In 1991, I went to Vientiane in Laos with an old school-pal.
We dropped our bags off at the guest house and began the 20-minute walk into the city centre. We knew that Laos would be sleepy but we were still looking for traces of a capital city - perhaps a queue of six cars at a set of traffic lights or the odd four-storey building. Eventually we asked a local where Vientiane was and he said “you’ve just walked through it”
For the first time since 1991, Dalat in Vietnam felt like another journey into the unknown. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I was looking forward to this.
As we quickly discovered throughout our short stay, the Dalat people are fiercely proud of their city. And why wouldn’t you be? Often referred to as ‘Little Paris’ because of the French influences, Dalat has a hillside micro-climate all of its own. And while other parts of Vietnam swelter, you’ll be thankful of a light jacket or sweater on one of Dalat’s chilly evenings, when a stroll around a lake or flower garden is an absolute joy.
Located in Southern Vietnam, Dalat is a six to seven hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City and despite the distance, city folk have been flocking to Dalat for years to enjoy its nature and numerous attractions. But now the secret is out and everyone else wants a slice of the action.
Dalat is certainly becoming more and more popular with adventurous Thai travellers, especially now that low-cost airline, Vietjetair, runs daily flights from Bangkok Airport direct to Dalat. And there’s no messing about with the chaotic free-for-all that Don Muang Airport has become. We’re talking Bangkok’s main airport to Dalat in just one hour and twenty minutes.
Our Friday lunchtime Vietjetair flight left ten minutes ahead of schedule and arrived in Vietnam twenty minutes early. My wife and I barely had time to eat our pre-booked beef massuman. Actually, looking around at other passengers, we appeared to be the only two people on board who had ordered a meal. Lesson learned - next time we’ll spend the money on extra legroom.
Dalat Airport itself is a functional concrete rectangle in the middle of nowhere (well, a thirty minute taxi ride from the city to be exact) There is a small cafeteria hidden away in the corner of the arrivals hall and ….er….that’s about it - apart from a small cluster of half a dozen taxi drivers holding up welcome boards with misspelled passenger names.
We had pre-booked our taxi online for 220,000 Vietnamese Dong. Plus another 200,000 Vietnamese Dong to have our name put on a welcome board. This turned out to be ‘Mr Philip’ scribbled on a sheet of A4 paper in barely legible biro. But we found our man!
When it comes to mental arithmetic, the Vietnamese must surely be the sharpest in the world. I take great pride in my ability to do numbers in my head but the Vietnamese currency tested me to the limits. At the time of writing, one US Dollar is 22,829.50 Dong. Yes, you’ve got a headache already and it’s completely put you off ever going. I fully understand.
I read one travel blogger whose advice was to memorize the colour of the banknotes but that’s just not practical when it’s your first trip and you are only there for a few days.
I fiendishly worked out that if you knock off the last three zeros and multiply the remainder by 1.5, then converting Dong to Thai Baht was not that difficult. So for example if a taxi ride from the airport costs 220,000 Dong, take off the three zeros (you don’t need those) and you are left with 220. Multiply it by 1.5 and you get 330 Baht.
If you want to be even more accurate, then subtract a further 10% from the Baht total. So you are left with roughly 297 Thai Baht. That’s as near as you are going to get, trust me. And here endeth the math lesson.
I scribbled the Dong to Baht formula on a scrap of paper and showed it to my wife. She took one look at it and said “I’ll leave the money stuff up to you”
I wasn’t having that. I already had the suitcases to carry.
“No, listen. If a cup of coffee costs 50,000 Dong, then how much will that be in Thai Baht?” Her eyes opened and closed and various cogs and wheels started turning, before she came out with completely the wrong answer. Best leave the money stuff to me perhaps but credit where it’s due, she eventually had the exchange rate completely figured out - about an hour before we were due to fly home.
Haha – you’ll like this – there is even a 1000 Dong note (1.3 Baht) “What the hell can you buy you with that?” I asked a local tour guide.
“oh, it’s enough to buy a small whole chilli or a piece of garlic” he replied. Feeling like I had slightly offended him, I dutifully folded the note up and placed it in my wallet. And not one chilli and garlic seller did we see during our entire stay.
Anyway, back to the airport taxi because this was our introduction to driving in Vietnam and truthfully, I will never ever complain about Thai drivers again because this was like being in your own personal virtual computer game. Our driver spent the entire journey talking on his mobile phone. At one stage, he decided to wind down his window to let more air in and I swear he was steering the car with his chin. Eight-wheeler trucks came at us in the opposite direction, hogging a non-existent middle lane, and only choosing to tuck in because it was preferable to crashing into us head on.
And don’t get me started on the use of the car-horn. In Vietnam, a blast of the horn can mean ‘I’m coming through so watch out’ or it can mean ‘be careful I’m behind you’ Most of the time it just means ‘look at me I’m driving a car’.
I’m sure the constant din of car horns is far worse in the larger cities but I have no intention of finding out for myself.
For our three-night accommodation, we had booked the much-loved Villa Vista Guest House on the outskirts of the city. Well away from the hustle and bustle (and car horns) of central Dalat, its four rooms in a charming European-style building go for around 3,000 baht a night including amazing views from your own private balcony, a hearty breakfast and the chance to shoot the breeze with Aussie Tim.
Tim and his Vietnamese wife, Huong, have run the Villa Vista for several years and along with Anna, the cheerful front-of house manager, a few other members of staff and two large dogs, they all made us very welcome.
Tim was like most other Australian blokes I have met in life - friendly, laid-back and nothing was ever too much trouble. If you needed a tour guide for the day, a sim card for your phone or a restaurant recommendation for the evening, Tim was your man. And like many guys of Tim’s age who have settled in South East Asia, he had plenty of stories to tell. He’d actually been an English teacher in Korea for many years in what he now referred to as ‘a past life’ so naturally we talked about teaching but many an hour was spent on his verandah chatting on a diverse range of topics that ran from British comedy shows (he was very fond of The Two Ronnies) to driving across Australia and how dangerous crocodiles were.
I loved Tim’s company and judging by all the five-star reviews on Trip Advisor, so have many other guests.
On our first day in town, we had just a late afternoon and evening to kill so we headed off to Dalat’s night market, which was a good half-hour walk from our bed and breakfast - but we made good use of the amble into town. We picked up sim cards at a very friendly mobile phone shop (180,000 Dong each, no passport or ID necessary and fitted in minutes) We stopped off for a coffee (Dalat is a city of coffee shops and oh boy, do the locals adore their sweet coffee) and we sampled the famous bahn mee, that most popular of Vietnamese fast foods that consists of a freshly baked and toasted baguette with a variety of meat fillings and salad (a steal at just 16,000 Dong each)
Dalat is not a nightlife city by any stretch. There isn’t a fat lot to do in the evening other than make a circuit of its night market but such is the size of it, you will be well occupied for a couple of hours. It’s the chance to sample some of the local fruits (the strawberries and mangoes were particularly delicious) and of course the popular Vietnamese pizza, which the seller will prepare in the time it takes to reel off a few photos. You can also marvel at the size of the ludicrously cheap avocados and giggle at the Adidas sportswear knock-offs that aren’t fooling anyone.
For our first full day in Dalat we had booked a car and driver and he picked us up at 9.00 sharp after breakfast. Everyone hires a car and driver to ‘do Dalat’. It’s simply not a place where you do things independently. In fact, I cant remember seeing a public bus the whole time we were there. It’s worth mentioning at this point that taxi fares in Dalat are cheap – even cheaper than Bangkok. The flagfall fare is 5,000 Dong, Beat that!
The going rate for a car and driver for the day is around 1,000,000 Dong (1,350 Baht) but this doesn’t include entrance fees, tickets for rides and any meals and snacks you might eat along the way.
I’m not going to bore you with a list of Dalat attractions but there is an embarrassment of riches – and all within an hour’s radius of the city. There are cable cars, quirky temples, hydrangea-covered valleys, waterfalls, lakes, rollercoaster-rides through the forest. You probably need four or five days to do it all but my wife and I didn’t have that sort of time so we asked our driver to take us on a tour of the most popular spots. Big mistake! This was a Saturday and on weekends, thousands of daytrippers come from Ho Chi Minh to enjoy what Dalat has to offer.
We first took in a cable-car ride across the valley. It was very pleasant but having to queue for half an hour and having Vietnamese jump ahead of us at every turn rather took the shine off things. If there is one thing we learned about the Vietnamese during our time there – they don’t do queuing. And with me being British, there was bound to be the odd heated exchange.
Our second port of call was a picturesque lake and it was here that things took a rather nasty turn. A food seller, resplendent in her triangular Vietnamese hat, was dispensing coconut ice cream from a polystyrene ice box. The ice cream was then topped with an avocado puree and finished off with grated coconut. I had to have one. It was only when I swallowed the first mouthful that I noticed the state of the seller’s fingernails. As my mother would have said in my childhood - ‘you look you’re going to a funeral. Now get upstairs and get them scrubbed’
Too late. I finished the ice cream and within ten minutes I could sense something was wrong. My stomach started to bubble like a beaker in a mad scientist movie and my head started to throb. I felt all the energy begin to drain from my body.
I put on a brave face and we headed off to the next attraction – a waterfall which could only be reached by a modest roller-coaster ride through the jungle. It would have been fun had you taken the hordes of day-trippers, the inevitable queue jumpers and my rapidly declining health out of the equation. Once we had posed for photos in front of the waterfall, we couldn’t face the queue for the roller-coaster so we decided to walk the forest trail back to the car park. And I stopped several times en route to decorate the footpath.
Our private tour guide then suggested a lunch stop but when we pulled up outside the restaurant, I went into vomit overdrive. I flung open the van door and sprinted to the nearest street-drain. It felt like I was fetching up meals I had eaten five years ago. I was in a hell of a state. There was no alternative but to call it a day - and we reluctantly told our driver to take us back to the hotel. I had broken the golden rule of travel – never eat ice cream bought from a roadside vendor. This was further reiterated by our driver - “you should never eat ice cream from these people” he said “and to be honest, I wouldn’t trust the fruit either. It can get washed in some very nasty water indeed”
After an afternoon’s nap back at the digs, I felt much better and we managed an evening meal at the excellent Biang Bistro, just beyond the night market. This was one of Dalat’s premium restaurants but the bill for drinks and food still came to only 600,000 Dong. As we ate our desserts, the British chef came out to say hello and handed us fleecy blankets to wrap around our shoulders. Those Dalat evenings can get mighty chilly in June.
For our second and last full day, we had booked a different tour guide. It was nothing personal. Our driver from day one simply wasn’t available because Sunday was the day he went to church. So we had the pleasure of meeting the one and only Mr Viet.
‘You lucky, lucky people” said Aussie Tim over breakfast, when we told him of our plans for the day. “Mr Viet is probably the best tour guide in the whole of the country. Everyone wants Mr Viet”
We warmed to Mr Viet instantly. Slimly-built, cheerful, probably still in his twenties, impeccable English (self-taught) he sat us down in his car and read us the rule-book. He had found out about the unsuccessful day we’d had with his colleague the day before and was determined to make amends.
“Listen guys, I’m not one of those tour guides who ticks off the attractions on a list and leaves you to your own devices while I grab forty winks in the van. I’ll take you to places with no queues and very few people I promise. And you will see another very interesting side of Dalat. Actually I don’t even like the expression ‘tour guide’. Can you think of something more suitable for me?
“How about ‘English expert?’ I offered.
“Yes. English expert. I like that”. And then Mr Viet started up the van and proceeded to give us the most wonderful day.
He drove us through hillside villages inhabited by ethnic minorities completely lost in time. We sampled fresh avocados by the roadside (not the ice cream variety I might add) He took us to both a silk-weaving farm and a cricket breeding farm (not only fascinating places but we were virtually the only ones there) After a quick stop at one of the most magnificent waterfalls I’ve ever seen, we journeyed on to a weasel coffee plantation, where weasels eat the coffee beans and someone has the job of sorting through their ……… I’ll stop there in case you’re eating dinner. We shared fresh baguettes and soft drinks at a nice cafe before ending the day at a temple constructed almost entirely from broken cups, dishes and beer bottles.
And at each and every place, Mr Viet would describe things in great detail but without ever becoming boring. He had one of the most magical gifts a person can have – the gift of enthusiasm. He was witty. He was proud to be Vietnamese. He was interested in you and your family and your life and work in Thailand. He craved knowledge as much as he enjoyed dishing it out. When we parted company at the end of a brilliant day, he felt like a member of the family. We loved him. I whipped out my Dong and gave him a big fat tip.
When we return to Dalat in the future – and we will go back for sure – we are only going if our friend Mr Viet is available.
We spent our last evening at a restaurant called the V Cafe. The food was ordinary but the in-house acoustic guitarist - playing to an audience of six - belted out one of the best cover versions of Don McLean's 'Vincent' I've ever heard.
Well, I hope I’ve encouraged you to give Dalat a try. I think you’ll love it. You don’t need a great deal of money. Eating out is cheap. Taxis are cheap. If you are on a budget, there are loads of economical hotel and guest house options in town (it could be noisy though). Friendly people (said to be the friendliest in Vietnam) and you can eat bahn mee and drink coffee until the cows come home. You will even get the chance to wear your favourite sweater or jacket if you choose the right time of year.
Just stay away from that bloody coconut ice cream!