Arriving by bus in the predawn hours. We stumbled our way down the bus steps, both groggy from a lack of sleep on the so called sleeper bus. We had unluckily ended up on the back row of the bus, so instead of our own sleeping compartment, we shared the space with three other people, add on the fact that the sleeping seats were obviously not designed for anyone over 5’5″. As we climbed down from the bus all that was on our minds was getting to the our guesthouse (Zen Cafe Dalat) and checking in early. That’s when we were blasted with a cold breeze. Hang on, all our research before leaving for Vietnam showed the lows in the 70s, this didn’t seem like 70s to us. I check my phone and it showed that it was 54. Not ideal for someone who packed nothing back shorts and t-shirts. Regardless of the weather, sleep was the foremost thought on my mind, so we shouldered our packs and headed out of the town. We were welcomed by two young guys who led us to our room, where we blissfully slept on a bed that had plenty of space.
That afternoon we woke up with our bellies rumbling. We wandered into town for a late lunch/early dinner depending on your perspective, but we soon discovered Vietnamese restaurants could have very particular hours. The first two places we wanted to eat were closed. Finally we saw a cafe open and figured a nice warm Vietnamese coffee and a small snack could do for now. The coffee was exceptional and Sarah’s noodles and my eggs were adequate, plus you couldn’t beat the price, which was only about $3.50.
Fully charged with the coffee, we headed out to rectify my complete unpreparedness for the cold by heading to a small shopping center down the road from the cafe. If you’ve ever tried to find clothes for western body types in the off-beaten paths in Asia, you’ll know how daunting this task was. I had no hope of finding pants, so I settled for trying to find a hoodie. After several minutes and some wonderful help from the poor saleswoman I was able to find an XXL hoodie that I could actually zip up and have the sleeves reach my wrists. Now, I’m fairly average in size and normally wear medium shirts back home, so you can see the discrepancy. I used to joke when we lived in China that you couldn’t have any self-esteem issues because the size differences in clothing would crush you.
With me feeling slightly more comfortable we set out in search of a proper meal since it was time for most of the restaurants to open back up. We selected a restaurant (Lầu Hạnh gà lá é) on the main road that appeared to serve one dish, chicken hot pot, and luckily for us they did a good job. They set up a burner and placed a hot pot filled with chicken and soup in front of us. Then brought in the fresh veggies, mushroom, and noodles to be added once the soup started to boil. We tucked into the meal and washed it all down with Bia Saigon. Our bellies full and warm we headed back to our guesthouse as the sun had set and we still felt fairly tired. We plotted our moves for the next day and floated blissfully to sleep.
In the morning we walked towards the Dalat train station, which preserves its colonial structure if not it’s colonial train schedule. Now only one train leaves the station, a small tourist train that runs from the station to Trai Mat, home to Linh Phuoc Pagoda, a spectacular Buddhist temple. We had looked up the train schedule online the previous night and found some pictures on tripadvisor from other visitors, so we were shooting for the 9:40am train. For breakfast Sarah had chosen, Nem Nuong Lan Phuc, a small restaurant that gives you the ingredients to make your own rice paper rolls. A common theme among our travels continued as we were the only people in the restaurant eating. (Somehow, no matter which country we visit, we are terrible at following a normal eating schedule, let alone specified eating schedules of the host country, so invariably we wind up at a restaurant by ourselves and in China we frequently disrupted the restaurant staff’s meal.) We were pressed for time, so we scooted out of the restaurant and started a light jog up to the train station. We arrived out of breath, but in time to be told that the train already left. Our look of confusion was ignored by the less than helpful ticket staff. I asked for the next train and was told four, which was seven hours away. Next to the ticket window I found a train schedule, which didn’t match the one online. The next train wasn’t for another 3 hours, so we definitely weren’t waiting around for that, but seeing as how we paid the new admission fee to enter the train station we took a tour of the platform and surrounding tracks.
Holy, selfie Mecca! The platform was packed with selfie-stick wielding groups everywhere we turned. What drew them in was the old French train carriages and the steam powered locomotive. I took my time patiently waiting for gaps in the selfies to snap some photos. Having taken a turn around the facilities and seen pretty much everything you could see in the small area we went on ahead to our next destination, the cable car that led to Thiền viện Trúc Lâm, which is a Buddhist temple and monastery. With some difficulty we found the small road leading to the cable cars and arrived just in time to be told that we could buy tickets, but with the upcoming lunch break we wouldn’t be able to return for another hour. We easily figured that we’d be there longer than an hour, but still shook our heads in disbelief at our incredibly bad timing so far on this trip (spoiler alert, this would continue throughout our two weeks).
The cable car ride was nice as we traveled over a pine forest on the way to the monastery. Because of the lunch break, we did end up with almost the whole area to ourselves and it was glorious. It was easily one of the most peaceful places we’ve ever been. The sun was shining with beautiful blue skies as the background to the temple and gardens spread out before us. The temples had lovely windchimes that danced and sang in the light breeze. We stood in the courtyard soaking in all of the calm serenity of the area. On the grounds were some of the most exotic, marvelous flowers we’ve ever seen so many shades and shapes filling up the gardens. We walked to the lake on a paved path that led through stoic pine trees. The lake is quite big with numerous tour boats plying for your services, but again since it was lunch time and the tour groups were missing it was quiet. Feeling satisfied we made our way back to the cable car and headed back into the city. We found a small local shop selling Bahn Cahn and then stopped in another quaint cafe, named BOTEA Bistro, for what was quickly becoming our daily coffee habit. The owners of the cafe were incredibly friendly as they handed us some books off the shelf that had historical photos of Dalat and pointed out some of the more interesting pictures.
Looking at the time we decided to give it one more go for the train to Trai Mat. This time we successfully purchased tickets. The train has three classes, VIP, soft seats, and hard seats. The hard seats were all sold out, so we bought soft seats, as VIP seemed a bit unnecessary for a 30 minute trip. The carriages are refurbished vintage cars that give the ride a sense of traveling back in time. As we climbed off the train at the end of the line a staff member gave us walking directions to the temple. We reached the area as the sun was setting and most of the tour groups had left. The temple complex was quite the unique sight to behold and we’ve seen some pretty exotic temples. Everything was a mosaic with shiny bits of glass and ceramics. Dragons were everywhere! Guarding doors, climbing up pillars, running down guardrails. It felt like this temple was built by the Targaryens and belonged on Dragonstone. The train only gives you 40 minutes before it returns, so we quickly explored the pagoda and then dashed back to catch the train. Feeling the exhaustion from our long day we called it an early night and headed back to the room.
On the following morning we wanted to visit Elephant Falls, which is located about 30km outside of Dalat. Our guesthouse rented out motorbikes, as most guesthouses in Vietnam are wont to do, for an incredibly reasonable price. Due to the unexpected cold, the woman working the front desk even lent Sarah her scarf and mittens. With our helmets on, well as good as it would fit on my head, we shakily started down the driveway. This was only our second time on a motorbike. The first being about two years ago in Shangri-La, where traffic is considerably less dense. Our first stop was for breakfast, where we had some delicious Bun Bo Hue at a fairly local spot, as the staff was a little surprised to have two foreigners walk into the restaurant. The meal, like all our meals in Vietnam, was bursting with flavors and freshness. Satiated we hopped back on the bike and safely navigated our way out of the city. Once we got out of the main traffic and the fear of figuring our way through roundabouts passed we both could relax and take in the surrounding countryside. As we drove I was struck by the simplicity of some of the small, I guess you would call them villages we drove through. It reminded me of times we traveled through small out of the way places in China. All the building would be lining the main thoroughfare. There would be a few restaurants/coffee shops, a market, a repair shop, and one or two speciality shops. Blink and before you knew it you were outside of the village.
Speaking of blinking and missing it, the sign for Elephant Falls is not the most well marked and luckily Sarah noticed it because I would have completely missed it. The entrance to the falls is almost immediately off the main road, which is not what we are used to for waterfalls. The ones we tend to visit always seem to be miles from the nearest town, up winding onelane roads. These falls are much easier to access, intially. Once you buy the ticket you walk to the end of the sidewalk and you’re greeted with a view of the falls cascading down. Getting to the lower levels however is much more challenging proposition. The stones are really slick and at times you have to straddle on precarious rocks while trying to move along the path. The views are spectacular, but the whole time I was moving around the take pictures I kept having visions of me slipping off the rock into the water below. There is a cut off from the path that will lead you to a cave that is behind the falls. The path has this really cool part where you walk on a giant tree root that has grown in a crevice between two large stones. The cave echos with the roar of the falls plummeting over your position. You get pretty soaked due to the mist and water blowing into the cave, so we didn’t explore for too long to see if it went further. The whole area on the path gets pretty wet, hence the slipperiness of the rocks, so if you go make sure to have water protection for your camera or just be really careful and risk some damage like we did.
On our way to the falls we had noticed a coffee plantation on a hill with a cafe, so on our way back we stopped in for some nice fresh coffee and a relaxing view. The coffee was outstanding and it was interesting to see coffee growing on the trees. With the sun setting we new that it would get much colder for us, so we hopped back on the bike to finish our hour long ride back to our guesthouse. We stopped for dinner at a tiny Bahn Mi place that Sarah had read about online. The baguettes and soup were outstanding and it was probably one of our cheapest meals on the trip. Worn out from riding the bike for a little over two hours and the cold wind blowing against we called it a night and put an end to our time in Dalat. It was a wonderful place that I’m happy that we worked into our trip. The monastery was one of the most peaceful places we’ve ever visited and as it was home to a lot of the coffee plantations, the coffee was some of the best of Vietnam with incredibly cheap prices. If you find yourself in the south of Vietnam I definitely recommend carving out some time to visit Dalat.