Thursday, February 13, 2014

From the Southern flat-lands to the Central highlands

Dalat, a small city located in South Central highlands of Vietnam, is probably the least affected town during Vietnam war. This was due to an understanding between the two parties to keep it neutral. Due to high elevation from the ground, the temperatures there are drastically low, making it a paradise for French stationed in the country.
My bus from Saigon left at around 11.30 in the night and made a very good speed, as I reached the town as early as 4.30 in the morning. Probably too early as my hotel door was shut. The temperature must have been below 8 as I started to freeze. It was pitch dark and I was waiting alone outside my hotel, with a small dog constantly barking at me, a stranger. Having nothing to do, I pulled out a sheet from my backpack and took a nap. My eyes opened to the sound of someone arranging tables, at 6.30.  A cafe nearby had opened up and ladies there were making arrangements for the day ahead. With enough light to see the place, I realised the difference in the landscape. Flat lands and rice fields were replaced by hills all around and banana and coconut trees were replaced by tall pine trees. Not only the nature, but architecture was different too. I guess, French really loved the place as the town is lined with French styled villas. With a cool weather and french architecture, you would not believe that it was a city in Vietnam. It has too much a European feel to it.

Very French

The city has a few things to offer, but it is more of a honeymoon destinations and when you go there as a backpacker, you might feel a little out of place, with newly-wed couples all around. But if you have time and willing to venture outside the city, there's a lot on offer even for a backpacker. With no limitation on time, I managed to see both, within the city and the outskirts.

Xuon Huong Lake is in the center and at the lowest elevation. If you have a sense of height and keep going down, you will eventually end up there. Its a wide stretch of green water, around 6 kms in circumference. Most of the times during the day it is dotted with Swan-shaped boats, with couples being their occupants. The side of the lake is occupied by families (or again couples) spreading the mats and enjoying a meal and drinks, and also by a few fishermen, trying their hands at fishing in the fresh water lake. Perhaps the most disturbing sight is dead fish floating at the sides. Bad water? I don't know.
Central Lake
Night view of the lake
I took a round along the lake-side and then continued my walk till I reached a cable car station, about 3 kms from the lake. A 15 minute cable car ride (costing VND 70,000 both-ways), takes you to Thien Vien Truc Lam Monastery. The ride is beautiful and takes you over the mountains filled with pine trees. The view from the cable car is stunning. The Monastery itself is sublime. Situated among the pine trees and away from the city, it is one of the most peaceful places I went to in Vietnam. It is housed by a fairly large Golden Buddha statue. A monk was ringing the bell besides the statue at a very slow pace, creating a rhythm which included a long silence, just enough for you to breath in the whole place. From the hilltop, stairs run down to another beautiful lake, which is supposed to be the best lake in and around Dalat, known as Tuyen Lam Lake. However, the last cable car leaves at around 4.45 PM and due to lack of time, I could not visit this lake.

If you have had too much of lakes and monasteries, there is no better place than the Crazy House, built by the daughter of the second president of the united Vietnam. The entrance is 40,000 dong and the experience is totally wacky! There are narrow winding stairs, confusing passage-ways and very weird architecture in the least. The whole theme is tree-like as if small rooms, passages and the stairs are sprouting through one giant tree. Even if you are not into architecture, this place is worth a visit. Also, there are a few rooms available for renting. I took about 25 minutes to reach there on foot from city center.

I continued away from the city center along the central lake for about 3 kms before reaching Dalat Railway Station. The station is quite old, built in 18th century and still has a steam engine running a track of about 8 kms to a small village nearby. It is possible to book a train ticket to this village and come back for about VND 140,000 (USD 7). The building structure is old, not very fancy and it is possible to enter the stationed train carts and take pictures.

I came out of the station and sat at the bench outside and there I met Simon, a 60 year old British fellow with his cycle parked in front of him. Curious, I asked if he rented the cycle in Dalat and his response was mind boggling. Simon quit his job when he was 45 and since then has been cycling around the world. He takes his own cycle to each country and rides it throughout! He has been to a number of countries, including India. Being a British fellow, he shared my interest in Cricket and Football and so we had long discussions about each of the sport. Too soon though it was time to say goodbye, but at the end of our brief meeting I was feeling even more inspired about traveling!
Simon, the cycle guy!

Next day I had three Chinese companions with me and so we decided to rent a motor-bike and go around outside the city. The bike costs about USD 5 for a day and mine came with a full tank. We started at around 8 AM from the hotel to go to a small village called Nam Ban. Nam Ban is about 30 kms south-west of the town and is famous for a Silk factory and Elephant waterfall. The road is decent for the most part except when you have to go down a mountain, where road-widening work is in progress and hence its more of a dirt road. It took us just over an hour to reach Elephant waterfalls. The entrance is VND 10,000. There is a small river running at the same level as we were standing. Moving slowly it takes a sudden dip in the form of a waterfall. It was not rainy season and yet there was enough water falling down to make a thunderous noise. The view in the background is quite beautiful with green hills. There is a small, steep path leading to the base of the waterfall. You can inch closer and closer and can almost go behind the waterfall, as we did. But beware of slippery surface and avoid breaking your leg!
In contrast to this thunderous waterfall, there is quite a peaceful pagoda on the same hill, known as Linh An Pagoda. There are in all 5 Buddha statues inside, 3 Buddhas flanked by 2 multi-armed Buddhas.
Biking on the dirt road

Elephant Waterfall

Just behind the fall


Taking a coffee break, we headed to the Silk factory which is less than a kilometer from the waterfalls (when coming from Dalat, you will see Silk factory first on the left). Entrance again was VND 10,000. As we entered the shop floor the smell of the air changed alarmingly. It definitely was not the best of the smells and it took us some time to get used to it. There were a number of tourists here with their guides explaining how the silk making works. There were two lines of silk production, with at least 5 women standing on each side of each line. In front of each woman there was a basin with boiling water containing many cocoons. The hot water makes it easier to separate silk threads from the cocoons which then were being fed into multiple spinning reels above the basin. Once all silk extracted, cocoon (now looking like a dead bug) were being thrown in a dustbin. There is also a small cafe and a small shop in the factory where you can buy silk products.
Separating the thread

Shop floor line

After extraction of silk is complete

Cocoons before extraction

Silk worms

Our next stop was Mount Lang Biang which is around 13 kms north of the city. There is a way to go to the mountain directly from Nam Ban village but the road is not good. So we decided to cross the city instead. From the city center it took us 15 minutes to reach the base of the mountain. The entrance here was VND 20,000 which includes entry to the park and entry to the Lang Biang Peak trail. There is a tar road leading up the mountain till the start of the trail. It takes 2 hours on foot and 15 minutes by Jeep. Jeep costs about VND 400,000 which can be shared among 10 people. We started on foot. At the base there are a few hills with green grass and a few horses feeding thereon. As you go further you enter thick Pine forest which provides enough shadow to protect you from the Sun. At times the path can be very steep and a multiple breaks may be required before going further. Be sure to carry enough water if you decide to go on foot. The walk is good enough for most of the times, except for the Jeeps zooming past making loud noise. It is possible to go off the main road and do some real hiking, but beware of the direction you are heading. Within 2 hours we were at another ticket booth where the trail to Lang Biang Peak starts. The trail goes through a jungle which gets denser at times and the path narrows down allowing only one person to pass at a time. It is extremely quiet once you enter the trail, with no more vehicles to disturb the nature. There are a lot of birds and a few rare species of animals here so if you have time, you can stop and observe the woods for signs of any animal life. With evening closing in we continued on! The trail is over 2 kms and last 600 meters or so are a set of very steep steps. This is the toughest part and takes most of the energy. We caught up with another big group who started an hour before us and then joined them for the rest of the trail. Reaching the top gives you the most satisfying sensation. You are on top of the world! No other peak around even nearly high as Lang Biang. In the front you can see Dalat city scattered. Around are many more mountains, all thick with tall Pine trees. The wind is strong at the top and cool; and takes out all the tiredness you feel from climbing. Its quite easy to lose the sense of time here and the large group as we were, we stayed there for a long long time. Just breathing in the success.

The trail

View from the top

City sprawling below

Our little group
As I rode back to hotel, a realisation dawned upon me that I actually enjoyed my stay here. What looked like only a honeymoon destination in the beginning has much more to offer a backpacker. But be ready to take a motor-bike and venture out of the town.

1 comment: