Dà Lat, The City of Eternal Spring
Tired faces slumped against the sun-heated glass of our bus from Mūi Né to Dà Lat, we made our way up into the spectacular heights of the Vietnamese highlands. Even if the sudden increase in elevation hadn’t been a factor, the view was breathtaking.
Still a little haggard from our rude awakening, our plan was to nap as much as possible on the journey. We quickly decided that would be a waste after the first hairpin bend as we rose into the highland fog, a smooth green canopy carpeting the valley hundreds of metres below. We had the bus largely to ourselves, with the exception of an old couple and their tiny granddaughter, who made a point of beaming at me whenever I made eye contact.
We wanted to visit Da Lat for a few reasons. On a practical note, it lay directly between us and Hoi An, a certain stop on the journey. Secondly, the city is known for its pine forests, its unusually French aesthetic and – most importantly – its almost perpetual early-spring temperature. Small wonder it’s earned itself the nickname of ‘The City Of Eternal Spring; Da Lat made me actually consider wearing a jacket for the first time on this trip.
We checked into the hotel (lovely owner, fourth floor room, no lift, tiny stairwell, great cardio), dumped our bags and saw what we could see of the town. A large lake is the centrepiece of the area, around which you can take horse-drawn carriage rides, go for a run or – in my case – underestimate the length of the lake and bitch about wearing flip-flops for a two-hour walk.
The town has a charming personality to it, admittedly in a strangely non-Vietnamese sort of way. Designed as a French resort town in the early 1900s, you could absolutely believe it’s a purpose-planned city – but it still has a soul, and the roads are inescapably Vietnamese in their urgent and strangely cohesively chaotic sort of way.
Having left the dubious roads of Mui Ne behind, I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity for some cool-weather exploring. We had to change hotels (just as well, as the building opposite was undergoing incredibly noisy construction) and luckily found one just across the road (the floor directly underneath said noisy construction), before renting a scooter and heading out into the great green yonder.
I had a scooter in Korea for about a year before having my accident (not to protest too much but it *was* 100% their fault), in which time I would drive to/from work four times a day on relatively mad Korean roads. In the Philippines I drove more or less daily on mostly lawless but fairly empty Philippine roads.
Vietnam is an entirely different world of driving. Everybody seems to know exactly what they’re doing, so your first job is to look like you know exactly what you’re doing as well. Make sure you know where you’re going, stick to the right side of the road and for God’s sake don’t hesitate or you’ll find yourself at the back of a very, very long line of bikes that wasn’t there a moment before. Our newfound Swiss friend Daniel put it best: “In Vietnam, it seems crazy but there’s a system. You could walk across the road with your eyes shut if you dare – but you need to know the system.”
Having got ourselves some wheels, we fled the town and followed the long, lazily winding mountainside road. I had been looking forward to the drive for a few days, which of course meant that for both days of scooter ownership the weather made a point of raining heavily whenever I turned on the ignition – but that’s what pack-a-macs are for.
The road eventually took us to the Elephant Falls – an out-of-the-blue waterfall next to a temple boasting the tallest Buddha I’ve ever seen. If the waterfall was dramatic, however, the route to its base was something else, particularly when you’ve decided once again to wear flip-flops in the rain. What starts out as steps quickly turns into roughly-cut notches in the rock faces that aren’t always as obvious as they should be. The scramble down to the waterfall basin is worth it, as you stand on a rough chunk of stone with water exploding either side of you. The upper views are equally photo-worthy, as well as giving you the opportunity to donate either money or, apparently, sweet wrappers to the tiny Buddha shrine on the platform.
Due to nobody’s organisational foibles but our own, we failed to successfully book the bus we planned to Hoi An for our last day, but just managed to get the last two seats on the 14-hour night bus to Da Nang – which, as you can imagine, we’re both super keen on. In anticipation of half a day of possible misery, we allowed ourselves one last outing on the bike to the expansive Tuyên Lâm Lake, once again made all the more dramatic by the exciting addition of rain.
Now I get to see what the last two seats on a 14-hour sleeper bus in Vietnam look like. There’s a chance I may resemble a pretzel on the other side, but it’ll be worth it so long as I have something to write about.
To any parents of mine who might be reading this, I’m being a very safe driver so do try not to worry. X