8-21 April 2008
Day 9

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.

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At an 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.

IMG_2040 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.

Day 10

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 hill-top monastery. ALS 239

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. ALS 275

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.

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ALS 303 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 ALS 316 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. ALS 309

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 ALS 312 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 ALS 313 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.

ALS 353 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."

ALS 339 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.

ALS 373 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.

ALS 368 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.

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IMG_2043 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, IMG_2050 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.