Dalat’s The Way To Do It

I usually write these posts whilst we’re on a bus or train from one place to another as the journeys can be quite long. But the journey from Nha Trang, which I’d picked out as the one in which I was going to write about the last few days was so spirit-crushingly uncomfortable, I couldn’t bear the thought of writing anything and in truth, anything I did write would have been quite miserable and negative so I thought I’d save it for Hoi An. I will talk more about that journey later but for now, I’m hoping that sitting next to the pool whilst many locals set up a wedding for this afternoon around me will inspire some more positive thoughts than might otherwise have been forthcoming.

Going back a few days, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels near Saigon. As was previously mentioned, the journey took forever due to some roadworks and the insane attitude to traffic in Vietnam. This, coupled with a tour guide who started off quite interesting and informative but slowly turned boring and bitter as his available material began to run dry in the rush hour traffic made the experience quite draining, but the tunnels were certainly very interesting and crawling through them for 120 metres was totally exhausting. They were dug just after the Second World War but more extensively used and expanded by the Viet Cong to transport weapons, food and supplies from the North to the freedom fighters in the South. Made for the tiny Vietnamese that were to use them, they are extremely cramped for a big fat Westerner like myself and I was quite relieved to escape after a brief period. The VC virtually lived in these tunnels for months on end. They also showed us some of the top class, almost cartoon-style booby traps that they used to catch the Americans, most of which involved soldiers falling into pits of rotating spikes and all of which filled the VC with much pride. The introductory video talked of several VC who were decorated as ‘American Killer Heroes’.

Next day, we took the bus to Dalat in the Central Highlands, 7 hours away. We’d bought an open tour bus ticket which allowed us to get on any TM Brothers Cafe bus to get first to Dalat, then Nha Trang, Hoi An and finally Hue and this was our first mistake. The bus was ancient and had dreadful suspension, bouncing around like a weeble after every bump in the road was encountered.

Many hours later, after having stopped to pick up various collections of locals, we bounced into Dalat which is set in the mountains. The town itself is not lovely but the area is beautiful and much cooler than Saigon. The highlands look and feel like the Alps in the Spring which was a nice change from chaotic cities in stifling heat.

First day there, we took a motorbike up to the base of Lang Biang, the tallest peak in the area, looking forward to a bit of exercise and a decent climb. Two hours later, after walking for miles, up some incredibly steep, slippery and muddy paths, we reached the top, exhausted and sweaty. Relieved that we’d brought food and drink with us, we devoured it all in seconds, relaxed for a while and the began the descent, which turned out to be just as hard, in a different way, to the journey up. By the time we’d reached the bottom, we were too late to get to go on a cable car across some valleys nearby and so ended up just scooting around pointlessly, ensuring that bums were as sore as legs and feet when we fell, exhaustedly, into bed that night.

Our much anticipated sleep was sadly interrupted around 1am by the banging of doors and the shouted voices of drunken Australian men, however and a nice few hours of recuperation were ruined when they talked (shouted) to each other long into the night. We were due to go on a tour with the manager’s cousin at 7am the next morning but, thanks to our Antipodean friends next door and some other ‘unspecified’ issues, we decided to leave for Nha Trang instead. It was a shame because the area was lovely and we’d like to have spent more time there but we would have been wasted had we done the tour and we haven’t got time to waste days so we had to push on.

After our unpleasant journey with TM Brothers, we chose to buy new tickets for the trip to Nha Trang with a much nicer local bus called Phuong Trang. Much more comfortable at first, this really seemed worth it, and it was – overall.

The bus wound it’s way down the mountain and through valleys and hills to reveal some truly stunning scenery which made me wish even more that we could spend more time there. After a stop for some food however, we seemed to find ourselves on a road which wasn’t exactly being repaired, more being built in the first place! Travelling in a bus, rather than a 4×4 or a tank did not make the route any easier and some unbelievable and, frankly, sometimes terrifying scenes followed as we bounced and leapt through muddy trenches and round bends which had sheer drops on both sides with no barriers. Lots of other buses were taking the same road so I’m sure all this was just normal for the locals amongst us but I, for one, was extremely relieved to see tarmac at the bottom and the arrival in Nha Trang was more than welcome.

Nha Trang is all about it’s beach – a long stretch of beautiful, white sand which runs along the front of the city, which appears to have mostly been built in the 1960’s. As such, there is not much to report other than the fact that the weather picked up again and 2 whole days were spent soaking up the sun and drinking the beer from a local micro brewery which offers loungers on the beach and waiter service. In between the 2 days of beach, we hired another motorbike and visited a local hot springs and mud bath – just for a change, you understand.

After having read some real horror stories of the tour bus we were booked onto for the trip to Hoi An, 10 hours north, we tried desperately to get onto another bus but conceded defeat in the end and gave ourselves to TM Brothers once more, this time for a night bus. Picked up at 6.15pm, we tried to get the vaguely less uncomfortable seats at the back but were told, sternly and uncompromisingly, that our seats were elsewhere. Having grumpily moved, the bus rumbled off around town to pick up the remaining passengers until every seat was taken and then off we went. Barely 1 mile down the road though, we stopped to fill up with petrol and off we went. Another mile and another stop, this time so that the driver could have a cigarette and a chat with some friends. Eventually we really did get moving though, and 11 1/2 hours of confined hell followed. Annika described the beds as narrow hospital beds and, as we had top bunks, we had to keep our rucksacks in the seat with us. The bus rocked and rolled and bounced over the uneven road all night and only trundled into Hoi An at 7.30am, despite the predicted 6am arrival and the early departure time. After spending the night in a narrow hospital bed on a roller coaster in a nightclub (the constant beeping of the driver as is the way with the Vietnamese) I was more tired than I have ever been so when our hotel offered us breakfast as we checked in, I was very happy indeed.

I have just regained my energy now, 24 hours on and am looking forward to spending time in Hoi An which seems lovely so far. We’ve eaten some superb food and ordered some bespoke clothes and have just now been to see the ancient ruins of My Son, an area of Champa temples which are older than Angkor Wat.

Having left the pool due to what turned out to be some sort of party for the employees of a local cooking school, which started with bad karaoke (‘We Are The World’) and is now in the throws of excitable party games, I am heading to the beach for some serious reading.

On Sunday, we have yet again forfeited our prized tickets on the tour bus and are going to Hue by train. Then we leave Vietnam for Laos and country number 4.