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Highlands Weekender

Da Lat was another highlight of my time in Vietnam so far. It is the most popular city for domestic tourism in the country, especially with honeymooners I’m told. Amongst backpackers it is renowned for motorbike tours through the surrounding hills and farms, and adventure sports like rock climbing, mountain biking and canyoning. The temperatures are cooler, you can actually wear jeans and a light jumper without melting into a pile of sweat and slag, and the pace is a little less frantic than most of the other tourist destinations. It is also Vietnam’s coffee region and the coffee here is, in a word, amazing.

The bus to Da Lat weaved through some scenic mountain passes as it left the coast and entered the central highlands region of Vietnam. After a couple of hours of relaxing to music and reading the first couple of chapters of a book Doug had given me (from which I learned Alan Turing, the father of the computer, was apparently quite gay), our bus pulled in at it’s brunch rest stop. While my travel crew sat eating the snacks we had packed a British traveller whom I never got the name of came and sat down with us. The first thing to come out of his mouth as he looks at Doug and his water bottle is “That yours? God, you’re so Asian!”. My jerk radar started bleeping. Supposedly he thought the plastic drink bottle was a thermos, and supposedly the Chinese like to drink warm water. It got better though, next while we were talking about food he blurted out “Have you tried dog yet?”, none of us had. “I have, it’s good” he proudly told us before adding “I wish they ate cats over here. I hate cats, it should be legal to shoot them”. At this point my jerk radar exploded and my douche bag meter spiked off the charts. Being a cat person I just sort of looked blandly at him and thought it should be legal to shoot him. Maybe he was a nice person but as far as making good first impressions go he has some room for improvement.

Crazy Legs
Doug checks on his infected legs while an enthralled Chantel watches.

Once I had arrived I wanted to find a cafe and sample the famous Da Lat coffee. I found the cafe street and ended up in a place called Cafe Ngshey (I think). On the way to this cafe I also discovered Owen has a questionable sense of direction. He stopped off to by cigarettes, and we walked about 40m down the road and then turned around to wait. Owen looked up, head swiveling every which way like a meercat, before looking straight at us as we waved to him. He then turned around and walked off in the opposite direction looking moderately confused.

At the cafe I ordered my first Da Lat coffee with milk. It comes in a small cup and looks like a thick espresso shot, but if you stir it there is a little bit of condensed milk at the bottom which mixes in. The texture is thick and syrupy, the taste rich and delicious, some of the best coffee I have had. The condensed milk adds just enough sweetness to take the edge off the bitterness. I have always been under the impression you cant have a good coffee without it being from an espresso machine, but here they just pack a little metal cup with grounds and sit it on a coffee cup then pour in boiling water and let it slowly drain through. Simple and brilliant.

Da Lat
Da Lat farmland.

My plan was to spend two full days in Da Lat, the first for a so called “Easy Rider” motorbike tour, the second for canyoning. I didn’t book a true easy rider tour (here you sit on the back of a bike and get taken around by some Vietnamese high-bred of a biker and tour guide) but instead booked the tour through my hotel after chatting to our would be guide. He was an extremely friendly and animated man by the name of Huan. He also spoke about the best English I’ve heard over here, he even had a bad Australian accent sounding like a character from Kath & Kim (he said guide as goide and bike as boike). Since after our Top Gear trip to Hoi An Doug and I were addicted to riding, the plan was for Chantel to double with Huan while Doug, Owen and myself had our own bikes (this time it was Owens fist go at riding). Of course Doug and I put our matching Tin Tin in Vietnam shirts back on as they were now our default bike riding uniform.

A nice waterfall we stopped at on our highlands motorcycle tour.

The tour was great, and Huan was a hilarious and fantastic guide. First he took us to a lookout to see a nice view of the farmlands of Da Lat, then to his family home where we had tea with his parents. His parents were tiny, I don’t think his dad was above four foot tall, and apparently he was a chef for the Americans during the war. After tea we visited some coffee farms, a waterfall, a pagoda, a silk making factory and as with our trip from Hue to Hoi An, the best part was just riding through the winding mountain roads enjoying the scenery from our bikes. A pleasant surprise was when he asked what we wanted for lunch and then took us to a small local pho (noodle) restaurant. Usually on these sort of tours they take you to an overpriced tourist restaurant where the guide gets a commission. After lunch we found a place for more coffee and chilled out and chatted for awhile. Here Huan explained various aspects of Vietnamese life and culture to us. He seemed particular interested in talking about homosexuals.

Our Da Lat tour guide Haun and his nephew.

Apparently being gay is quite excepted in Vietnam, though being bisexual is very uncommon. However acting stereotypically camp is not particularly smiled upon. Huan attempted to describe this to us by saying “Dante. You know, acting dante!”. While I sat slightly perplexed wondering what the Divine Comedy had to do with this Chantel worked out he meant dainty, which Huan then demonstrate for is in a manner that looked more like he had cerebral palsy. I was also informed that wearing pink or purple clothes (or to a lesser extent any color that isn’t blue or greyscale) means you’re gay too. Good thing I didn’t pack my purple hoodie I guess, though it won’t stop me wearing my pink Bear Vs Shark shirt here. Chantel also said that while riding, Huan kept asking about whether Owen was gay as apparently wearing earrings or a ring on your index finger, both of which Owen has, are more Vietnamese gaydar alerts. I have a suspicion that Huan is a little in the closet.

Towards the end of our tour it started raining slightly and we headed back towards Da Lat. It was thankfully only a light shower and quickly over, not the downpour I experiences in Danang, but it did make the winding mountain roads quite slippery. Not a good situation when the roads are narrow and every twist and turn is a blind corner. Owen almost became an accident statistic himself. While riding along I heard a skidding sound and looked over my shoulder to see Owen tipping over on his bike, legs flailing out the sides and his red poncho flapping madly around his head. Next the bike started skidding the opposite direction and after a couple of drawn out seconds where I thought I was about to witness my friend eat the gravel, he somehow recovered and stayed upright with only a few scrapes and bruises on his legs from the bike pegs to show for it. I guess I was also lucky I didn’t wipe out while staring over my shoulder watching instead of looking at the road ahead.

A dragon at the pagoda I visited on my Da Lat motorbike tour. I'm sure he is very friendly if you get to know him.

Meals in Da Lat were a mixed affair. The first night we went to a restaurant called Da Quy which had quite reasonably priced clay pots and excellent service (the staff also spoke amazing English). The next night we tried a place called the Art Cafe. This place had great decor with interesting paintings adorning the walls, however the service was awful, even by low Vietnamese standards. We waited half an hour trying to get the waiter to come over and take our order. Eventually he came, glared at us, and walked off without saying a word after hearing our choices. When the food came it was also not the greatest. I ordered squid stuffed with pork in memory of my awesome meal at Mermaid Restaurant in Hoi An. This one wasn’t as good. This time it was more like a chorizo sausage stuffed into a squid with some sweet and sour sauce on top. Still tasty but not taste bud blowing.

The last thing I did in Da Lat was canyoning. I’d never done this before, only basic abseiling about ten years ago. Owen, Chantel and I booked with Gecko Adventure Tours (Doug couldn’t come cause of his recovering infected legs), though the morning of the trip Chantel pulled out due to her fear of water, which was probably a wide decision. I was impressed she even considered doing it the first place when she doesn’t know how to swim. Our group also consisted of two guides, Tin and Leib, the dutch couple Freek and Yvonne from our Nha Trang island tour, a German, Veronica, plus Owen and myself. It was a perfect size really. After some instructions and warm up abseiling we repelled down an 18m cliff and then hiked for awhile stopping for two separate rock water slides. The first one of these we all sort of stood there thinking “you’re serious?” as they told us to slide down a small rock waterfall on our backs. It ended up being great fun though and if you leaned back there were no bumps or bruises.

Abseiling down a slippery waterfall. Note to future canyoners, old converse shoes do not provide the best traction.

The real fun came after lunch when we did our first waterfall abseil. This was a little tricky in my old converse low-tops with soles worn flat. They had hardly any grip and the moss coated rocks of the waterfall were quite slippery. A few meters from the bottom and we were told to just leap out and fall the rest of the way. I realized this wasn’t just for fun when it was my turn and saw that at this point the rope ran out. After the waterfall was the cliff jump. The cliff in question was 10m high, which is pretty high when you’re looking down from the top. As everyone was debating the sanity of hurling ourselves over the ledge I volunteered to go first. Immediately after I lept I had a second to question my decision before I was plummeting towards the water. The fall was exhilarating and seemed to take forever, and the impact was intense. After I broke the water, so to speak, everyone had a go and jumped down after, with only one person opting to leap from the slightly lower 7m ledge. The final part of the canyoning was another waterfall decent known as The Washing Machine. I found out how it got it’s name as you drop down in a rift between two cliffs, one with a waterfall pummelling you from behind, the other with an incline so that you loose contact with the fall and end up free falling into the rapids below and get washed out the other side.

Don't look down
Me jumping off a 10 meter cliff. No big deal.

All in all Da Lat lived up to the hype. Next stop Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon).