"Da Lat - a little place in the mountains" Da Lat by Martialsk

Da Lat Travel Guide: 252 reviews and 807 photos

A touch of colonial France...once upon a time

This was our next stop after Mui Ne and it was unfortunate that the transfer was via the nastiest, dirtiest & smelliest bus we'd ever had the pleasure of travelling in! We sweltered through the 5+ hours from Mui Ne to Da Lat, 1,500m up in the Central Highlands. Not only did this mangy bus already have so much going for it, it also just about didn’t get us up the mountains at all! Sheer boredom and a sore bottom from the narrow seats, I can safely say that I was officially done with buses in Vietnam.
On the upside, the scenery on the slowest drive in the world was breath-taking.

We arrived in the dark, the drop in temperature initially a shock to the system after the balmy sea-side sunshine and warm breezes, but thankfully the bus did drop us off right by our hotel up on a hill overlooking the city so it was not far to go. A nice place, clean and huge but with awful internet connection! We hadn’t been very fortunate with internet connection at all these last few days so this was annoying!
The breakfast was an experience all on it’s own - a giant bread roll and 2 bananas…that was called ‘banana bread’ on the menu…! And Lipton Tea…served in a glass with condensed milk...took some getting used to!

Our little party started as 3, and before long we were 6! One of our new friends we'd met at Mui Ne decided at the last minute to follow us to Da Lat and at the same time, 2 old friends from New Zealand also turned up from Nha Trang! Happy days - some quality time spent with new and old friends!!

There isn’t much in Da Lat itself really. It has a hefty French (& Swiss) influence which is notable through some of the buildings, street layouts and along some of the residential streets that we wandered around. As a result, in parts it is quite an attractive little town although somewhat overloaded with its own self-importance - which reminded me a little of Saigon. It is only a little town but it had a curiously unique atmosphere all of its own possibly derived from the mix of people resident here. There are multiple indigenous communities in the mountain areas - some of which have quite different physical attributes to the Vietnamese that we’d got used to recognising - and Da Lat, being the biggest town in the area, has easily accommodated all of them. This small place hosts several ethnicities and minorities all with their own unique traditions, quirks and specialities.
It was a likeable little place complete with an expressionist ’Crazy House’, an unconventional guesthouse designed by Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga, with his inspiration taken from Antoni Gaudi. Described as a “fairy-tale house”, its overall design resembles a giant banyan tree, incorporating sculptured design elements representing natural forms such as animals, mushrooms, spider webs and caves. It is a bizarre place!
The town also featured a typical Vietnamese market, bustling with people and all their paraphernalia which made for pleasant aimless wandering.

Mopeds - this is the Vietnamese way

The main attraction of this mountain town is the ability to hire motorbikes/ mopeds and go for a spin around the countryside.
Our hotel arranged some bikes for us and the hotelier (who is half Vietnamese, half hill-tribe) took us out for a round trip covering 120km to see some of the local sights. First stop, a wander through a local market where he talked us through some of the items for sale - fruit and veg that we‘ve never seen before, random household stuff, puppies for food, chickens, bull-eyes and livers…just the usual really. I still marvel at how these people eat everything and waste nothing. We could take a few lessons from them…Even seeing little puppies waiting in their tiny cages for what would be certain death didn’t have any shock factor for me. This is reality and people need to eat. I've seen wanton waste of food in wealthy places and it never ceases to sicken me as wasted food was an alien concept where I grew up.
Next stop, a cricket farm where we sampled fried crickets. An interesting, if somewhat dull-tasting insect, I found our African flying ants that would swarm out during the rains a far tastier delicacy. Interestingly, I ate flying ants as a child…I don’t know if I could do that now! I seem to recall adults recoiling at the idea of eating them whilst us kids would scramble around like mad catching them and scoffing them down within seconds!!
Afterwards, we stopped by a silk farm, where we didn’t sample silk worms thankfully, because I most certainly draw the line at eating worms, but instead watched the ladies tend the battered old looms spinning the silk thread out of the cocoons in an old and dusty working environment. Watching them, all the while gasping for air in that gloomy, dusty warehouse, knowing that we’ve always had Old Man Health & Safety to ensure our own environments were suitably ergonomic, I marvelled at them and their skills! Resilient, hard, durable people they just get on with it.

From there we dropped by a huge waterfall complete with its own little rainforest through which we treacherously walked/ climbed to get closer to the water (and even behind it). Beautifully muddy, slippery and damp, this place cared not for our comfort.

A long drive over the farm roads, whizzing past numerous rice paddies and coffee farms, the roads would take us to our Hotelier’s traditional rural home somewhere in the foothills of the mountains. Coffee farming and subsequent supply to the West is a huge industry in Vietnam - second only to Brazil at approx 15% of the world share in coffee production. The difference here is that there are numerous little privately-owned (alongside the bigger state-owned farms), mostly family run farms, rather than the huge, often corporate-controlled plantations of Brazil. The industry is second only to rice production in Vietnam, but the process is more haphazard and the quality of the beans questionable at times, causing occasional issues on the export market. It is big money for the little guy though and anyone who can, will plant coffee trees wherever he can and driving along, we would see trees everywhere and coffee beans laid out outside people’s homes to be sun-dried before being bagged up and taken to the depot.
Coffee is money and security for the family. In this area and according to tradition, the youngest son inherits the coffee plantation from the parents. The youngest son also bears the responsibility of the family home and his ageing parents.

Out in the countryside, mopeds are fine. However, it was a relatively hair-raising trip through the rush hour traffic on the open roads on the way home later in the day. Vietnamese drivers have no care for bikes/mopeds/bicycles. They do not hesitate to just pull out in front of oncoming bikes or cut you up on a road, or swerve into you...many didn't have working lights either...it was insane and my heart spent much time in my mouth during that trip...!

Our education...

Before lunch, we spent about hour in the front ‘living room’ of a local hill tribe family. Basically, a rustic mud-floored tin shack similar to that which would be found in Sub-Saharan Africa, we all crammed in and sat ourselves down on the tiniest seats imaginable to a western-sized rear-end! Here we met the ladies, the 3 matriarchs of this family and set about introducing ourselves and learning about alternative ways of living. An interesting and somewhat humbling experience except for a moment of hilarity when we were told that the sound of my name in their language sounded like the word ’Eat’ and my boyfriend's name apparently sounded like ’Ladybits’…! Put the 2 together and what do we get?? hehehe!

An hour later and we learnt a few things! This is a matriarchal society where women own their men through marriage, the price carefully calculated and bartered depending on a man’s worth as a worker, in health, family place in society and reputation. A price paid in very valuable water-buffalo and in arrangements not dissimilar to the African Lobola process where the currency is always cattle. Poverty (lack of water-buffalo) would mean daughters would either never marry or would be expected to share husbands. Children out of wed-lock is a major no-no and participants to this naughty deed would be ostracised from the community. Once married, usually at a very young age, the babies would come - as many as possible because they are not certain to all survive in a place riddled with malaria and dengue fever, malnutrition and other childhood illnesses and diseases. Child-birth is taken care of at home by the women, not in hospitals with doctors.
So, I sat in this tiny shack with my mouth hanging open because just there across from me sat 2 wizened old crones and a woman my age. They had had the hardest life imaginable, shown on their lined faces and tired, slightly stooped bodies. Having had around as many as 10 children each, some lost at young age to disease, they were hardened by each day being a struggle to survive, hard work in a harsh environment. Resilient to the max. Powerful and inspiring. I was awed. If I could be half the woman that these ladies were, well…wouldn’t that be something?

Interestingly, matriarchal societies are still quite rare. In many tribes, patriarchal societies are far more common and women are ‘traded’ the same way as the men mentioned above. The institution of marriage is very much alive and kicking and ‘love’ rarely has anything to do with it.
The government is said to be educating the hill-tribes about their archaic traditions when it comes to marriage amongst the young, but it looks to me to be falling on deaf ears or possibly that the kids have little chance of breaking age-old family traditions without causing big family eruptions. The farms that these hill-tribes work to earn their livelihoods need extra hands, and marriage brings in that extra support that the families wouldn’t otherwise be able to pay for. It is a necessity and no amount of government interference is going to change this cycle of events quickly. It is a way of life.
Before we left, we bought some hand woven cloth which we thought was quite beautiful as a little something to take home as a memento of a rare day in the travel diary.

After scoffing a delicious a vegetarian rice noodle lunch back at the farmhouse, cooked for us by our guide’s sister, we spent almost an hour sampling a huge variety of Vietnamese fruits and discussing family traditions, weddings, language and other random subjects. Our education before home-time.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Stunning location, laidback, educational
  • Cons:Getting there, touristy in parts
  • In a nutshell:Worth the detour to get there just to do the bike trip
  • Last visit to Da Lat: Nov 2011
  • Intro Updated Apr 6, 2012
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Martialsk

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