I’ve got more bugs for you! These ones come from all over Da Lat, whose temperate climate is surprisingly kind to insect and arachnid populations. There are butterflies, mosquito hawks, and of course your favorite, jumping spiders. I’ve tried to ID them where possible:
We’ve been longing to get out to nearby Tuyen Lam Lake to see some nature, but Stoytcho has staunchly vetoed the idea of renting a motorbike. “What, come on!” I say, “It’ll be fine.” But Vietnam does have some absurdly high motor vehicle death rates, so I’m not terribly convincing. We also promised our travel nurse we wouldn’t do this. As we were getting shots for yellow fever and Japanese Encephalitis and goodness-knows-what-else, we told her about our travel plans in Southeast Asia. “Just promise me you won’t rent a motorbike there. That is more likely to kill you than any of these diseases combined.”
But thanks to a cable car, there is one bit of Tuyen Lam Lake we can reach without a vehicle. So on our last day in Da Lat, we caught a cab up to the cable car entrance, bought tickets, and soared over pine tree forests and farms for fifteen minutes. We arrived at Thien Vien Truc Lam Temple, walked through its grounds, and had a lovely stroll by the lake. In one cluster of buildings by the shore, we found a restaurant and had lunch and I survived a near-concussive experience as a lumber beam perched over their bathroom door came crashing down an inch from me. The cook’s wife came running in horror, assuming she’d killed a foreigner, but I managed to communicate that I was ok. And to celebreate the near brush with death (even in absence of renting a motorbike), we took a swan boat out onto the lake. That’s as good a celebration of life as any, right?
The “city of a thousand flowers” has botanical displays and delights all over, but its biggest garden is the Da Lat Flower Park. Situated on the eastern corner of the city’s lake, it’s a display of hundreds of flower varieties in a theme-park atmosphere. Almost no one was around on the rainy day we visited, but we had fun exploring the mostly-kept grounds and marveling at the copyright-infringing Disney statues and other baffling lawn displays. I’d say it’s worth going for these alone.
It turns out Vietnamese coffee is famous the world over. I did not know this, and practically didn’t care, because I didn’t drink coffee. Vietnam made a compelling argument in its favor though, and that argument’s name is cafe sua nong – coffee milk hot.
The absolute classic way to drink a cup there is with a V-60, a slow, single cup drip strainer device. You order your coffee and shortly after comes a cup with the V-60 on top, packed with ground coffee and covered with its metal lid. The lid isn’t very tight fitting but is important for continued dripping. Taking it off reduces the flow rate to next to nothing. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this but I haven’t done the math yet. Along with the coffee comes a second cup of hot water. It’s kind of like the cup of water you’d get with a Turkish or an Italian coffee, but boiling. I was never able to ask what that water was for, but I used it to get a second pour through the filter, making the coffee considerably less bitter.
The best part of all is the ‘sua’ portion, the milk. When the French colonized Vietnam they brought over a love of bread and coffee with milk. The bread is evident in the bahn mi. The coffee with milk is not as direct – there’s not a huge fresh milk supply in Vietnam, unlike cow-filled France with its butter and cheese and dairy obsession. So to get their coffee with milk fix, the French, and now the Vietnamese, use condensed milk. About a finger of condensed milk is poured into the bottom of the glass before the coffee starts dripping, and each drop ever so slowly permeates the thick sugary layer. To really get them to mix takes dedicated spoon work, they will not blend on their own in any reasonable amount of time.
The result of this whole process is a creamy and -most importantly – sugary coffee flavored concoction, more closely resembling a thin milkshake than anything else. It turns out this is a great way to introduce coffee to a person who doesn’t particularly drink it. There’s the natural buzz of coffee, the added rush from sugar, and any bitterness is masked by the candy-bar sweetness. It’s a lot of sugar and I’m not sure I would have it regularly anymore but it was my go-to drink in cafes across Vietnam.
An honorable mention goes to a drink unique to Vietnam – the egg coffee. A lot like Indonesia’s STMJ, this is a raw egg whisked and whisked and whisked, blended with coffee and sugar and turned into a thick, mildly-sweet, almost pastry-cream drink. A lot like the flavored cream that comes before ice cream. The egg and coffee mixture floats on top of a lake of coffee in the cup, and the flavors between the two are in high contrast. The cream is rich and sweet, the coffee is thin and bitter. Drinking all of the egg mixture without realizing that more coffee lies beneath leaves a now very bitter last taste. It’s better to mix the two a bit. We only tried it once, in a hard to find single-room cafe looking out over the lake in Hanoi. Daily drink this is not, but it was a terrific treat.
Lastly are the infinite variations on the espresso style, all of which are available almost anywhere visitors go in Vietnam. There the delicious taste and aroma of the Vietnamese coffee really gets to shine, unhindered by the almost candy-like levels of sugar found in the other drinks. In this setting the taste is mildly bitter but very deep, with several layers of earthy, sour, and chocolaty flavors that come out at different times. The great taste of the coffee alone doesn’t mean there isn’t room for more desert – we tried an affogato for the first time in a coffee bar in Dalat which cut a nice middle ground between condensed milk and plain coffee, neither too sweet nor too bitter.
You know how some cities have an iconic ‘thing’, the likes of which you can’t find anywhere else? Something like the Hollywood Sign of Los Angeles, the Sagrada Familia of Barcelona, or the Opera House in Sydney. That’s what Hang Nga Crazy House is to Da Lat. An ever-growing, organic architectural feat, the twenty-seven year old structure is the child of Dang Viet Nga, an architect who found inspiration in the natural beauty surrounding the city. It opens its doors on weekdays, allowing visitors to explore the structure’s winding paths, snaking staircases, and baffling rooms. And it’s a one-of-a-kind place, in part because almost anywhere else in the world it would have accrued hundreds of building code violations. Watch your head while you take in the magic.
This was my favorite place in Vietnam because of its architectural whimsy, but also because it’s still under construction. Hang Nga Crazy House has already swallowed up two nearby lots that went on sale, and Dang Viet Nga shows no signs of stopping. As we wandered through the labyrinth of passages, we stumbled into sites under construction and some laying fallow, waiting for the artist’s hand. Several artists work on the house at any given time, and they’re excited to show you their art.
Below are our most amazing pictures of Hang Nga Crazy House. It stole my heart with its unapologetic quirkiness and unwavering commitment to the organic form. I’ll have to go back one day to get it. ❤
Want more architectural wonderland? You can find it here, because I don’t know how to embed Flickr Galleries into WordPress yet: https://www.flickr.com/photos/146223950@N02/albums/72157687692351401
If you want to visit Vietnam without the rote tourism, overcrowded cities, and tropical humidity, Da Lat is your city. Situated in the 1,500 m above sea level on the Langbian Plateau, Da Lat (or Dalat) is a year-round temperate getaway for people looking to relax, take in the mountain air, and drink coffee. The primary tourism market here is domestic and the foreign tourists that do make it here are primarily Russian, so don’t expect many English speakers. But several places offer English menus, and paper, a pen, and a smile are all you need to barter in the city’s markets. So pull up a chair and order a coffee, visit the city’s flower garden, or explore Da Lat’s bizarre architectural wonderland.
We’re on to Vietnam, where we’ll spend the next three weeks traveling. Since these posts are retrospective (we were there in April) and Vietnam is a country that gets mixed reviews when it comes to tourism, I wanted to start with this post outlining our overall experience in the country. Here are five impressions we got as first-timers in the country.
It was super-affordable
Excluding the flights into/out of Vietnam, we spent $600 USD a week, or $300 a week per person. While there are South American countries that price similarly, the difference here is we were living a step above the standard backpacker lifestyle: we flew between all our destinations (three flights), we rarely ate at street food vendors, we went to a Starbucks-like coffee shop almost every day, and we paid for two tour packages and a cooking class. We were more like we were upper-middle class tourists here than backpackers.
You are an outsider
This is the feeling we struggled with most, and I suspect it’s the feeling that leads many backpackers to leave Vietnam with a negative opinion. You are an outsider in Vietnam and very rarely are you invited in. One reason is the language barrier; for people whose native language is English, Vietnamese is hard. In our three weeks we picked up only a couple of phrases, mostly to order coffee and thank people. Since language is often how we connect with people, it’s hard to move from outsider to insider, even for a backpacker.
The second, more insurmountable reason for this is that Vietnam has suffered a lot under actions of the West. Vietnam was as a staging ground for a proxy Cold War only a few decades ago, with the U.S. bombing the country while the rest of the Western powers looked on. Before that it was a French colony, where heavy-handed tactics were used to keep the Vietnamese in check. While the Vietnamese claim they hold no grudges, it’s in their rhetoric to say they won their independence and autonomy on their own. This means the Vietnamese people aren’t going to glare at you on the street, but they don’t have a reason to do you any favors. Or, as we found out when we asked a guide about the price of something in the market, “For you, it would cost about this much.”
The tourism dollar comes at all costs
In Vietnam, the primary goal of tourism is wealth transfer from foreigners to locals. This leads to three problems: a lack of budget backpacker options, some shady dealings, and environmental damage. Vietnam doesn’t offer much in the way of super-cheap backpacker options because that doesn’t facilitate as much wealth transfer; we lived as middle-class tourists because we couldn’t find any backpacker options when it came to tours, food, and accommodation. There are hostels, but their minimum price is higher than in South America because they know that anyone who can afford to get here can afford to pay a little more for that bed. Tours start around $40 USD because the agencies know you can pay. This is why people have such different opinions after visiting Vietnam: those looking to travel middle class find a fantastic deal, but those looking to travel as backpackers wonder whether they’re being cheated.
There’s also a distinct goal of getting as much money from you as possible; some people are outright dishonest and lie to you, but more often it’s subtle omissions of information or referrals to friends. Things like “Oh, we forgot to mention that the all-inclusive resort doesn’t include drinks and you’re not allowed to bring your own,” or “you shouldn’t go with this tour agent, go to the one down the street (who I happen to be related to).” We took any info we got with a grain of salt and always looked for second opinions. And when it comes to providing good tourism, the goal is to again maximize that dollar. I cringed when I saw our tour guide feeding monkeys so they would come closer to us, and sighed over the massive environmental damage in Ha Long Bay. Like so many other developing nations, the Vietnamese know what cultural treasures their country holds but they’ve decided the tourism dollar is worth more*.
The Vietnamese culture is amazing and unique
Even with the above issues, there’s no place like Vietnam. The food is like nothing else, a fusion of Asian and French cuisine that’s had centuries to become sublime. There’s pho, banh mi, fresh spring rolls, and a hundred other amazing dishes that haven’t yet made it out to the rest of the world. And there’s a plethora of healthy, fresh vegetables at every meal, so you’re getting good nutrition. Simultaneously, the Vietnamese celebrate and preserve their culture in temples, museums, and open-air displays. And it’s a culture that you can’t find anywhere else.
The future looks bright
The Vietnamese are excited about the leaps their country has made in economic wealth in the past decade and they’re optimistic for the future. Cities seem to be under construction everywhere you turn, everyone’s starting a business, and people talk about the future with smiles rather than frowns. In rural areas, opinions seem more mixed—the residents here look at the growing wealth in cities and fear being left behind. We also have a biased sample – we can only talk to English speakers, and their economic prospects are much better than people who don’t speak English. But it’s invigorating and exciting to see people talk about their country with such pride, love, and excitement, and to see them look forward to the future.
*Note: While it feels bad as a traveler to be seen as an outsider and walking money, I find it hard to begrudge the Vietnamese for their behavior. They’re responding to blooming tourism after decades of hardship in the most human way possible: let’s make money and create better lives for ourselves, our families, and our friends. You can’t fault them for that, or for feeling no particular affinity of friendship toward visitors from the Western world that created many of their hardships in the first place.