Header picture: A grumpy cave hermit in Dalat
We’ve spent the last couple of weeks zooming up the eastern side of Vietnam on our motorbike. It’s amazing just how much a country can change within a few hundred kilometres.
Bảo Lộc is a coffee paradise. Drive five minutes outside the town and you are met with rows of coffee plants, coffee seeds drying on huge plastic sheets by the side of the road, and chickens scratching through those same seeds searching for delicious, coffee-flavoured grubs. It’s a wonderful day for a chicken when your grubs contain caffeine. There are cafes absolutely everywhere, some streets with six or seven in a row; the fancier ones are empty, the humble ones are full. Coffee is served with or without condensed milk, iced or hot. Hot tea is free, and sometimes bottomless.
The town itself was pretty, featuring small twin lakes surrounded by a few colonial buildings and a backdrop of temples and catholic steeples. We stayed very close to the lake at friendly hotel for 160,000 dong per night. I’ve got no idea what the hotel was called, but here is the google map location. The woman who ran the place spoke no English, but that didn’t stop her chatting to us. Caroline managed to pick up a bit of what she was was saying, and the lady eventually started to treat her like some long-last daughter. By the time we left Bao Loc, the owner was hugging Caroline and giving her Guava.
Food was the typical – and when I say typical I mean wonderful – Vietnamese affair, but I’m going to make a special mention of a place that sold a delectable Bánh xèo. The name Bánh xèo literally translates to ‘sizzling cake’, and is a filled pancake made from a rice batter. In this case, the pancake was skillet-fried and filled with prawns, squid, and bean sprouts. After frying, it was chopped up with scissors, then we rolled slices of it in rice paper along with other condiments and leafy greens to make fresh spring rolls. Heaven. We stayed in Bảo Lộc for three nights and ate Bánh xèo every night. It was too good to resist. Again, I can’t remember the name of the restaurant (hopeless), but it’s location on Google maps is here. The price for two was 50,000 dong – $2
It was in Bảo Lộc that we found the most wonderful mechanic. For three weeks the bike had been out of alignment and veering to the left. This meant I ended up with a painful arm after a long drive, having to compensate by constantly fighting the pull. Three previous mechanics had failed to properly fix the problem, but a lovely man in Bảo Lộc not only fixed it, but also fastidiously tidied up the bikes exposed wires and improved the front brakes. He charged less than the mechanics who had tried and failed.
For those who care about such things, the problem was the bearing on the steering head.
Once upon a time, the French decided they wanted to build a resort town high in the mountains of colonised Vietnam. That town has blossomed into one of the main tourist hot spots in Vietnam – Đà Lạt. Normally a tourist mecca is something we try to avoid, but we had to pass through it in order to get to where we wanted. I’m eternally glad I did, because I almost instantly decided it was the most beautiful town I’d seen in Vietnam. The centre of the action is a thriving city of hills and twisting roads set next to a large lake. Surrounding the lake are ridges of colonial villas, Art Deco buildings and pine trees. We stayed at a guesthouse a little bit outside the city in the surrounding hills, but there are hundreds of options for lodging in the heart and chaos of town.
It was unlike any other city in Vietnam, and really quite different from anywhere else I’ve seen. If I had to describe it, I’d say it was like some confusing European labyrinth with 1 million Vietnamese people turned loose inside on motorbikes.
The drive between the two cities of Đà Lạt and Cam Ranh (no accents) was one of the best yet. It began in the hills and wound though pine forests and small towns on ridges. The most epic portion brought us to the top of a mountain overlooking an enormous plain, flat as far as the eye could see. The only way down was a twisting road.
In the valley, we had lunch. The owner, a man in his late forties, introduced us to his two daughters aged 15 and 18. Through Google translate we learned that he was looking for a husband for the 18-year-old. The husband must be 25 or older. Did I have white friends?
As we neared the coast, the hills became rocky. We wove through them, passing what appeared to be ghost towns and abandoned houses. Rarely did we see anybody else on this stretch of the road, but the loneliness wasn’t to last. The final 10 kilometres of our drive joined to Vietnam’s formidable highway 1, and suddenly I was swerving out of the way of trucks overtaking buses overtaking trucks. Instead of a beautiful coast, we were met with hundreds of salt fields and a large processing plant.
We drove through the town, which was wind-swept and dull from the grey clouds. It was an exhausting trip, and we took rest in a hotel with no windows and mould on the walls. Early the next morning we left Cam Ranh, not feeling compelled to explore it at all.
One of the biggest tourist destinations in Vietnam slowly revealed itself to us with resorts upon resorts. We chose to drive along the coast instead of highway 1, and saw construction the entire length of it. Luxury hotels and resorts were being erected that will see this place transformed into a exclusive getaway in the next ten years.
We knew we wouldn’t be staying long in Nha Trang, and ended up sleeping only one night. For us, it was a stopover. We saw very little of the town, but did manage to find a cinema playing Ip Man 3 (and the last Monday of the month meant free popcorn. Bonus!)
The road from Nha Trang to Tuy Hòa was probably beautiful since it ran along cliffs overlooking the ocean. My eyes, however, were fixed firmly ahead and my brain was in full concentration mode. We had struck our first bad weather in two months; rain and heavy coastal winds slammed into the bike and made for a nerve wracking few hours. Obviously, there aren’t many photos from this drive.
Finally, we found a place to settle for a few days that felt friendly and inviting. Tuy Hòa is a town that is almost the exact opposite of Nha Trang. It’s not set up for tourism at all, although it looks as though at one point the town thought it might be a good idea. There is a river at the edge of town that leads to the sea, and all along the riverbank is an empty promenade that probably cost somebody a lot of money to build. At the west of town near the river is a small hill named Nhạn Mountain, upon which sits a 12th century Champa stupa. This temple assumes pride of place in Tuy Hòa and is depicted in Art Deco form on the lamp posts.