CURRENT LOCATION: Nha Trang, Vietnam
I believe Zev left off after our coffin ride to Dalat. As he said, Dalat was a complete change of pace from pretty much anywhere else we've been in South East Asia. At about 1500m in altitude, it was significantly cooler than everywhere else, and it was much quieter.
We arrived in the mid-afternoon to Camellia Hotel. If you ever find yourself in Dalat, you have to stay here. We were greeted by our host Phuong with two cups of green tea, and hugs. She's a little firecracker, that's for sure. At all of 5 feet tall, she's got more personality than most people twice her size. The hotel is owned in partnership with a local adventure tourism company, Groovy Gecko (whose slogan is 'Don't be lazy, be crazy!'), so she filled us in on the best tours, and what there is to do in town. She showed us to our room, which was HUGE! It had two queen sized beds, a massive wardrobe, and an ensuite. Clearly there had been some flooding at some point, as the plaster in the ceiling would occasionally fall down, but we chose to ignore that... We settled in, and headed out for a delicious vegetarian dinner, wandered the night markets, then got an early night.
As an aside, usually when I say we got an early night, I mean that we watched an episode of The Newsroom (or whatever show we're watching at the time. Previously it was Avatar: The Legend of Korra, then Death on the Staircase, and now we've finished The Newsroom and are on to Penny Dreadful. All highly recommended shows!).
The following day, we (okay Zev) planned a walking tour of Dalat. Our first stop was Crazy House. It's kind of a cross between the Swiss Family Robinson (now Tarzan) treehouse at Disneyland, and something Gaudi would have made. It was designed by a Vietnamese woman who was sad that her people had lost their connection to the environment. Its this incredible concrete structure made to look like a tree, with all these weird rooms hidden through it, and trees and plants everywhere... I really can't describe it, you'll have to look at our photos in Flickr, or check out the website here.
It was while we were wandering around that we found out it is a functioning guest house, and the rooms are pretty reasonable. That afternoon, we ended up booking a room for a night - but more on that later.
From there we headed down the road in search of an art gallery/cafe that Zev read about, but sadly we couldn't find it. So we decided to carry on to the waterfalls that were next on our list. But we couldn't find those either. Never mind, off to the cathedral!! Oh.... No cathedral. Huh. But that's okay, because just up this hill is a road of old French houses, which show off some great architecture, and some of them are abandoned, so you can wander round inside! Oh I see, they've been demolished....
Luckily, Dalat is a beautiful little town, and the weather was so mild that it wasn't a problem to wander the streets. We strolled around the lake, and made it to the Dalat Flower Garden. Dalat is known for its flowers, and grows them to supply the rest of the country for various festivals throughout the year. The flower garden was a bit of a strange place, filled with empty ponds, and fountains that were switched off for the dry season, and vaguely Disney-themed instalments that edged dangerously close to copyright infringement. An enjoyable way to spend an hour regardless. We polished off our afternoon with a wander around the lake, before heading back to our super guesthouse for a rest before dinner. When we arrived back at the hotel, we booked into the canyoning tour for the following day.
Dinner turned out to be a great success. We made our way to the top rated restaurant in Dalat according to TripAdvisor, and it was packed, we managed to swipe an empty table just as we arrived, and the waitress apologised profusely - apparently the wait on food would be about half an hour as they were so busy. The poor girl was literally running everywhere!! Nonetheless our food arrived much faster than she said, and it was outstanding. Spring rolls, caramel hot pot chicken, and yellow noodle soup with beef - delicious! Toward the end of the meal we were treated to meeting the owner, who was a very funny and charismatic guy. You could see why this place was so highly recommended. He had us sign his world map, which they change each year as it fills up.
I totally forgot to mention the incredible breakfasts at Camellia Hotel! For $1.50, you get baguettes, eggs, coffee, tea, fruit, and homemade jam and peanut butter. And let me tell you, Phuong's peanut butter is to die for. But I digress... The following morning, after gorging ourselves on peanut butter, our driver arrived for our canyoning adventure. We piled into a van with three other English guys, plus our two guides and a driver. We pulled over at the bus station and got out of the van. Here, we were told to change into our wetsuits. At the bus station. On the side of the main road. Hmmmmm..... We changed, put on our helmets, and piled back into the van. After another 10 minutes of driving, we pulled off the highway. "Quickly, quickly. Get out of the van and follow me!" This was a little strange, but we're getting pretty used to a little strange these days, so we did what we were told.
We were introduced to our guides, Hung and Long (we're still not sure if that was a joke), and did a quick practice abseil down a bank. We obviously all passed the test, because we moved on. As our first 'Don't be lazy, be crazy' test, we hit a natural waterslide - basically a small waterfall over some rocks had created a smooth path into the pool below. Not content with just having us slide, Hung declared we would all be going down head first!! Thank goodness for the helmets and life jackets! It was awesome though, and we had no bruises to show for it!
Now for those of you paying attention earlier, you'll know that there were five people in our group: me and Zev, and Gav, Will and Cal, from York. At the first abseil site, we met another group. There must have been at least 40 of them, and they didn't have wetsuits. I'm sure they were all still having a great time, but I'm so glad we had a small group. And because we had such a small group, the big group let us go first - woooo! This abseil was 12m over a cliff to the rocks below. Not too bad, and our group was through pretty quickly. We were instructed to swim to the bottom of the nearest waterfall for a photo - no easy task, given how strong the current was! Sadly we didn't bring a camera, but the boys took some photos for us on their phone, and said they'll email them to us, so fingers crossed!
After a combination of river floating and hiking, we hit the next waterslide. This one had two routes - one we went down in groups, and the other alone and backwards. The group part was great, but the solo backwards ride resulted in a few bruises! Didn't stop usable from wanting to do it again though.
And then we made it to the big kahuna - a 25m abseil down a huge waterfall. We all took our shoes off for better grip. From the top, we were instructed who to watch at which point (the top guide or bottom guide), and were told that near the bottom, the rope runs out, so you have to jump. When he bottom guide gives you the signal, you push out from the wall and let go of the ropes. Simple right? What they don't tell you at the top is that when you get the signal, you're still 4m from the bottom and getting pummelled in the face with the full force of the waterfall. I'm glad they didn't tell us that though, because it was amazing!!
A little more hiking took us to my highlight for the day - the cliff jump. Hung told us there were two heights we could jump from: 11m, or an outcrop a little lower at 7m. To jump from the top you had to run and jump out, so that you didn't hit the outcrop, so it was important that you didn't change your mind at the last minute and hesitate, because you'd probably just fall onto the rocks... Ouch. He then explained that the higher jump wasn't good for girls, because they get too scared. Needless to say that made my mind up. Zev went first - he was the canary down the coal mine for the rest of us. Once I confirmed he'd made it, I went for it. I knew if I looked over the edge to see how far it was, I wouldn't do it, so I just ran and jumped as far out as I could. It felt like I was falling forever. I could've spent the rest of the day doing that jump! Cal came next, off the top, then Gav from the 7m outcrop, then Will from the top. I think Gav might be hearing a bit about that over the course of their trip...
More floating and hiking took us to the last activity - the washing machine. An abseil down about 6m, before just sitting in your harness and lowering yourself down into a waterfall. Once the rope runs out (these guys need longer ropes), you let go, hit the water and get pushed out from under the waterfall towards the shore. Sounds great right? I think I swallowed most of the waterfall, and got a great sinus rinse, but other than that, not many redeeming features for me!
A 10 minute uphill hike earned us lunch. Out of Hung and Long's backpacks came a while watermelon, two mangos, a pineapple, a dozen baguettes, tofu, mystery meat (which Hung told us was Chihuahua meat), cucumber, tomato, chillis, cheese, Oreos - it was like a magic carpet bag of food. Things got pretty quiet while we all stuffed our faces. Another 5 minutes up hill and we were thrown into the van, no time for taking off wetsuits or helmets!!
To those of you with a more adventurous streak, canyoning probably doesn't sound that remarkable - we have similar activities in NZ. What WAS remarkable was that it cost us $25 each. In NZ, I think you'd be looking at at least $200.
We got back to the hotel at about 3.30pm, and were greeted by towels and hot tea. Despite our exhaustion, we booked in to go hiking the following day. The most energetic thing we could manage for the rest of the day was hot showers and pizza for dinner.
The next morning we were picked up by our hiking guide, whose name I'm sorry to say I can't recall. We drove about 30 minutes from to hotel to a local village, before beginning our three peak hike. We reached the start of the hike, and there was a big gate/archway at the entrance. Much like the following day, we ignored that, went down a nearby side ride, and popped into the park a little further along the trail, out of view of the main road... Interesting... The climb to the first peak was pretty steep, and after the canyoning the day before (and no exercise for 6 weeks), my legs were really feeling it. We passed onion and strawberry farms, and looked back to see hundreds of greenhouses. The temperate climate in Dalat makes it a great place to grow vegetables, but the cold nights mean they need greenhouses. I was more than a little disappointed when we reached the first 'peak' to find a carpark, souvenir shop and cafe. Luckily the stunning views more than made up for it.
The climb to peak number two was more gentle. On our way, we saw orchids growing in the trees, bamboo ladders used by locals to catch birds, and delicious sour berries. Peak number two had another great view, even higher than peak number one.
I was lulled into a false sense of security by the flatness of the beginning of the walk to the third and final peak. 'This isn't so bad!', I thought. Then we reached the stairs, with a sign next to them saying '360m to the summit'. Well that doesn't sound too far, does it? Let me tell you, it was very far. My bum was on fire by the time we reached the top. But oh man was it worth it. At 2163m, we had 360° views of the surrounding area.
Again, at this point our guide pulls out lunch - a pineapple, two mangos, bananas, two dragonfruit, two filled rolls each, some biscuits... Here was me complaining coming up the stairs and our poor guide was carrying all this food! To make it up to him, I ate until I felt sick so he didn't have to carry anything back down. I think he appreciated it.
The descent was significantly quicker than the ascent, and took us past a coffee plantation. We stopped to see the berries, open them and have a look, and a little nibble. The berries are very sweet, but with a slight coffee tang.
We made it back to our accommodation at around 4pm, pooped again. We had signed up for a family style dinner at the accommodation, but Phuong decided we'd all go out instead. After a shower and a nap, we met the rest of the gang and headed out. It was a super fun group of varying ages (22-48), and it was fun hanging out with a big group. We started with dinner at a place where you make your own spring rolls, then headed for dessert at a local coffee shop. Next up, a bar. And what a bar. It was about the size of a coffee table, and every white person in Dalat was there. Soon, we knew why. There was a Vietnamese cover band, singing in English. A sample of their songs: Wonderwall, by Oasis; a song by Linkin Park (I'm not sure which one, because they all sound the same), remixed into Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio; Every Breath You Take, by Sting and the Police, remixed into Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio; Careless Whisper, by George Michael, remixed into Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio.... I'm sure you get the gist. I'm also not sure whether any of the band members spoke English, or whether they'd just learnt the songs phonetically, because there was some interesting pronunciation going on there! After a few (too many?) beers, we headed back to the hotel with the whole crew in tow.
Upon our return, the whole place was boarded up. Luckily, we had Phuong with us, who runs the place. Except she had left her keys inside, and by this point, was a bit pissed. After 20 minutes of rattling the bars, knocking on the door, ringing the doorbell, and calling the landline, a very sleepy Vietnamese guy opened the door, looking sheepish before copping an earful from Phuong... We hit the hay.
The next day was our last in Dalat, which we added on so that we could spend the night at the Crazy House. Since it's open to tourists during the day, we weren't so keen to hang out there, so we spent the day pottering around town and hanging out at Camellia. At mid-afternoon, we made our move. We checked into the Termite Room, which was super cool. It had a weird tiled bathroom, its own fireplace, and an oddly shaped bed. Oh, and a mirror on the ceiling. Huh... Also, it smelt kinda strange. Like... Well, like wee. But hey, it's the Crazy House! We hung out for a bit (another two episodes of Penny Dreadful), then headed out for dinner.
Our night at the Crazy House was interesting. The urine smell got worse, which was nice. The staff arrived for work at 6.30am on their motorbikes, which they parked outside our room, then stood there for a while talking. At the top of their lungs. At 6.50am, the Russian couple staying upstairs checked out. From what I could tell, he headed down to outside our window, then she packed their bags while he yelled instructions. I managed to fall back asleep at about 7.30am, and at 8am, banging on the door alerted me that breakfast had arrived. Which was great, since we ordered it for 8.30am in the garden. Oh well, breakfast in bed is never a bad thing!
Our bus to Nha Trang was due to pick us up from the Crazy House at 12.30pm, so we had some time to kill. With our room smelling like piss, and the garden full of tourists, it was a long few hours. For once, our bus was on time. We were picked up in the bus we'd be travelling to Nha Trang in, which was great. We settled in as the bus did the rounds of Dalat, picking up all the other passengers. Our insane bus driver drove us up into the clouds, using his horn as everything from brakes to indicators. We drove through some stunning scenery very reminiscent of New Zealand - windy roads through green hills, much like Coromandel. To make it feel more like home, we were completely fogged in, and it started raining. About halfway through the trip, a song started playing, over and over and over. We couldn't figure it out where the hell it was coming from - was someone playing a game, or had someone knocked their headphones out?? People started looking around, laughing awkwardly... I realised it must be menu music on a DVD. Obviously the driver had put in a DVD, but not pushed play or turned on the screen. After about 30 minutes of repetition, the driver realised what all the murmuring was about, and that is when the magic happened. He started the DVD. It was a sweet 'Best of' DVD by the 80s band Modern Talking. The entire bus was in fits of laughter.
Eventually we made it to Nha Trang, checked in to our hotel, and went to the train station to book our onward train tickets to Hoi An. We only came to Nha Trang because there is no train station in Dalat, so we're only here for a day.
Nha Trang is an interesting place. Like most of the beachside resorts in South East Asia, it seems to be owned by the Russians. The people are Russian, the signs are Russian - it's very strange. It reminds me of Hawaii, in that there is a lovely 6km beach, right next to a strip mall.
Today we hit the beach, which had waves which was a nice change. Zev had the time of his life when I got knocked over by one - I must be out of practice. While drying out on the sand, the PA speakers started playing a message, first in Vietnamese, then in Russian, then in English. It was informing us of the rules of the beach - how very communist!
This evening, our plan is to pack and have an early night in preparation for our 5am train to Danang (ugh!!), followed by a bus ride to Hoi An. Wish us luck!!
Lots of love,
S & Z
Addit: wow - this morning I tried to look at our last blog, to see where Zev had written up to in his last post. I couldn't load our blog - it kept redirecting to a weird Vietnamese site. I thought our blog had been hacked, but couldn't figure out how since we only access it from our iPads. I asked a friend in NZ to go to the site, and he said it was fine. So I just did some googling, and found out that some internet service providers block blog sites, because the government is very disapproving of blogs. Several bloggers have been jailed for anti-government blogs. Yikes!!!
(Original post date: 27th March 2015)