While we were in Saigon, Brian and Dominique convinced us to visit Dalat, a medium-sized town in the southern part of the Central Highlands. Dalat is located in the mountains, so it is much cooler here than other parts of southern Vietnam…for this reason, it is a big destination for HCMC residents trying to escape the heat of the city.
Dalat is a 7 hour bus ride from HCMC. We shopped around our neighborhood for a bus ticket and found an office selling rides for a dollar less (US$7) than the other agents in the neighborhood. Given some of our previous SE Asian travel experiences, we were a bit concerned that we were getting on a bus that was in some way inferior to the $8 buses. Maybe the seats were cramped or the bus was really old and rickety…why else would this company charge a dollar less than anyone else? We needn’t have worried ourselves, though…the bus turned out to be one of the nicest we’ve been in, and we were surprisingly the only Westerners in the entire car. The AC was pumping, the seats were spacious, and the ride was smooth. We were pleased to find ourselves in such comfortable traveling conditions.
Until the karaoke started.
OK, to be fair, nobody actually sang (which would have incredibly been painful), but the music was LOUD. We had earplugs in and still it was deafening…seriously, they had the volume at 11. We had read that buses carrying locals were often moving karaoke clubs, but we never thought we would find ourselves on one. We’re just grateful nobody started singing along to the dramatic Vietnamese pop ballads they were playing.
We also experienced another characteristic of bus travel with the locals in Vietnam: carsickness. I guess a lot of Vietnamese people get really sick during travel…there was a woman seated behind us who kept barfing during the ride, and then, strangely, eating at the rest stops (WTF?!?) and then getting back on the bus to repeat the entire bizarre ritual again.
Still, to be honest, it wasn’t that bad of a trip (the earplugs really helped). The scenery was beautiful during the drive up into the mountains (the color is strange because I was taking these photos through a tinted bus window).
We had heard that Dalat was quite different than other places in Vietnam, but until pulled into town, we didn’t realize just how different it would be. Quite frankly, it is one of the weirdest places we have ever been, and we’ve been to Burning Man a combined 10 times, so that’s saying a lot. The place is completely absurd and you really can’t help but love it for its kitschy charm. We seriously can’t imagine Dalat existing any other country than in Vietnam.
During our first full day in Dalat, we rented a scooter and explored the town. Those of you who have been to Vietnam (or SE Asia in general) may be wondering if we have a death wish—the traffic in this country is absolutely insane (common traffic rules, stoplights, and even traffic direction are mere “suggestions” here)—but actually, the drivers in Dalat are not as crazy as those in the bigger cities and Jeremy felt confident that he could handle it.
So you may be wondering what it is about Dalat that makes it so kooky. Well, first of all, there is the replica of the Eiffel Tower that overlooks the town:
There is even a mini-”Seine” running through Dalat:
But since the French colonized Vietnam for a long time, that sort of makes sense, right? Well, what about the high-tech gondola that looks like it belongs more in Swiss Alps than in the Vietnamese mountains?
And here’s where things start to get really weird. There are some strange topiaries in the Dalat flower garden…I’ve never seen people add cardboard facial features to a bush before:
Oh, and then there are the swan paddle boats you can rent to tool around the lake in the middle of town. Of course, we just HAD to do this. Little did we know we were getting a bunk paddleboat. The thing was made of entirely of iron or something so it weighed a ton, and it had a totally inefficient paddle (we swear!). Jeremy and I pedaled furiously into the wind and made it about 20 yards before we decided that enough was enough.
And the final kooky flower in Dalat’s weird little bonnet is definitely the Hang Nga Crazy House. The thing looks like Dali on crack with a concrete giraffe head built into it. You know what, let’s just let the photos explain it all:
Altar to the architect’s father with glitter-covered stalactites.
The place is actually a hotel (reasonably priced, too), and you can stay in any number of theme rooms.
Why yes, that is a fake tiger with glowing red eyes, why do you ask?
Our favorite, by a longshot, was the “Eagle Room.” The centerpiece of the room was large eagle perched atop an egg-shaped fireplace. Classy.
Dalat is meant to be “romantic,” as it is the honeymoon capital of Vietnam, which I suppose sort of explains the kitschiness. But it’s not just the tourist attractions that have the kook built into them…it seems like the people who live around here just really like kitschy stuff. Here’s a photo we took while scooting around of a fence surrounding a big, expensive-looking house:
Dalat, as you can see, is AWESOME. The weirdness, the fresh mountain air, and the hills reminded us in a lot of ways of San Francisco. It’s no wonder we felt so at home here.
Note: The title of this post “Same same, but different,” is a reference to a t-shirt slogan that we have seen all over SE Asia. We have no idea where this phrase came from. Locals will often say that two things are “same same,” and we always reply, “but different?” They don’t seem to get the joke. Or maybe they just don’t think we’re as funny as we think we are.