Friday, 16 March 2018

Vietnam, day 15: Friendship Pho Breakfast!

Da Lat, Vietnam
28 May 2017
Before heading out for another day's exploration, we packed up and checked out. We would be taking an overnight bus to Hoi An that evening, so we asked the front desk if we could leave our bags there for the day and they were very accommodating. The girl working at reception inquired as to whether we had eaten breakfast yet, and if she could take us out.
She brought us a few doors down to Rosemary Café, a quaint little place with the menus laid out on old records! We ordered drinks, and she popped out for a moment to order some pho from a nearby eatery (just for Yannick, as I don't usually eat breakfast, and she had eaten before work).

Her name was Tho, and we chatted for a while. She was practising her English on us, and was very good! Studying International Relations at university, she was looking forward to travelling to Singapore and Thailand. After a few minutes, a father with his small daughter entered the café with Yannick's pho - they had delivered! Tho was very sweet, and not only paid for our breakfast, but also complimented my eyes.

As we had heard tale of the many hikes that could be undertaken in the area, we visited the tourist information site to try to procure a map, but it was closed. We traipsed around the town inquiring at tour agencies, but they had no maps either. Instead, we decided to take a walk around Xuan Huong Lake.

There was also a road encircling the lake, so it wasn't exactly a nature walk like we had been hoping for, but the scenery was still pleasant. Many motorbikes zoomed down the road, often with two or three people aboard as is commonplace in Vietnam.

Sometimes people would park right by the water to have a snack or (in the case above) to shave using their motorbike's wing mirror.

Occasionally we happened across some fishing spots, but the lines didn't seem very active.

The far side of the lake (from the town centre) felt a bit more upscale, with a fancy restaurant and sculpted gardens. There was less hubbub on this side, though we continued to be passed by horse-drawn carriages bearing tourists along the waterfront. On our way back into the centre, I noticed that the sunscreen had detonated in my tote bag, but we mopped up the mess with tissues and found that luckily not all the sunscreen had ejected itself from the bottle, so we could remain burn-free. 

Concluding our stroll, we stopped at Windmills Cafe for refreshments, which confidently claimed to be "the best coffee shop in Dalat".

The interior was very modern, with plenty of glass, potted plants and dangling light bulbs. The café was situated on the second floor, right above the tourist information office, and we had a great vantage point for people-watching while sipping our teas and coffees. 

We noticed that the retaining wall across the street had been painted with an array of murals, and that it was a popular spot for touristic photos. So after we finished at Windmills, we went over to take some of our own photos! (Side note: look at me, wearing a scarf and cardigan in Vietnam - unheard of!)

For lunch we supped at Da Quy restaurant. Upon entering, we were surprised to find that we were the only patrons, and the lady who ran the place was eating with her family. I almost felt like I was intruding, but she quickly ushered us over to a table (and had to remove a child's stuffed toy from Yannick's seat - how cute!). The price was very reasonable so we ordered more dishes than was typical for us: morning glory, stir fried veggies with tofu, spring rolls, and chicken. Licking our lips after the delicious meal, we went in search of a supermarket to purchase snacks for the overnight bus.

Along the way, our attention was drawn by an adorable fluffy puppy curled up sleepily on a table outside a motorbike repair shop. I wanted to pet him so badly, but also didn't want to disturb him. Doesn't he look so soft?!
After wandering for a while and not finding much, I decided to ask for help at a tourist agency. A group of people flocked together to discuss my question, and then pointed to a man who allegedly spoke English, but he was busy on the phone. Then, a kid rocked up on his bike and he told us where to go. They were so helpful, but unfortunately we couldn't find anything that appealed to us in the supermarket (blast our Western tastes).

Shortly afterwards, we happened across a random street with several fruit and veggie vendors, and bought a bag of grapes for the journey. Success!

It was a very atmospheric street; a bit dusty, with awnings hanging everywhere, and a kid playing around on his dad's parked motorbike. We agreed that this street should be mentioned in Lonely Planet, as it made for an interesting detour and wasn't far from the main roundabout in town.

Even the street that connected the main drag to the fruit and veggie backstreet was a sight in itself, with tubs of shellfish laying out, bright signs advertising for street food, and motorcyclists puttering along the cobblestones.

In one little corner store, there was a tiny child gazing out at the world with wonder and confusion. The shop was so small that the owner had taken to hanging loads of gum (and anything else they could dangle) from the ceiling.
We then tested our luck at finding Voulez Vous café, but we ended up staring at a construction site and figured that either we had the wrong address or it had been demolished.

So, back to Rosemary Café we went! I was digging all the homemade sodas in Da Lat, which reminded me of the abundance of homemade lemonades in Prague. We ordered a passionfruit one and a blueberry one, and read for a little while.
When our time was up, we returned to our hotel where we hugged Tho goodbye, and caught our shuttle to the bus station.

The bus was the same set up as the last overnight bus we had taken, although this time we were on the top bunks! Soon after setting off for Hoi An, darkness fell and a huge storm unleashed its fury upon us with lashings of rain and thunder. The roads were very narrow, and many busses were overtaking us. At one point we barely escaped a head-on collision with a lorry. We discovered afterwards that apparently these sleeper busses aren't exactly the safest option, and most foreign tourists opt for trains or private cars instead. Well...when in Rome? (But yeah nah, we're not getting on one of those again.)

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Vietnam, day 14: Free Skirts and a Buttockful of Modesty

Da Lat, Vietnam
27 May 2017
Hopping off our overnight bus, we had arrived at a time when only flower sellers were out and about. 
We briefly went a-wandering in the hopes of finding a café to relax in for a while, but nothing was open.

Instead, we found a park where we could sit and book a hotel, as we had not been prepared enough to do so beforehand. Unlike much of Vietnam, Da Lat is quite temperate and I needed to keep my cardigan on! I could count the times I had previously worn my cardigan in Vietnam on one elbow. Despite the clement temperature, the humidity levels remained very high.

After successfully finding an available hotel with a 24-hour front desk, we dropped off our bags and prepared for the day by finding a nearby café in which to bolster our spirits. For me, that meant green tea and fruit. As we carelessly hadn't researched activities or sights before arriving in Da Lat, we took that opportunity to do so and quickly decided on taking the gondola to Truc Lam Monastery.

After walking to the gondola office, we hopped on an available capsule and off we zoomed above the treetops. The views were incredible, and we could see for ages across the beautiful forest.

A gondola staff member had happened to share a ride with us, and offered to take our photo!

Disembarking from our treetop vehicle, we discovered that the entrance to the monastery was super touristy. On one side of the road was a giant carpark full of tour busses, and on the other was a long row of stalls selling food and tacky souvenirs. This was quite off-putting and we considered not even going to the monastery after all, worrying that the interior would be just as bad, but as there was no entry fee we pressed on through the selfie-mad masses.

Before we could go further, I was required to don a buttock-scarf in order to shield my sinful legs from holy eyes.

Despite the kitsch-heavy entrance, the monastery complex was quite nice, and we enjoyed wandering around the different buildings and gardens. 

Even with the crowds, there was a sense of tranquility among the butterflies and Buddhist monks that floated around the grounds. 

Returning the modesty skirt, we strolled down to a nearby lake, which was also very popular among tourists (notably those who seek out swan boats). It seemed to be a so-called romantic location, as there were photographers capturing brides and bridegrooms' special days, but to me it came off as altogether too cheesy for my liking. 

Instead of catching the gondola back into town, we decided to walk. Unfortunately, the road proved less than ideal for pedestrians, having no footpath, and we ended up scrabbling our way up an earthen bank into the forest to ease our fears of accidentally being run over. It was quite mossy, and much more pleasant than the road.

Eventually, we left the forest and came upon a road lined with strawberry farms. Da Lat, with its particular climate, is famous for its strawberry production. We found some very reasonably priced berries from one farm, and a packet of strawberry lollies from a shop.

Desiring a break for our weary feet, we stopped at a café for drinks before continuing. Kan Coffee had yummy passionfruit and lime sodas, and of course Yannick had to fulfil his daily ca phe sua da fix. The menu had a quote I find very true, being a tea fan: "If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are too heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you."

Pressing onwards, we walked through a residential area which was hilly and felt strangely Mediterranean. 

There were loads of little run down houses clustered together, with very steep driveways where scooters were parked haphazardly.

Our last attraction for the day was a place called Crazy House. Originally a personal project of the architect, Dang Viet Nga, Crazy House was opened to the public in 1990 for sightseeing and as a guesthouse due to increasing debt. It remains uncompleted, with works ongoing (scheduled completion is for the year 2020). It's a bit difficult to describe succinctly, but basically it's a large complex of weird structures joined by a spider-themed courtyard, winding staircases and precarious suspended pathways.

Dang Viet Nga lives on the premises, continuing to design the various structures. She has cited Antoni Gaudí as one of her influences, though I have to admit that I much prefer Gaudí's work. Overall, the construction seemed a bit cheap, with poured concrete and painted plaster. 

After spending the afternoon napping, we headed out again in the evening for a nice restaurant meal. Clearly, some sort of event was taking place in the town centre and there were hordes of people! Many were feasting on delicacies fried up at roadside carts, so perhaps the crowd was a nightly dining experience. Instead of joining them, we visited Ganesh Indian Restaurant because I was craving Indian food. Inside, it was much more peaceful and we tucked into a delicious chana masala curry with vegan garlic naan on the side! Yannick also ordered a red wine that was produced in Da Lat, which we found to be odd: not sharp or strong, but different than any wine we had tasted and not in a good way. 

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Vietnam, day 13: A Boatload of Pineapples!

Da Lat, Vietnam
26 May, 2017
Bleary-eyed, we waited in the hotel lobby for our tour guide to collect us. It was still pitch black outside. When he arrived, he introduced himself as Toby, and looked much more awake than we did. He led us down to the waterfront, where a few other tourists were waiting, and shortly our cute little boat pulled up manned by a friendly woman.
Gliding along the river, we watched the clouds slowly light up and turn from yellow to blue. Fishermen had already been at their nets for hours. A small boat was puttering from one vessel to the next, offering hot tea and coffee to all.

At such an early hour and with a slight breeze from our forward motion, the temperature was ideal. Before long, the sky had completely brightened and we had reached the large floating market Cai Rang.

Some boats were tiny, with just a few bags of goods to sell, and some were huge with what looked like hundreds of kilos of produce. In order to easily see what each vendor was offering, tall bamboo poles jutted from each boat with their wares tied to them. Pineapples, sweet potatoes, cabbages, and more! Some of the smaller boats were manned by what Toby called resellers: people who would buy wholesale goods and then bring them back to shore to sell at a higher price to shops.

Many of the ships had fluffy canine mascots!

Toby, as well as providing us with a wealth of information about Can Tho and the floating markets, asked us a lot of questions as he seemed very interested in our lives. He would catch my attention by calling me "Neesa" or sometimes "Nasi", and asked things like if my hair was its natural colour or dyed. He knew very well how much tourists liked to get photos of themselves, so he frequently beckoned us to pose for some.

As well as the goings-on in the river, the edges of the water showed us so much of Can Tho life. Houses were jumbled up along the riverbanks on stilts, and we would see little snippets: a boy brushing his teeth, a woman doing the washing up, a gaggle of children playing in the water. Some houses were minuscule, more like shacks, and some had holes in the walls in lieu of windows. It was shocking to see residents utilising the river water in so many ways considering how polluted it was. There was so much rubbish that often our boat's motor would get jammed, and the helmswoman would swivel it around out of the water for Toby to hack away at with a pair of scissors to remove the offending debris. Plastic bag cloggings were commonplace. At one point, Toby attempted to distract us by pointing out a nearby coconut tree but when our attention wavered he asked us to not look. We could tell that the flotsam must have been something disturbing, and of course our imaginations ran wild with the possibilities.

After filling up the tank at a floating petrol station, we carried on down the river.

The motors of small boats like ours looked quite crochety and perhaps as though they had once belonged to a lawnmower. One boat passed us that had such an unhappy motor that smoke was furiously being belched out, and as it sped into the distance, the brown cloud the motor produced completely engulfed the boat.

Cruising for a while along the river, we eventually reached Phong Dien floating market, which was a smaller and more rural version of Cai Rang.

The boats were smaller, and there were far fewer of them. There was also a higher proportion of supermarket-type vendors, who would sell bottled sauces, flours, cleaning supplies and other household items.

However, there were still many boats offering produce, including the internationally feared durian. The stink!

As well as a hot beverages boat, here there was a lady zipping around serving steaming pho to those in need of breakfast. Instead of eating on the boat, we had the luxury of docking and being seated at a small dining establishment.

We were supplied with pho (because who wouldn't want soup first thing in the morning?), green tea and a bag of delicious banana and kumara crisps that were sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Having filled our bellies, we set off again. This time, we strayed from the main river and drifted calmly through narrower waterways that were heavily seasoned with dense green foliage. We spotted several small houses, and were shown an array of fruit trees dotting the riverbanks. After a little while, Toby chopped up a watermelon and pineapple that he had bought from Cai Rang market and we proceeded to drip delectable juices onto our legs as we devoured the fruit. I feel that eating on a rocking boat is a skill that must be practised. Our helmswoman had quite the talent for weaving ornaments from coconut leaves, and she kindly presented us with a pair of crafted grasshoppers and a rose.

Our next stop was at a rice noodle factory, where we were shown the grinding of the rice, the steaming process and the laying out of the rice papers to dry. 

It wasn't exactly the most hygienic, and one of the drying rice papers had become the final resting place of a crash-landed dragonfly.

I was given the opportunity to feed a series of large rice papers into a shredder. Rice noodle is made!
Before departing, we gave some ear scratches to two adorable puppies who clearly were spoilt by tourists lavishing them with attention.
Back in the boat we went, and retraced our path all the way back to the main canal and past Cai Rang market. It began to rain a little, so Toby hoisted up the retractable awning to cover us, and tucked us into a tarpaulin blanket. He gave us more pineapple, and even sang us a song! It was almost like he was our parent for the morning. 

The rain grew heavier and heavier until the roar of the skies became somewhat deafening. Millions of raindrops smashed into the surface of the water, sending up tiny splashes all around us. Bidding farewell to Toby and our helmswoman (with thanks and tips), we hustled our way back to our hotel knowing that there was no point in trying to avoid getting wet.
We showered, checked out, and made a beeline for Mat Cua Cafe for drinks and snacks. The cafe's set up was quaint, with cushions on the floor surrounding low tables. I became so sleepy that I strongly considered laying down on said cushions and taking a power nap, but cafes are not for sleeping in and I managed to keep myself awake. Shortly before we left, a few other patrons trickled in and one played the guitar for everyone's enjoyment.

With hours still to quash before our overnight bus, we took a walk down the road and selected another cafe to hang out at. This one had large comfy sofas and yummy peach iced tea. Yannick tried a cacau da for the first time (similar to a chocolate milk) and thought it was good, though not nearly so good as ca phe sua da.
Though we weren't terribly hungry, we figured that we had better find some dinner before boarding our bus, so we embarked on a wild restaurant chase. We never did catch one, because we couldn't make up our mind and ran out of time for the whole restaurant fanfare. Instead, we found a street vendor who was whipping up some pikelets, and also purchased apples and Oreos from a corner shop. We were picked up in a shuttle, and I became sandwiched between an elderly couple. I felt a bit awkward, as it was a tight squeeze, but both of them were giving me super nice smiles. The lady was very warm and smelled faintly of coffee breath. She said to me "Da Lat?", inquiring as to our next destination, and I replied "Da Lat" in the affirmative. Once the shuttle dropped us off at the bus station, we stowed our backpacks in the storage area and went to find our seats.

The sleeping bus was a new experience for us, and we were glad that we are short people. The seat-beds wouldn't be conducive to those of a Slavic height. We were given plastic bags in which to keep our shoes so that they didn't dirty the bus or beds. After a few minutes, I saw the elderly couple from the shuttle look around for me, sending over little waves and making sure that I was settled in. The journey was actually much more comfortable than I expected as the seat-beds were padded well, we were provided with blankets, and the bus stopped every now and then for bathroom breaks. There were a few cons; the main two being that occasionally bright street lamps would shine in, and there was one snorer. Overall though, we spent the time reading and sleeping and not being too bothered.