Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Dalat - Vietnam's Romantic Alpine Retreat: Part 1

Before we departed for this trip, knowing that we would be travelling through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam during their hottest months, I always had this naive optimism that we would just get used to the heat after a while. The locals get used to it, after all, so why wouldn't we?

It turns out, however, that local Southeast Asians must be impervious to the relentless heat and humidity in a way that I'll simply never be. Often they can be seen walking around in tight jeans and long-sleeve shirts with nary a drop of sweat on their brow, and some of the female shopkeepers will even be wearing cardigans as they get on with their work. All the while, here I am, sitting on a stool in the shade, wearing the most lightweight, airy shorts and t-shirt combo I can find, and the sweat is pouring in buckets, trickling down my face, soaking my clothes, making me look like I just did a marathon.

It's been like this for two straight months. I think I've probably sweated more on this trip than I do in an average year. Okay, there've been occasional days by the beach when a light breeze has cooled things down, and in some places the night-time temperatures drop to a somewhat tolerable level. But generally speaking, this heat never stops, your sweating never stops, and no, you don't really get used to it.

With that in mind, you can imagine how delighted we were to arrive in Dalat, our fourth stop in Vietnam. This small city is located up in the South Central Highlands, which with their deep-green pines and idyllic lakes resemble a European mountain range. The French originally developed the city as a sort of hideaway to escape the intense heat down below, and in the process built dozens of villas and hotels that today give the city a very romantic, European air.

Now, we'd heard that Dalat was cooler than other nearby cities, but honestly, we thought the difference would be relatively slight; perhaps we'd now be dealing with 90-degree weather as opposed to 100-degree weather, so yes, noticeably cooler, but nonetheless, hardly what we'd call "mild" back home. But the moment we got off the bus and felt how cool it really was, we were positively beaming. For our entire stay in Dalat we couldn't stop declaring how wonderful it felt, to not be hot, to not feel like a sweaty, filthy mess every time we walked out onto the street for more than five minutes. During the daytime it was nearly always a pleasant 70 degrees or so, and at night it even seemed to drop below 60, requiring Angela to wear her cardigan, especially when we rode a motorbike. Honestly, even during those somewhat uncomfortably cool nights, we were in bliss. Never have I appreciated so much the feeling of having relatively clean clothes at the end of the day, even after lots of walking around. I honestly feel very lucky that the weather in my own country remains mild for much of the year. I'll never complain about British weather again!

As for the rest of Dalat, the city centre is a little on the dirty side, and at times the romanticism is forced and tacky, but for the most part we really enjoyed the sights we saw, and had a fun time riding around the local countryside by motorbike. We explored a Valley of Love, visited one of the best temples either of us have ever been to in Asia, and rode a roller-coaster down to a waterfall in the heart of a forest. It has plenty to offer its visitors besides the cool weather, as evidenced by the many photos we took during our stay:

Our route from Mui Ne on the coast, to Dalat in the mountains. It doesn't look far, yet the change in climate made it feel like we'd teleported to a completely different continent.
The ride took around 4 or 5 hours, passing through mountains that almost looked like the French Pyrenees.
We arrived in the early afternoon, and found our hotel standing among pretty, European-style houses.
We went to a nearby restaurant to have spring rolls for lunch. The staff provide you with ingredients so you can prepare the food yourself.
After lunch we headed into the city to explore.
Dalat was a resort for the French during the colonial years, and the city continues to play up its heritage with France-inspired cafes, shops and hotels, such as this Moulin Rouge restaurant.

By Vietnamese standards, Dalat is a very cold city, so most of the locals wear jackets, hats and other warm clothing. For us westerners, it's still T-shirt weather, barely.

Perhaps the most noticeable France-influenced structure is this radio mast that resembles the Eiffel Tower.
From the city centre we went to nearby Lake Xuan Huong and walked along its shorelines.
Our own "Petit Paris."
The city's temperate, European atmosphere was at its strongest as we walked around this lake. I mean, doesn't this photo look more like it was taken in Scotland than in Vietnam?
It started raining pretty heavily before we could make it around the entire lake, so we got a taxi back to our hotel.
One of the city's many grand hotels, by night.
The next day, we rented a motorbike from our hotel and went out to explore Dalat's outer reaches.

We stopped off at a park called Doi Mong Mo, which roughly translates as "Dream Hill."

Me with my zodiac sign, the bull.

Entering a giraffe.

There were some great views of the nearby alpine scenery.

Next we went to a place called the Valley of Love, which was located very close to Mong Mo Hill.
The valley is filled with dozens of kitschy, love-themed statues and sculptures.

From the Valley of Love we rode south, back into the city centre.
Located on the shores of Lake Xuan Huong is Dalat Flower Park, which we explored briefly.

Dalat is famous for its excellent red wine, and this tower is made out of bottles of the stuff.

Click here to continue the adventure in Part 2, where we visit a spellbinding mosaic temple, ride a rollercoaster down to a waterfall, and explore a surreal hotel.

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