21.11.2014 - 26.11.2014
Dalat is Vietnam's alter ego... we didn't feel like we were in Vietnam half the time as we drove and walked around the city. The climate was the first difference we noticed... a spring-like cool instead of tropical heat, which is the direct result of being at a 5,000ft altitude. Parts of the town reminded us of Twin Peaks in San Francisco, with the colorful houses packed closely together on the hills, and then other parts just outside the city center could have been the Black Forest in Germany, with trees so dense and dark. The town is dotted with elegant French-colonial villas rather than the stark socialist architecture you see everywhere else in the country, and you don't see rice fields any more, but instead farms of flowers and strawberries. Dalat is rich with waterfalls and lakes and canyons and forests speckled throughout the surrounding highlands, so sunny days are key to spending your days there.
Unfortunately, our first day in Dalat was a wash... it was pouring down rain and we were out of commission after not being able to sleep on the prior night's sleeper bus. Thankfully, though, we had sunshine the next day, so we rented a scooter and created our own little day tour. We took a lovely gondola ride to Truc Lam Temple, an active Zen Buddisht complex, and then drove to Datanla Waterfalls, where we excitedly rode a bobsled-type ride down to the falls. Afterwards, we drove around the perimeter of Tuyen Lam Lake, counting the many new resorts in development. This is a much more affluent area than anywhere else north we had seen... you can tell that there is so much being put into developing Dalat into the next big tourist hotspot. We ended our day tour with paddle-boating on Lake Da Lat, which was so fun... it was the perfect vantage point for people watching and admiring the inner-city beauty!
We really loved our time in Dalat, and even though it was short, we really connected with the area and could easily have spent more days there! Even on the drive out to Saigon, we were in awe of the beautiful highlands.... this area is the gift that just keeps on giving!
After an 8-hour bus ride... and thankfully our last!..., we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, just as a monsoon started its torrential downpour. This was the hardest rain either of us have ever experienced! It was pouring so hard that we got soaked in a matter of 10 seconds running from the covered sidewalk into a taxi cab. After the rain stopped, the roads around our hotel were flooded so badly, more than ankle-deep... craziness! This was not the welcome we were hoping for, but it was definitely interesting. Thankfully, the water had dried up by the next morning, so that worked out!
We did the suggested walking tour from our Lonely Planet... it was quite interesting zigzagging through the old and the new... this is a city of many contrasts. From gritty streets full of antiques to massive high-end malls; from the old colonial buildings to the new financial towers. Saigon has a lot more wealth than Hanoi, with all the main financial businesses and so much new development. Everyone we had talked to had said they didn't really like HCMC, but we actually did! Maybe because our expectations were already so low, but we found many parts of the city exciting and interesting.
One of the highlights from our city tour was enjoying some drinks at the rooftop bar called Shri Lounge located in the financial district of HCMC. It was a pretty upscale place, but we managed to fit in despite our backpacker attire. Our cocktails were a bit of a splurge, considering the rest of our trip, but that incredible view was worth every penny!
We visited the Reunification Palace, which is strongly associated with the fall of Saigon in 1975. It was interesting touring through the deserted halls and old rooms where the old president once lived, but the most fascinating part was the basement with the telecommunications center and war rooms. It felt like we were transported back in time.
The War Remnants Museum was also very interesting. It displays the graphic photography of the American war crimes from the Vietnam War, where the pictures are very one-sided, but are very effective in driving home the brutality of war. I think we were most horrified by the photos of the children and adults who were and still are affected, even a couple generations later, by the Agent Orange bombing... so incredibly sad!
And finally we braved ourselves for the Ben Thanh Market. This is the most central of all the markets and is one of HCMC's signature landmarks. This market is stall after endless stall piled high with anything from native handicrafts and food to textiles and shoes, with the most determined vendors aggressively attempting to get you to stop at their stall. With no air circulation, I was surprised we made it out alive, let alone with a few goodies!
Sadly, this was our last stop in Vietnam, and we cannot believe how fast the past three weeks flew by! We could have easily spent another week in this beautiful country, and we recommend everyone come for a visit!!