It's a creekmore world

Day 12 Vietnam: Refuge from the heat in the Dalat highlands.

Dalat is the largest city in the highlands with a population of 200,000 people and a fertile, wet area for farming including being one of the world’s largest centers for growing flowers.

They grow 2.5 billion flowers a year almost entirely for domestic consumption, though they are ramping up to do export more and more.

Entire landscapes are covered in greenhouses, miles and miles on end in every direction like a city of translucent buildings. It’s often called ‘The city of eternal spring’ for it’s temperate climates which can be downright cool at night.  It sure was last night.

Three of the four drivers have family here and call this home. They all saw their wives and kids overnight, which is a treat when they are on a tour. Tian, my driver, says the busiest time of the year is September through December, when the rains have passed and everything is still lush and cool. Dutch, Germans and Australians love the Easy Rider tours most. Fewer Americans do, and even fewer Russians despite the fact that Vietnam is one of Russia’s top tourist destinations. I see signs in Cyrillic everywhere, usually for ice cream.

We drive through town around 9am after a slow start.  They don’t rush us at all. It’s Friday and life is rushing on the streets with people going to jobs, school, whatever they do. Dalat has a cute lake in the middle of town and lots of neon hotel and Karaoke signs. Bruno, Amanda’s driver, takes us to breakfast at a local restaurant. You can order beef or eggs, or the specialty beef and eggs for breakfast. They cook your order on a 8×5 cast iron ‘plate’ on which your food sizzles over one of the several high BTU burners.  It’s all done street side and we sit in back and eat the fantastic Baguettes, thinly sliced onion, tomato, cucumber and cilantro. Lily says the beef is the best she had so far.

You can get an amazing, baked that morning, baguette almost anywhere in Vietnam (and some parts of Cambodia). They owe that favor to the French who were otherwise pretty shitty, even as colonialists go. Dalat was actually the capital of French Indochina for a few years during WWII when it was passing hands between global powers: France, Japan, Nazi Germany. The city has a strong French influence in architecture and Catholic education.  And baguettes.

Our first travel stop in Dalat is ‘Crazy house’ a private house/hotel/tourist-trap built by a very rich woman that studied architecture in Moscow. She returned to Dalat to build a multi-themed fantasy house out of brick and cement. It is elaborate and genuinely fun to walk through. But it’s packed with tour buses that seem to mostly be Russian. She continues to build the thing because it gives her some kind of ongoing tax break. I can only imagine what the money behind this is from. Lily, who was just in Barcelona with her school, correctly identified Gaudi as an influence, something the owner acknowledges.

The home would never be allowed to be built in the states – too many dangerous steps and ladders. Outside the boys are having a coffee again. We rejoin them for another hit of caffeine. Most of this journey has been highly caffeinated. HIGHLY CAFFEINATED. That sweet, slightly cocoa-y Vietnamese coffee, brewed ultra strong and served over ice, is so easy to consume. Each one is usually 20-30k dong which is a little more than $1 give or take. Last time I was here I brought home a Vietnamese coffee maker and coffee and tried to make some myself. It wasn’t the same. I think you have to be here.

Next up on our Dalat day is a coffee farm that makes the Indonesian Weasel coffee. Weasel coffee is from coffee beans that are eaten by weasels and pooped out, cleaned and roasted.

It’s supposed to give the coffee a different flavor from the chemicals in the digestive system of the weasel. It used to be extraordinarily expensive as it was found mostly in the wild, but husbandry of weasels for production has multiplied and brought the global price down.

This place is also a rice wine distillery and Bruno shows us two dozen 25+ gallon drums of fermenting rice wine and an active still that is puffing away, concentrating the alcohol. He talks about Vietnamese drinking habits. When they drink together, they all say ‘cheers’ and drink a sip at the same time and everyone has to participate. They even drink the exact  same number of drinks. If you are a lightweight, tough shit.  You’re gonna get wasted every time.

Women, he says, drink less and often are excluded entirely from drinking activities because, he laughs ‘They can’t handle it.’   He’s only half joking.  I’m sure there is some very deep sexism here.  Amanda frowns and says ‘I’m the biggest drinker in this family!’, which is true – my drinking days are behind me.   They have cobras and lizards soaking in alcohol, for various ‘medicinal’ purposes. Lily is freaked out of course.

The whole group

I’ve had weasel coffee before and didn’t think it was that amazing. I try it again and it’s nice especially considering I drank it prepared ultra-strong Vietnamese style, and without sugar or milk. But I wasn’t impressed enough to buy a bag.

Amanda is troubled by it – partly because we saw the caged weasels, and partly because of the pooping part of the process. She has a regular arabica instead. Did I mention we are highly caffeinated on this trip? It starts to rain hard.

Past the thousands of flower greenhouses we go with light rain still falling which, on a motorbike, always feels like a torrential downpour.   But it’s not as bad as yesterday.

Next stop today is a silk farm and factory where they make silk thread and fabrics. It’s another small place with about 6 employees. It’s set up for tourism and has a gift shop with clothes and a little bar. But it’s fully functioning as a factory.

The first room has a box of white silkworms that are munching on their preferred diet of mulberry leaves. Emma, Amanda and I hold them and they tickle. The larvae have to be fed a lot to produce a full silk cocoon. Bob, Emma’s driver, gives us the tour in pretty good English. Lily retreats to the back of the room, and can’t even look at the silkworms because of her fear of bugs.

When teased, she ducks away and sheds a tear of panic. Aww, poor kid. She takes a hug from me like she was six year old, something she doesn’t so much more as a teen.  Bugs scare the crap out of her.  If she gets a spider in her room she screams and bolts and I have to get it.

The silk worm cocoons are boiled with the bug inside, which dies. (I wonder if no-leather vegans know that about silk?) and the cocoon is unspun and respun, dried and woven into thread. There are huge trays of live cocoons ready to be processed and an ancient silk cloth machine. There are a few Chinese made wooden silk making machines that are kind of cool. They have leather patterns that somehow drive the needles to form the design. It looks very early last century. I wonder how old they are. The girls each buy an item from the store. Lily has no trouble shopping for clothes made by bugs.

Dalat has a lot of waterfalls and we go to two of the better ones, whose names I didn’t catch although the first is called ‘Elephant falls’ because green mossy boulders at the base look a little like elephant backs or heads or something I can’t figure out.

The water is bright brown and flowing massively from the deluge we biked through yesterday and the cyclone.  It’s daunting to be so close to the edge.

We walk down the slippery steep stone path toward the base and get wet from the misty splash of the waterfall.  Supposedly there is a way to get behind the waterfalls but we are not enjoying being wet and I’m worried about my not inexpensive camera.

I’ve had this camera for 5 years now, a first generation Sony A7 and I love it.  It’s worn for sure, but I’m not ready to replace it yet.

On the way to the next waterfall, Bang (Lily’s bike) snaps a break cable.  We don’t even know about it until we ride into a medium sized town and stop at a gas station.  A bag of misc tools is produced from somewhere, and the guys work together on his bike.  Amanda and I find a vegetarian restaurant right next to us!  “An Chay’ is the word for vegetarian and sure enough they have a buffet of tofu and other stuff.  We wish we could stay but the bike is fixed so quickly and we head to the next waterfall.

This waterfall is more beautiful, but less powerful even after the rains.  Bruno says the waterfall used to be massive, but a dam upstream leaves it with a more gentle flow.  It’s very pretty and a little bit longer of a walk. The place is set up for big tour groups with several vendors but there is no one else here but us in the rain.  One of our travel strategies is to go off season even if it means worse weather – Europe in winter, Asia in summer.

‘Can we stop for coffee one more time?  Amanda asks.  Tian agrees, but not before asking if she can wait until we get to the hotel.  They are very accommodating with timing.   We drink that last jolt of caffeine and are treated to a gorgeous sunset as we ride into town.  Hopefully the weather will stay like this for tomorrow.

Bruno takes us to dinner tonight and helps us order.  It’s quite hard to order from regular restaurants without some command of Vietnamese.  But the possibilities are endless once you do because they can customize anything.  We eat cellophane rice paper rolls with noodles, stir-fried veggies, lettuce, basil, mint and an amazing peanut sauce.  It’s the best meal we’ve had.  I eat about 15 of them myself.