After 8 hours on the bus, I had arrived in Dalat by the late afternoon. Luckily, with the lack of sleep from the night before, I briefly passed out on the way. Originally built by the French, Dalat was a town in the South Central Highlands of Vietnam intended to allow visitors to escape the heat and humidity of places further south, specifically Saigon.
Although I had been told of how beautiful the weather would be, especially at this time of year, it was rainy when I arrived. Instead of exploring the town, I spent the evening catching up with family and writing. Throughout the whole day Việt and I had continued talking. Jealous of the beautiful weather forecast predicted over the next few days and enticed by not having visited Dalat since he was a kid, he spontaneously managed to book a last minute night bus to join me in the morning. He could only stay 2 days, but I had planned staying 3 days anyway and I was just excited to spend more time getting to know him.
Arriving by 8am, Việt dropped off his bag and we got an early start out on the town. Armed with a Pentax film camera, Việt was ready for the all-day photo excursion that we were about to embark on. We began our day visiting the “Crazy House.” This guesthouse/architectural oddity had been a work-in-progress since 1990 and looked like a page straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. Winding caves and narrow paths led visitors around the expressionistically styled complex. It had even been called one of the world’s most bizarre buildings according to the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily. Certain structures were more revealing than others as to their environmental inspirations. Tree stump stairs led us far above the city offering an ideal vantage point to gaze out on the expansive landscape.
After thoroughly exploring the “Crazy House,” Việt researched some other interesting places to check out in Vietnamese, not in English. Within a few minutes, we had the address plugged in en route to Dalat’s old, “Wes Anderson-esque” train station. About a 40 minutes’ walk away, we began the journey, passing through a majority of the town along the way. In the end, the 40 minute walk took far longer as we constantly deviated from the main road to check out small alleys and grab photos.
Finally at the train station, I understood why Việt had referred to it as having a Wes Anderson feel. The vintage, pastel exterior seemed to fit right into a potential iconic color palette that the director was well known for. Walking around back, we discovered a semi-abandoned train yard further down the overgrown tracks.
Exhausted from our early start and practically walking the day away in the 30°C (86°F) heat, we made our way back to our accommodation after grabbing dinner. When we settled in for the night, we both realized just how sunburnt we had gotten. Neither of us had remembered to wear sunscreen and it was more than obvious. My face and neck had turned lobster red so after cooling down inside for some time we walked to the town center to pick up aloe vera. Before we had found it, a “pharmacist” tried to convince Việt that her 50¢ cream which was simply labeled as “face cream” would magically rid our sunburn in just one night. We didn’t believe her and instead found the real McCoy. It was only 15x the price of the “face cream,” but for how badly we had been burnt, it was worth shelling out the additional dong (Vietnamese currency).
The next morning my face was still bright red and Việt’s had also gotten some color. We both made certain to bring along sunscreen for the next all day excursion. Finding a nearby motorbike rental shop, we each paid 35,000 dong ($1.50 at the time) to rent a bike for the day. One of the most popular things for backpackers to do in Vietnam is to rent a motorbike and drive nearly the whole country north to south from Hanoi to Saigon or vice versa. I would have loved to rent a motorbike myself and do this but something else Vietnam is well known for is the number of accidents annually that inexperienced motorbiking foreigners get into. I wasn’t about to take that risk, but luckily for me, Việt had years of experience under his belt and since he was Vietnamese, renting a bike was less expensive as it didn’t require a special foreigner insurance.
Hopping on the bike, we drove on the outskirts of the city. Our first stop was at a local farm to try some fresh strawberries as the area was famous for them. Sitting down at a table, Việt and I were approached by a woman who gave us a sampling plate consisting of various dried fruits along with artichoke tea. As we tried each fruit and sipped on the tea, the woman continued to ask Việt whether we were going to buy something or not. Interested in trying some fresh strawberries, we were quoted a price both of us were ok with to try a small amount, however, a few moments later the woman suddenly informed Việt that the type was no longer available. We’d have to purchase a much more expensive type.
Explaining that we were students traveling on a budget and just wanted to sample a few strawberries, Việt was put in an uncomfortable position as the woman rudely continued to guilt trip him into bulk buying one of their more expensive strawberries. I felt bad that I couldn’t help but I also didn’t have too great of an understanding of what was happening at the time since it was all spoken in Vietnamese. After continuing to bicker at Việt, the lady made it so uncomfortable that we left in attempts to find something more positive to occupy our time with.
A warm breeze whizzed by as we drove up hills and around bends, eventually stumbling across a landscape reminiscent of America’s Pacific Northwest. The weather was as beautiful as we had been promised and Việt and I took advantage. We spent nearly the entire rest of the day outside biking, discovering hidden away abandoned resort villas and more beautiful scenery. Only this time, we applied sunscreen.
When it turned to dusk we returned the bike and grabbed dinner, Bánh Mì Xíu Mại, a Vietnamese meatball sandwich. Passing by a still opened shop carrying different snacks, Việt insisted on having me try some of his favorites as a kid. I couldn’t object.
Again, Việt and I had shared such quality time, (re)exploring a new part of the country together while continuing to discover common interests, but the end had come, or had it?
Before going to bed, Việt threw out the idea of inviting me to celebrate Tết with him and his dad’s side of the family for 6 days in Nha Trang, another town further north which also happened to be my next destination. My Couchsurfing host in Saigon, Thanh, had helped me plan an itinerary for my trip and he had insisted that I couldn’t miss out on the beach paradise town.
While my initial reaction was an immediate yes, I needed to consider the timeframe for when I was beginning my work exchange. Although it meant sacrificing seeing other parts of the country for less time, celebrating the most important holiday of the country with a Vietnamese family wasn’t something I could pass up, especially if it involved spending more time with Việt. I went with my initial reaction and in just 2 days’ time, I’d be meeting him again in Nha Trang.
Early the next morning, Việt boarded a bus back down to Saigon to celebrate the days before the holiday with his mom and her side of the family. Together they made traditional rice cakes called Bánh Tét that he sent me photos of as I spent an additional day exploring Dalat independently. For my last dinner there I was craving something with chicken and rice but without Việt, restaurant menus were again a mystery to me. Shortly after sending him a photo of the options, he responded back to order the eighth dish listed, called Gà Kho Sả. I trusted his suggestion and was overjoyed to find that the dish was everything I had hoped for and more: deliciously seasoned ginger chicken on top of rice. It even came along with a small salad. I couldn’t wait to be trying more of Việt’s recommendations.
Before I knew it, I was on a bus headed to Nha Trang to celebrate the very holiday that I had dreamt of partaking in, but the location of where we were celebrating I could have never anticipated.
Every Vietnamese post header image features a shot on film by Việt during our time together.