The Mountains: Dalat
A smaller town nestled in the mountains, Dalat was a picturesque break from the heat. On my first morning I was welcomed by a cold rain that felt entirely foreign by this point. But after the morning rain cleared, I decided to get back in the saddle and explore around town on motorbike. Somehow I felt more comfortable than ever on the bike, like I finally got it – yay! I got lost in the winding streets through town, but eventually found my way to The Crazy House – a never-ending construction project that is part hotel, part tourist attraction. There are so many stairways snaking up and down the outside of the buildings it’s hard to figure out if you’ve walked them all (which of course is the goal, right?). I also wandered through the adorable city flower garden (complete with an animal hedge garden that included a rather ferocious looking bear), saw the view from the cable car viewpoint (the cars weren’t running yet and it was creepily abandoned when I showed up), and did a little lap outside of town. It’s amazing how quickly you can get out into nature around Dalat.
After making my way over a really dusty dirt/gravel road, I saw the logic in the masks everyone wears when riding a motorbike. So I picked one up when stopping for a drink at a roadside kiosk. Later I learned that the masks are really meant to guard from the sun (these people are obsessed with staying white, hence the challenge in finding a lotion, deodorant, or soap that is not a “whitening” product). Well, hey, a protector from the sun, wind, and dust?!! Count me in!
The next day I did the “secret tour” run through my hotel – and it was the highlight of my time in Dalat. There were only five of us on the tour (plus the guide and his cousin), and again we rode motorbikes the whole day. That ride was like a litmus test for how good of a rider you are. Good thing I was feeling really comfortable at this point, because we started out on a winding mountain “road” that was under construction for a 10km stretch. No real road to speak of, actually, just soft dirt and gravel, no asphalt in sight, where we spent our time carefully dodging construction equipment in the middle of its operation grading and paving the road. But with a little patience and balance, I made it through. The roads got marginally better after that, but between the country roads full of pothole-ponds and the crazy traffic on the curvy road coming back into town (I saw two near head-on collisions), it was a ride I was proud to have gotten through in one piece!
Apart from the challenging riding, the tour included a visit to a cricket farm, where we got to try some crispy fried crickets. They were crunchy and spicy and really good! We also saw a silk making factory (yep they eat the dead silk worms too), a local market, a very wet waterfall, and ended up at our guide’s childhood village to have lunch at his parents’ house (complete with a “fruit lesson” where we got to try a few of the fruits I’d seen in the markets and been curious about – like custard apples…Google it, it’s weird looking but so good!).
We then ventured out to meet some of the local village folk. They actually don’t speak Vietnamese, but one of the over 50 dialects still spoken in Vietnam. Only the kids go to school to learn the country’s universal language. But since our guide grew up there, he could communicate with them. We were invited into the home of an old woman who was home with her two grown daughters and their friend. Unfortunately the Vietnamese government won’t let you take photos of the village folks, but these ladies were so lively and hilarious that they are burned into my memory. One daughter started by asking our guide how he found the whitest white folks she’s ever seen – ha! That day the ladies had found a rare vegetable growing wild in the fields and were really excited about it – they immediately had us try the spicy cooked puree they had made with it. They pulled out every bench and stool they had and asked us to sit with them for a while. The guide then proceeded to ask them about life in the village and their culture (including how they buy husbands since the women run the show there). It was an amazing scene. Our guide would ask a question and there would be a cacophony of noise as all the women talked at once (so excitedly they were practically shouting), while simultaneously gesticulating with their hands for emphasis. When the noise died down our guide would pass on a seemingly simplified version of what they said. It was a hilarious scene.
Our guide asked them about their typical food, and they produced a gourd with rice porridge in it (that can keep for days) and a piece of bamboo with a mashed up mixture of ginger, who knows what else, and meat (rat meat, they said, from the big rats they find on the farm). The friend then proceeded to show us how they eat it – pouring some porridge into her mouth and drinking down the watery part to leave the rice (she opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue to show us this) and then taking a small bite of the ginger-meat mixture to be chewed along with the remaining rice. After her demonstration she pointed to me, indicating that it was my turn. And how could I refuse? So she poured the porridge in my mouth (okay, plain tasting and a bit milky) and I did as she had, trying to take the smallest bit of the rat mixture that I could politely get away with. And you know, it wasn’t bad! The meat mostly tasted like ginger, which is probably how it can stay good so long while stored at room temperature. She then went around to the rest of the group, so everyone got to try this local cuisine.
Our guide also convinced the old woman to give us a weaving demonstration. She used the tools that had belonged to her grandmother(!) to remove the seeds from the cotton and spin the cotton into thread. She also showed us the natural dyes they use to color the thread. Then another of her daughters turned up and showed us how they weave their traditional skirts, worn at weddings and on holidays (it’s really a long piece of fabric that is simply wrapped around to make a skirt). After that we needed to get back to town but they didn’t want us to leave. They made us each take home one of the skirts they’d made (of course we gave them something for it, although the old woman didn’t want our money). These were the most generous people I’ve ever encountered – they have so little but are so quick to share what little they do have.
After getting doused with some rain, it was a cold ride home (why did I leave my poncho at the hotel?). I noticed that my gas had been on empty for a while and I mentioned this to our guide when he stopped to show us how they grow the local mushrooms. But he said I’d be fine and even looked in my gas tank and saw gas there, so no worries . . . yeah, only 60km to home, nbd. We ended up on the same winding mountain road I’d ridden the day before for the last stretch into town, but now it was evening rush hour so there were crazy waves of traffic (buses drivers are the craziest drivers, btw). I was at the end of our caravan and given the traffic was not super close to the next couple in our group. I felt my bike losing power and, yep, I ran out of gas on an uphill curve in the middle of crazy traffic. Thankfully I was already all the way over to the right. I thought it might be the starter, since I’d had issues with it earlier in the day. But after unsuccessfully trying to restart the bike, I realized I really was stuck. And I had no idea if or when the group would realize I was not with them. So I decided I would wait for a lull in the rush of traffic, push the bike to where I could get it off the road, and then try to hitch back into town, since I knew I was close. So I moved the bike up the hill and got it all locked up, but as soon as I was contemplating how to get someone to stop (since up to this point no one had stopped to help) back comes the guide’s cousin to help me. He had me wait as he went to get gas (which was an incredibly fast process) and came riding back with green gas in a clear plastic bag – they put everything in plastic bags here! He declared himself my hero and we were off.
That night our tour included a “secret dinner” at a local’s restaurant that I’d never know how to order in without our local guide. We agreed to let the guide order for us, and of course he used this opportunity to have us try some weird stuff. Apart from the usual seafood and veggies, we had goat (which at first he said was cat and then said, no, they were actually already out of cat, sorry), and water snake, and then (gulp – and I hesitate to even admit this) dog. Yes, dog; and yes, I was pissed. He told us it was chicken, but it obviously wasn’t. It didn’t taste like anything I’d had before and was too dark. He then refused to tell us what it was until we’d eaten it, and only then showed us a picture of the carcass from down in the kitchen. I was so upset.
Yeah, it’s gross, but they eat dog here. They even eat their own pets sometimes, and dogs are stolen to be sold all the time (it now made sense why there was only a Chihuahua at our guide’s parents’ house – it was the only dog too small to not be worth stealing for food). Reportedly dog meat is “expensive” (so you’d never be served it accidently at a restaurant, “rest assured”) – but seeing as our whole meal was only $6/person, I don’t think we agree on what expensive is. For those who are wondering what it tastes like (you sickos), well I can’t definitively say I know. It was spicy (but who knows if that was spice or the meat itself), pretty fatty (but it was ground meat), a bit gamey – all in all not something I’d seek out (thankfully). I’m chalking this up to experiencing a different culture and asking Millie to forgive me. Unfortunately I can’t look at the kept dogs I see here quite the same any more.
The Sea: Nha Trang
Nha Trang reminds me of the beaches in Phuket – nice beach (cool water, good drop off, waves strong enough to pummel me like I remember from childhood), but a bit too touristy and with a crazy level of catering to Russians (all the signs, menus, and the only information on the goods in the pharmacy were in Russian). I was also a sick for most of my time there and had a bit of travel fatigue, so Nha Trang was really not my favorite place.
But, I did get in some good swimming (even a night swim), checked out some of the nightlife, and met some interesting people (more Brits taking the motorcycle journey up the coast, Wayne and Danny). And when I finally felt well enough I got a bike and motored around a bit – it really is a beautiful place once you get out of the tourist quarter. My only annoyance is again I ran out of gas. They always rent you motorbikes on empty, and the guys who gave me the bike said there was a gas station out by the Cham ruins where I was headed. But I didn’t make it. A local woman stopped to help me out, and drove me one block to get some gas in a bottle from a shopkeeper at double the standard price, then demanded that I also pay her for her trouble. At first I thought she was just being nice, but I can’t say I was the least bit surprised by how that all unfolded. After she took off, I asked the guy working at the store my bike had died in front of where an actual gas station was – turns out I was only one block shy of it! Well, at least I made that woman’s day – she made some easy money from this white girl.