We’re currently in Dalat, a city which seems oddly familiar. It has pine trees, gum trees, bottle brushes and wattle. It’s built around a man-made lake. One of the main attractions here is a flower show. The city was built with the intention of being the capital of French Indochina. Yeah, that’s right, we’re basically in the Vietnamese version of Canberra.
The drive from Cat Tien yesterday was another slow but steady effort in which I think the speedo never went above 60km/h. Anyone who’s driven from Albion Park to Robertson will know what I mean when I say it felt a lot like being trapped on a never ending version of Macquarie Pass, though technically it was more like being trapped on a five hour long version of Macquarie Pass. The landscape along the drive was certainly very different to anything we’ve seen so far in Vietnam – as we climbed into the mountains we saw our first rice paddies, as well as some tea and coffee plantations. Apparently the coffee around here’s meant to be pretty good, though that’s wasted on me. They dry the beans in the sun on tarpaulins on driveways, front yards, even the road. On more than one occasion we had to drive on the wrong side of the road as an entire lane had been taken up by coffee (not that driving on the wrong side of the road is anything too unusual here).
Arriving in Dalat there’s a few things you notice. Firstly it’s a lot cooler. Dubbed “the city of eternal spring”, you can walk out the door and not feel like you need to instantly get back inside and take a cold shower. I even wore jeans to dinner last night – jeans!
Secondly, the French vibe is very strong here. There’s some grand old hotels, lots of French style villas dotting the streets, and a replica Eiffel tower. Though that last item really belongs in category number three…the kitsch factor.
It may be the city of eternal spring, but it also seems to be city of eternal topiary. Everywhere you look there are hedges shaped into words, and all the appropriate accents used in Vietnamese are present and correct. Looking beyond the hedges, there are paddle swans on the lake (which Holly can’t wait to have a go on), and a flower garden with a superb level of tackiness. Highlights there included topiary dragons (of course), a Dutch style windmill that doesn’t move, and men in cowboy hats who stand next to horse drawn carriages that are fixed to the ground, purely so you can get your photo taken in one.
Oh, there’s one last thing that you can’t help ignore here in Dalat. But first let me take you back to my youth. Growing up, I never enjoyed shop assistants trying to help me. I just wanted to walk into a shop and be left alone to browse by myself. That makes the sales techniques here in Vietnam pretty much my worst nightmare. In Saigon, walking down the street was a constant battle of declining offers by tour operators, knock-off book or DVD sellers and cyclo drivers. I’ve given up on eating at outside tables as I’m sick of being harassed while dining (though this morning that still wasn’t enough – after being offered and refusing some rather dodgy looking copies of Lonely Planet through the cafe window, the seller then came into the shop and stood next to our table to try again).
So in Dalat there’s a group called the Easy Riders who take tourists around on motorcycle tours. To be honest, I might have given them a go, but, as in my younger days, if there’s one sure way to make me not want something it’s to try and sell it to me. And these Easy Riders are relentless. They’ll be riding past you and pull over and start their spiel. We were sitting by the lake yesterday and a guy came over, book of testimonials ready to show us. We finally got rid of him by saying maybe tomorrow, but then he found us again this morning.
“Ready for tour today?”
“But how will you see the city?” he asked, seemingly amazed that anyone could possibly view Dalat from anywhere other than the back of a motorbike.
We just kept on walking.