So the sleeper bus from Hoi An to Nha Trang: a double decker bus with the middle floor taken out and three lines of bunk beds where you can almost - but not quite - stretch your legs flat out and almost - but not quite - recline your seat all the way back. We were fairly impressed, until the driver started torturing our ears with such gems as 'My heart will go on' and Mariah Carey's 'How do I live without you'. This went on for the entire night. Every half hour or so we'd stop by the side of the road and Vietnamese people would jump on and stretch out on the floor between the bunks. Soon there was no space on the floors at all and the new arrivals just perched on plastic seats at the front of the bus. We slept awkwardly, clutching our bags between our legs, and pulled in to Nha Trang at 6am. We were knackered. The receptionist at our hotel must have seen the desperation in our faces as she led us into a spare room, where we slept solidly until midday, when we were able to check into our actual room. I could have kissed her.
Nha Trang is a popular beachside resort in Vietnam and is packed to the gills with backpackers and, for some reason, thousands of Russians. There are lots of bars and restaurants and a decent beach but it didn't leave much of an impression on us. We spent a few hours on both the days we were there sunning ourselves at the waters edge and on the first night drank a fair amount with another couple we met on the bus (resulting in a godawful hangover the next morning) but, although that was enjoyable, the place didn't excite us and we only ended up staying two nights.
On the 14th we caught a bus to Dalat, in the Central Highlands. We were told that Dalat is the honeymoon capital of Vietnam and incredibly romantic. That seemed fitting seeing as it was Valentines Day. It took five hours of driving through windy mountain roads to get there, and when we arrived it was beautifully sunny and noticeably cooler than the last few places we have been to. After checking in, we meandered through town and lunched before hiring a swan-shaped pedalo to go out on the giant lake in Dalat. We peddled furiously around until we found a quiet spot and just sat there for some time in the middle of the lake munching happily on cakes. When it came to heading back to shore we realised that the swan had a mind of her own and that the steering was incredibly 'off'. to put it politely. Jak was sweating by the time we got back to dry land and we were both more than a little relieved to extricate ourselves from the boat.
On the way back to our hotel we visited Dalat's Crazy House, which is a bizarre but fairly interesting series of themed rooms connected by complicated staircases and occasional stepladders. Most of it is made of painted but peeling concrete and some of the views out over the town, with its many many pastel-coloured houses, were pretty good. Worth a look if you're nearby but not worth going out of your way for.
We decided to go out for a nice meal that evening and passed lots of romantic-looking but packed restaurants before stumbling upon an almost empty place called 'Chocolate'. What a beautiful name! Of course we ate there. It was good and the waitress even gave us a free strawberry milkshake afterwards :-)
Yesterday we were up with the larks at 6am, as we had booked a motorbike tour around the Dalat countryside. (Sorry mum, that is the last time I'll get on a bike out here. Probably.) We drove a total of 120km, the first half in glorious sunshine and the second half in heavy rain. The scenery was amazing - we were driving along mountain roads for most of the morning, surrounded by trees, green mountains and valleys. We made stops at a cricket farm, where we both ate fried crickets with chilli sauce (surprisingly okay if a little crunchy), at a local market where we sampled more local food and were told about some of the Vietnamese customs (for example, they throw a party on the death anniversaries of their loved ones where they leave paper gifts at their graves and burn them two hours later), and at a silk factory where we saw workers do amazing things with silk worms and where we bought a few pure silk scarves at local prices. Just before lunch we stopped off at a waterfall. It was dry season so we didn't expect it to be that great but it was rather impressive. We scrambled over slippery rocks and through a cave to stand behind the curtain of water and taste the spray on our tongues.
After the waterfall a Buddhist nun cooked lunch for us. It was vegetarian: noodles with soy sauce and tofu. This suited me fine as the dog legs, cow head and various other bloody hunks of meat we saw at the local market has pushed me one step closer to wanting to become a fully-fledged veggie. Jak, however, was disgusted and kept muttering about the lack of meat.
Perhaps the best bit of the day was a visit to the Cil Hill Tribe, where our tour guide was born, after lunch. We sat in a dusty wooden shack with chickens squawking behind us and listened to the stories told by three women aged 68, 74 and 92. They told us how people in their tribe get betrothed and married, how they give birth (alone, squatting, as it is considered bad luck to have anyone except the mother touch the baby before it is a week old), the work they do on the farms, how they used to hunt tigers but feared the snake and the orang-utan and how they had thirty children between them but sadly almost half have died. They didn't tell us all this directly as they didn't speak English, instead they would jabber away excitedly at our guide who would translate for us. It was fascinating. They also showed us how they weave skirts and offered us cold rice with banana flower (which everyone bar Jak tried) and cold rice with mouse and chilli (which everyone bar Jak refused - he must have really wanted meat!)
After the visit to the hill tribe we tried a number of strange fruits, like the milk apple and the water apple, the scarily strong Vietnamese coffee - and weasel poop. I wish I was joking about the last bit but I'm not. The guide tricked us by telling us that it was Vietnamese chocolate so we all took huge bites and chewed eagerly; and, in fairness, it did taste a little like dark chocolate. The only difference was that once we'd all swallowed he told us that we'd just eaten weasel sh*t, a local delicacy. He found it hilarious. Ha bloody ha. After some drinking games minus actual alcohol we got back on our bikes, and the heavens opened. Some of the driving had been a bit hairy on the way there, particularly when we were off-roading along dirt tracks littered with massive stones, but the journey back in the rain was worse. We all donned fetching ponchos and tried to ignore the sheets of rain slapping us in the face and about the legs as we were whizzing along the highway and along mountain roads where we were, I kid you not, the same level as the clouds. There was a stop on the way back at a mushroom farm but frankly no-one could be bothered by that point and we only stayed about 30 seconds. We just wanted to get back in the warm! Once back and showered we went out for dinner, drinks and karaoke with the other people from the tour. Everything in town seemed to shut up at 10pm but this didn't bother us as we were both wiped and had to be up at 6am again this morning in order to catch the bus to Mui Ne, another seaside resort.