Saturday, February 23, 2008

Dalat, a mountain getaway

We stopped in Ho Chi Minh City for a couple days but knowing we'd be returning, we moved on to Dalat. Dalat is about 1,500 meters above sea level in the central highlands of Vietnam. For the first time in months, we had to dig deep into the backpacks to pull out our fleece jackets; we were dealing with a frigid wind chill of 50 degrees fahrenheit! The altitude, pine forests, and cool weather make Dalat very different from the rest of Vietnam. Fruits such as avocados and strawberries and flowers such as orchids and hydrangeas are major business in town. The biggest business is tourism as Dalat has become the Vietnamese people's honeymoon central. In the center of town is Xuon Huong lake. A boardwalk surrounds the lake along with numerous attractions such as a flower garden, golf course, and parks.

At one side of the lake is central market where warm clothing, dried fruits, rare equator fruits, and flowers were in deep contrast to all of the previously visited markets in Southeast Asia.

On the opposite side of the lake is the Dalat Flower Gardens.

The gardens are well-maintained and home to orchids, hydrangeas, fuchsias, and much more.

Numerous greenhouses took advantage of the garden's affect and sold gorgeous potted flowers and plants from the garden's hillside.

Within the town, it was obvious that the architecture was heavily influenced by the French. The radio station tower was shaped as the Eiffel Tower.

Nearly every hilltop was laden with French villas. One hilltop that was not was home to a pine grove surrounding Bao Dai's summer palace.

Bao Dai was the last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty in Vietnam and actually had three palaces in the Dalat area. The beautiful palace has been maintained as it was since Bao Dai left the country.

Down the road from Bao Dai's palace is Hang Nga Crazy House.

The house was designed by the daughter of the second president of the Vietnamese socialist republic; a tribute to the president is in the guesthouse lobby. The crazy house moniker is warranted as stairways lead in all directions, fake cobwebs dangle above the garden, and guestrooms each have a nature theme (e.g., kangaroo room, eagles nest, ant hill, etc.).

The smooth, wavy walls seem to have been influenced by Antoni Gaudi.

Maybe the most striking attraction of Dalat was its clean streets. Trash cans were placed throughout the town and the sidewalks, lakeside, and streets were free of aluminum cans and plastic bags. This seems like a simple thing, but it has been difficult to come by in Southeast Asia. Dalat was also spared from war. Southern Vietnamese, Northern Vietnamese, Americans, and French forces agreed to avoid fighting in the pine forests of the area so it was completely spared during the Vietnam war.

We rented a scooter to tour attractions outside the town. The view of the outskirts of town showed where all the beautiful flowers were coming from.

The central highlands are home to lots of waterfalls and we visited Tiger Falls.

Legend has it that a cave at the top of the falls was once home to a tiger that was wounded by a local hill tribe villager. Now, plaster tiger models are throughout the park at the top of the falls, including one large enough you can crawl inside!

When we left Tiger Falls, it was a steep ascent over a gravel road. Not having a lot of experience on scooters, I shifted to second gear and determined I'd crawl up the hill slowly. This plan nearly succeeded until we reached a very steep hill that our motorbike was puttering up. Guess I'd have to downshift to first. As I did so, my uncoordinated motorbike control came to light. I shifted to first but I kept the bike throttle at its max. Suddenly, the front tire reared up and I was pulling a wheelie! That lasted only a second as the bike went out from under both Laura and I and reared up completely vertical. Laura managed to land on her feet as did I. I held the bike upright as Laura held my shirt so as to prevent me falling down the hill. I couldn't get my hand loose off of the throttle because I needed it to hold up the bike. Eventually, the bike's weight got out of my control and it plummeted into some bushes on the hillside. We bursted into laughter as a Vietnamese crew of three motorbikes passed by staring at the crazy, hysterical farangs with their moto thrown into the bushes. We pulled the moto out and it was unscathed. Laura and I left the scene without even a bruise. We sure were lucky those bushes were there because had they not been, we would be proud owners of a totaled Yamaha Sirius scooter.

Highlighting the honeymooners' trail is the valley of love. This place just gets to a girl's heart.

At the center of the valley is a small lake that is surrounded by objects one can associate with honeymooners: swan pedal boats, horse rides, lakeside love seats, even a replica of Venus of Milo! As we strolled hand-in-hand along the lakeside, a Vietnamese couple was ending their around-the-lake horseback ride. Just before they dismounted, a large USSR military transport truck came charging down the lakeside road (Don't ask me what it was doing in the valley of love. I couldn't make that up if I tried.). The Vietnamese cowboy guide led the horses off road but one of them, thankfully mounted by the male, got startled by the speeding truck. Before the Vietnamese cowboy could react, the horse reared up and threw the male rider to the ground. Something like the motorbike in the previous story but from much higher. After impact, the man was able to roll away from the horse as it reared up a couple more times. I could hardly hold in my laughter as the man got back to his feet with the aid of the apologetic cowboy. Ahh, now that is a honeymoon memory!

After getting burned out by equator heat, eating fried noodles daily, and bartering at Asian markets, Dalat was a refreshing break from Asia. It had the feeling of being in the Swiss Alps with great food to back it up. We travel to Quy Nhon next for a taste of Vietnamese coastal living.

Now, a break from the travel blog to discuss how Laura and I became unwilling accomplices to the escape of a murderer. First, I am compelled to give the reader the indisputable facts of this case, so they may come to their own conclusions. We arrived in Nha Trang from Dalat via a tourist bus. The six hour bus ride went by quickly as I was engulfed in the adventurous prison escapes of Henri Charrier, aka Papillon. From Nha Trang, we wished to travel to Quy Nhon, a small coastal town off of the tourist trail. You see, Vietnam's tourist trail is well-defined; the country has a tourist bus system that stops in the following cities: Ho Chi Minh City, Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi. The tourist buses are always full of westerners and most don't seem to stray far from this path.

We got to Nha Trang bus station via moto taxi and got really lucky to catch the last bus to Quy Nhon. It's a bit generous to call it a bus; it really was an uber-comfortable fourteen person van. As we exited the bus station, we were two of three passengers. Leaving Nha Trang, we proceeded very slowly along the main highway out of the city. We never exceeded 40km/h and with a 200+ kilometer trip ahead of us, it looked to be a long ride. The non-driving bus operator, whom I will call Thomas, wsa yelling out the window attempting to attract more passengers for the journey. We continued like this for over an hour when of the many vehicles that passed us, one was an ambulance with its lights flashing (no siren). Minutes after the ambulance, a cell phone call came to Thomas. The call didn't seem any different from previous ones he had received until the call was over. A conversation between the driver and Thomas ensued and sunddenly, we were off!

The van, which had been cruising at 40km/h, was now speeding through traffic at 100km/h. Laura put her book down as her eyes widened with concern. I tried to keep my heart from bursting out of my chest as we weaved through passenger buses, big rigs, and scooters. We were traveling at double the average speed of the busiest North-South two-lane highway in Vietnam. I've not seen the Mercedes symbol from a car windshield so closely so many times as I did on this day. I felt like I was watching somebody play a video game in which my life depended on the outcome.

We flew by everything on the road including the ambulance that had passed us earlier. A woman waving from the roadside was finally what stopped us. Finally, a chance to catch my breath. Was this just a passenger pickup? Was the rest of the bus ride going to be like this? Once the bus stopped, the waving woman ran to a crowd of people that sat under a tent in front of a home. Thomas jumped out of the van and followed her. Quickly, a man ran into the van from either the house or the crowd of people. I'm not sure because I was distracted by a mob of people about 25 meters in front of our van along the roadside. Our newest passenger was a 40+ year old Asian man who wore a white French beret, black leather coat, and carried a briefcase. Our van left so quickly that Thomas followed the new passenger into the passenger area and sat next to me.

Our driver proceeded slowly through the roadside mob which had to be the scene of an accident. Laura nor I could see much due to the number of people surrounding the scene. As we passed through the mob, Thomas and the new passenger ducked into the van so as not to be seen by the mob. Once we were past the mob, our driver continued at the suicidal spped we were previously driving at; both men sat up normally. We survived 20 km more when finally, our van slowed to the pace of the rest of traffic. For the rest of the trip, our van proceeded as a normal bus making pickups and dropoffs. Our new passenger was let off at a small village home probably 100+ kilometers from his pickup point.

So, those are the facts. This is the story I fabricated as the events were occurring. I submit that Henri Charriere probably has great influence on my fabricated story.

The passenger was a friend and work colleague of Thomas and our driver. Minutes before our arrival, he was the driver or operator of a van that had a terrible, fatal accident with a motorbike. His fellow van operator was killed or unconcious from the impact; however, he had survived it. Knowing he would face public justice or manslaughter charges, he fled to a nearby home where customers of his lived. They sheltered him as a crowd formed around the accident. Police and ambulances were dispatched to the scene as he made phone calls to co-workers he knew would be traveling North. He finally contacted our van which was the closest Northbound van to the scene of the accident. We had to perform the pickup before police arrived to avoid any governmental encounters. We succeeded and dropped off our passenger at his home where te story was that he had fallen sick in his Southbound bus and the driver dropped him off there to recover.

As for Laura and I, if the police get as far as us, we need to keep the story straight that we just drove by the accident. We don't recall seeing a middle-aged man wearing a white beret and leather jacket with a briefcase. Oh, please god, let me keep the story straight. Don't let the Vietnamese mafia get their hands on me!


Anonymous said...

this blog entry took a while coming but it is so exciting to read that it was worth the wait. Mom will just love all the floral pics and the story of the Valley of Love; but when she gets to the part that moves from blog to bus ride story she will be scared to death to read that; thank God you said it was your active imagination that lead to this story. NO MOTO FOR YOU when you get back here!!!!! LOVE DAD

Greg said...

What a great blog entry. It is like a combination of Letter From a Friend, Comedy-Mystery novelette and Flower Show article in the Boston Globe. Going with your momma next week.

Flower show: The first flower photo is surprisingly a Star Gazer Asiatic Lilly [my favorite], if the flower had a real strong sweet smell. I have been trying to get a good photo of the patch in our front yard garden here on Lake road without much success. Now I have a great pic from J&L. Thanks!

The Scooter incident -- I have a non-functional brand new lawn fertilizer spreader for the very same reason except I was using an ATV instead of a scooter. I need another EE to get it functional.

Novel .... great opener "... Laura and I became unwilling accomplices to the escape of a murderer." I agree a little skullduggery indeed. And it has high speed rides to boot.

Thanks [spa-see-ba] once again for such an enjoyable read.

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