Sunday, December 24, 2006

Day 08 - Descent to Hoi An

At 5:30am we bundled into a waiting car in the chill morning air in Dalat bound for Nha Trang airport and our flight to Da Nang. In putting together the whole SEATour, we'd aimed to fly everywhere to make the most of the time. The only fly in that ointment had been getting from Dalat to Hoi An our next destination. There simply wasn't any way to go north from Dalat without using four wheels and no wings. For $68, we'd found a driver and a car. What we hadn't expected to be thrown in for this price was the incredible sunrise we got to boot.

At first it seemd the driver spoke about four words of English: yes, no, stop, go. He then rapidly expanded this limited repertoire adding toilet, smoke, sandwich and the phrase no problem so ubiquitous in Vietnam, we were beginning to wonder if the English had in fact borrowed it from Vietnamese.

Perhaps it was because everyone in the country guesses (spectacularly wrongly) that we've been married only four months. Perhaps it was simply that tourists he usually drives are heartbroken at leaving Dalat. Perhaps it was simply that he couldn't find his way out of town. But our driver went round the lake twice and meandered through some of the older parts of town before finally pulling up outside a bakery. He flashed his first word at us (sandwich) and motioned inside. We went in and got some delicious pastries (custard tarts!) and a filled baguette each for the ride.

Then we were off down an avenue littered with colonial villas, many inhabited now by Vietnamese I'm glad to say, and we began our five hour descent to Nha Trang where we were due to check in around 11am.

The sunrise consisted of the most amazing light we've seen in a long time. We stopped off repeatedly to photograph both the sun and its effects on the surroundings. That route is a photographer's goldmine at that time of morning.

Sheena fell asleep pretty soon after we hit the plains but that wasn't before our driver pulled over to have a pee. I joined him and afterwards, he asked me if I smoked. Thankful yet again that I didn't, he pulled a bong out of his boot, a stash out from under the boot floor and set about lighting up a nice strong puff of what I hoped was simply tobacco but might well have been something slightly more narcotic.

Whatever it was, our speed drastically improved. I'd been following the route with interest with my map and had estimated that we were behind schedule. But soon he took a shortcut and we sped off on a secondary road across some of the most interesting and untouched country there must be in this area. The villages were simply three or four huts around a courtyard surrounded by dense forest. But every now and then, a village appeared sharply at odds with this consisting of row upon row of identical concrete houses hardly any of which had open shutters. Some were definitely occupied. Many seemed empty. I couldn't help thinking that people had been resettled there under some grand socialist plan. It didn't seem to be working, whatever the ideal.

Having met the main road, we slowed in the mass of traffic heading up the long road linking Saigon and Hanoi. Things seemed to be going well until the driver suddenly took a strange turn south onto a heavily potholed road and then a huge dual carriageway rolling through landscape that was entirely sand. This wasn't right and we tried hard to let the driver know. We only had thirty minutes until we were due to check in. He was absolutely unmoveable though and ploughed on to what signs were telling us was Cam Ranh airport, at least forty kilometres south of Nha Trang where our flight departed from.

I have to be honest and say we were pretty panicky now. We seemed to be in a complete wilderness with a driver heading the opposite way from where we intended with absolutely no time to spare and a schedule that would punish mercilessly any missed flight or hijacking. Adamantly our driver kept on until we finally rolled across cracked tarmac and derelict billboards flanked by dead trees to Cam Ranh airport which seemed abandoned.

This was in fact because it had been. In April 1974, the fleeing USAnians, who'd built it to bring in a ton of America's finest young men, had left it for the North Vietnamese Army to overrun. It looked as if nothing much had been done to it since then.

The handwritten flight info board confirms that we are in the right place after all.

Inside, I quickly apologised to the driver. He was absolutely right. All flights for Nha Trang were now to go from Cam Ranh. How he knew this, we never found out. Why this was also remained a mystery. We were now early for our flight in fact which gave us time in the restaurant. Food wasn't that good though:

Our flight left a bit late and soon we were standing outside Da Nang airport looking for our invisible car from the Vinh Hung Resort in Hoi An, our next destination 25 km away. It was nowhere to be seen. An exorbitant phone call later, we established that they had no idea about sending us a car and we were constantly badgered by taxi drivers who treated us as carrion. Picking out the only one who was standing quietly leaving us alone, we got into his car which the others found hilarious and soon we were riding parallel with China Beach, the infamous R&R destination for American troops during the Vietnam War. I half expected to see Caucasian faces among the locals. They'd be about my age by now.

Turns out the hotel knew nothing about a car for us despite it being confirmed in an email I had a printout of. That was only the first of our hassles with this hotel but I'll keep all that for another day. We were shown to a fantastic room at one corner of the hotel overlooking the river and were left to freshen up. We instantly attacked the fruit on the coffee table to rid ourselves of the memory of yet more VNA pate!

We spent the evening having people gauge our vital statistics. Hoi An, for some reason, has become the tailoring capital of the land. Clothes, shoes, even furniture can be made to your design or any you happen to pick out of a catalogue. We were after clothes and spent a few hours choosing the designs, materials and getting measured up.

Back at the hotel, we'd been invited to the free Christmas Eve buffet. The food was great, the entertainment decidedly less so and this must have displeased the Powers that Be because a couple of hours into the evening it began to rain. We'd eaten enough by then and sauntered back to our room to try out our jacuzzi before a great night's sleep.

John tucks into noodles at our hotel's Christmas Eve buffet - just before it started raining.

The jacuzzi was an enormous corner bath. The two of us fitted into it with no problems. What we had problems fitting into it though was enough hot water. The immersion heater (for this is what the Vietnamese use to heat their water in every establishment in the country) was only big enough to fill the bath to approximately five inches deep and, crucially, to just short of the jets for the jacuzzi. Patently, it was useless and we were somewhat disappointed. Never mind, at least we had the luxury of a blissfully quiet night between the sheets of our huge comfy double bed...

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Day 07 - Easy Riders

Easy Riders eat your heart out. Free as the open road in Dalat...

Infesting Dalat and its surroundings like woodworm are the Easy Riders a group of motorcycle afficionados who do their best to catch tourists as soon as they arrive in town. To be fair, they are, on the whole, a great bunch of guys who give us visitors an excellent introduction to the town, its surroundings and, often, much further afield. But this comes at a price.

We'd been told that you don't really need to find one of these guys in advance as they find you. That advice was true enough. At Pongour waterfall, we'd met Kenny, our first Easy Rider who spoke excellent English and was happy to show his own book of recommendations that they all carry, cram full of glowing comments in several languages of tourist from the four corners of the earth. $20 a day per person was all we needed to pay and we'd have two bikes, two guides and a great day discovering whatever took our fancy in this area.

But did we tell you we had a cash-flow problem? We'd worked out that we had something stupid like $15 a day to make do on for the rest of the trip unless we got a cash advance from Visa and simply bite the credit bullet. But at that point, we hadn't seriously considered this. We'd also done what many travellers do and can be fatal: forget which day of the week it was. This had meant that we'd been faced with limited options for changing money today as it was a Saturday. Thankfully the main bank opened from 7am until noon. So, we really didn't want to spend $40 in this state.

What we decided to do instead was get our own bike at $10 for the day and explore on our own. It was the best decision we made in the whole holiday and we had a whale of a time.

At 7am, our 100cc bike was waiting outside our hotel with a tank full of petrol. A quick warmup around the hotel grounds was all I needed to get back into the hang of riding a motorbike and we were off. First into town to change money and then to a local shop to get baguettes (eaten by everyone here... those darned Frenchies!!!) yoghurt and cheese (Laughing Cow... darned Frenchies again!!!)

Leaving town heading north, we aimed for Lang Bian, the highest mountain north of the town. We'd made enquiries into treks that do this mountain. At $15 a head, these were much steeper than the slopes and we were certain we could do it ourselves for nowt. We were right. The road was a pleasure to drive on and the villages we drove through interesting to look at. Most people had traded their straw and wood houses for more durable concrete ones but everyone was friendly and curious and engaged in daily life; cooking, cleaning, chatting, sitting about, playing, repairing and a hundred other things.

At the foot of Lang Bian there's a car park and beyond this you are not allowed to proceed under your own motorised steam. At least this was what we were told despite the fact that later we saw a number of obvious tourists on their own bikes on the torturous road up to the 2100m summit. We decided against walking. It was $1.50 for us both to sit in the back of a jeep for the ten minute ride up. We bounced around in the back as the driver twisted and turned on a road he could doubtless have driven with his eyes shut. At the top, we were greeted by a stunning view over the surrounding rolling hills and tribal villages.

Sheena atop Lang Bian

Right in front of us, a small river had been dammed into a lake stretching a slender kilometer along a lightly wooded valley. Hills that seemed to have been sandpapered smooth bubbled from the valley floor and were dotted with a patchwork of farmsteads connected by red dirt roads. Amidst all this, tribal villages were scattered with their grass huts and outhouses. Across this landscape, hardly anything moved. It seemed idyllic; a different universe from the Saigon we'd left the day before.

We'd hoped to walk down ourselves but this almost came to nothing when the driver of our jeep and the rest of the passengers pressured us to go back down with them an hour later. We didn't want to. We wanted to walk. I think they would have felt happier had we said we wanted to grow wings and fly down. It was obviously unheard of. We began to saunter down the road. They followed us in the jeep gesturing and barking at us to get in. Only the driver seemed really put out by this. The others seemed just amused. Eventually he gave up and we were left to ourselves.

On a hunch, we headed into the forest and found one of many trails we knew would snake down the mountain. The ground was very dry and littered with a blanket of long pine needles which, if you weren't careful, would avalanche downwards when you least suspected it. We both fell over at least once at some point. But the forest was beautiful and the air warm and clear. All that we needed was for someone to assassinate the guy doing karaoke down in the valley which we could hear above the birdsong. It was hardly sublime.

We had lunch on a rock, discovered some plants we'd never seen the likes of, washed in a

Small, hard, crimson and with no visible stalk, we had no idea what these were.

mountain stream, got rid of the leech on my thumb and lost my five-year old sunglasses by the time we emerged onto rolling grassland out of the forest a couple of hours later. We tramped back to our bike through heavily tilled farmland where the lush green spinach contrasted sharply with the bright orange richness of the soil - bit like the French Open really.

With the afternoon before us, biking into the surrounding hills was inviting. We didn't get far on paved roads though before we encountered dirt and the dirt was very bumpy indeed. We meandered around, dozed on the grass under some pines, and found a good road heading to a nearby town which we struck out on. It was wonderful to be so free to explore. The road was really nice, threading through pine forests, valleys and passes and eventually leading us to the far side of the dammed lake we'd seen from Lang Bian first thing in the morning.

There was hardly anyone on the road. Occasionally, a tribal family all mashed onto one bike would pass us and gape. At one point, a family pulled up and started a conversation with us which lasted as long as our language resoures and petered out at the next bend. We stopped at one point and Sheena had her first driving lesson on a bike it was so quiet. But even this road, nice as it was and signposted to places tens of kilometres away, suddenly ended at a random point and became a rutted track that we had no inclination to continue on.

A wonderful day on a shoestring and, no, we hadn't had the insight and help of any Easy Riders, but we'd certainly had an easy ride. The only disappointment, apart from the fact that we discovered that we were pretty sunburnt, was that we didn't find the horn until just before we got back to our hotel. I reckon we must have been quietest motorbike in the whole country that day.

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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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