Much like the Malaysian Cameron Highlands, Da Lat is a welcome break from the heat and humidity of Vietnam where you won’t find air con in most of the hostels and a rain coat is a must. Da Lat is a stop for the adventurous. Canyoning and hiking are huge here, but the best thing I did was to rent a bike and spend a day exploring the hills surrounding the city, crammed with hydroponics full of strawberries – to find a cream tea stop was high on my list. It’s necessary to leave your passport as a deposit for bikes everywhere we looked, which felt distinctly dodgy, but nevertheless we handed them over with around 80,000 VND. I hopped on behind Mike and we edged out into a maelstrom of Asian traffic (i.e. vehicles going in every direction on both sides of the road).
After about 15 minutes weaving through static school buses and locked in cars with drivers furiously overusing their horns, our first stop was the Linh Phuoc Pagoda (free entry). I recommend getting there either very early in the morning or towards evening to miss this traffic as it’s a nightmare to drive through on a road barely wide enough for 2way traffic, hemmed in by street vendors. Oddly, it wasn’t as busy once we got inside where no crowds were harassed our view of the glittering pagoda coated in shattered mosaic. Patterns emerged everywhere you looked. Even after so many pagodas and temples it was a captivating sight, well worth the visit. Down below, in the bowels of the place was an insane maze crawling with depictions of hell and torture with daemons and humans in varying forms of torture and decay. A rational 22 year old, it sent chills down my spine on a hot day and I couldn’t wait to get back out into the sun. I could not understand why so many parents were forcing their children to endure it, possibly to strike fear of wrong doing into them? The vile scenes were in such contrast to the peaceful architecture above, where there was a second pagoda containing a vast flower adorned Buddha, at least three stories tall and a bell to which you could attach a note with a wish on before striking the bell for luck.
Squeezing back out into the crowded road, we headed for the hills out of town, hoping for an easier drive, and maybe some tea themed home comforts. High in the hills we found Truk Lam Zen monastery, overlooking the Tuyem Lam Lake. The monastery is a sprawling complex of immaculately clean temples and pagodas interspersed with beautifully kept gardens roamed by the resident monks. But, at this point of my trip I had truly succumbed to the Asian affliction of being “templed out” and so was desperate to get down to the lake that revealed itself, mirror like and inviting through the monastery’s trees.
We pulled up at a cafe overlooking the lake with an impressive collection of classic cars and motorbikes (which I climbed all over when no one was looking)! They boasted the best Weasel coffee in Da Lat but at a price a non-coffee loving backpacker wouldn’t even begin to consider; a raspberry milkshake would suffice. It being rainy season and the clouds opening like clockwork at 3pm each day, the lake was deserted, the cafes empty and the boats for hire tethered to teetering Jetties. The glassy water reflected the approaching grey clouds surmounting the surrounding hill tops and we took our queue to head back into town.
Da Lat is a fascinating area to get lost in with a maze of road networks weaving through the strawberry plantations, out into more rural plots and around fantastically grand European style villas. By randomly taking lefts and rights we found some beautiful architecture as well as some stunning vistas from elevated viewpoints. Download “Here Maps” (offline maps) and you’ll always be able to find your way back into town. We found ourselves on a rural dead end street with smiling children laughing and pointing from their fenced in houses, clearly not used to westerners venturing this far into their community, when a dog decided my leg would be a nice snack. I swung my leg up almost knocking Mike off balance and screamed for him to speed up, much to the amusement of our audience and we managed to outrun the canine fiend.
Our last stop was a grand golden Buddha, magnificent on his hill top perch, glowering over the city against a stormy backdrop. We wandered the pagoda around his hulking base and this, like most everything else in Da Lat, was dotted with random objects and depictions of creepy cartoon like animals and troll like figures. Following the Buddha’s gaze afforded a view over the cluttered Da Lat rooftops. It’s a real mess of a town with urban housing and farming competing for space everywhere and a complete hotch potch of architectural styles. It looks like it was thrown together then squeezed on all sides to ensure every inch of space was utilised. Under such oppressive grey skies it was better to keep your eyes on the Buddha than examine the dirty town below.
Although the rains could be predicted every day, we still decided to go on a hike up the Lang Biang mountain. Our hike was organised with a tour guide through the hostel and, although you can do it without a guide, I was glad we had one; certain parts of the track are dangerous if the rain becomes too heavy and there are several potential wrong turns that would leave you totally lost. Ascending from the mountain base village, the steep slopes are littered with needles from the alpine style trees and flora is sparse on the ground: it feels like you could be in Switzerland. But once you pass about half way alpine forest becomes jungle and with it the rains began. The thirsty dirt path slurped the rain droplets up and what was slippery on the way up was to become treacherous on the way down. Steps, which came to at least my waist, were covered in mud, as a result my limbs were caked in it too as I scrambled up them with the assistance of one of the boys in the group. Without his help I don’t think I could have made the last half hour with the steps too tall and the gradient of the slope ever increasing, we even had leeches attaching themselves to our ankles to give a final finesse to the rainforest aura!
We reached the summit and our guide shared out a bountiful picnic of cheese, make your own ban mis, fruit and chocolate, as we waited for a parting in the clouds which never came. Despite missing a view over Da Lat, we were above the clouds and it was an eerily beautiful sight with them swimming below us, cutting the tip of the mountain off to afford us our own peaceful sanctuary, silencing the outside world.
We slid most of the way back down on muddy arses, already so wet and dirty no one really cared, and were definitely ready for a beer in the minivan on the way back, followed by several more at Cafe Tram Mai (Maze Bar) later in the evening when we’d cleaned ourselves up. An alcohol driven descent into the bowels of this bar is a must. Having already drunk a fair amount of vodka to make watching England vs Wales (football) bearable, I lost my group amongst the synthetic root covered passageways and caverns of the underground maze before I found my way to the cramped bar. It makes for a fantastically creepy game of tipsey hide and seek.
The maze bar probably took inspiration from the Crazy House, Da Lat’s most quirky tourist offering; a noir Disney-esque house that is definitely worth an hour’s exploration when you need a break from the town’s more energetic attractions. If you’re seriously flash packing you can stay in one of the themed rooms, but peaking into them I was disappointed by their ordinariness after the strange patterns and ghouls adorning the twisting and turning corridors and bridges of the rest of the house.
Even without the bar culture that usually causes Backpackers to stay put, the town could easily absorb a week or more of your travels. Make sure you take some sturdy shoes and a rain coat or an umbrella. You might look like an idiot hiking with an umbrella but in Vietnam’s humidity you can end up as damp inside a rain coat as you would be without one! Or, Like me, you can simply opt to embrace the weather and go without either, after all if you’re staying for a week, like I did, there’s time for everything to dry off.