Vietnam’s Central Highlands: Da Lat

Da Lat is a gorgeous highland town in central Vietnam, with a distinctly European feel. The climate stays a steady 23*C (74*F) year round, and gorgeous pink bougainvillea spill out over French Colonial buildings that stretch up onto the hills overlooking a tranquil town lake. In short, it’s utopia.

It began life as a spa town for the French who wanted to escape the heat of Saigon, and quickly became popular with the Vietnamese as well. Adored across the country, it was pretty much spared from destruction during the civil war in an unspoken agreement between the North and South Vietnamese, who both operated out of villas in the city.

Da Lat Markets

By day, Da Lat’s central market is a busy flower and produce market, displaying the bounty of the nearby farms. This is where most of Vietnam’s fresh produce is grown, and the food reflects it. There were artichokes, asparagus, apples, grapes, carrots, lettuces, cauliflower, broccoli, sweet potatoes and strawberries — millions of strawberries.

We happened to arrive during the strawberry harvest, and all day long, ladies in pointed hats crouched over enormous baskets of freshly picked berries, sorting them into cartons for sale on every sidewalk. I could have stayed and cooked in this town forever.

By night the market turns into a riot of colour and people, as the pop up stands sell every item created in Vietnam’s factories, piled high on tables, or hung onto packed racks of coats, pants, jackets, bags, shirts, and knitwear. Look at what you’re wearing today – does it say Made in Vietnam? Then you probably could have bought it here for $3.

On our first night, we watched the action of the market from a cafe on the hill overlooking the town centre, but the next night, we got right into the middle of it, and had own little barbecue in the busy food market. Funny how you pay more for the privilege of cooking your own food, but it was delicious no less!

The Crazy House

Da Lat’s architecture is distinctly European, and even the modern buildings remain sympathetic to the style. Da Lat reminded me of Geneva in many ways, with it’s little lake and pretty windows framing and reflecting the views over the surrounding hills.

But there is one house here that stands out from the rest, and is famous for it’s, um, “design” that stretches the definition of architecture so far out into Cloud Crazy Land that you begin to wonder whether it’s architecture at all.

The Hang Nha Crazy House is architectural design on an acid trip on top of speed. Part Hobbit, part Alice in Wonderland and Charlie’s Chocolate Factory, part massive amounts of what is obviously the designer’s flashbacks from the 60’s, this surrealist “house” winds and crawls around and through the space, stretching odd fingers out into neighbouring lots, traversed by narrow walkways made to look like vines.

There are little hotel rooms dotted throughout, and it would be a cool night’s stay. Walkways wind their way up through the inside of “trees”, through “lava flows”, and even under the ocean. There aren’t really words to describe this place, and I’m not sure the photos really speak for it either.

It’s a mind bending sensory tickling practical joke. The architect herself is a famous master, and daughter of Ho Chi Minh’s successor, so the level of eccentricity here is off the charts, which makes for some serious creative freedom.

We spent hours crawling over the space of the Crazy house until our brains just couldn’t take it any more, and wandered back down the hill into town.

What a pretty spot

Da Lat’s main feature is its pretty little lake at the bottom of the hills where the city is situated. At one end sits a public square with tall steps leading up to two uniquely shaped glass buildings. Eventually we worked out that they were meant to represent a sunflower and an artichoke, and they were home to a shopping centre and entertainment complex below.

This square was teeming with people, and there was no shortage of entertainments on offer. Austin spent ages on a little three wheeled electric scooter that looked a lot like the Hot Wheels we had as kids – only this one was not plastic and it went fast!

Toward dusk, street food vendors set up their little shops – no more than a tiny fire, a grill and a couple of miniature stools to sit on, and made up delicious “Vietnamese pizza” – little flat tortilla like pancakes topped with onion, tomato, egg, salsa, cheese, mayo and dried fish flakes. It may not sound nice, but it was delicious.

Datanla Waterfall
We hadn’t been on a motorbike since Thailand, months before, and it was high time we rented one again to get out and explore. We three piled on to one big bike, and set out for the Datanla Waterfall nearby.

Possibly one of the most touristy waterfalls I have ever visited, this place makes no apologies for being so over the top. Why walk down the path to the falls when you could ride in a toboggan? And why only toboggan down when you can toboggan back up? How about a cable car ride? Or an elevator? They have it all. You can even rappel down the falls if you like, and literally risk your life doing so – as several unfortunate travellers have found in recent years.

But the very best part about this undercover theme park disguised as a natural geological formation is the new toboggan, situated at the back of the park, at the bottom of the second set of falls. We rode in a toboggan, a cable car and an elevator to get to it. We could have walked, but why?

The new toboggan brand spanking new, with the German safety stickers still attached. We started at the bottom, rode our way up the steep climbs, and then let it fly as we wound and twisted our way back down the hill at maximum speeds.

The main toboggan down to the falls was slow and boring because of all of the slow and boring people riding the brakes all the way down the hill. But there was nobody to get in our way on this one, and Austin took turns riding with Mark and then me as we took three round trips up and back down the hill. Or maybe it was that Mark and I took turns getting to go solo without having to worry about the safety of our son.

Whatever the case, we all agreed it was one of our best days of the trip so far.  A little adrenaline induced dopamine goes a long way.

Pressing on
It was hard to tear ourselves away from Da Lat. From the amazingly fresh food, the fine weather and the gorgeous scenery, we loved this little town, and named it as one of the few places we’d choose to stay for a while, if we were in a staying for a while mood.

But the clock on our visa was ticking, and we were headed north to the beach this time, at Nha Trang.

Like most of Vietnam, Nha Trang was just a little bit weird, and the place to go if you want to practice your Russian in Vietnam. Every menu, every shop, every sign was in Vietnamese and Cyrillic. We were assumed Russian, and instead of English, all the shopkeepers were fluent in the language. It was just one of a long line of strange and wonderful cultural oddities of Vietnam.

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About the author: Shalena

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