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Summer vacation in Da Lat

Sunday, October 28, 2018, 12:04 GMT+7
Summer vacation in Da Lat
A big roundabout at Xuan Huong Lake

During the recent summer months Da Lat has been packed to the rafters with tourists – mostly Vietnamese families taking advantage of school vacations and a chance to escape the heat elsewhere.  

Gorgeous waterfalls, parks, and farms of beautiful flowers, fruit, and vegetables provide the ideal getaway for those who want some fresh air and to frolic in the open space. Tours cover everything from indigenous tribes to elephant rides to adventure canyoning and trekking.  

At one point in the middle of the last century Da Lat was the summer capital city of Indochina, then the French left, or rather, they were given a brisk shove, but the atmosphere has lingered.  

Da Lat is a perfect clone of a European medieval city, built on many hills, and featuring colonial architecture and ambience. It’s a rare and delightful discovery in the middle of a sub-continent well-known for searing hot and sweaty metropolises, thanks to an altitude of 1,500 meters.

While it’s either hot, very hot, stinking hot, or raining cats and dogs in other areas, Da Lat is never sweltering nor is there constant heavy rainfall over extended periods.

Don’t waste time on the weather forecast – there’s little point in trying to predict exactly what each hour will bring in Da Lat, never mind an entire day. The best thing to do when you go for a wander in the city is take a sweater, umbrella, rain poncho, hat, overcoat, shoes, boots, gloves, and winter parka jackets, then you’re covered.

Throw in a scarf too, just to be sure.

The city is very manageable in size with just over 400,000 inhabitants and a laid-back provincial vibe, the landmark Xuan Huong Lake, and a whole bunch of traffic circles, thanks to the French influence on the city’s design.

And the people follow the traffic system, navigating the traffic circles counter-clockwise except when they’re in a hurry, then they just cut straight across.

The city is tricky to navigate on foot due to the number of streets winding in all directions and the many hills the city is built on. During my first trip I confidently zipped off to discover and became hopelessly lost in the maze of alleys and lanes, climbing up and down, and finally ending up on dead ends several times and accidentally wandering into people’s living rooms.

The inhabitants are accustomed to such intrusions and were extremely gracious although nobody invited me in for lunch or coffee, which would have been unsurprising given the warmth of the locals. Instead, most just smiled and waved me in the right direction back to a main artery which they no doubt do 50 times each day during high seasons.

Navigating the center of Da Lat by vehicle is for the most part an exercise in confusion. There is a network of twisting streets, some one-way but not always clearly marked, which the locals grasp and ignore for the most part while visitors wallow in confusion.

I know for sure many visitors are lost because whenever I’m chatting to my favourite motorbike taxi friend, they stop and ask him directions, then are seen every few minutes circling by in each direction until they finally get the hang of it and disappear not to be seen again.

This is renovation season in Da Lat – actually it’s always renovation season – but that’s better than new construction all the time. At least we can say with confidence that the city is actually finished and functional, unlike so many in this part of the world.  

One of the fixtures of the city center is the Coi Xay Gio (Windmill) Bakery and its outside wall painted in a hard-to-miss bright yellow. That wall creates the perfect contrast for selfies so at any time of the night or day there is a gaggle of tourists posing and giggling.

That wall is particularly popular with students who flock to Da Lat in large groups, all hollering at each other at the same time, so it’s unlikely that any of them understands anything, but that doesn’t deter them.

A selfie gang at Coi Xay Gio (The Windmill)
A selfie gang at Coi Xay Gio (The Windmill)

Da Lat is rarely so cold that a hat is required, but the younger crowd from the warm urban areas adore the faux animal fur hats. Whoever is making them must be almost as rich as the VietJet Air CEO Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao because you can’t go more than a few steps without seeing one.

Right across the street is the famous Cafe Tung, one of the top spots to see and be seen in Da Lat. The owner speaks French – that’s how they were schooled back in the French days of Da Lat, so there is no need to rely on my Vietnamese to try to make sense of it all.

The owner of Cafe Tung
The owner of Cafe Tung

He confided in me that finding an empty seat in his place is not an easy task, such is the price of fame. His father opened Cafe Tung in its current location 63 years ago, so it’s a city tradition with a loyal following of customers.

No review of Da Lat is complete without mentioning the famous local evening snack “banh trang nuong,” a round rice sheet grilled, covered in shallots, an egg, cheese, pork floss, bits of hot dog, and whatever else the vendor has on hand. It’s an absolute taste treat on those cool evenings.

Similarly, no discussion of banh trang nuong is complete without mentioning the famous lady at 61 Nguyen Van Troi in the upper part of the old city. She’s tiny but what she lacks in stature she more than compensates for in character. She can be very charming but is known to turn customers away for no apparent reason, so be on your best behaviour if you visit her.

She’s widely known as Queen Banh Trang Nuong because there is always a throng at her location – they even show up on GrabBike motorbikes and in taxis to taste her goodies, bypassing dozens of other similar options to get to her place. 

The gang at the Queen’s place
The gang at the Queen’s place

Her creation is the best around – it’s the little things that make the difference. She has a special technique of constantly spinning the rice sheet around and around while keeping the coals at the ideal temperature, thus rendering her crepe neither too crispy nor too squishy.

It sounds easy but balancing those elements must take a lot of practise. For the final touch, she serves her dish on a clean, paper-covered tray and supplies a pair of scissors with each serving so that guests can cut the size they wish while the rest stays warm.

She serves up a divine “sua dau nanh” (soya bean milk) drink, warm and spiked with pandan leaves. I bumped into her mixing up a batch at lunchtime the other day to be ready for the evening rush. Queen Banh Trang Nuong puts in that extra effort.

So if you’re longing for a trip to Europe but it’s just too far or the thought of inferior coffee for VND100k a cup bugs you, look no further than Da Lat and save yourself a fortune and a lot of time.

Anyway, you’d never find this in Europe:

The Queen’s sua dau nanh!
The Queen’s sua dau nanh!

Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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