Friday, December 22, 2006

Day 06 - Destination Dalat


Dalat: hill station destination for the French, honeymoon destination for the Vietnamese, holiday destination for us.

Nestled in the rolling verdant hills just north east of Saigon, Dalat is a world apart from the humid, heady life of its big brother Ho Chi Minh City. Our flight left at 7:45 am and only took 45 minutes. Shame it took us longer than that to get out of the airport but that was due to me getting confused about whether we'd asked the hotel to send their car for us or not. In retrospect, I don't think I did. But at the time, I could have sworn I had and I wasn't happy. Because of the hills, Dalat is nearly an hour away from its airport by car and we were left with no option but to get a taxi.

We wrestled with the touts until we found a guy who didn't seem to be as pushy as the rest. Our plan was to take in two of the many waterfalls that Dalat is famed for and then head for our hotel. As these waterfalls were nearer the airport than town, this seemed a good idea. And it was.

Our guide was a young careful driver but he spoke almost no English at all. Helpfully though, he lent us his copy of English for Taxi Drivers and, as Vietnamese is written in Roman script (thanks, again, to missionaries), we were able to use some Vietnamese with him. The book would have been useful for the whole trip and we wished we had our own copy - more for the humour element than actual language value. Beginning with a section entitled Accosting, the book was a riot from start to finish.

In the section Riding Tandem on Honda one of the phrases that the authors expected a foreigner would be likely to say was "I don't want to be hospitalized by your aggressiveness." to which the appropriate reply, with transliteration to help the driver say it in English was, "Don't worry I am first rate Honda driver. Be calm. I never risk my life and yours for nothing." It was beyond our ability in Vietnamese to clarify exactly what he would risk our lives for, but that was probably just as well.

The transliteration for the English was a bit haphazard. Take the question Is that the front gate? To help the taxi-driver pronounce this, it was written as I-zo dat da fo-rona ghe-to? Foreigner ghetto? There were other gems too: I can't speek well English: you're telling me! and the rather unhealthy sounding How could I contract you? Somehow, using just this, we managed to keep talking until well after lunchtime and thankfully we didn't contract anyone in the process.

We wanted to visit two waterfalls we'd heard about. As one was a pale reflection of the other, I'll only bother to describe that one. This was Pongour Falls and after a thirty minute drive on an appalling road through fields of cows and corn, we arrived there. We didn't really think of Vietnam as a place of waterfalls and weren't expecting that much. So we were pretty much blown away by the view when we finally got down to it.

The view as you see it end-on at the bottom of the steps down to Pongour Falls.

Sheena takes in the view.

Stretching over 100 metres the falls cascaded over several terraces to create a myriad of smaller falls and, to top this off, at the far end, a huge burst of water plunged into an inaccessible pool. We wish we'd spent longer there and not bothered with the other one. This was very simply water falling over a rock and was so forgettable we've forgotten the name of it. Apparently, the government is on to this. Next year they'll be building a hydro-electric powerstation there and that'll flood the valley. I wish China took this approach to dam-making and only flooded forgettable landscapes.

Early afternoon we arrived at the Minh Tam Hotel. Set amid gardens with some very exotic plants and hydrangeas so big they sagged onto the ground under the weight of their blooms, the hotel was a former colonial building with high ceilings, heavy wooden doors and great big thick walls to keep out the chill of the night and the heat of the day. For $20 a night, not bad at all.

The view from our balcony.

Never seen a turquoise flower like this before. Really amazing flower.

That hydrangea big enough for you?

We walked into town later. I have to say, we really liked Dalat. One of the main reasons was that the place was cram full of tourists. Now, I know this may sound confusing; tourists usually detest tourists more than any other lifeform. But while tourists elsewhere (I hesitate to use the cliche "traveller") are foreign i.e. just like us, in Dalat they're mostly Vietnamese. Which means dollars get passed over in the rush for dong (for this is the currency in Vietnam - and many a laugh it gets from the Korean visitor for ddong in Korean means poop!).

So, we enjoyed a relatively hassle-free amble around town. Imagine Disneyland without a touch of creative foresight and you've pretty much imagined what Dalat has to offer the domestic tourist: swan-shaped pedaloes on a man-made lake, tritely-named Valleys of Love and over-hyped cafes and restaurants promising the romantic dinner that seals the wedding to set the marriage on course for Destination Happiness... but I digress and choke back bile at the same time.

If you can avoid the tack that is the Dalat the Vietnamese come for, and we did, it is a really nice place to be in. Decent places to eat and drink, quaint-ish streets to walk around, a ton of colonial French architecture and countryside that is very much worth exploring (more of that tomorrow). In retrospect, we'd have skipped Saigon and the Mekong completely and come straight here. It was the first place we agreed we wanted to come back to.

But we were having a bit of a cash-flow problem. I'd underbudgeted considerably for some reason and so we were on a prowl for places that took Visa. Finding one, and considering we hadn't had any lunch at all, we settled on a nice long evening meal that started around 4pm.

Walking back to our hotel, we passed along an avenue of some of the biggest French houses in the town, almost all derelict but preserved (possibly to be restored soon?) Sodium street lighting seemed fitting for these dead monuments to imperial rule.

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VNA Update

Well, we're back with the answers you've all been waiting for (see earlier post on Vietnam Airlines (VNA)).

Actually we only have one of the answers to the two questions we challenged ourself to answer on our last flight out on VNA. Unfortunately, what we actually got on was not a VNA plane at all but Lao Airlines so please forgive us for not finding out what was actually in a VNA sandwich. It's probably more fitting that we never know actually as it was pretty indescribable anyway.

What we can tell you though is that the three individuals banned from ever being served by VNA were all banned for "joking" about having bombs in their bags. In each case the flight was cancelled and, according to our source in Hanoi, they claimed that they were using the word "bomb" to refer, not to explosives but to money in actual fact. Likely story. As a result, they were taken to court, fined and banned from ever using VNA again.

We did go to the airline office to preorder a vegetarian meal this time in an effort to avoid the VNA sandwich. When we checked in, we enquired as to whether our request had been fulfilled."Ah yes," beamed a check-in clerk obviously in the running, if not the favourite, for the happiest employee of the year award "You have special meal."

When the Lao Airlines cabin crew came round with refreshments then, we were kind of excited to see what we'd get. In the end, it turned out to be exactly the same as everyone else i.e. a vegetarian meal anyway consisting of two sweet pastries and free keyring each (Happy New Year!)

So much for that then...

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