Saturday, 8 September 2012

Losing Ourselves in the Central Highlands, Dalat, Vietnam

Aug 16th, 2012 - Aug 19, 2012

Arranging our visas for Vietnam in advance was required and we were told by numerous sources that Bangkok was the only place we could achieve this.  Our plan had been to travel the length of Thailand as well as Laos before entering Vietnam, which made coming up with specific dates difficult and frustrating for an itinerary as loose as ours. We eventually made up our minds to experience Laos at a later date and pass directly thorough from Thailand to Vietnam.  Due to our diversion to the Akha hill tribe north of Chiang Rai, we arrived in Vietnam with six days already used up before we had even crossed the border and with the expiry of our visas fast approaching after our extended stay in Hoi An we had to decide between visiting the central highlands or the beaches of Na Trang before spending our last few days in Saigon. 

There is something about Vietnam which completely drained my energy.  The chaos, noise and heat. The abundance of people and the 24 hour soundtrack of vehicle horns is a constant stress factor and we thought that the central highlands of the country may offer some peace, cooler climes and a bit of the mountain lifestyle we are used to. 

On the 13 hour bus ride into the hills a mental imagine of mountain serenity and maybe a friendly alpine town filled my mind and I was eager to reach Dalat.  On arrival, as usual, we accepted the invitation from a hotel proprietor on his assurance that he had a quiet spot.  Taking Julian on his motorbike first he soon thereafter came to collect me and on arriving in the room Julian had agreed upon I was disheartened to find sat above a busy intersection.  I voiced my concerns to our host who insisted that its very quiet come nightfall and we needn't worry.  

After a quick stroll around the immediate streets, we turned in for a brief nap. Julian awoke with a start to the choir of horns blazing from the streets below; the noisiest of rooms so far on our travels and declared that finding an alternative room was essential.  We packed, left the room exactly as it had been presented and made our way downstairs to find our proprietors' younger brother in charge.  We told him our intentions and asked for our passports. He quickly demanded payment for the room. Whilst this is standard practice in cancellations (as we know full well from our collective years working in the industry) there was no way Julian was going to part with the full amount for the three hours we had been in the room. Everything in Asia is negotiable and knowing this he barrelled into a heated discussion, offering half the room rate for the trouble. The owner was (as I mentioned above) the receptionists older brother and soon enough the younger got on the phone under the barrage of English coming from my dearly beloved. Another heated discussion took place over the phone with the owner who of course was demanding the full amount. At this point Julian would have usually decided to put up with what we had got, but the noise from the road was to a level where even he could not hope to sleep and his mind was set upon moving. The proprietor asked to be put back onto his brother and after a short conversation the phone was put down. 20 minutes later and the hoteliers had been beaten down to 75% but still Julians' offer had only risen to 55% (about US$5.50) By this time he was in the groove of negotiation and beginning to enjoy himself, his main argument being that he had nothing but time and very little money and could carry on talking all night to the receptionist, keeping him up until 3am if that's what it took. Another phone call to the older brother resulted in a threat to call the police (for talking) and a phone slammed down in Julians' ear. Still, he kept on at the receptionist, who was by now reduced to staring at his hands and voicing concerns that his brother would punch him if he dropped the requested monies further. But the price was falling. First to 140,000VND then 130,000VND until after about 45 minutes of wearing the poor man down, he offered Julian a settlement of 120,000VND (US$6). "Done!" said he, as soon as the offer came and offered a smile and a handshake to seal the deal. The money was paid and our passports handed over. Pausing on the steps of the hotel we looked back to meet the receptionists rueful smile and with our own warm grins and blessings to him for a good evening; we headed off into town. I'm not quite sure the young lad had ever come across somebody like Julian. The technique of talking without a breath, wearing his opponent down to a price, and using the language barrier to his advantage has been developed as we've gone through Asia and for all the noise and kerrfuffle, it works. The next morning whilst out for his walk, Julian was passed by the receptionist making his way home on his moto. He greeted Julian with a big smile and a wave. It appears the technique is forgiven if the parting is friendly.

Passports in hand we wandered in search of a quite backstreet residence but to no avail.  It seems the Dalat is just as hectic as any other Vietnamese city; main streets and back alleys a swarm of motor and cars squeezing past each other.  Frustrated but finding a street less crowded, we were turned away from every hotel despite the "Vacancy" signs hanging on the doors; apparently western tourists were not welcome in this part of town.  In the end, a kindly woman accepted our offer of 200 000VND ($10) despite being slightly lower than her usual asking price (but comparable to local rates) and we found a room with no window facing the street.  Finally comfortable we began contemplating ways to get clear of Dalat and deeper into the Highlands. 

Having made enquiries with the local tour operators, we decided to aim for Lake Lak, some 150km to the northwest and reputed to be one of the most scenic spots in the Central Highlands with plenty of accommodation and hiking trails for us to explore. The route was clearly laid out along highways #105 and #27 and it looked like a breeze to follow once we got clear of the city limits. Our motorbike renter we spoke to the following morning insisted we not take the bike out of town despite agreeing both to look after a backpack for us (so we might travel light) as well as to a three day hire.  Eventually, easing concerns we got a map out and told of places within city limits and to a radius of about 15km that we planned on visiting and soon had the keys to a bike, filled it with fuel and got out of Dalat as quickly as possible.

It did not take long for us to begin to understand some of the reasons they prefer tourists not venture out of the city on their own.  There are very few sign posts and the ones that do exist are not very informative to the english speaker.  Following our (small scale) map and using our compass to direct us in what we (or more accurately, Julian) though was the right direction, we ventured down this road and that, turning around many times whilst looking for the main highway. Relatively confident at last, we continued down a road until it gave away to a dirt trail riddled with pot holes.  We pressed on, as there was a river on our right which we expected and we were heading north west as our map indicated we should be. I tightly gripped Julians hips as the bike tripped around flooded potholes and ruts on the unsurfaced track. 

Every last inch of the countryside was cultivated; strawberry fields, cabbage patches and coffee plantations grew on even the highest summits as farmers in conical hats tended the crops.  A dubious looking bridge seemingly constructed from palm leaves and surfaced with loose-laid planks and luck crossed the river and I urgently suggested I would cross on foot so I can 'take a picture of Julian crossing the bridge on his bike'.  For some reason he did not find this idea appealing and despite watching another motorbike cross without issue opted to continue past.  Finally the path ended at one of the many farms; workers looked at us curiously and we pulled one aside to ask for help.  Taking the map into his hands but not really looking at it, he pointed us back in the direction we came from and nodded 'yes' to our queries about H105 and Lake Lak.  Clearly he had no idea where we were trying to go and as we pulled away we realized that most of the farmers out here were almost certainly illiterate, none spoke a word of English and they had probably never used a map. 

We continued this process of backtracking and trying new roads until hunger got the best of us and we pulled over in a hill top village rolling with coffee plantations.  A Vietnamese man eagerly came out to greet us with "Bonjour!"  Responding both in English and French I learned that his French was as good as mine and we spent a good hour conversing over a bowl of Pho Bo and local coffee.  He informed us that indeed this road went to where we intended to be and we could either turn left or right to eventually get there, though a left hand turn would take us down the easiest road but it was far to late in the day to make the drive now.  He suggested we return to Dalat and make a second attempt tomorrow.

Of course, this was not a satisfactory response and convinced we could make 120km by the end of the day (it still being early in the afternoon) we continued along the paved road.  Leaving the farmland behind we soon found lush forest stretching across the rolling mountain landscape.  Checking the map and compass periodically and convinced of our route we rolled onwards and upwards and downwards.  The road broke up every so often and eventually, to our dismay the road ended completely to lapse into a well used but rough and muddy track. Still, maps and compasses don't lie so we continued.

As the afternoon waned and the fuel gage read halfway, we mulled over the decisions which lay before us.  Turn around and return to Dalat or continue on to see what happened.  Hesitating, we turned around and started back until Julian defiantly made the decision to not allow defeat, turned around and kept going.  Other motorbikes often passed us coming from the direction we were heading so something had to be over there.  Looking out from a high ridge to our morning stomping grounds and satisfied enough with our location we continued. We passed numerous construction sites making note of any large machinery parked for the night or small camps which may prove as emergency shelter or fuel to be pilferred should a desperate need arise.  A new road was clearly in the process of being laid and once, probably some 30km along the track our sore bums were gifted with a stretch of cemented pavement. Elated and thinking we had made it through, expecting any minute to drop down to the valley floor and the bridge shown on our map we were once again distraught when the solid surface ended, forcing us back on the bumpy, off-road 'highway'. 

Finally, a village.  Children stared, then greeted us and laughed with glee when we enthusiastically responded.  Palm leaf and bamboo huts lined the muddy road and Julian turned to me stating "Well, you wanted to get off the tourist track, right?" I began to doubt that we were on the highway we were meant to be following but Julian was eager to press on, as much for the fact we didn't have enough fuel to return the way we had come.  I was still unsure until we came across a side side stall with petrol on offer.  Filling our tank with a pre-measured two litres the attendant gave us the excess in a clear plastic bag which she hung off the handlebars.

As we continued past the village the road got worse and worse, at points so slippery and with such deep ruts in the red clay soil I was demoted to foot power. Eventually with the light beginning to fade, I got off the bike again and walked a hundred meters or so to have a look at what lay beyond the bend only to find that it looked impassable.  Noticing a road on the other side of the river we took advantage of a dam under construction and crossed to the other side, only to find the road blocked off.  The sun was setting and we faced a long ride back to Dalat across questionable, dark terrain through the jungle and mud nearly half a metre deep in places.  At least the petrol tank was now full.

Before long a barking dog got the attention of some men inside a tin longhouse of sorts just above the dam whilst we deliberated our options.  Language barriers in full effect they made it clear we should come up to the camp and meet with a man who spoke a little english.  Seeming to understand that we had lost our way he poured us some bitter Vietnamese tea and picked up his phone.  His wife, by chance an english teacher, translated the situation and we soon learned that this was a work camp in which they have lived for about four years working on a hydro-electric project.  We were invited to stay for dinner and were offered the choice of either heading back to Dalat that evening (for the road did truly end here and was not our fabled highway) or spending the night at this remote outpost.  Not at all eager to get back on that road in the dark we gratefully accepted their hospitality under their condition that we surrender our passports so they might notify the authorities of our situation.  We got the impression that every guesthouses must follow this procedure and it was a slightly sobering thought to find big brother out here in the back of beyond. 

Formalities accomplished they showed us to a room containing a sleeping platform upon which lay four futon mattresses surrounded by tin walls with a bathing room and toilets in the next corridor.  Clearly, a couple of the guys had agreed to bunk together to allow us privacy.  The whole arrangement was far more comfortable than I expected to be offered given the circumstances and I was able to relax into the amusing situation and wondered what else this day could have in store for us.

Joining the four engineers in the dining space, a game of charades tied together with stumbling english, pictorial diagrams and numerical equations allowed for the amusing, entertaining and educational conversation.  We were soon served a bowl of soup to start; a questionable mixture in a red broth which had a pleasant, floral taste overall despite a couple of crunchy bits.  Surely the red broth was beetroot, I attempted to convince myself. Julian muttered that he had learned from them the ingredients of this soup and he was not about to tell me until tomorrow.   Unsure, I finished the mixture based on the pleasant taste then insisted he reveal the ingredients; "the bits of the chicken left behind".  From the brains to the blood this soup was every other part of the chicken which was now presented to us with rice and vegetables.  I was pleased to see the feet remained on this platter on the table and shrugged my shoulders.  What can I say? That made that soup taste pretty good and must contain vital nutrients!

The second course of chicken, cabbage soup, rice and a plate of green vegetables was now served and the reached into the back of the cabinet and presented us with shot glasses.  In a bowl they mixed a local vodka with rice wine; a similar, strong rice spirit similar that what we were served in Sapa.  The food was enjoyed between shots of this neutral tasting spirit (neutral being: Diluted petrol- ED).  The plate of green vegetables turned out to be just as easy as broccoli, my favourite!  "Sou sou sow!" they informed us slowly and howled at our attempt to repeat the names of the dishes before us in Vietnamese.  It wasn't long before we had gone through two bowls of the spirt and upon completion revealed a 'special bottle'; a brown spirit made from fermented tree roots.  They watched me carefully as I accepted the first shot and were pleased as I smiled in approval at this earthy tasting substance.  "Healthy!" they informed me. 

A few cats and a couple of dogs roamed around our feel as we continued sharing shots, food and life stories.  Laptops came out as we tried to explain to them the concept of 'the Arctic'.  They saw the photos but I don't think they comprehended what they were looking at as is the case with just about every Asian person when we attempt the explanation of what an Ice Road Trucker is.  The concept of -60 degrees, frozen lakes strong enough to withstand a 50 ton truck and dancing lights in the sky so impossibly foreign to them they just can't get their head around it.  In turn, they showed us pictures of the progress since the project began to dam the river and the building of the road from its humble beginnings.  A video soon followed of an attempt to reach this site in the rainy season; deep pools of mud along this undeveloped road proved tough going to even their 4x4 vehicles, the 90 minute journey taking them closer to seven hours to complete that day and I was thankful we had found the road in as 'good' a condition as it was.  We retired soon after with heartfelt thanks and many smiles; laying our heads upon slightly mouldy pillows and mattress I was thankful for my silk sleep sack and its built in hood. The sounds of Vietnamese music from the office next door and frequent short rain showers upon a tin roof lulled us to sleep.

After a breakfast of rice and chicken 'porridge' they humbly refused our proffered payment; our first experience with Vietnamese people who were not after our wallets left us feeling like we had partaken in a sincere example of local hospitality and although it was nothing less than I would have offered had the fortunes been reversed, it was refreshing beyond belief.  Shaking hands we bid our saviours farewell, passed back through the village offering big smiles and waves to anyone who glanced in our direction (sending children running, giggling with glee) and onwards across the muddy path back towards Dalat. 

We paused to give sore bums a break at a roadside cafe built to accommodate maybe 150 people, but empty at this time of year. We had a meagre lunch and set off for a short wander in search of a waterfall the signs advertised at the side of the road.  Being low season we had the place to ourselves and descended the way from the restaurant to the plateau of the falls, looking down upon them and into a gorge which disappeared into the distance.  Searching for a different perspective we found a trail and made our way to the valley floor before turning back upstream to follow the river to the base of the falls. It was here, deep in a gorge we found, for the first time, that sense of peace and solitude I was hoping to find coming into the Central Highlands of the country.  Choosing our route we climbed up the rocks alongside the falls, imagining the impressive scene this must be in full flood and finally having to utilize strong roots to pull ourselves back up onto the high plateau.

We wandered around Dalat (a popular honeymoon getaway for the Vietnamese) on our last day making use of the last hours of moto freedom by paying a visit to a fabulous artist studio. Run as a collective operation for painters, sculptors and needleworkers and displaying some wonderful, intricate and original work. The needle work was especially impressive including 3D work and another style of such fine stitch we believed them to be painted until some very close inspection with a magnifying glass revealed otherwise. We paused briefly at the entrance to the flower gardens, with its pair of dragons formed out of hedgerow protecting the gateway and getting lucky with a shadow of cloud across the sky for the photo, although the gardens themselves were shut at the time.

We also payed a visit to Wat Linh Son which overlooks the northern half of the town. The rear garden boasts a seven story pagoda, decorated with broken porcelain pieces of many colours, making pictures and flowers in relief, in bold colours. Most interesting here was the image of Buddha. Set in a landscape depicting Vietnamese boats upon a sea, the figure of Buddha sits on an outcrop under a bhodi tree; the spot at which he gained enlightenment some 2500 years ago. Presumably due to the communist regime actively discouraging belief in anything other than the 'system' the figure has had its porcelain removed, the features and colour scratched out as if to erase the Buddha from the image entirely although the rest of the scene remains in pristine condition. I found this to be one of the most fascinating defacements I have ever seen and would love to know more about the circumstances but can only assume.

In another yard on the temple grounds, a wall is decorated with panels telling the story of a man and his ox from capture, to journey, to work, to the bond between the man and his beast. There are many other murals on the outer wall panels, some of which are still works in progress, none of which have religious symbology. Instead they are dedicated to the joys of the natural world, in fantastic, almost grotesque style and bright cartoon colours. It was a fascinating garden when compared with the temples we have visited throughout Thailand in particular and we spent over an hour wandering the gardens alone. The other thing shocking about the place to our western eyes was the proliferation of swastika emblems. To us (in the west) of course the swastika is inescapably linked to the nazis but it is a much, much older symbol than that having been used throughout the past 3000 thousand years by many cultures including as the official emblem on Americas 45th Infantry Division between the 1920's and 30's and in Asia it simply means 'The Word' - to represent life, sun, power, strength and good luck. Window frames are filled with the image repeated many times over and it is used extensively the decoration of Wat Linh Son. 

Later we spent the evening walking the towns evening markets, chuckling at the holiday makers in puffer jackets, wooly jumpers, toques, scarves and gloves.  I was comfortable in the cooler temperature of the hills and hardly found that 15 degrees warranted winter attire.  Children greeted us and adults offered friendly (if somewhat equally baffled) smiles as they eyed our shorts and T-shirts. 

The experience here was far from what I imagined it would be. The people we met were exceptional in their treatment of us, both from the good as well as the bad. We never did do the hiking we had come here for for, found only a little of the 'small town' attitude we hoped for and were disappointed and delighted by both the countryside and the people of it, in equal measures. Despite the mental image I had en route to Dalat being nothing at all like the reality of the place, it was one surprise after another, a true adventure at times that did not fall short of what I would expect with Julian as a travelling companion!   

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