Saturday, 29 November 2014


Crazy House, Dalat

We’re now in the Southern Highlands of Vietnam and about 75% of the way down the country from its northern border with China. Until we came here we had no idea how big the country is, it’s not very wide, but it has a length from north to south of nearly 2500km, which is about the distance from London to Gibraltar. It does explain the different climates we’ve seen, in the north around Hanoi they have four seasons, but in the south they have two, rainy and dry, but both quite hot. Dalat is 11 degrees north of the equator and is at 1500m above sea level, so it has a very pleasant climate, hence the reason the French made it an important city during their time as colonists. 

More 'Crazy House', Dalat
Yet more 'Crazy House', Dalat
We’ve seen our first real sun here, opening the curtains to clear blue skies in the morning, but tending towards cloud in the afternoon, but no rain. Evenings are pleasantly cool, just about warm enough for a t-shirt and long trousers, daytime is shorts and t-shirt, with a hat to keep off the sun and temperatures probably mid to high twenties C, just about perfect!

One of the hotel rooms in 'Crazy House'
More 'crazy House'
Another hotel room in 'Crazy House'
Jackie in her top bunk on the sleeper bus. That's as far as it reclines
We got here from Hoi An by sleeper bus to the coastal resort of Nha Trang, a Russian tourist haven and then a public bus onto Dalat. The sleeper bus was an experience, but actually not too bad. It was a brand new coach, fitted out with leather seats on two levels, like bunk beds, but continuous from front to back and three wide, one each side and a row in the middle, with two corridors between from front to back. Each bunk reclined back, not quite fully but reasonably flat, with feet in a recess under the bunk in front. Imagine spending the night in a dentist chair. It was fairly comfortable, but difficult to lie on your side without getting back ache. There was a blanket and a tiny hard leather pillow and I was beginning to regret not having bought my camping pillow when I saw Jackie nestling down in hers. The air conditioning was blasting cold air over me, it wouldn’t turn off and directing the jets towards Jackie brought protests. It was hot outside, so it was needed, but not at that level!

View along one of the two corridors on the sleeper bus
The other problem was the state of the road we were on, it seems there is massive investment in Vietnam to improve the main roads and when they are finished they will be great, but at the moment… We were swinging about over pot holes and bouncing over road building trenches and ramps seemingly all the way, how am I going to sleep? I needed a better pillow, but everything was stored safely in my rucksack in the hold of the coach, so I had nothing on board except a head torch, a book, my reading glasses, a bottle of water and a warm top. The warm top would be useless as a pillow, but maybe the blanket would, but then I’d be exposed to the icy blast from the air-con. Jackie seemed to be asleep, comfy with her pillow and blanket, so I directed the jets more at her and made the blanket into a pillow. That’s more comfy, but a bit colder, but hey, it’s suddenly 2:30am, the lights are on and we’ve stopped at a service area for a break. Better get up for the toilet, don’t know when we’ll next stop. Dreary people got off and back on again and away we went.

The impressive, but small '100 Roofs Cafe' in Dalat
By now Jackie’s complaining she’s hot, how can she be hot? She can get the full force of the air-con jets then and I’ll shiver less with blanket as pillow! She can’t help but rub it in about me not bringing my camping pillow – no-one likes a know-all! Surprisingly I get back to sleep, awake again for the next break at about 4:30am, back to sleep again and then awake from about 6:00am as the sun rose and we approached Nha Trang, idly looking through the window at the locals on the beach tai chi, exercising and swimming in the sea at 6:00am! Nha Trang is a seaside town, full of Russians, half the bus was Russian and everywhere we looked there were signs in Cyrillic, out of the blue, really weird. Apparently with one direct flight/week from Russia (somewhere) it’s their Benidorm!

Jackie with the architect/owner outside the '100 Roofs Cafe'
Inside '100 Roofs Cafe'
Off the bus at 6:30am we wandered around to find breakfast and the wait for our next bus at 8:00am feeling a bit tired, but not too bad. The next bus was just a public bus with the usual overtaking manoeuvres that prevented any more dozing, but we arrived safely in Dalat, got a taxi to our Pink House Hotel and were in our room here about midday, feeling a bit jaded but not too bad.
It’s a very nice town, set in the mountains with its own micro-climate. It’s very much a tourist town for foreigners and Vietnamese alike and is known as the love or honeymooners city with a very French feel. Radio masts are built in the shape of the Eiffel Tower and there is the Valley of Love, a kitsch place that we haven’t visited as it’s a taxi ride away and isn’t rated well by Tripadvisor. It’s a very well-kept, tidy town with a large reservoir as its centrepiece and old French colonial buildings and everyone is remarkably friendly.

Another view inside '100 Roofs Cafe'. Photos just don't do it justice, you have to go there and get lost in its maze of winding staircases and surprise rooms. It really is a 'Tardis' (that name is from a UK sci-fi series called Dr. Who, who travels in time in a time machine that's bigger on the inside than the outside. Tardis: Time And Relative Dimension In Space)
Dalat centre and a view out over the lake
The old French built railway station
As it’s a tourist place there are lots of tourist touts about, not least the ‘Easy Rider’ guides who offer to take you on a tour on the back of a motor bike. The Easy Rider trade mark has been abused and now everyone claims to be one, but most aren’t, but probably still give a good service. There’s a standard route they ply: “we will take you to the Flower Garden, the silk factory, the coffee plantation, the cricket farm, the old railway station, the cable car that gives you a good panoramic view, Elephant waterfalls and souvenir shopping”, all on the back of a motorbike or private car and all for an average price of $30 each. Our hotel markets ‘Mr. Rot’s secret tour’, which is all of the above plus a visit to his temple and to his karaoke bar in the evening for a sing along, all for $35 each.

On the railway station platform
These are all a bit above our budget, plus we would feel like we’re on a conveyor belt, just doing what everyone else does, so we declined all offers. It didn’t stop them approaching us in the street one after the other and all, after seeing our white faces, starting with “Hello, where are you from?”, “England”, “Ah, London?”, “No, Birmingham”, “Near Manchester? I know Manchester United, a good team. Nice to meet you”, holds out hand to shake. Now you’re into the conversation, but there’s a bit more chat about England before they produce their testimonial books and tell you how good their trip is and how much better than everyone else’s. You know it’s coming, but they are so nice and friendly with it, even a “No thank you” doesn’t deter them, “How much do you want to pay?”, hoping you’ll state a price so they can start to negotiate and then, once a price is agreed, how can you refuse? But, we’ve got fairly adept at having a laugh with them and politely refusing even to negotiate and they go away eventually, making us feel we’ve made a new friend!

Inside the beautifully restored railway carriages
We’ve walked round the city a bit, seen the old railway station, no longer in use, but now an historical monument, built in classical French architecture and left as it was when the last train pulled out, complete with a steam train, a diesel train and beautifully restored old railway carriages waiting at the platform. We walked to the cable car station and took the lift over the forest to a temple and working monastery on the other side, strange to be in a cable car without skis and a snow scape below and Jackie’s wish to see a monkey from a cable car was thwarted as well, but the view was pretty good.

The steam train with bride and groom in photo shoot
The most amazing sight we saw here was ‘Crazy House’, which is an amazing building designed and built by a classically trained architect who wanted people to reconnect with nature by building a house that resembles trees and volcanos with narrow exposed steps veering upwards and round in all crazy directions like a maze. You simply get lost and working out the plan is almost impossible. It’s a ‘work in progress’ as they are adding bits all the time, so parts resemble a building site, but it is also a hotel and you can stay there for reasonable money. The rooms are all unique and on a different theme and tucked away in little areas you just come across, unoccupied ones open for you to look in, occupied ones with their door shut. It’s brilliant and we loved it, what a great place, utterly unique. You’d never see it in the UK H&S would shut it down in a second as there were almost vertical stairs with no handrail and walkways where you could easily slip and fall, definitely not child friendly.

The comfortable railway station waiting room, apparently 'frozen in time'
A fairly pricey cafe/restaurant. £4.50 for a blue cheese burger - I don't think so!
It is complimented by the ‘100 Roofs Café’ built by another eccentric architect in the middle of the city. This is a narrow, 4m (12ft) wide town house on three floors that is a café and defies logic. You wouldn’t think it possible to get lost in a building only 4m wide, but believe me, it is perfectly possible in here. We went in for a very reasonably priced cookie frappachino smoothie (yes, it was as good as it sounds and only 35,000 dong - £1.10), being shown in by gesticulations by the architect himself, who looked about a 100 and spoke no English. 

Me 'n 'er on the cable car ride
It was 10:00am and a girl took us inside and turned on all the lights, gave us a menu and led the way up hidden stairs through the maze. We chose a table and ordered then went off to explore, hoping we would find our table again. It’s a fabulous place, but only partly open, the rooftop terrace was closed and the basement that was supposed to resemble an aquarium was only half open. In the basement another passageway led down some more steps into darkness and we couldn’t find a light switch, so we retraced our steps to our table to find our drinks waiting for us. 
The monastery at the cable car top
It’s a fabulous place and, in our Lonely Planet Guide wrongly attributed to the same person who designed Crazy House; it isn’t, they are different people and ‘100 Roofs’ is still very much there, where the Lonely Planet said it had been demolished as it was a fire hazard. You can’t always trust Lonely Planet, but the ‘fire hazard’ comment may be why some of it is closed. There were no fire escapes and finding your way out in an emergency from three floors up would be a challenge!

Interesting trees in the grounds. How do they grow them like that?
Down by the lake, another lake by the monastery, not the one in Dalat
Elephant falls from the top
Yesterday we did our own ‘adventure tour’, catching a public bus to see Elephant Falls, part of the tour list of all the companies. Jackie found a very helpful tourist entry on Tripadvisor telling us where to catch a bus and how to get to the falls and back again (you get good information from that website!), so we set off around 9:00am, got the bus, paid 80,000 dong (£2.50) total for both of us there and back and 5000 dong (17p) each entry to the falls. It was a 45 minute bus ride, we were the only white people on the bus, but we showed the note, hand written by the man at our hotel (he included please and thank you in his note) to the very nice lady bus conductor who even told us when to get off.

The interesting walk down to the base of the falls
the very impressive Elephant Falls
Couldn't resist a 'selfie'
Jackie heading for the light and the thundering falls just round the corner
“You get the bus back at one o clock” she told us, but we think she meant that the bus was one per hour. It’s 9:45am and we’re in a nice small village with very friendly people, with the entrance to the falls only about 100m away. We were virtually the only tourists there at that time of day and had a leisurely drink before heading down the steep, treacherous steps to the impressive falls, taking a side detour to the very edge of the falls behind a rock, getting soaked from the spray (very nice and cool on a hot day). On our way up the tour groups had arrived and there were hundreds coming down, some of the women unbelievably in high heels!

It's very wet! How much closer do you dare to go? We were soaked, but cool in the hot day
The temple at the top of the falls
Back at the top we ambled round the temple nearby, visiting the ‘Happy Buddha’ one of the tour guides told us about. He’s about 10m tall and really makes you smile, but in addition you can go round the back and get inside. Jackie wanted to look through the opening in his belly button, but it was too high for her to climb up to so, instead she climbed up outside to a platform by his side.

A turtle or tortoise to signify long life. Look at the little turtle on the back of the big one
And dragons either side of the stairs to signify power
We're not sure what this is all about, but it seems to be a military man leading a king or person of prominence and his entourage
The happy Buddha statue
Having plenty of time we wandered into a nice looking café with tables and chairs under a bamboo roof next to the falls. It was run by a young local lad who lives with his family just across the road. His family grows flowers and coffee and he dries, roasts and grinds it and sells excellent drinks, we had the iced coffee, very strong, but very nice. 

Jackie can't resist climbing up alongside him
Coffee beans drying at the roadside
As we were the only ones there he showed us around his tiny place, telling us about the production of coffee. The green coffee beans are picked and laid out to dry in the sun (by the nice clean roadside!) for about 10 days, the outer husk removed and the inner bean roasted in his oven at 240 C for 25 minutes, then ground and served. He has been speaking English for only about six months, so conversation was a bit difficult, but we had a laugh, he was good fun and we learnt all about coffee. 
Green coffee beans at the start of drying
Did you know, Vietnam is now the world’s second largest exporter of coffee after Brazil, having come from nowhere in the 1990’s? It was the communist governments plan for economic growth and has been spectacularly successful, now being one of their main exports, crude oil surprisingly being their number one export (I didn’t even know they had oil reserves!).

And after 10 days in the sun
Our man with a handful of unroasted coffee beans
We wandered back to the main road to wait for the bus, a man selling fruit by the bus stop indicated it would be 12:30 (it was about 12:15), all by gesticulation. The narrow temporary bridge, currently being replaced by a new modern one spanned the river only about 50m away from Elephant Falls and we could see the river just end, where it plunged over the edge of the falls. As we looked at it a young American couple came by on a motor scooter asking if we knew if there was a waterfall anywhere about. “Just look there” we said, “you see where the river appears to end? That’s where the falls are. Just go down that road and park and you’re there”. Nice to be helpful and quite funny that they were so close and hadn’t seen it!

And a bagful of one's he's roasted
Here's his oven for roasting the coffee beans
The bus arrived and it was the same bus, driver and lady conductor we had on the way out and we were like the best of friends even though we didn’t have enough language to be able to converse. Who needs to speak when you can gesticulate! We sat down at the front to get a view and then realised we were sat across from the ’bus nutter’, actually that’s a bit unfair, he was a nice old gent with a big oriental long grey beard and moustache, wearing a crash helmet (we don’t know why), plain lense glasses (we don’t know why) and what looked like pyjamas and a coat. He spoke no English, but insisted on talking to us. We tried to understand, but we couldn’t so had to shrug and smile. 

Felt a bit bad after taking this photo of an interesting vehicle coming over the temporary bridge at Elephant Falls. It turned out to be a hearse with a coffin on board. It was a funeral procession! Just behind you can see where the river disappears over Elephant Falls and this is where the Americans asked us if we knew where the falls were
Our 'nutter on the bus' trying on Brian's hat
He would turn away and then back again and try again and we understood he was asking if we were married, “yes” we said showing our rings. “No children” we said (it was too difficult to say I had one but Jackie had none), he seemed to have 7 children, or maybe grandchildren, as he counted to seven in French on his fingers (the only time he spoke French we are sure). He offered Jackie his glasses to try on and wanted to try hers on, then he wanted to try my hat on, all the time to the great amusement of the lady bus conductor and even the driver turned around to look – he’s driving along narrow mountain roads with big drops to the side! As we got off the bus back in Dalat both she and the driver waved goodbye to us out of the window, you just wouldn’t get that back in the UK!

And, wearing his crash helmet, Jackie's sun glasses!
Last night we thought we’d try out a restaurant selling local food that came out well on Tripadvisor so settled in at our table for two in the small restaurant, ordered fabulous spicy and garlicky dishes and started to sip our beer when suddenly familiar voices said “Hello, what are you doing here?” It was Lauren and Milly, the two young girls we had shared a car with on our trip from Hue to Hoi An last week. Proof again that most people are following the same track through Vietnam, we first met then in Ninh Binh, which is just south of Hanoi, right up in the north, we saw them again in Hue and shared a car with them to Hoi An. They are two English girls, early twenties, on a four and a half month trip to NZ and SE Asia, before heading home to find jobs for a year, before heading off again for another perhaps longer trip. It was great to see them again, they are heading off to Ho Chi Minh City today and we hope to catch up with them again there for dinner as we arrive there on 2nd December, the day before they depart.

View through the bus windscreen of motorcyclists carrying improbably large loads
A radio mast of Eiffel Tower replica in Dalat? From our balcony
Jackie and  Lauren are now ‘Friends’ on Facebook so we can arrange a meeting via that and they are one of three couples we are now in contact with, Simon and Diane and Brian and Jane are the others, both we met on Cat Ba island and are staying in touch with by email. Simon and Diane from Edinburgh have a blog, similar to ours ( and we are mentioned in one of their entries. They are now in Laos and we are exchanging experiences and asking advice of each other so that’s really good, they are also reading our blog so ‘hello’ if you are reading this! Brian and Jane are now back home in Canada having finished their trip, but we hope to keep in touch with them. They had a motorcycle accident while in Vietnam, falling off while going down-hill, Brian grazing all the left side of his body apparently and making any kind of movement or sleeping difficult for about three days. They are now back in snowy Canada and Brian is back out deer hunting, so he must be ‘on the mend’.
Papaya fruit

That’s all for now, another long entry I’m afraid, we’re off to Mui Ne tomorrow, a four hour bus ride away. It’s a sea side place, so lots of R&R, sun and sand. Two nights there then off to the madness (by all accounts) of Ho Chi Minh City or, as it used to be called, Saigon.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Hoi An

The old US Army checkpoint on the Hai Van Pass in torrential rain

Well the car journey was uneventful and easy, though the view over the Hai Van pass was lacking due to the pouring rain, Top Gear did it in their own inimitable style here though in the opposite direction (, 

View down the pass. The Top Gear boys had a better view, but even their trip wasn't in perfect weather (but better than ours!)
One of the big caves in Marble Mountain
still, it was a nice drive and enabled us to stop for lunch, be taken to the marble carving shop by the driver in case we wanted to buy a lifesize statue to put in the backpacks and to stop at Marble mountain. This last we really enjoyed, it is a group of 5 peaks for earth, fire, water, wood and metal. We just wandered around for an hour going into and scrambling out of caves past Buddahs to viewpoints, all sorts. We did get just a bit lost and got back to the car slightly late but were forgiven by the girls as they wouldn't have gone there on their own, so everyone was happy and it was nice to be dropped off at our hotels after a comfortable journey, particularly as it was now pouring down.

View from the top. At least it had stopped raining (well, almost!)
Full sized hand carved statue anyone? They will give you a 'very good price' or so they say!
It's raining in Hoi An!
Due to the inclemency of the weather we ate in the hotel, and although it was no worse than any other meal it was a little more expensive, the options were a bit limited and there is a fab restaurant just at the end of the street! Food here has been most of the best we've had in Vietnam, lots of seafood and chilli!

Still raining - a lot!
Hang on, it's stopped! That's the Japanese covered bridge, as depicted on the back of a 20,000 dong banknote
On the beach in Hoi An. That's a traditional fishing boat in the foreground, fancy going to sea in one of those, particularly in the swell you can see in the background! I like this photo, I think it's art (without the 'f'!)
Woman Friday!
Out to the old town the next day, the whole area is a UNESCO heritage site with preserved old houses some of which are still lived in, some are now restaurants and shops, and temples. Motor traffic free for most of the day it is a lovely area. We didn't get far before rain stopped play and we retreated back to the hotel where we did manage to sit by the pool albeit fully clothed.

This seafront is rapidly becoming a five star beach resort. The old houses and buildings are rapidly disappearing, being replaced with big five star hotels and resorts. Unfortunately they haven't entirely got to grips with coastal erosion and the beach is quickly eroding into the sea. This building is part of a huge hotel and has subsided into the sea before opening. Huge works are underway to build a massive sea wall, but there won't be a beach to sit on, only a big wall!
Look at that for a splendid lighthouse
The following day dawned wet, but by the time we'd eaten a huge breakfast the sun was out, so we hopped onto some bicycles and peddled off to the coast, all the way to the point at the end to find a lighthouse. B really wanted to go up it but despite the open door there was no sign of life so we prepared to head off, just chatting to a French lady when some random bloke asked if we wanted to go up, shouted inside and carried on his way. We were welcomed inside, minus shoes, given some binoculars and with strict instructions to shut the door behind us on our way down sent up. Good view, well worth the effort, and the $1 he charged us on the way out!

Great view from the top of the Pacific and river and out to the Cham Islands, no diving at this time of year, the sea is too rough
How's the vertigo?
the vegetable gardens (allotments to me!)
Deviated back via the 'vegetable garden' marked on the map, just for a look to find what looked like loads of allotments all looking healthy, lush and green and apparently growing just in sand! You would be so proud if yours looked like this! Life being hard as it is another 'chill' by the pool was called for, this time in the proper attire, B even went in!

Water buffalo's in the rice paddies. 'Hey mum, it's a bit deep for little me!'
By the pool
On our free bike tour. The white statue they call a unicorn. bit different from our's
We'd booked a free bike tour for Sunday with students wanting to practice their English, so 18 of us met up and cycled off ( it's very flat round here ) onto a ferry which was an experience in itself before going to a boat makers, a rice paper makers a family temple (where we played charades?) 

That's the ferry we came in on. Pack them in don't they? But I'm sure it's absolutely safe and there's nothing to worry about!
The boat building stop
And a sleeping mat makers. AND a wood shop with some tiny kittens! It was interesting and we would never have seen these things on our own but we did feel like the parents in the group! Despite having slightly sore nether regions we decided to cycle round the old town and over to another island while we had the bikes (rental being an exorbitant $1 a day!) Before back to the pool, it was nice once you were in!

And the rug making stop - I won't bore you with any more!
Hoi An river front. The whole town is like this, it's really very pretty
Having cycled past a row of food stalls we decided to have a drink and a course at a few, this seemed like a really good idea, but we only managed 2 dishes, having expected 3 , perhaps it was the extra waiting time, or the fresh daily made beer at 17p a glass! Still room for ice cream though, 57 flavours we'd been told on our way past! It was one of those serve yourself places, give you a big cup and hope you'll fill it. We were both very restrained, only two small scoops each, still came to the same price at the main course and two beers! (£4)

That's a soft shell crab pattie she's eating. A bit crunchy and bits of claw and leg got stuck in your teeth, but is was not too bad, and only $1 (£0.60)
See that Chinese writing on the pillar...
So yesterday thought we really had better actually look round the old town which we did, trying to be careful as your ticket gets you into five of the twenty three possible venues, we managed more than that though as some just had no ticket collectors, including a free music and dance performance with some very strange instruments, a strange song version of bingo no one understood, but two people won and finishing with a song to the tune of Auld Lang Syne! Many of the houses had pulleys and hatches to move all the furniture from the ground floor to the first floor as nearly every year somewhere round October or November the rain causes the river to burst its banks. Fortunately we haven't experienced that!

Each symbol is actually made from images of birds
Those yellow markers are heights of flood water, usually in Oct or Nov
It's probably as well we are leaving tonight on the overnight bus (eek) as it would be very easy to spend lots of money, there are lots of nice souvenirs here and you can get clothes and shoes made to measure in the blink of an eye. It's all very tempting!

One of the temples, just to give an idea. There were many of them!
It's been a strange place, sociable in some ways, unsociable in others, we are 20 mins out of town (but that was a  choice for an affordable pool) and except for one morning have been the only people at breakfast. In town however we have bumped into the young couple from our kayaking trip on Cat Ba Island two weeks ago, and an Aussie couple with a baby we met in Ninh Binh when they were having a bit of a holiday before he taught for a fortnight in Hue, we then bumped into them in a bar in Hue and then on Sunday we ran into them again here as they'd come for a day trip! It is one of the good and bad things about Vietnam, there seems to be a big tourist trail it's really hard to get off! As far as cheap living goes though we are rating it quite highly, the hotels we've stayed in have all been newer and of a better standard for the money than in Thailand or Malaysia and have all included breakfast which we found to be a really expensive meal if you wanted something Western or a tricky meal if you just wanted something recognizable. We are off season though which has helped with the price but has made the weather variable! I think I'd rather have a bit of rain than have it roasting all the time and it's not cold. Some people have complained about the service they've had which I think is unfair, there has been much more English spoken than we expected, and as ever, if you are friendly and polite to people they are friendly and polite back.