Our travel thus far in Southeast Asia has been stifling hot. Supposedly this has been the cool season, but the sweat constantly dripping from my forehead says otherwise. We needed a change of pace, somewhere cool, somewhere with forests and waterfalls and clean air; that place was the mountain town in central Vietnam named Dalat. To our surprise we found welcoming people and a sincere hospitality in the form of several Viet moms that made it difficult to leave. The city appears more at home in the Swiss alps than it does in Vietnam, but with bowls of pho and numerous scooter cyclists we were easily reminded of our whereabouts.
Our overnight bus from Ho Chi Minh City crawled and jolted up the mountainside. We were dropped off a few kilometers outside of town where we grabbed a taxi to bring us to the center. We settled into our $10 hotel and went in search of some pho for breakfast. We found a little shop serving steaming bowls that cut through the brisk cool mountain air warming us from the inside.
The mountainsides surrounding Dalat are covered in coffee plantations. The red berries are picked and spread onto the concrete surfaces of driveways and plazas. The berries turn brown and flaky and are then broken and sifted to retrieve the actual green coffee bean. This bean is then roasted and ground to make coffee. The Vietnamese make serious coffee, more or less like jet fuel with the consistency of syrup. We found this wonderful cafe, named Cafe Nôi that was crowded with people gambling over a board game. Our two coffees were stronger than any espresso I have drank and they were served with a pot of tea as a chaser or more subtle accompanying drink.
Amped up on coffee, it was difficult for me to sit still. I wanted to explore and see the town and mountains. We rented a scooter and in no time the wind was in our hair once again. Our scooter putted through the pine forests and around the coffee plantations until we reached our first destination: a silk factory. We were both oblivious to the processes of rendering this soft fabric. Silk worms create these dense cocoons. These cocoons are collected and soaked in hot water. A thread is grabbed from the cocoon and spun onto a wheel. We watched as fifteen women each maintained eighteen spools of thread on an enormous machine. We bought a scarf for Carmen and a tie for me to use during our future wedding and we hopped back on the scooter.
A little further down the road was the access road to our intended destination, Elephant Waterfalls. We climbed down the adjacent slope and through a small cavern get a closer look. In seconds I was drenched, but it was hot out. We wrapped around the base of the waterfall to get a better view. The water thundered down over the rocks and moss. We admired the scenery for a few minutes and we continued our exploration of the area.
We crossed a rickety bridge where all the planks were rotted through, but the main steel girders were stable and in good shape. We discovered a tranquil temple with chanting monks, dragon statues and an enormous 9m (30ft) statue of a happy Buddha. We wondered through the peaceful gardens and wooden buildings before returning to the main city of Dalat.
We had a beautiful ride through the mountains back into Dalat. As the sun began to set we visited the Crazy House. This radical design of one Vietnamese architect is Gaudiesque and combines free-form architecture with dripping and flowing three-dimensional art. On one growing stairway we found ourselves flying between and around buildings admiring the boganvilla flowers and recreated stalactites. The buildings have rooms for lodging making this one exceptionally cool guesthouse.
We returned the scooter and walked around the small downtown. Dalat was frigid like we wanted. The nights dropped below 10C (50F), but everyone still roamed the streets slurping noodles and soups. We sat down at a small table with hot soy milk and Vietnamese cookies. Later we discovered that the best sweet breads and cakes are better washed own with Dalat’s local sweetened fresh milk.
In the morning we found the local market and made a B-line for the food court. Carmen ordered bun cha, BBQ pork and vegetables over cold rice noodles and I pointed at something orange with pork and peanuts that was being eaten on the table next to ours. The flavors of Vietnam are immensely rich: sweet and savory with a blast of fresh mint, basil and chili.
We were enjoying this cute mountain town so much that we extended our stay one night. With an open day we thought about relaxing, catching up on trip planning or the blog, but what fun would that be? We hopped on our trusty scooter and we were off to search for the Pongour waterfalls. The route to get there was surprisingly easy, south on 120 towards HCMC about 40km where we took a marked right turn. The access road traversed banana groves and sugarcane alongside a wide river. We hiked down to the base to find a 300ft wide cascading waterfall. The water gently splashed along steps in the cliff face creating a misty wall of white and blue. We explored the waterfall and pools, but we paused to sit and take in the extravagant scenery.
We were not the only group enjoying the waterfalls; there were a handful of tourists that would trickle about and there was one particularly joyous family enjoying a picnic on the rocks. A rather scrawny man stood up from this group and walked over to us carrying big wedges of watermelon. We took a few bites, waved at the family and we yelled “Com ermn!” (thank you). They grinned at us and emphatically began waving for us to come and join them. They widened their circle and we sat down facing them. We gnawed on our melon with all of them watching, and then we realized that this was not no ordinary picnic. The most friendly woman had a slender and slightly gaunt face that she counteracted with almost constant laughter and cheeky banter. She enticed me to dip my watermelon into a spicy salt mixture, I gained approval, then she leaned over once more and dipped a tiny glass into a 2 liter bottle turned into make-shift container and passed me the glass. I took the shot and everyone cheered. Then Carmen and there were more cheers, then me, then Carmen, then each of them, then me and then Carmen.
The watermelon was actually just a prop, a chaser, for the already smooth rice moonshine liquor that they bought in plastic bags. With absolutely no shared language we communicated with this group of people and any anomaly was circumstance for another shot. They made me severely pay for not wearing a ring, but a few shots were enough to justify my love for Carmen. We ate hard-boiled eggs and shrimp-flavored potato chips alongside more watermelon. The ten of us seemed to be in constant laughter and everyone’s face began to take on a reddish hue. The women of the group particularly liked Carmen and each insisted on an individual photo alongside her. In a couple hours we had found a Vietnamese family, our “Viet moms,” who cared for us, entertained us and welcomed us to their local hangout.
We had to excuse ourselves, it is so difficult to remove yourself from fun, but with another hour drinking we would have been crawling into their huts to share another meal and some blankets on the floor. We parted ways with many hugs and scribbling of phone numbers on napkins. They watched as I climbed up to the waterfall ledge and inched my way across. The water was cool and refreshing. I dunked my head under the falling torrent, we waved goodbye and we hiked out out of the small canyon. After a small pause in the colorful park we gained our wits and began the journey back to Dalat.
In the morning we explored more of the town. We stopped for another coffee at Cafe Nôi and then set out for local street cuisine. There was cute European looking canal and across the street groups of people hoarding around a pot of bun rieu. Two bowls of rice noodle and beef stew landed in front of us and we began chowing down. We picked the leaves from another bowl filled with several Vietnamese herbs, we twisted and pinched off the torn leaves into our bowl and the savory aroma hot soup, mint and basil was at our nostrils once again.
That afternoon we boarded a 14 hour bus to Hoi An. We crawled onto our upper cots, our shoes were carefully tied into a plastic bag and our feet tucked into a cubby beneath the seat in front of ours. The night was bumpy, but our dreams were pleasant with memories of scootering through mountain roads, market noodles, waterfalls, and the rice liquor shots and laughs with our Viet moms.