Big Question Marks

Friday, March 13, 2009

Kitsch in the Mountains: Dalat

After a few weeks of sweating out the muggy days and nights in Saigon, a visit to the charming mountain town of Dalat was a refreshing change (in temperature and in pace).

As soon as we stepped off the bus ($11 AUD/$6 USD for the six-hour ride!), we felt like we'd reached another country. Surrounded by tall mountains, the "small town" of about 185,000 people is built in tiers, so looking around there are layers and layers of colourful homes everywhere. It's got a bit of a European Alps feel to it, with stone steps and old-looking buildings. Without much of a search, we found a decent guesthouse on one of the main streets for $8 USD a night with a big balcony overlooking the street-- an excellent vantage point for watching a torrential downpour the next afternoon we learned!

Dalat is a bit of a honeymoon spot and weekend getaway for Saigon residents, evident in the many dimly-lit, French-style restaurants around town. It's also a place that loves its kitsch, and in embracing the cooler climate, we even saw a few Swiss-chalet looking hotels (one complete with plastic snow and icicles hanging from the roof). We wandered around the street market in the centre of the town and found everyone milling about in thick sweaters, scarves and mittens (OK, it was cold, but not that cold!) One of the nicest parts about Dalat for us as well was that despite being a tourist town, many of the visitors were Vietnamese, and we felt like we could blend into the background more than other places without being bombarded by sales pitches from everyone we met.

Dalat is also somewhat of an artist's spot, so on our second day we took a walk to visit a real architectural wonder-- Hang Nga Crazy House. Nope, not a lunatic asylum, but a bizarre creation by a Vietnamese architect who had the cash and inspiration to build a very Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Gaudi complex which is part hotel, part playground, and part tourist attraction. It's a tribute to the nature Madame Hang Nga loves, with the structures shaped as giant trees, with fishponds, toadstools, and giant concrete giraffes hanging out together. We spent hours exploring the many themed animal-themed hotel rooms and climbing windy bridges between the concrete "branches" of the zany artifical trees. One of the other cool things is when we asked the lady selling admission tickets what the house was made of, she replied, "I made it from concrete..." and we realized it was the architect and mastermind herself, Mrs Hang Nga, humbly hanging out in the ticket booth, answering questions and selling admissions-- amazing!

We noticed some black storm clouds coming in thick and fast and just as we arrived back at our hotel to drop off some things, the rain started. There was so much water coming down the street in front had become a series of lakes and people were madly trying to get shelter and get off their motorbikes. We witnessed a few kamikaze trucks zooming down the road, splashing all the way to the buildings (and anyone unlucky enough to be in between!). It was quite the sight... and of course, in an hour, was all over and sunshine again!

The next morning was all gorgeous blue skies and we seized the opportunity to rent a motorbike ($6 USD for an automatic) to explore the sights in the hills outside of town. There are countless motorbike riders selling personal tours of the surrounds (the Easy Riders, they call themselves) but as we like to do things our own way-- and were sick to death of their pestering-- we opted for our own wheels. It wasn't long before we were off the map and totally lost in the mountains, trying to find our way to the scenic-sounding Tiger Falls. We zoomed past the proper turnoff about four times and the villagers on either end had probably seen enough of us by the time we made it... but it was a beautiful way to take in the countryside-- Adrian as the driver and Dayle as the hand-signaller. :) We did a bit of off-roading-- Vietnam mountain roads are not as smoothly paved as Thai mountain roads, it seems!-- and eventually found our way deep into a valley to the Tiger Falls, named so apparently from a legend that there once was a mean tiger who lived there. All we found was an old man, a few cute humpy dogs, and a big concrete tiger to climb inside of (oh Dalat!), but it was good times. We finished off our cruising at the "Valley of Love", a cheeseball Disneyland-for-couples attraction that's a bit hard to visit seriously-- two-person swings, naked statues, heart-shaped painted wooden frames to take photos inside of, staff dressed up as cowboys-- well, of course we opted for the super-cheese and squeaked our way into the Valley of Love's lake on a rusty, creaking swan-shaped paddleboat...

And just when we had had our fill of cheesiness for the day and were going to make a quick escape from the "Valley"... we found ourselves with a flat front tire! Oh damn, we thought, how much will this cost us? And however will we explain this, in our feeble Vietnamese, to the hotel staff who rented us the bike ? Well, it turns out that there are motorbike mechanics everywhere, and it takes about 15 minutes and costs about $1.50 AUD to fix a flat in Vietnam. Woohoo! Now that's true love!