I was going to type ‘is Dalat Vietnam’s biggest exporter of flowers?’, a quick, lazy search to find out whether I had any grounds to say that it was, but I didn’t get round to actually doing the research. As soon as I typed in ‘is Dalat’ Google’s auto-fill search function finished off my question, asking ‘is Dalat worth visiting?’
This means, according to Google’s algorithms, that ‘Is Dalat worth visiting?’ is the most-asked question about the place which seems both unfair and strange because there’s no answer to that. How can you ask the internet a question and expect an answer tailored specifically to you? In the interests of giving people what they want I’ll say yes, in my opinion, Dalat is worth visiting, but in the interests of making sense I’ll say that if you want to know if Dalat is worth visiting you need to do some research based on your own unique wants and desires for the time you intend to spend there. Failing that, just go and find out for yourself.
In Dalat I felt homesick, saw God in a waterfall, ate snails for the first time and found the place I want to live if I ever have to become a Buddhist nun. It happened like this:
Travelling south from Hoi An most people head directly to Nha trang, the seaside capital of Vietnam. For no real reason, other than already having had our fill of resort life in Hoi An, we decided to skip Nha Trang altogether and travel directly to Dalat instead. That meant a 10 hour overnight sleeper bus from Hoi An to Nha Trang then another 4 hour bus from Nha Trang to Dalat. These were Vietnamese timings though and the whole journey actually took almost 18 hours.
Anyone who’s done this kind of trip knows that these numbers mean nothing. Once you’re in the belly of the travel beast, time cannot be measured in the usual way. To mess your body and mind up even further, add some chemicals into the mix. Travel sickness tablets plus heavy duty painkillers always equal a messy tear in the fabric of space and time. A drugged sleep isn’t real sleep and although I may have looked completely unconscious to the strangers snuggled up alongside me in the back of the sleeper bus, I was sure that I was awake and only day-dreaming about snakes with scorpion tails and being on an airplane full of babies.
By the time we arrived in Dalat I was a mess but as night fell I somehow managed to shower and dress and we headed out for the night, hoping to find a footing in this brand new place. Even though the steep hills that make up the streets of Dalat are agony to me, we walked for ages, stopping and peering down alleyways, wanting to walk down every one, and staring into people’s houses, wanting to step inside, a terrible habit I just cannot quit.
Like every night in Vietnam the darkness came too quickly and brought with it a sense that felt something like regret. On paper I know how I got here but between the confusion of light and dark, drugged sleep and forced awakeness I’m bewildered. I’m in a bar with a tree growing directly up the centre of its three floors, drinking a beer with a little bowl of what I thought were nuts but turned out to be soya beans. They hurt my teeth to crunch. The bar is cool but the songs, yes, the songs are a problem. It’s like a Spotify playlist has been created by my very best friends especially for me and I feel a hit of homesickness like a punch in the stomach. And then I recover, like I always do, and drink my beer and eat my soya beans and smile because if I had the chance to go home right this minute I wouldn’t do it which means I’m doing something right.
I felt a bit drunk from just three beers and we made our way back to the hotel looking for somewhere to eat on the way. The only place that was lit up and busy on the street we’re staying on is a seafood place that is essentially just plastic furniture in an empty, warehouse-like space and no English menu. As always, our waiter apologises for not speaking English well and as always I feel terrible that he thinks he should. All the fresh seafood is on display so to make it easier on us all I go and point at what we want and now seems like as good a time as any to try snails. When they arrived we fought over who got the biggest share of the buttery, salty little critters wondering why we don’t eat them at home in England.
Dalat is the honeymoon capital of Vietnam. Dalat is ‘so romantic’ said every member of staff at our hotel in Hoi An. The ‘petite Paris’ of Vietnam is how Dalat is described by the travel sites that tend to regurgitate rather than illuminate and, at first, I’ve got to say I just didn’t see it. But the hotel we’re staying in is clean, costs £6 a night and the climate in Dalat is cool compared to the rest of Vietnam so we decide to stick around for a few days.
There is a large roundabout with manicured gardens and an ugly Soviet-style statue at the centre. Dalat market looks out onto a wide tree-lined avenue, stretching towards a tower that, if you drank two bottles of Dalat wine and it was raining really, really hard, you could mistake for the Eiffel Tower, except that it’s a television tower. And Dalat Market is a ramshackle, wholesale market, hectic in the mornings, empty in the afternoons with too many corrugated iron roofs, too many sleeping vendors and too much rubbish lying around for it to be considered in any way romantic.
The next morning we try to work out the best way to get to Thien Vien Truc Lam Monastery. Car? Bus? Motorbike? No, you have to get there by cable car, of course. If I had to be ordained as a Buddhist nun then I would choose this place as my home base. The grounds were beautiful with fish ponds and flower gardens and paved courtyards, all the things you’d expect from a proper 19th century English country house with addition of golden domed temples, pagodas, Buddhas and constantly tinkling chimes. If this was my home I’d ban tourists altogether so I could sit at the spot with the best view and listen to those chimes in peace.
We realised then that if we wanted to see more of Dalat than just coffee shops and restaurants we we’re going to need a motorbike. I was still too scared to drive one then and didn’t want Shaun to take over the responsibility of both of our safety so we hired a couple of drivers. My driver for the day was Minh, a man who has seen many things and done many things and looks in his twenties but could easily be in his forties. He knows how to live off the land and make money when there doesn’t seem to be any money to be made and is just generally the kind of person you’d want to be around when the apocalypse comes. He chain-smokes, like most Vietnamese men, and is friendly but quiet and I can’t blame him. Ung, Shaun’s driver, on the other hand was a born entertainer, driving tourists around Dalat as a way of avoiding getting a proper job. He screams and swerves all over the road shouting ‘LANDMINE’ every time we drive past cow dung on the road.
As we drove through huge fields of crops and flower farms and coffee plantations and large expanses of green land miraculously just left to be, I started to see some of the romance everyone had been talking about. Shaun’s driver did all the talking and must have felt like he was babysitting small children as he patiently explained how silk is made, how to grow mushrooms, how rice wine and made and how Dalat has become one of the biggest coffee exporters in the world.
Mixed in with all the ‘introduction to agriculture’ we visit two different waterfalls, Pongour Waterfall ad Elephant Waterfall, and both were absolutely spectacular. In Pongour Waterfall I saw two men in speedos scaling the side of the falls, a feat so dangerous I didn’t want to look, and in Elephant Waterfall I saw light and colour and movement so beautiful that for a second there I almost believed in God.
Yes, Dalat is worth visiting.