After ten days of unrelenting heat, the seventy-degree weather and rain of mountainous Da Lat were a relief. We arrived at Da Lat’s regional airport from DaNang in a late afternoon drizzle. Our hostel, Happy Homestay, arranged the taxi for us and about fifteen minutes later we were in Da Lat. Walking into the lobby of the homestay, we were confused by the blasting television and the young man playing World of Warcraft on his laptop. A middle-aged woman smiled at us and greeted us in Vietnamese. I asked for Binh, the young man who I had been in contact with over AirBnB. I really thought were in the wrong place. I had heard multiple stories online of tourists being dropped off at a different place than what they told the cab driver. Turns out, this was not the case. Binh, in his puffy parka, runs into the lobby a minute or two we arrive.
We drop our bags off upstairs. There’s some kind of construction and the noise is relentless. Pounding, drilling, sawing nonstop. We hoped this was just going on during the daylight hours and things would quiet down by the time we were going to sleep. We were all really hungry at this point and asked Binh where we should go a meal. He pointed out a couple places including a chicken and rice place just across the street.
We headed over and were greeted by the female proprietor with a smile, almost all the people running restaurants in Vietnam are women. Her infant daughter toddled around in a fur-lined parka. Apparently, seventy degrees is cold in Vietnam. I found it refreshing in my shorts and tank top. She hands us a couple of menus and we have a seat.
Three of us ordered chicken with rice and cabbage and one person ordered fried fish, I think (it’s been six months since the trip and I can’t remember the exact details). The chicken was very similar to a lightly fried chicken you would have in the United States. The rice was lightly flavoured with vinegar and the cabbage was a lot like the greens you would get in the south. It was so unlike any of the other food we had in Vietnam: heavier, which made sense with the climate, and it felt like I could be eating this anywhere. It was really, really good. It was the perfect departure from the ubiquitous rice noodles, which while delicious I was getting a little tired of after ten days.
After our meal, we headed down to the local market. The road is quite empty for Vietnam and passes by a school, a public park where we saw a woman defecating out in the open, and the numerous small shops that are so common. Because of the rain, few people were out cooking on the sidewalk or napping on their motorbikes, which had so often been the background of our trip.
The local market is surrounded by hills covered with narrow, French-style buildings that you find throughout most of Vietnam. It reminded so much of San Francisco: the tall narrow buildings, the steep hills, and the cool, crisp air. The market features foods reminiscent of west coast farmer’s markets: mulberries, strawberries, and avocados. Da Lat is also known for its mushrooms, flowers, and coffee.
We retired early to the hotel because we would have an early morning start on our tour of the area surrounding Da Lat. Sleep was not something that came easily at the Happy Homestay. They were undergoing massive construction and the bed was possibly one of the worst we stayed in, though the worst really goes to the one with blood stains on it in the Mekong.
The next morning my boyfriend and I woke early to get coffee. The coffee in Vietnam is so good, especially for people who love strong coffee that gives you a kick in the ass in the morning. I like mine with condensed milk and iced. On our way back from the coffee shop, I spotted a woman making the delightful banh can. These are delicious pockets of rice dough cooked in a skillet similar looking to an aebelskiver pan with a quail egg cracked on top. They’re almost like the Vietnamese version of the best Egg McMuffin you’ve ever had. They serve it with chilli sauce and a fish sauce with green onions. We ate ours from a plastic bag on the curb outside the Happy Homestay.
Headed by Binh, the young man who runs Happy Homestay, our tour took us to the countryside around Da Lat. Covered with evergreens, this area is so unlike the rest of the places we went to in Vietnam. It reminded me of the countryside in the Sierra foothills. Our first stop was a coffee plantation where they make the famous “weasel coffee.” The weasels are actually civets who are captured from the forest and brought to the coffee plantation. The civets are very picky eaters and only eat the best coffee beans. These beans are then crapped out by the civets and roasted for your coffee drinking pleasure. The coffee is smooth and has a distinct caramel flavour. My friends, who are not coffee drinkers, enjoyed it, but I didn’t like the flavour. Plus, civet poop.
On our way to Elephant Falls, we stopped at a flower plantation, a strawberry farm, and what is called a “minority village.” The people who live here are from one of the multiple native ethnic groups of Vietnam. Most of Vietnam’s nearly 86 million people are from the Kinh ethnic group, which were originally from northern Vietnam and southern China. The houses are traditionally made from wood and differ in their architectural style from other Vietnamese houses.
A number of blogs claim Elephant Falls is difficult to find, but it had clear signage from what I could see. Yes, you will be charged a fee to enter. No, the walk down is not safe by American standards, but it’s not particularly dangerous either. I had a challenging time because the rocks were very high and I am very short. The rocks on the way down are also incredibly slippery and some of the time the only thing you have to hold onto is a vine or a rusty piece of rebar. However, the waterfall is large and the water plentiful. There are rocks you can go out to see the falls clearer, but I am a huge scaredy cat and I refused to go out to them. Off to the left is a pathway that goes under the falls. This, I really enjoyed, but be aware you will get filthy and soaked.
As we washed the mud off and dried in the sun, I watched a woman make traditional woven goods. The scarves around her were beautifully colorful and I would have loved to buy one, but they were a little out of my budget.
After the waterfall, we visited the Buddhist temple up the street then we got a lackluster lunch in a village restaurant. Our last stop of the tour was a silkworm factory. The factory’s air was fetid and stifling. The women worked for a piece work wage, a certain amount of money per kilo of processed silkworms. The women had to be careful working with the lye used to process the silkworms. Outside the factory were enormous piles of silkworm cocoons. It felt wrong going here as if this were a tourist attraction, and it felt like poverty voyeurism.
When we got back to Da Lat, we took short naps then my boyfriend and I headed out to see Crazy House. Crazy House is one of the top attractions in Da Lat. Designed by the daughter of a former president, the house is an ongoing architectural project and is unlike anything else in Vietnam. Part Alice in Wonderland, part jungle, and part Swiss chalet. I’ve never seen anything else like it. It was really fun to explore the different areas and enjoy the shade.
In the evening, Binh took us out for a food tour to some of his favourite street food places. We got what is called Da Lat pizza, banh trang nuong, which is made from a sheet of rice paper, Laughing Cow cheese, shredded jerky, spicy sausage, green onion, egg, chili sauce, and fish sauce. It was crispy, creamy, salty, and smoky charcoal grill. It was absolutely delicious and the best item of street food we had outside of HCMC. Other street food we had included bo la lat (a type of ground meat skewer wrapped betel leaf), bacon wrapped okra and a type of ice cream.
Da Lat was one of my favourite cities in Vietnam. It was relaxed, the weather was perfect, and food, especially the fresh produce, was spot on. I highly recommend adding it to any trip to central or southern Vietnam. It makes for a nice break from the unrelenting heat and traffic of the rest of the country.