Vern: The colonial French founded the pine-scented hill station of Dalat in the 1930s, finding the cool mountain air a welcomed reprieve from the constant heat. The impressionable emperor Bo Dai welcomed them in (or at least did not put up too much resistance) and chalets modelled after those in the Alps started popping up on the hills. The gentle slopes were cleared to grow wine grapes and other agriculture favouring a cooler climate, and Air France put out colourful posters advertising the resort as a place to hunt tigers and to observe the noble savagery of the hill tribes.
Today, the colonial grandeur is faded, and the crumbling mansions struggle to hold ground against rectilinear concrete hotels and cramped housing. We took breakfast on a wide french stone balcony which looked out on to the large lake which the town has formed around. Pedal boats shaped like swans drift across its surface.
The 'robusta' coffee in Vietnam is very good, with a distinctive natural chocolate nut flavour. The manner of serving it is a little odd though and requires patience. Generally, a coffee mug is placed in front of you with only a dollop of condensed milk in its base. An antiquated miniature French-press rests on the mug's rim. Filled with ground coffee and hot water, it resembles a little tin top-hat. Your nose is teased with the bitter aroma while you wait for your brew to percolate, drip by drip. Unsurprisingly though, by the time you take your first sip, the coffee is luke warm.
Our waitress today however, went above and beyond in the strangeness of this ritual. She set the coffee mugs down with the little tin UFOs on top. No surprises so far. Then she put down two empty mugs. Huh? Next, two glasses of ice cubes. And lastly a pot of hot water with a light jasmine flavour, perhaps jasmine tea. All we'd ordered was a coffee! So we let the coffee brew, poured it over the ice cubes to make iced coffee and drank the jasmine tea on the side. The waitress seemed neither surprised nor impressed that we'd found a use for all the elements she'd brought us. We lauded ourselves as geniuses.
Dalat was in full bloom on the back of a New Years Flower Festival; efflorescence spilled out of flower pots hanging from street lamps, beds of blooms planted along the river and the roadside beamed with colour, and buds were planted to form words on a few prominent hillsides. Amongst all these hues we did some sightseeing starting with Emperor Bo Dai's 1930s summer palace. A large but not ostentatious villa, its architecture was a lot more European than Asian.
Afterward, we stepped into a Dr Zeus world at the Hang Nga 'Crazy House'. Spaghetti staircases loop around the wacky complex, leading from the themed rooms inside a magical tree through a shiny mosaic lobby and out into a garden featuring an alligator cave, enormous giraffes and luminous toadstools. The cartoony wonderland compound is a passion project for the imaginative architect who lives there and it continues to evolve as she dreams up new extensions. We explored the labyrinth of tunnels and stairs in relative peace until a bus load of Russian tourists arrived and started posing rudely, as Russians do (seriously their Facebook profile pics must all be X-rated). An eleven-year-old in the group was dressed in tight white jeans and only a scarf which crossed her torso; right shoulder to left hip, left shoulder to right hip. Where are her parents?! Oh wait, there they are - they're the ones telling her to pout for her photo.
In the early evening we boarded an antique train carriage on the Crémailière, the old cog railway. Eight kilometres of the track has been restored, and it chugs along slowly through the hills to Trai Mat village. We'd hoped for panoramic views of the pea-green slopes, but unfortunately all of the hills were covered in plastic sheeting forming crude greenhouses over daisy, cabbage and strawberry farms. It became clear to me why every other woman in town busied herself with sorting strawberries on hessian mats on the pavement. In the little town at the end of the line we visited the flamboyant Linh Phuoc Pagoda; complete with a resplendent dragon curled around a koi pond, an enormous Praying Buddha in a pretty rectangular structure which made it look like it was packaged by Mattel, and a bulbous laughing Buddha at peace amongst bonsai trees. Interestingly, many of the mosaic tiles used on the temple walls were actually pieces of classic china, and we saw a craftsman, who was restoring the entrance arch, cutting up crockery with a tile-cutter to complete his mosaic.
That evening and the following morning for brunch we visited the central market, a commodious hall with hundreds of stalls and tiny aisles between them. At one of the food stalls we found 'bun cha gio', a delicious noodle salad with shredded veg, pork strips and spring rolls. We washed this down with fresh strawberry shakes.
One sees some weird and wonderful trappings for sale in Asian markets, but just when you think you've grown numb to these oddities another one comes right along and befuddles you. Today it was A0-sized posters of airbrushed naked babies, little balls and all, wearing heavy make-up, superimposed over rainbows in a pastel blue sky. Who is buying this? Imagine walking into a friend's house to find a placard of someone else's baby (LITTLE BALLS AND ALL!) above their fire place!
The bus we took back down to sea level seemed just as old as the cog railway but it was a lovely drive down a skinny road which curled around bold green mountains. Waterfalls spurted out of the hills at every turn. We made a brief stop in Nha Trang, a popular beach town, but were soon aboard a sleeper bus for a long journey through the night up Vietnam's east coast.