The Vietnamese Highlands of Da Lat

We left Hoi An at around 5:30pm on Saturday 13th January 2018 and arrived in Da Lat 14 hours later at 7am on Sunday. The journey ended up being shorter than we had been told and we were able to sleep a bit on the bus so, even though we were still very tired, it wasn’t a terrible journey at all. Once we checked into our hostel (An An Hostel) we were able to have a nap for a few hours to make ourselves feel a bit more human for the day ahead. The hostel was ok, there wasn’t many people staying here and the wifi was good but we later found out the location was a bit further out of town compared to other hostels and they had a very small baby who woke us up every morning around 6:30am so it’s not somewhere we would choose to stay again. We went to get food and spent the rest of the day walking around town.

The sun had come out and we had blue skies and some heat which was very welcome after all the rain, grey skies and cold temperatures we had been having. Da Lat was founded in 1891 by French soldiers after the war as they didn’t want to return to France and so searched for a place in Vietnam that they could spend the rest of their days relaxing. They chose Da Lat due to its more favourable climate as it’s a similar temperature all year round at around a mid-twenty degrees meaning its similar to the weather in France. You can see why they saw French similarities when they discovered this place as there are pine trees instead of palm trees and they grow very different food compared to the rest of Vietnam. Da Lat is the only place in Vietnam that has the climate to grow strawberries and they also grow artichokes and a lot of other vegetables that they then sell to the rest of Vietnam. Aside from the odd milkshake we didn’t buy any strawberries as we have been told they’re still more expensive than other fruits as the demand is higher for them with it being the only place they grow.

We had a relaxing day walking around the big lake that is on the edge of town. It was lovely to see the lake whilst there was blue skies as that always makes things look nicer and we even got to relax in the sun which was just the nicest after being in the cold for so long!

Da Lat is a very busy town with lots of bikes and cars and it’s also pretty noisy. Despite that, it just adds to the atmosphere of the place and it’s also quite pretty with lots of flowers everywhere, particularly around the lake where they have created small parks with the surrounding grassy areas.

Our three Canadian friends Keven, Ryan and Jamie, whom we met in Halong Bay, were in Da Lat at the same time as us so we met them in the early evening to catch up. They had hired bikes for the day so they drove us to a place further out of the city centre for some ice cream. We all got a couple of flavours each and it ended up being cheaper than we all expected which is always a bonus – I got coconut and passionfruit and Niall got banana and cookies and cream.

Ryan giving Niall a lift, me on the back of Keven’s bike with Jamie, my ice cream

There is a famous bar in Da Lat called Maze Bar so after changing into warmer clothes – it gets colder here at night as it’s 1500m above sea level – we all headed there for a drink. The place is crazy with loads of passageways and secret rooms and little nooks to sit in. The sound also travels through the passageways and I got lost from the others at one point and the travelling sound kept tricking me about where they all were! It’s a cool place that has a bunch of floors and different routes you could take to get to the rooftop garden that gives you views over the city. We were there relatively early so it wasn’t very busy but I imagine it would be a fun place to be when it’s packed full of people all trying to find their way around!

We ended our evening together at the night market were we all ate pho (noodle soup) at an outdoor restaurant at the end of the market. It was so cheap with a bowl of pho and a large bottle of beer coming to 45,000 dong (around £1.50). It was great to catch up with them again and hear about what they had been getting up to and also nice to have some people to help us get our bearings and navigate Da Lat a bit easier.

Left to right: Keven, Niall, Jamie, me and Ryan

The next day (15th January) we had booked to go on Mr Rot’s Secret Tour after being recommended it by Keven, Ryan and Jamie. It cost 800,000 dong (£25) so was actually one of the more expensive things we did in Vietnam but wasn’t by any means breaking the bank.

Due to the nature of the tour I can’t talk about everything we did but we learnt an awful lot about Vietnamese food and culture as well as a lot about the native highlanders that live in the area. We were able to see infinitely more than we could have on our own and have taken away a lot from the experience.

We were picked up around 9am by Mr Rot’s cousin, Jessy-Jay. He has given himself two English names: a male name (James) and a female name (Jessica) and as well as being a tour guide he also teaches English. He says he has a female name as this appears more friendly and approachable to the kids that he teaches. His English was exceptional and he knew loads about the area and his culture and was also very inquisitive about our cultures too. There was only four of us on the tour, me and Niall and two Swedish girls. We were a group of blondes which Jessy-Jay thought was great as he says Vietnamese people aim to be as fair and pale as possible as that’s what they consider to be beautiful (oh the flattery!)

During a warm up quiz for the day, Jessy-Jay told us about the Lunar New Year festival called Tet that would be happening in early February throughout Vietnam. He was very excited for it as it’s a time when all of the Vietnamese return to their home-towns/villages and celebrate as a family together. He says it’s great to go home then and see everyone and that a part of the festival is to give lucky money. You get given the lucky money when you’re single or when you’re young and he said that he gets some as he’s single but now that he is 25 he also has to give lucky money to the younger family members. Apparently at 25 he is expected to be married or engaged by now and that Vietnamese people are given a window of a few years in their twenties when they’re expected to get married. After this age they’re considered to be too old or have something wrong with them that’s stopping them from finding someone and Jessy-Jay said that his mother is constantly hassling him about it as she’s more traditional and so follows this way of thinking. Apparently the south of Vietnam is a lot more open minded about this as they have more influence from western culture and his study of different cultures through his work makes him even more open minded and willing to wait for the right one which we thought was a very good thing

The Highlanders live very different lives and have a very different culture compared to ‘flat Vietnam’. We left Da Lat and headed into the rural highlands to get to experience and learn a lot more about them. Our first stop of the day was to a cricket farm. When the highlanders first moved to the area there wasn’t much food so they used to eat crickets from the jungle. Crickets are easy to farm as they eat anything and so you can give them cardboard or old clothes to dried grasses and leaves. They keep them in square, concrete pens that have a line of smooth plastic around the rim so that the crickets can’t grip the wall and escape. There were so many crickets in the pens and we then got to try them deep fried with lemon grass and chilli sauce. I don’t think they really tasted of much but they were very flaky and so it just made you think you’d have cricket stuck in your teeth (lovely, I know) so we only tried one. After trying the cricket we washed it down with a shot of rice wine which tastes a bit like watered down vodka and burns your throat once you drink it – we won’t be having it again! We also got to try jungle leaf tea which was nice and preferable to the rice wine!

Our next stop was to a silk farm. Silk is the second biggest industry in the region due to the climate there being perfect for growing mulberry. They grow mulberry for their leaves as these are the perfect habitat for silk worms to grow. Once the silk worm is in the cocoon they boil the worm and then use brushes to remove the ‘bad silk’ which is the outer layer of the cocoon leaving the good silk behind. Nothing is wasted though and the bad silk is dried out and then sent to be made into jeans by mixing it with cotton.

Once there is only the good silk left it is then put onto a machine that catches the silk strands and winds them around spirels along a huge conveyer belt. It’s a clever system and is run by a few workers who make sure the machine is working properly and that the silk strands are catching. All of the strands are wound together as they’re incredibly thin on their own. This is then dried and packed up to be sent to Ho Chi Minh to be dyed different colours and weaved into fabric. 1kg of silk here would fetch 4 million dong which is £127 so definitely a good money maker! To add to the lack of waste here, the larvae of the silk worms after the silk has been taken from the cocoon is then sold to the local market for the locals to eat (we thankfully weren’t offered to try this)!

At the local market we were told all about the customs with regards to bartering for items. In the morning it’s customary to never bargain for goods as they have a concept of ‘the lucky first customer’ which doesn’t necessarily mean literally the first customer that day, it can be any customer that morning that has made a purchase. As you’re lucky the vendor needs to get a good price from you so that they get good luck and good profits for the rest of their day. As this is an accepted concept throughout Vietnam, locals who shop in the morning know and accept that they’ll be paying more and so don’t barter. Something I found very interesting to find out is that it is only the women who barter in Vietnam and that it’s not seen as a manly thing to do. Jessy-Jay said a man would get his mother, wife or girlfriend to do any bargaining they needed and he said that locals find it very funny that, for tourists, it’s often the man that takes over the bargaining process. If you’re not sure if you’re going to buy some goods then you’re not meant to touch it or ask the price which I find hard to get because I would need to know the price and feel if the quality was good before I would consider buying something! He also told us that when it comes to asking for a lower price, you can start as low as 80% for clothing and 10 or 20% for food. You can barter for anything providing it doesn’t have price tags on or is subject to tax such as medication – so pretty much anything in a market is fair game.

Whilst at the market we were given a range of local highlander cakes to try – all of which were very tasty! All of the food is only sold in the morning in highlander areas as they are designed for the farmers to eat to help give them a lot of energy when they’re out in the fields all day. For this reason they’re nearly all sweet treats to give them a sugar kick.

A lot of the cakes used green beans as flavouring and a source of energy and this often gave them the taste of pre-made icing. The banh cuon translates to ‘rolling cake’ and is sticky rice paper filled with tiny flakes of mushroom and onion, rolled up and then dipped in soy sauce. Providing you don’t get too much soy sauce on it, it was very tasty. You can get banh cuon in other places in Vietnamese but it’s only made the way we tried it in the highlands. The dying bread tasted like sesame seeds and is apparently typically dipped in soy milk. The earth cake was green because of mango leaves used in the making of the cake and is square as the Highlanders thought that the world was square. This is the oldest type of cake in Vietnam and was made by the request of a king a very long time ago. The baker decided to make a cake that could be eaten by everyone instead of just royalty and so the earth cake was made. The sun cake was made around the same time to complement the earth cake and has two types, one for North and one for the South. The southern cake was my favourite as that’s the coconut one but Niall didn’t really like that one as much as he’s not a coconut fan. The moon cake was designed to look like a flower and tasted like icing which was great! The ear cake was one of the few cakes that was savourily and was filled with noodles, tofu and mushrooms. It was a little bit like a pasty and we both enjoyed it a lot. We liked all of the cakes and I wish we could have bought them all over Vietnam but, as we can’t, it was good to get to try them on the tour.

We were then walked around the rest of the market which sold lots of fruits, meats and pickled goods. This market really had anything a Vietnamese person would need to cook with and we were shown what a lot of the stuff in jars were and what they would be used for which was very interesting. Jessy-Jay also told us that some of the things would only be eaten by the women as men don’t eat or drink anything sour as it’s not seen as manly. I couldn’t imagine having to dictate what I ate based on my gender and it must make it very hard for those who are gay or even on a smaller scale, those who just really like lemon juice! When we have gone to a lot of these markets in the past the meat is often on a table without any ice or fridge equipment. I always thought this was to do with the equipment needed but Jessy-Jay says that it’s because they only eat fresh food and so, by not having the meat being kept cold or frozen you know it’s fresh from that day. I don’t think I really get this logic as in the summer everywhere would get hotter and so that wouldn’t be good for meat sitting out all day but they obviously are happy with this system. One thing I hadn’t ever seen before was the full anatomy of a cow which I did at the end of this market. One of the ‘butchers’ had everything from the nose, tongue and heart (which is enormous) on the table ready for people to buy!

Our next stop for the day was to the Elephant Waterfalls. This was the only tourist place included on our tour with everything else often having us as the only westerners there. The Falls are 30m high and 40m wide making them the widest but not the tallest waterfall in Vietnam. We had to climb down passageways made up of loads of rocks to get the bottom of the waterfall and we were able to go through a small gap that led you to an area really close to the bottom of the Falls that covered you in the spray coming off the waterfall as it plummeted to the river below. It’s called Elephant Waterfall after two people from neighbouring villages fell in love but were unable to marry as you could only marry within your village. They used to sing to each other and all of the wildlife in the area (including elephants) would join in. The man decided to go to war instead of finding a wife as he didn’t want anyone else apart from the girl from the neighbouring village. He died whilst in the war and the girl’s grief caused her to sing a very sad song with all of the animals until she died of exhaustion! Loads of the animals also died the same way from feeling her grief until only the elephant was left as they could go longer without food or water. The elephants were so angry that the man and woman died from the villages’ rules on marriage that they jumped up and down and shouted and then fell into the water and died as well. The noise brought both villages to the water and they saw all the dead animals and the girl and understood what had happened and so vowed to allow everyone to marry whoever they fell in love with instead.

On our way to lunch, Jessy-Jay stopped to show us the Robusta coffee plant and we were able to try the fruit from the plant that had the coffee bean in the middle of it. Coffee is the biggest industry in the highlands and Vietnam is the largest country exporting Robusta coffee around the world. They only get one season for the plant each year so it’s a very easy thing to farm. We were also shown a curry plant and Jessy-Jay opened up one of the fruits to show us the curry pods inside. I didn’t know curry powder came from a plant (I hadn’t really thought about it before) and so it was interesting to see what it looks like before you see it as the powder we would buy at home. The highlanders also use the curry plant for colouring as its red so women would use it as a stain for their lips or during ceremonies where it could be used as face paint. This was all by crocodile mountain, so named as it looks a little bit like a crocodile and it was nice to stop to appreciate the great scenery all around us.

After lunch in a local’s house that was of noodles with vegetables and tofu in chilli and soy sauce we were given different fruits that we may not have seen or tried before. I liked the Cambodian fruit which was very sugary and one of the Swedish girls said reminded her of dates. Our favourites though we’re the longen which tasted like melon and the custard apple which was really sweet – every time I see a custard apple I really have to resist buying it as it was so tasty!

Whilst we waited for Mr Rot to arrive to take us on our secret part of the tour – I can’t talk about this bit, I’m sorry – we learnt more about (non-highlander) Vietnamese culture. We were told never to cross our fingers which we use to wish someone luck as this is the equivalent to putting your middle finger up at someone in Vietnam! Once I knew this I realised actually how much I cross my fingers and had to make a conscious effort not to do it. We were told all about a Vietnamese wedding and how they can have thousands of guests as all the guests must bring money as a present and the amount of money reflects how close you are to the couple. Some people take this very seriously and people have stopped being friends with someone, or considered someone a great friend, purely based on this monetary contribution. In the north in particular you’d likely invite your entire village to your wedding to maximise the amount of money you’d make so that could mean you have over 2000 people attending your wedding! You only pay if you’re older than the person getting married and if you’re invited but can’t go then you’re not off the hook and are expected to give money to someone else who is attending to give to them for you! A women is then expected to be pregnant within the year of getting married (they MUST be married first) and if they can’t get pregnant, even if because of the man, then the woman is shamed. Divorce is very uncommon which is a shame as I imagine this leads to some unhappy lives being led especially if one party isn’t able to have children. Jessy-Jay says it’s often seen as a bad thing if men can cook so some men would even pretend to be bad cooks when they’re not. We explained that men being able to cook was an attractive quality in the western world which he was very surprised at. What didn’t make sense though, and he couldn’t explain it either, is that the chefs in restaurants are still often men so it must be ok to be a good cook sometimes! We taught him how the western world often doesn’t get married before having children which he couldn’t believe and also other things like about our use of knives and forks when eating . It was interesting to compare the differences in our cultures with one another.

It was a very informative and interesting tour into highland culture but also Vietnamese culture as a whole. We learnt loads and got to see a lot more about Da Lat’s people and the highlands than we could have possibly seen on our own. We’re so glad we did it.

On our final day in Da Lat (Tuesday 16th January 2018) we hired a bike to explore the surrounding area. We ended up getting a really good deal for our bike and it only cost us 80,000 (£2.60) to have it for the day which was almost half the price our hostel wanted to charge us! We had been recommended visiting Pongour Waterfall which was around a 45 minute drive through mountains and villages from Da Lat city centre. It was a little bit cloudier than the previous two days but still a lovely day and so we headed out to see what the waterfall was like.

The journey took a while and a lot of the villages we passed were quite developed and industrial so it wasn’t a picturesque drive. We drove along a huge highway that got quite busy and we had to stop a couple of times to stretch our legs as our bums were going a bit numb! Drivers in Vietnam don’t really abide by any rules and everyone always seems to be in a rush to get to wherever they’re going. For this reason, everyone will overtake and not just when there is a space to do so but also for long stretches they will just drive on the other side of the road! This is particularly alarming when it’s cars or lorries doing this as they take up the majority of the road and you have to make sure to avoid them. Niall was very good and careful on the roads so we were always going to get there and back in one piece and once you know how they drive you’re able to act accordingly so it’s nothing to stop you from driving around the area if you feel comfortable on the bike.

We really liked the waterfall. It’s set across the river and is a series of levels created from the water cutting into the rock. There is a point where a huge stone slab creates a platform in the middle of the waterfall which some people walked on (although they got in trouble from the waterfall warden). The level of water is controlled by the dam that’s further up stream so it wasn’t super powerful but that worked for us as it meant we could sit on rocks reasonably close to the bottom without getting soaked. We sat here for a couple of hours in the sun with the sound of the water falling being all we could hear. It was very relaxing.

On the way back we got caught in a heavy downpour so we had to wait it out under the shelter of the big toll station on the highway. It didn’t rain for too long but it did make the rest of the journey cold and we even had to drive through a cloud at one point which wasn’t the clearest visibility we’ve had. We were glad to get back to the hostel and warm up! We had the bike until 9pm so we were able to take it out again later on when we went back to the night market for pho again (great for warming you up) and it made the journey a fraction of the time it would take to walk.

Our time in Da Lat had been really good and we had been lucky with the weather we had whilst we were there. There is a lot to do around the neighbouring areas with a few more waterfalls and viewpoints we didn’t get a chance to see. I had been there on my last trip to Vietnam but we had done completely different things which was good and shows just how much their is to do there. I’m glad we went but it was not time to see the sea again so we were heading to Mui Ne.

Sending Love x

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