On Tuesday morning, we were the first to board our bus to Dalat ($8.75 each), and we waited a few minutes for the other passengers to arrive. They never came. So, we had our own private bus and driver all the way there, a bumpy 6 hour journey into the mountains. We arrived in Dalat around 2pm, walked about 10 minutes to our hotel, and after dropping off our stuff went for a walk through the town. We booked our excursion for the next day – waterfall repelling with Groovy Gecko Tours (they call it “Taste the Thrills and Spills”, $26 each including lunch and water), and then, wandered around the central market, sampling a cheese-bread, corn, and lots of dried fruit. Hungry by now, we searched for dinner, eventually going with a Happy Cow (the veggie food site/app) recommendation. Hoa Sen Vegetarian Restaurant was a little upscale, but full of locals, and average in our opinion ($7 for three dishes and a drink). A little tired from our early wake up, we headed back and turned in for the night.
The Dreams Hotel ($20/night) is known for its breakfasts, served at a communal table in the basement, and it lived up to its reputation. Eggs cooked to order, fresh baguette along with spreads, a variety of delicious fruit, and some meats (useless to us). Everything was delicious, and the company of the other guests was always friendly and enjoyable. A family business, the owner, Mrs. Jung, is there all the time, and in the afternoons, she looks after her grandchildren (ages 4-8), who are very cute, and speak the best English we’ve heard from a Vietnamese person yet.
Energized from a yummy start to our day, we were ready to tackle the adventure ahead. At 9am, a minivan pulled up and we hopped in with our guides for the day, Duan (“the black pig”) and Win (“the black monkey”), and “Mr. Handsome” the driver (and owner of Groovy Gecko). We picked up another three people on the way, Steph and Phillip from the UK and Aaron from Michigan, and drove about 15 minutes out of town to the starting point. A few minutes into the woods, we stopped for our orientation to abseiling/rappelling/snappling/canyoning/etc., which included donning a harness, helmet, lifejacket, and gloves and a demonstration of how to control our descent. Comfortable in our skills, but not necessarily in our harnesses, we handed our cameras to “Black Monkey” and walked down the hill to the first waterfall. This included an 18 meter descent beside a beautiful waterfall dropping into a natural pool. As this was our first rappelling adventure, it was a little scary, but once our feet hit the water, we were having a good time. We had a few minutes to play in the water and stick our heads under the waterfall, before we moved on. Good thing we were wearing our bathing suits and moisture-wicking clothes!
The second waterfall was a dry 15 meters down, and was the least interesting of the four drops. But, we quickly moved on to a natural waterside through smooth rocks in the stream. Holding our nose in one hand and the back of our neck with the other, down we went into the stream, where we floated along for a few more minutes, carried by the current to the bank where we got back on dry land. A few more minutes down the path, we came to another rock-slide. This one we experienced 3-4 times each: once head first, once feet first, once on the stomach, and once tandem, with our legs interlocked (and Felix’s head leading the way). Exhausted and exhilarated, we stopped for lunch, which was a yummy spread of baguette, tofu, cheese, veggies, peanut butter, chili sauce, and fruit, carried there by the Black Monkey. Over lunch, we had some time to get to know our fellow canyoners, and had a nice time hanging out with them.
Only a few hundred meters from our lunch spot, we arrived at a waterfall going over a 25 meter cliff. Looking over the edge, the pool at the bottom could be seen, but only the first 5 meters of the cliff side. Then, we discovered that we were going to go down this cliff – right in the middle of the waterfall! If you think that watching some others go down before us was reassuring, think again. This one got the adrenalin pumping in advance! But, down we went, backwards, with the waterfall in our face, the shouting of directions handed off from the Black Pig at the top to the Black Monkey at the bottom (at first one could see us, and then the other, but not both). After backing down the first few paces, perpendicular to the cliff, the slippery surface making it hard to stabilize our feet, it was quite scary, but there was no time to think about that. About 3/4 of the way down, the Black Monkey started shouting “jump, jump!” And down we went 3 meters into the pool at the bottom (Jordan tried to protest at first, but caved in when the rest of the group gave her the thumbs up and she knew she had no choice).
Only minutes later, we arrived at another cliff for our last descent, but this time could not see anything but the pool at the bottom. There is a reason they call this one “the washing machine”! After backing over the edge, the cliff becomes concave, and we found ourselves hanging in midair with our backs in the middle of a raging waterfall. As we lowered ourselves in, the intensity of the waterfall spun us around, and in the midst of the confusion the rope abruptly ended and we plummeted into the narrow pool and were pushed by the current under the waterfall and out into a wide pool, where we collected ourselves (see Felix’s grin in the photos – he liked it so much he did it twice). Exhilarated from our day, we began the grueling hike back up (300 meters altitude) to the top of the hill. Huffing and puffing, we arrived at the road up top, returned our gear to the staff, and hopped back into Mr. Handsome’s minivan for the ride back into town. By this point, we were already good friends with our group, so we decided to all get dropped off together – at the ice cream shop! Even though it had started to drizzle and we were all still wet from our day, we enjoyed hanging out and sampling a local favorite – avocado ice cream (think guacamole with coconut ice cream on top). Back at our hotel, we made a beeline for the rooftop hot tub, where we relaxed for a while, and warmed up in the dry sauna. What a nice perk from this hotel!
Showered and hungry, we headed down the street to a local veggie restaurant. By now, we have learned to identify “com chay” (Vietnamese for vegetarian food) anywhere! Although they spoke almost no English, we managed to order a bowl of pho soup, a steamed bun (looks like a big white dumpling filled with meat), and fresh and fried spring rolls ($2 total). Satisfied but still craving something sweet, we headed over to Windmills Coffee & Flowers, a cute cafe a few doors down from the hotel. There, we shared a mulberry muffin, strawberry tea, and a banana-toffee smoothie ($4). A yummy way to finish off the day!
On Thursday morning, we walked over to the Dalat Easy Riders Club, the local motorbike tour and THE thing to do in Dalat ($12 each for three hours). We hopped on the bikes with our guides for the day, Tri (in his 50s and speaks English pretty well) and Shorty (in his twenties and not a big talker) and headed off into the countryside. Our first stop was at a greenhouse full of perfect gerber daisies and roses. Tri explained that Dalat has springlike weather throughout the year and is great place for all types of agriculture especially flowers. Flowers are grown all over Dalat and distributed throughout the country and since the 90s exported all over Asia.
Now, for the highlight of the day, we got to see and experience something Felix has been talking about for a long, long time. Coffee! But, this wasn’t just any coffee. We pulled over on the side of the road and saw three kinds of coffee trees – robusta, arabica, and excelsa. Felix picked a bean off the tree and opened it up to find it was white and mushy. Tri and Felix bonded over their love of coffee and tasted the fresh beans together. Jordan decided to abstain and remain the control group. The excelsior (cherry) beans tasted a little sweet and since both Felix and Tri seemed fine, we hopped back on the bikes. Our next stop was a small family farm about 20 minutes away. First Tri excitedly showed us some dried weasel poop (looked like a PayDay candy bar). Now, we have to explain. There is a type of coffee produced in Vietnam called Chon, and is regarded as one of the best and most expensive coffees in the world. Rumor has it that Prince Charles drinks it. The fresh coffee beans are ingested, digested and excreted by a weasel which creates a more organic process for the transformation of the beans which are then, dried, buried underground for a year and then, roasted, ground, steeped and filtered into a cup. We got see the real live weasels, who we have to say don’t look so happy and enjoy a fresh cup of weasel coffee. We also ordered a cup of non-weasel coffee for comparison sake. We thought the weasel coffee was a little smoother, but we didn’t really like either cup since we don’t like the Vietnamese way of making coffee. Still, it was an experience not to be missed and we might even try weasel coffee again before leaving Vietnam. Payday anyone? The family on the farm also makes rice wine and ferments it along with interesting additions. The choices were: cobra (ferments for 2 years), various snakes and lizards (ferments for 5 years), and big eater (looks like a small eagle and ferments for 7 years) all of which are supposedly good for women. Jordan decided to take her chances and skip the tasters.
On the way back into town, we stopped at a scenic overlook into a beautiful green valley, and at an old US Army Airbase, where we drove right onto the old runway. We said goodbye to our riders, stopped for lunch at another veggie place ($8), and went to visit the Crazy House ($3 each). Designed by the daughter of the former President and head of Vietnam’s Communist Party, who studied architecture in France, this complex of 3-story houses is really crazy to see. It’s a cross between a maze and a haunted house, full of twisty staircases, small passageways you almost crawl through, and tightrope-esque walkways. It’s a lot of plaster and paint, and looks like it came right out of a Johnny Depp movie. The name says it all. Oh, and it’s a functioning hotel, if you ever want an out of the ordinary place to stay (each room has a theme, like beehive or termite nest).
Despite the skies, which were threatening rain, we braved it back to our hotel, and freshened up before reliving the previous night’s itinerary. This time we ordered a variety of 6 different dishes ($4.5 and we’d officially ODed on veggie meat), and back at Windmills we opted to try something new – a matcha green tea smoothie and an aloe vera smoothie ($4), both interesting and delicious. Dalat was our favorite place we’ve visited so far, and we were sad to leave, but we woke up early, packed ourselves omelet sandwiches for breakfast, and got on the shuttle bus ($2 each) for the 45 minute ride to the airport. We were ready for our first domestic flight in Asia!