A day of frivolous tourism about Da Lat, which feels very much like a strange Disneyland Vietnam for white people – and indeed it was, for Da Lat was founded and planned by the French as a mountain resort town. At 1500m, Da Lat offers stunning views along with easy access to a number of the mountain lakes, waterfalls, and other natural sights of the surrounding area. Trendy cafés mix with delicious hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese pubs. And yet – when you see a new yellow Ferrari rip around the corner, you get the feeling that something is Not Right…
We start with a visit to the Valley of Love, which drives the Disneyland comparison home: there are even statues of famous characters, some in use as trash cans. The statuary selection is by no means limited to Disney’s repertoire, however; Snow White mixes with Romanesque renditions of Adam and Eve, while various Pokémon frolic off in the hills. There’s a swan boat rental shop, some overpriced nuoc mia (sugar cane juice, yum!), and a long hike up to more statues and a useless trinket shop. Meanwhile, more well-heeled tourists zip around in Jeeps, on scooters, or aboard the tourist train-busses. To cement the surreality of the whole thing, up by the entrance there’s a barrel-shaped wine cave sporting an ad for paintball.
After the Valley of Love comes Flower Land, a sort of botanical garden-cum-amusement park that drives home a point: we’re not in tourist high season. The amusement rides aren’t even in operation, and the park itself is nearly empty; this area is more in vogue in the colder winter months, apparently as a form of respite from the muggy heat of the lowlands.
Then it’s on to Datanla, Truc Lam, and Tuyen Lake for the afternoon. Datanla is a quaint little tourist trap nestled in a canyon just off one of the main access roads to Da Lat. You can take a “roller coaster” (really, just a moving car on rails, which thankfully is prevented from plummeting down the track by an automatic braking system) to the first part, then a gondola to the second, then pop down an elevator to reach the start of the real waterfalls. You can also hike it down and up, which is what we do. There’s a little shrine near the elevator, a quick reminder of Vietnam’s Buddhist leanings.
Truc Lam is beautiful but choked with tourists, and Tuyen Lake has even more of an off-season feeling than the Flower Park back in town. We spot a swan boat out on the water and decide to give it a whirl ourselves, but are thwarted by our inability to find anyone staffing the rental area. We content ourselves with a short walk along the road, then drive off down the side roads back to Da Lat. As we drive, we get a glimpse of Da Lat’s agricultural side; the hills are terraced, the valleys lined with vast shade tents to protect the growing crops.
Our CouchSurfing host, Daniel, arrives back in Da Lat this evening, so we all head over to a local joint for some delicious nem nuong. This is a sort of rice paper wrap with herbs and other vegetables, sausage, and fried pork skin, all dipped in a delicious spicy vinegar sauce. Yum! We wolf down two heaping plates of the stuff, then wash it down at a nearby café with beautiful views out over the skyline and central lakes of Da Lat. We complete our busy itinerary with an hour-long drive around the backroads of Da Lat, which are pretty magical at night – many of the shade tents are lit up!
In the middle of all this, we managed to book a canyoning tour for tomorrow, which will take us down into the depths of Datanla canyon. What will that involve? Not sure yet, but we’re excited to find out!