Travelers searching for the authentic heart of Vietnam should keep a safe distance
from Dalat. In a word, this city is weird. A replica of the Eiffel Tower and rows
of alpine-style houses are among the sights that greet our arrival. As we will
discover, though, Dalat offers an always surprising, if sometimes ironic, kind of fun.
elevation of 1,500 meters, it is quit chilly here, and a welcome change from the heat of the
coast. We stumble into a large indoor market where we sit down to try out some fruit
and a green dessert. Paul bets that it's pistachio pudding, but it turns out
to be avocado - still pretty good.
We set out to explore the city, and marvel at the collision of European styles
with traditional temples.
After a day of hiking up and down the steep hills, we are more than ready for
a satisfying meal. At a sidewalk eatery that looks like any other, we have the
most delicious bowl of pho we'll
ever find in Vietnam. Plastic chairs have never seemed more comfortable.
Today is our day for adventure - adrenalizing, death-defying, and, well, bizarre.
We've arranged for a tour operator to show us around, and our first stop is a pretty
From here, the real excitement begins with a trip to see elephants. These animals
were once used to clear forests and farm. Nowadays, the few remaining ones are more likely
to carry tourists. Riding on top of one is bittersweet - and controversial.
These elephants are endangered and the villagers capture them from the wild at a young age.
At the same time, we hope more tourist dollars will give the community extra
incentive to protect the dwindling habitat.
We decide to go for a ride, and are left in awe of our elephant's power
and dexterity. At one point, he pauses at a moderately-sized tree
that's leaning over the path. A few seconds of tugging, and the tree is
disconnected from the earth and tossed aside.
Back on the ground, we get to thank our elephants by buying them sugarcane, and
say goodbye. As we walk, we find a small archery range with animal targets. April
stops to test out her aim.
From there, we find ourselves staring at a curious sign. "Ostriches," it reads, with
an arrow pointing off to the left. We glance at our guidebook to reconfirm
which country we're in. Hmm. We figure the path just leads to
another kiddie carnival game, but our van isn't leaving yet
so we decide to check it out. Much to our surprise,
we are soon face-to-face with a six-foot-tall bird. Even more surprisingly, this bird
has a saddle on its back.
Ah yes, the ostrich saga. The friendly staff assures us that the birds are friendly
and eager to take us for a ride. In hindsight, we might have asked if
there was a reason ostriches were a less popular means of transport than, say, horses or camels.
April decides to give it a shot first. Following instructions,
she climbs up a small step-ladder and throws a leg over an ostrich's back. Sure enough,
the bird seems to carry April quit easily, although now it is also in no particular mood
to travel anywhere. Instead, the worker claps his hands and pushes the bird along the
path from behind (April doesn't know this and will be disappointed later when Paul
breaks the news). A minute later, and April returns, beaming and victorious.
In the meantime, Paul is highly skeptical about a bird lifting
all of his 160 pounds, but also jealous of April's fun time. The staff
insist that he is not too heavy for the ostrich, and Paul - reluctantly - agrees to
a ride. Following April's example,
Paul starts walking up the step-ladder, but at this point
the two experiences diverge. Upon seeing Paul's larger frame, the
ostrich begins to backpedal away from the loading platform, overpowering the worker
trying to keep him in place. A woman rushes up to help, and the two of them manage -
with difficulty - to maneuver the bird into place. Paul has more doubts than ever
at this point, but the staff are waving him onto the ostrich and so he slowly throws
a leg over and settles into the saddle.
By this point, the bird's agitation is clearly apparent. The first worker steers
the ostrich a few feet out of the loading pen, when the bird decides not to go any further.
The woman rushes over again to clap her hands, but the ostrich digs in his heels
and easily resists the man pushing from behind. Meanwhile, Paul nervously leans back from
the ostrich's hissing head, which is snaking around, apparently looking for something to
snap at. At last, the two workers prevail and convince the ostrich to run down the path.
Back at the platform, Paul eagerly disembarks, and April snaps a picture of human and
ostrich running away from each other, each relieved to be free of the partnership.
After lunch, we continue our adventure day with a trip to go canyoning, or rappelling
down waterfalls. April, being from LA, has been wearing sandals the whole time - not
the best footwear for water rushing over vertical rock faces. A friend we made at the elephant
ride suggests that April can have her daughter's shoes. In fact, the daughter is 10-years-old,
but the shoes seem to fit perfectly. Thus outfitted, we head to our river.
The waterfalls turn out to be relatively small and not too challenging,
but the scenery is beautiful and we're having a great time. After two rappels, our
guides announce that we have come to the "water slide."
For the next few minutes, we look on as the French-speaking tour guide gives detailed
instructions to the family in front of us, demonstrating body and arm positions. The English
instruction, by contrast, consists mainly of, "Let's go!" Trying to imitate the French family,
we lie on our backs and float down the river, as the roar of water gets progressively louder. We
can no longer see people in front of us, and then Paul watches April dip out of sight and into
a rush of whitewater.
In hindsight, the phrase "water slide" may have made us complacent, so reassuring with
its images of laughing children. Finally reunited in the pool
at the bottom, the first thing April and Paul sputter to each other is "Ow!"
Our palms and elbows
are throbbing from collisions with underwater rocks, and we gingerly test our bodies for
signs of broken bones.
Meanwhile, the Dutch man in our group proclaims that he has never had so much
fun, and proceeds to repeat the slide in new configurations: headfirst, spun around
by a guide, etc. He suggests that our bruises were caused by improper arm position
and gives us tips for holding our hands over our heads. We have our doubts, but
our friend is so enthusiastic that we agree to try one more time. The enhanced
arm technique does preserve our elbows, but now more of the pain is shifted to our
tailbones. Once again, we surface in discomfort, and decide we've really had
enough this time. As we hike away from the river, April's knee is bloody from
one of the rapids, and we marvel at what one can do
in Vietnam without signing a waiver.
Back in the city, we stumble into a nearly magical alley, where a nice woman is positively
thrilled to serve us delicious desserts. It's getting late, though, and we still have to
return the shoes April borrowed from the little girl. Our friends are staying at Crazy House,
a surreal building that's more gaudy work of art than hotel. We wander through giant ant tunnels
and under tree roots to get to our friend's room.
As we wander home, we enjoy our last sights of Dalat. Real Vietnam this is not, but those willing to
embrace the often incongruous atmosphere
will find great opportunities here. Dalat proved to be one of our favorite, and most
memorable, destinations in Vietnam.