WANDERING THE DREAMY STREETS OF DA LAT, LIKE A LATE EVENING CLOUD RUN AGROUND
IT IS A PITY INDEED I DIDN'T HAVE A CAMERA TO DO THIS PLACE JUSTICE. But then again, more than half the beauty of the world comes not in the visual or sensory perception of the world, but in the IMAGINARY or SENSUAL perception of the world. Not long after the motorbike had raced me at breakneck speed up the winding street to my hotel (TRAM HUONG BEAUTY AND SPA), me drenched and holding on to a bag of strange fruits, I knew I had been to this place before. In a dream, a strange dream I had in Tokyo about 6 months ago. When I had awoken from that dream way back then I knew I had been somewhere special, a special place in my imagination. It turns out the imagination and reality indeed intersect in spacetime, and the place was Dalat, and the time was late April 2008. No photo can capture the dream world and do it justice, for the dream world is multidimensional. All we can do is take slices, like the photo of a dream place visited which I took on the grey plains of Saitama in late 2003. Later in the evening, after the rain had cleared, Nga and I took a stroll downtown, and I again found myself again wishing I had a camera. But who needs a camera to live your visuals when you have a brain, and an imagination, already designed for that very purpose? The streets were thronged with Vietnamese (and at least one Japanese couple) wearing colorful sweaters and jackets and various kinds of colorful knitted headgear. At length, the fog dropped down. I had my first truly authentic Vietnamese pigout -- Banh khot wrapped in lettuce leaves at a little restaurant on the other side of the black river bank. Also served was a sour soup filled with noodles and vegetables and logs -- they looked like logs but it turned out they were actually lumps of fish bone, all grizzly and covered with sweet river skins. I didn't know it until months later when, surfing noodlepie's site as lightning flicked outside my Tokyo home, me all surging with excitement because I was about to head to Vietnam once again and that before the coming of the next nightfall, I would be stalking the pavements of Bangkok, that this dish was probably Bun ca (Fish with tamarind noodle soup). Perhaps there is some sort of tradition, that Banh khot and Bun ca go together, like ramen noodles and gyouza dumplings go together in Japan, some kind of Yin and Yang. As noodlepie describes Bun ca, it certainly sounds like that murky and mysterious soup, which I guzzled in Da Lat: "Bun (vermicelli noodles) are sunk below a tamarind broth, tomato, peanuts, red chillis and a single fish steak. Bun ca comes with a plate (not a dipping bowl) of red chilli spiked nuoc mam. You plonk your fish onto the plate and dissect it from there.
"I've never had a Vietnamese soup like this before where the tamarind sourness is so in your face. It's a belly bustin' hit. You might wanna make sure your first stop after lunch has clean conveniences - Tamarind is a very strong diuretic... I'd rank Bun ca right up there with Bun rieu, Bun mam and Canh chua ca..."
Dai Phat Restaurant: 275 Le Thanh Ton St, District 1. Phone: 08 829 7292. Lonely Planet says: "Up in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, in the Annamese Mountain range, is the raunchily named Valley of Love. It used to be the Valley of Peace until university students changed its name and cemented Dalat's reputation as the hot Vietnamese destination for couples searching for a cooler climate. The contradictions of this little Love Shack town can make your head spin..."
The central part of town is clustered on the northwest side of Xuan Huong Lake where the majority of restaurants, markets, banks, cafes and budget accommodations are found. Footpaths and roads circle the lake, making for easy hikes and bike rides. There are three large cafes built on stilts over the lake. Though better known for their views than food, they do make for convenient rest stops if you decide to make the 3-kilometer hike around the lake. Nga and I went for a walk around the lake one night, and we stopped for little sausage things and pieces of meat on sticks, served with mustard or something... I can't remember. Young dudes on motorbikes pulled up besides us as we ate, to buy similar fare. Meanwhile, in the middle of town, older Viets sat around tables dissecting crustaceans, and devouring duck embryos with beer...
Golf Course Pro Shop:/
Open daily until about 8PM. If you are craving quesidillas and haven't had Mexican in the months you've backpacked through Asia, you will find what you're looking for at the Pro Shop. It's little bit out of the way, but the quesidillas, chips and guacamole are excellent. And, the beer is always cold.
Lyla Restaurant: 18 Tang Bat Ho. Vietnamese food in huge portions, entrees from $2.50.
Miền Tây Restaurant:
I found out earlier this day that Miền Tây means "west" in Vietnamese, and I thought to myself: the Miền Tây Restaurant presumably serves food from some kind of western place. By calling itself "The West" it was probably not referring to Europe and America and Australia (the "historical West"), because there is no evidence that European or American or Australian food is eaten here. The menu is resolutely Vietnamese -- hu tieu and phở and that kind of thing. But maybe it is western Vietnamese food -- I know for a fact that hu tieu for example has a Cambodian origin, in that it was introduced to Vietnam by Chinese living in Cambodia, and Cambodia is to the west of Vietnam. Type the words Miền Tây into Google Images, and you do find an awful lot of photos, of dames paddling boats up the bywaters of the Mekong Delta. Which got me thinking: Is the Mekong Delta the lyrical West of Vietnam, the same way that Sai Gon is the lyrical South? And as it turns out, it is. The Transbassac, as it was called by the French, from the Khmer name for the Mekong, or the Mien Tay, the "west" region of the South, from its Vietnamese name, was not colonised by the Vietnamese before the 18th century. As it turns out, Mekong Delta food is well represented in Dalat, which is not a Mekong Delta city. Some of the Mekong Delta dishes available in the city include sour soup (canh chua), mixed ingredients soup (canh thập cẩm), pork leg and bamboo shoot soup (canh măng giò heo), salty braised food, fried fish (cá chiên), stir-fried mustard greens, and desserts.
V Cafe, 1 Bui Thi Xuang St., across the road from the Trung Can Hotel. Entrees from $2. Vietnamese and Western food.
Stop and Go Cafe, A visit to Dalat would not be complete without having a coffee at the garden villa of the Stop and Go Cafe—a hangout for local and expatriate artists and writers. Contact: 2 Ly Tu Trong, near the Trung Can Hotel and V Cafe.
Cafe de la Poste, across the street from the main post office near the Sofitel Dalat Palace; French food at reasonable prices, especially the lunch set menu for $6. Contact: 12 Tran Phu St., Dalat.
Dalat is a university town and is one of the best places in Vietnam to meet young people, in my experience at least. Meeting college students was one of the highlights of my first visit here, in 1997, with Alison T. from Australia. The trip (from Vietnam south to north, from the Delta to Halong Bay) had been ill-fated from the start, with much fighting and bickering, and the only respite was atmospheric Hoi An in the tropical winter rain. I don't have particularly fond memories of Dalat, not because of the city, but the company I was keeping. But as I said before, the highpoint was meeting the Dalat university students.
One blogger in love with Vietnam seemingly as much as myself, Oliver Meeker, wrote of his visit to Dalat: "After an enormous lunch we headed back to town to see the university. Upon arriving we were greeted by a bunch of really energetic college students from all over, some of the girls that I met were from Nha Trang, and others were from Hanoi. We all gathered around and played some games, which was pretty interesting, quite humorous and embarrassing all at the same time. Then Di-Di (our group leader from Saigon, who has been with us the entire trip and has been an enormous help) led all the American students in hokey-pokey, a game which none of us could have probably done all that well, but she did it perfectly—it was pretty great. We ended up meeting some very nice girls, who we made plans to later meet up with and go out for coffee. We all said our goodbyes and exchanged numbers and we were on our way to relax for the evening and meet up for a big olEgroup dinner..."
The University of Dalat is at 1 Phu Dong Thien Vuong Street.
More than 13,000 students study here and English is a favored topic.
Ngã Năm Đại Học: University Intersection.
Wrote Duong Lam Anh, a native of Hue: "On the first day of my recent trip to Da Lat, I stayed near what the locals called Ngã năm Đại học (University Intersection.) After a sleepless night, (I can't sleep well at new places), I woke up earlier than usual to the soft and monotonous sounds of the rain. What else should I do these early hours, if not dreaming? I decided to drop by the university for a look, (and to kill time, too.) It was just across the street then. Da Lat in the rain was chilly and dull, but the small street leading to the university was so beautiful. I stopped at the gate and asked the security guard to let me in for some photos. He smiled back in welcome. (I doubt the colleges in Hue will let a tourist in casual clothes and with a camera enter so freely.) Passing through the gate, I entered a vast world of trees and grass. The campus was like a workable museum of Tay Nguyen architecture. I noticed the tiny wooden bridge across a creek, red in color, leading to a building, an office maybe? This structure recalled nhà dài (long house), unique to some ethnic group in highland Vietnam. It seemed that classes were still given during summertime because I saw students heading in through the gate. The drizzle had stopped and the sun appeared. Down there in the distance, the city of Da Lat looked amazing in the early sun. Behind me, I heard somebody breathing hard. I looked back and saw some students hurrying on the steep slopes. They were late for class..."
Hung Phat Restaurant in Da Lat is one in a chain of the Hung Phat Restaurants. They specialize in serving large tourist groups. If you leave from Ho Chi Minh City for Da Lat, before you reach Nga Ba Dau Giay on Highway No. 1, you will see three restaurants belonging to this chain: Hung Phat, Hung Phat 1, and Hung Phat 2. There is also a Hung Phat Restaurant in Bao Loc Town, and another one in Lac An commune.
Restaurants on Hung Vuong Street specialize in simple dishes cooked in the style of northern Viet Nam. A meal with rice, a salty dish and vegetables costs VND6,000 - 7,000. You can even try a cheaper meal at the restaurant at the crossroads of Nguyen Van Cu Street and 3 thang 2 (3 February) Street, as a plate with a fixed choice of items costs only VND 4,000.
SELF CATERING IN DALAT (April 29, 2008)
Of course, if restaurants get too much for you or you are trying to save money, you can always make your own meals using produce from Da Lat's central market place. This is indeed what Nga and I did one damp Monday, in the rainy season of 2008. On the way into the markets from the hills in which our hotel is located, we passed huddles of women with black teeth and weathered faces on the ground, surrounded by sacks of charcoal. As LONELY PLANET had alluded, these were the ethnic minorities of Da Lat, the former inhabitants of the Central Highlands who are now reduced to doing the jobs normal Vietnamese deign not to do (such as dealing in cooking charcoal.) Further down the hill, into the markets, and it was just as I remembered from my first trip here with Alison Telfer back in 1997: dirty and desperate. But kind of beautiful in its own way, with its pyramids of multicolored fruit, and other strange produce. As LONELY PLANET had alluded, you can see many temperate varieties of fruit here unavailable in other parts of Viet Nam: for example, strawberries and mulberries. Another specialty of the city is artichoke (called atiso in Vietnamese.) Nga and I ended up blowing 600,000 Dong on local fruit products in one of the covered markets in the center of the city. We bought a whole huge bag of stuff from the Phuong Thanh Stall (Quay 126 Khu A - Cho Da Lat; DT: 063 831677.) The place sells items including Mat Dau, Mut Man, Hong Kho, Khoai Lang Deo, the aforementioned Atiso, Ruou, Tra, Cafe, Phan Hoa, Nhan Goi Ruou and ra Cuoi...)