Dalat: Le Petit Paris, complete with Eiffel Tower

Dalat became a vacation favourite of French Colonialists because of its temperate climate, abundant flowers and mountain and lakeside setting, and the name “Le Petit Paris” stuck. The French influence is still evident – many older Vietnamese speak French and the architecture and food have a strong Gallic stamp.

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Dalat is also known as the City of Eternal Spring, and I am overjoyed because for the first time in two and a half months, I am not schvitzing. Last night, I put on a sweater to go out. Dalat is a small pretty city at an elevation of 1500m with clean air and pine trees. The streets wind up and around hills with numerous roundabouts and sightlines to the lake. Walking or biking is a pleasure as the circumference of the lake is ringed with a tree and flower-lined path.

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We saw packs of cyclists doing laps – as it turns out, they are on the local soccer team and this was part of their training. The green space in the background is a golf course.

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The city is just on the verge of bursting out, flower-wise. The jacaranda are in full bloom, and the cherry blossoms are about two weeks away. This is the time of year the locals wait for – when the city is so colourful and fragrant and they can finally strip off their parkas. The flower garden on one end of the lake was gorgeous.

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We passed a lot of men fishing, either in companionable groups or quietly solo. Since the lake is quite dirty, I imagine any fish would be caught just for sport.

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Around ten percent of Vietnam’s population is Christian, and the grounds around the  Notre Dame Cathedral were filled with people in quiet prayer. The church was not open, but we enjoyed just walking around the gardens.It is called the “Chicken Church” – look closely at the top of the steeple and you’ll see a chicken.

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Like much of Vietnam, Dalat is growing by leaps and bounds. We were told that just ten years ago, this was a quiet small town with no big buildings and simple houses with vegetable gardens out front. Now, the traffic is non-stop, grand hotels are springing up and modern government buildings like this one have transformed the landscape.

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Just around the corner, we found Hang Nga Crazy House, which defies description. One can call it surreal, outrageous, artistic – this house has enraged and offended the neighbours and delighted almost everyone else. It sat empty for almost a decade until legal skirmishes were settled. Architect Dang Viet Nga put her life’s work and finances into this dream and it is not finished yet. The molten walls and vertiginous stairways lead the visitor from one acid-trip room into another.

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Crazy House is massive in scale, and spreads over several buildings, joined by tiny little steps with 2-foot railings that would never pass code back home.

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I posed for the requisite “middle-of-the-bridge” shot.

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Dalat is the breadbasket of Vietnam, producing much of the country’s fruits, vegetables, rice, silk and coffee. We booked a tour which took us to a number of locations outside town. Seventeen of us took part – from Quebec, the U.K.,  Norway, Finland, Germany, Singapore and Canada. Our charming guide Chi gave us an excellent day and told us not only about what we were seeing, but offered some insights into life in Vietnam. She is 23 and works 7 days a week as a tour guide. It is not untypical for a lot of Vietnamese to work that hard. Here, she was explaining the distillation process of rice wine and offered us a sample. She called it “happy waters”  and made veiled references to how much many of the local men partake.

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About 20 minutes outside of town we began driving into the agricultural belt. Acres and acres of greenhouses grow all manner of fruit and vegetables, with strawberries and artichokes being the local speciality. Flowers are the other huge cash crop – everything is grown year-round and much of it in greenhouses since the rainy season and the bugs would otherwise destroy the crops.

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We stopped to walk through a huge flower operation. Roses, carnations and sunflowers were currently growing. Beautiful roses like this one sell for about 20 for $1.

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On to the silkworm farm and factory. This was such an interesting process to actually witness the path from pupa to silk scarf. Chi carried out the first stage on her hand – pupa, silkworm and cocoon. Silkworms are eaten in Vietnam – a couple of brave souls tried them and agreed they tasted like potato.

imageThe cocoons are put into boiling water, and only the pure white ones are kept. The inferior ones are sent to China. Once they are sorted, they are assembled in a huge machine with workers at each little hook. They take the fine thread of silk that emerges from each cocoon, attach it to the hook, and the spinning begins. Silk threads are first wound around spools on one machine and then transferred to this section, where the silk is gathered into long strands. After these strands are dried, they are ready to be dyed and woven.

On the subject of eating strange and unusual things, Chi told us “Vietnamese eat everything.” Whether this comes from a history of deprivation and necessity or whether it is cultural, but our next stop made all of us a little queasy. We were in search of crickets, washed down with rice wine, but first we went on a tour of the facilities and came into a holding pen where the crickets were kept. In the same room was a couple of civets (destined for someone’s dinner plate), some porcupines (ditto), some bamboo rats (same-same), and then three or four cages of these little critters.

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Chi told us they were being raised to be sold as pets, but we’re not sure. Guinea pigs are popular in South America and if the Vietnamese eat rats, these little guys cannot be far behind. Cats and dogs are eaten here , although only among the locals.

Crickets, though – that is why we were there and we moved on to the tasting room. They were served, roasted, with a splash of chili sauce, and they tasted like a salty, crunchy snack – full of protein, apparently. This little girl was not sure about them, but she gamely tried one and didn’t go back for seconds.

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The area around Dalat is full of waterfalls and even in the dry season, there was still plenty of water. We visited Elephant Falls, which required us to climb down to the bottom by hanging on to steel poles and overhanging vines.

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The climb down was worth it – the falls were impressive enough, but as is often the case throughout SEAsia, there is so much plastic and garbage, it spoils the view. Chi explained that education about littering is slow here –  people see the outdoors as being a dumping ground, and they either litter or burn toxic substances, so it is still a problem.

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We stopped by a village of the K’ho minority people who work on a coffee plantation. The village consists of about 800 citizens and it is a matriarchal society, in terms of authority, certainly not of advantage. The women must pay for their husbands, who do not work but stay home all day and drink. The women and children work on the plantation all day – the children do not attend school.

Chi walked us through part of their village and showed us inside one home – dirt floor, dark, no electricity or running water. There were few people around and it felt uncomfortable.

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Our last stop was a coffee plantation tour and tasting. Vietnam has grown to become the world’s 2nd largest producer of coffee beans in the world, and this area is one of the prime regions for growing Robusta beans and increasingly Arabica. A speciality  coffee that is produced here is weasel (civet) coffee.  The civet  cats are fed fruit to flavour the beans as they make their way from one end to the other. Once the beans are cleaned, dried and roasted, they produce a coffee that is a bit sour. Only a couple of our group tried the civet coffee and they didn’t care for it, so it might be regarded as a novelty item.

There were a number of sleeping civets in cages – this one was awake for his photo.

imageThe rest of the coffees were exceptional – we enjoyed them while looking over the valley and the plantation.

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And back to the city of Dalat. We booked a room with the stupendously misnamed hotel “Nice Dream”. It is right in the centre of town, with the night market all around us, and non-stop traffic, so noise is a bit of a problem. The hotel is newly renovated and run by state tourism, with all the warmth and charm that implies. At first, we thought the front desk staff were cyborgs, but we have been getting smiles, so it may just be old-fashioned corporate training.

One final shot  – the night market in front of our hotel.

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