The journey to Da Lat took about 4-5 hours. A small bus took us up the mountains and into the clouds. I dedicated the journey to doing some work, but found myself staring out of the window for the majority of the time! Every time I looked up from my phone, I either saw a waterfall, a vast valley or an area at high risk of a rockslide...
We were all a bit too scared to enjoy the scenery. My main concern was how we snaked around the corners at high speed and the overtaking on corners, but we all lived to tell the tale and we, thankfully, didn't topple over the edge in the end.
When we arrived in Da Lat, I was quite impressed. It was big and built up, and I especially liked the large lake and splash of greenery amongst the grey buildings. As we were in the mountains now, there were a lot more hills and steep inclines during the walk to our hostel. It wasn't an easy hostel to find either because of the way they number all of the buildings.
We knew we were going to enjoy our stay at Backpacker's Paradise. There were people hanging out in the common area downstairs and they all welcomed us in. The receptionist was really nice but, unfortunately, she tried to move us to another hostel. I wasn't walking anywhere and I certainly wasn't going to pick up my heavy bags again. Instead, she hooked us up with a big, three-bed, family room just for the two of us. There was mould on the walls and no ensuite bathroom, but we couldn't complain. We were happy!
An hour went by and it was time for "family dinner". The receptionist did a little toast and proceeded to bring out plate after plate, and bowl after bowl of delicious Vietnamese food. She even brought out a bottle of rice wine for us all (i'm not sure why its called wine, its more like Vodka)! All the guests got together for it and we all soon got talking to one another about our travels and what we could recommend to each other.
After dinner, another couple said they'd show us to the coolest cafe/bar in town - 100 Roofs. The bar is designed by an eccentric architect, with pathways and staircases that lead in all sorts of directions. Plus, the drinks weren't as expensive as I expected. It was a one of a kind experience! The only way I can describe it is like a magical, treetop maze!
The only thing that comes close to it is somewhere called "Crazy House". That's where we explored the next day as it is more of a daytime attraction. They charge a 40,000 dong entrance fee, yet they could charge so much more. Upon entering, I was blown away by how big it is. It's a lot more open than 100 Roofs with some great gardens and even hobbit style homes you can stay in. The staircases and pathways lead you high up into the sky, even higher than the buildings themselves. The views from the highest point are probably some of the best in the city.
Of course, I was fairly hung-over that day but, on top of that, I was also pretty exhausted. The last time I had a good night's sleep was at least a couple of weeks ago and I have to put the blame on all of the construction work in each city. Nevertheless, we decided to walk to the night market that evening. Stalls and stands fill the pavements and people flood the roads. Tall buildings surround the area and there’s a pretty cool statue in the centre of the main roundabout. It was pretty hectic there and we could really deal with the hassle, so we quickly headed back to the hostel.
The next morning we woke up pretty early. After a cup of coffee, we made our way to the first pagoda of the day. Linh An Pagoda was actually pretty close to our hostel and it's known for the "crazy monk" that lives there. Enticing, I know... Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be seen, but it was still a pretty cool pagoda to explore. There were no other tourists around, so we had the place to ourselves.
We then made our way to Linh Son Pagoda. It was a bit more exciting and also a lot larger than the previous pagoda, and there still weren’t many tourists there! It was very peaceful, with the usual place to pray, tall tower and monks going about their day.
Next, we made our way to the Golden Buddha Statue. It took a bit longer to get there, but it was worth it when we arrived (even though the entrance made it look like a complete ruin). Not even the stench could take away from the Buddha's magnificence. It stands 24 metres tall, in the middle of a wonderful water garden. It's obviously painted gold, and what's more grand than gold?
There is also a temple for prayers behind the Buddha, which happens to be the most incredible temple we've seen - the intricate carvings and paintings, another big Buddha and even more gold! It was a pretty special place but it was packed with tourists. Once we had seen everything, it was time to leave. We walked all the way back to the hostel (45minutes), so we treated ourselves along the way by stopping off at Lien Hao bakery. The five delicious cakes that we bought came to a total of £1.50!
After we chilled for a bit, I headed out on my first mission alone! I had a few places in mind that I wanted to photograph, so I went on my way just in time for the sunset. The first spot didn't actually work out that well and nor did the second. That is, until the city lights started to turn on and the warmth of them worked well with the blue sky (as you can see at the top of this blog post). It was even worth getting eaten alive by the swarms of mosquitos. I also attracted a bit of attention from the locals that passed by and they seemed to like the results to!
After breakfast the following morning, we sat in the lobby of our hostel until two Vietnamese guys pulled up on their motorbikes... We hopped on the back and begun a motorbike tour! The guides were called Harry ("like Harry Potter" he said) and Tom ("like Tom & Jerry" I said). They whisked us down the winding roads, through the mountains and into the countryside.
We made multiple stops on our tour - including a coffee farm, a mushroom farm and a village where women make material from silk. Their products weren't pushed on us at all which made a nice change. It was just a cute place, with cool people and an authentic atmosphere. The village is also known for it's huge chicken sculpture and a tragic story about two lovers. There was an old American lady there who had returned to the village after 12 years and had brought sweets for the children.
Our first main stop was at Paradise Lake. It's about 6km south of Da Lat and covers an area so huge that it's hard to comprehend. We were given a while to appreciate the beauty of it and enjoy the diverse (but mostly mountainous) landscape. Other tourists were enjoying the lake from a boat or swan-shaped peddle-o. Just over the road was a pathway leading up one of the mountains to Truc Lam Temple. The surroundings and setting now made it our new favourite and the most peaceful place we had seen so far. Gongs were ringing and wind chimes were tinging. Monks dressed in their orange, brown and grey robes were hard at work - laying bricks and tending to the green gardens & flower patches.
Our next major stop was the highly anticipated Elephant Falls. On an average day, it spans 15-20 metres across and falls over 30 metres down. It was flowing so hard due to it being the end of the rainy season that we couldn't explore the bottom of the falls. However, if you brave the precarious pathways, slippery, stone steps and muddy, mossy rocks, you can enjoy the falls from a metal platform about half way down in almost any condition. There is also a cave that we were encouraged to explore next to the platform. When inside, you can literally shower in the water, but I'm sad to say I didn't. At the bottom of the falls, the water flows through large boulders that give the falls it's name, as they look like baby elephants from above!
After our visit to the falls, it was time for lunch. The food was decent and the tour guides made for great company. We spoke about Vietnamese customs, the language and their school syste. Then, they showed us to another nearby temple - Linh An Pagoda. The main attraction was the giant "Happy Buddha" with a giant smile on his face. He is painted silver and stands amongst many different trees. Many more sizeable statues can be found inside the temple, as well as a statue of the original Buddha hiding behind it.
Things took a bit of a turn for the worst when we were taken to a silk farm. First, they feed silk worms for a few months until they form a cocoon. Then, they literally boil them alive whilst they're in the cocoons. I was horrified by how many silk worms they kept and killed. It is brutal and nearly completely unnecessary.
We then went to a place for coffee, but it was no ordinary coffee. Prepare to be pretty grossed out... The process involves feeding coffee beans to a weasel, allowing the beans to ferment in the weasel's stomach and waiting for the beans to, well, come out the other end. The beans look almost completely intact when they do come out, they just need a little clean. The process is then exactly the same as it is for regular coffee. Supposedly, the taste is second to none, but the idea definitely takes away from it.
It wasn't until after we had drunk the coffee that we saw the strain that coffee farms put on the area. Massive amounts of trees are cut down to make space for plantations and that means that animals loose their habitats and their homes. I imagine that the weasels don't have the best living conditions either. However, it was good to see that they didn't like anything to go to waste. The waste from the coffee beans was used to light fires for roasting the coffee and brewing rice wine. Anything else that's left over is fed to their pet pigs.
The tour ended with a massive positive - the ride back to the city was one of the most enjoyable things of the whole trip so far. I was stunned by the scenery and quickly fell completely in love with riding motorbikes. The following day, we planned to hire a bike so we could see more of the sights around Da Lat. Unfortunately, we couldn't do anything after my credit card was retained by an ATM. It was a massive shame because it was our last day, but I just hoped we could come back after a few days in Ho Chi Minh.