiful lake with nice restaurants and pathways etc. However, when we were there the lake had been drained so that they could build a new bridge. It was a real shame as the enormous hole in the middle of town is a real blight on the landscape. Overall I would say that Dalat is probably not worth the extremely long, dangerous and very bumpy bus ride required to get there.

On a side note, the heading of this article is a reference to a popular saying over here; "same same but different". It can be used in many contexts, for example, when asked whether a watch is a real Rolex, the salesman might reply "yes, same same but different". It can mean anything, but usually means that something is similar but with certain differences. With typical Vietnamese humour, if something is completely different they will call it "same same but very different".


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