Our next port of call was Dalat located in Vietnams’ Central Highlands. Our aim here was a motorbike tour of the local industries and sights. The Dalat Easy Riders are a collective with a reputation strong enough to spawn an army of copycat fakers all over ‘Nam. Once again following the guidance of Miltonian brethren, the pioneers Rob & Gilly, we had an appointment booked with the real deal and after a horrific “sleeper” bus/minibus from Hoi An we dragged ourselves across town to the meeting point.
I have to say that Dalat itself as a town wasn’t nearly as endearing a place as the many recommendations it gets would suggest. It’s alright, but really just a town. The gems of Dalat are the spots around it that the motorbike tours take you.
Rob & Gilly had undertaken 3 days worth of touring on the back of motorbikes and enjoyed a whole host of experiences that took them halfway to Saigon. Thanks to restrictions on time and money we could only take on a one-day tour but we set it up on the evening of our arrival and after a pretty uninspiring meal with a fabulous host at Peace Restaurant we hit the hay.
The next day Thien, our lead rider for the day, was there on time at our hotel armed with spare helmets, a penchant for sexual innuendo, and a smile. Within moments our second rider – an amiable rookie whose name I’m ashamed to say escapes me – arrived and the next thing we know we’re tootling along, left to our own devices to determine precisely how to ride pillion. The truth is that in this part of the world children are practically [and I wouldn’t bet against actually] born on two wheels so it’s inconceivable for them that the whole world isn’t adept on the back of a bike. In fairness within seconds I’d figured it out but it certainly employs a range of muscles in a way I’d never experienced.
The day was jam-packed so I’m going to attempt to whistle through it.
First stop was a view over the vegetable farms of Dalat with a brief, informative and interesting history of Dalat. We then headed to a flower farm; one of the 3 major industries [coffee and the afore-mentioned veggies are the other 2]. Flower farming is relatively new here. A Dutch entrepreneur noted the ideal climate while busy falling in love with a local girl and brought his experience [and a lot of seeds / bulbs I guess] over with him when he relocated to be with her. The moderate and consistent year-round climate allows for many crop cycles annually and while start-up costs are high [Land, Bulbs/Seeds/Cuttings, Fertilizer etc] established farms are highly lucrative.
From here we rolled over to a small coffee plantation owned by family of Thien and drank…green tea. All the around the house was covered with coffee beans laid out on tarpaulin to dry in the sun. Oddly, walking on the beans with no regard was the done thing. We had a trot into the crop to see the fresh beans too.
After tea and discussions on how the patriarch of the household had worked as a mechanic for the Americans during the war & the quite phenomenally exorbitant pet bird market we set out for a rice wine distillery.
The setup was remarkably crude but, as my shot of 65% ‘ish straight-off-a-fresh-batch sample shot confirmed, surprisingly tasty. The place had an interesting sideline – weasel poop coffee. Retaining my commitment to new experiences it was time for an espresso. For the uninitiated said coffee involves feeding weasel’s coffee beans and collecting their excrement which yields relatively whole beans that have enjoyed a trip around a furry critters’ digestive system.
The coffee tastes like shit.
Well perhaps not that bad but it is an acquired taste [that I have not acquired] and a very expensive one – according to The Economist $6,600 per kilo, reflecting the slow process of production. It is considered a premium delicacy, but then such tags are often ascribed to anything that otherwise wouldn’t sell.
While I confess that the order of play for the day may be somewhat skewed we visited, at some point during the morning, a silk factory. Unfortunately, due to the fast-approaching Vietnamese New Year [Tet], production had halted. We still got to see details on how it all works when it is in operation though so it wasn’t a total loss.
The elephant waterfall was next and was probably my highlight. Stood behind, inches from the falling torrents, being drenched by the swirling spray and mist was a refreshing way to cool down.
We had a huge lunch together involving an array of local dishes before getting back on the road. We stumbled across a bull-on-bull showdown raging in the middle of the road which our drivers were in complete awe of despite our indifference. We were then introduced to a novel way to grow mushrooms.
Large plastic tents housed a huge number of hanging strings of plastic bags filled with sawdust and a core of mushroom spores. These are watered/maintained and eventually split by a series of small slits in the bags through which mushrooms grow eventually.
Next on our journey was the Minority Chicken Village. Yes you read that correctly. No it is not an independent colony of a less common ethnic group of poultry.
It is a small village of minority ethnic families that has a giant concrete chicken sculpture in the middle of it. The chicken has 9 spurs and is a symbol of a local legend / love story that I’ll summarise quickly as “Dippy girl heads off in search of impossible chicken with 9 spurs after chief of forbidden beloved’s tribe demands said bird in exchange for allowing cross-tribal marriage only to contract malaria in jungle where she is found by equally dumb wannabe husband who then also cops it from malaria.” I had more fun playing army with the local kids – until they decided stones were the weapon of choice anyway. I, Olds, got stoned by the locals in the wilds of Vietnam.
The final spot of the official itinerary for the day was a large lake / reservoir and a Buddhist temple which – thanks to some well-placed wind chimes and timely bell ringing – was probably the most serene of the journey so far.
On our way back Thien took us to visit his family which was a lovely way to end the day. He has a young daughter and a beautiful wife who you can tell knows how to keep him in line.
We’d been expecting to visit the ‘Crazy House’ – an ongoing art project that apparently looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland – but found out later that we’d been somewhat fleeced into a more expensive itinerary that didn’t include it. All things considered though it was a wonderful trip.
In the evening we wandered cross-town for a beer and found ourselves in the company of five fellow travellers sharing stories, drinks, a dining table and a pool table. It was an awesome night. By the end of the evening we’d unwittingly formed The Magnificent Seven – Jojo, Dizzy, Bex, Anthony, Katie, Fi and myself. Hope to see them all again in the future!