By the time we reached Dalat it had just stopped raining. But by now it was dark. And maybe that is what did it, for us. Everybody seems to think that Dalat is not a very attractive town, but with all the lights on, in multiple colours announcing the various hotels and restaurants, and karaoke bars, or just to decorate the parks, it looked very nice. Some of the streets were lined with huge, old, but well maintained villas set in spacious gardens, obviously this was once the French quarter. The town centre was packed, early evening, restaurants buzzing, market still going strong – in fact the market goes on from early morning to late in the evening, seven days a week, here. Owing to the hills, the center is at various levels, connected by stairs or by narrow, steep lanes. Or just by entering a department store at the ground level, and exiting at the top.
(1, 2) Stairs in Dalat centre, in the morning doubling up as extension of the market
These are fabulous stores, by the way, selling special coffees and teas, including artichoke tea, a whole range of dried and sweetened fruits – strawberries, blackberries, lemon, orange, and many more which we have not been able to identify -, the odd bottle of snake liquor, with a scorpion thrown in for good measure. And a selection of Dalat wines. Indeed, our presence in Dalat is not entirely coincidental, this is where Vietnam’s wine comes from (well, in fact the grapes are grown along the coastal area, north of Saigon, but the bottling is done here, which is why we speak of Dalat Red and Dalat White. The white is undrinkable, the bottle we tried went the same way as the Cambodian plonk, but some of the red varieties, such as the Dalat Red Superior (don’t believe it!), or the Dalat Red Export (don’t believe it, either!) are just about palatable; a large portion of ice helps the process. Right now I am having the Vien Thien Syrah/Shiraz, which doesn’t taste like it has been made from syrah grapes, but who cares?
(3) Dalat specialties in a local store, and (4) their selection of local wine, and (5) of local spirits, no doubt with special properties.
There are lots of pagodas, colonial buildings and other sites to visit in town, there is even the palace cum hunting lodge of the last Vietnamese emperor, but – you know that by now, of course – I am perfectly happy spending my time at the market, which I did early morning and again late afternoon. A truly extraordinary experience, not only from observing the products on sale, many of which I have no idea what they area, but also for the frenzied activity, especially early morning; vendors turned over their entire stock in the time span of 30 minutes, buyers were carrying off massive amounts of plastic bags on their motorcycles.
(6, 7, 8, 9) Yeah, well, I have to put some market pictures in, again, if only to show you the giant artichokes. And the sugar cane stall.
If we had expected to re-engage with various minority peoples, for which these hills are known – the French called the hill tribes the Montaignards, no need for further subdivisions -, we were in for disappointment. A short expedition outside Dalat yielded no traditional costumes, and no traditional villages, corrugated iron roofs dominate here, too, although the art of partying is not lost yet, if the three huge pigs that had been slaughtered in one of the villages are any indication. Development is obviously catching up, which is visible outside town, where all the lower slopes are terraced and cultivated, and thousands of plastic-covered green houses hold vegetables and flowers. The higher peaks, surrounding Dalat, look attractive, green, jungle. One of those peaks can be reached, either by foot or by car, but our attempt was smothered early on, when we were being confronted once again with the circus atmosphere at the entrance of the track. So we abandoned the plan; not a bad decision, it turned out, as it started raining again soon after. Somehow, we don’t seem to be lucky with the weather.
(10, 11) Green houses around Dalat.
(12) Woman working the vegetable garden.
So what can you do inside, sheltering from the rain? Apart from eating, drinking and shopping, of course. To our considerable surprise, opposite our hotel was a room, with an old man exploiting an even older… carambole billiard, “no pockets, three balls only”, as he explained. Really? The old man turned out to have played this game before, although he was reluctant to play the balls around; for good reasons, as I found out, but it was fun, nevertheless. Growing a little homesick, perhaps?