Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Easy Riding in Dalat

I have already blogged Dalat...sort of. In my kangaroo-induced excitement (and, let's be honest, my need to get in a December adventure), I wrote about the Crazy House mere days after my return to the States. In that same frenzied state, very similar to extreme jet lag as I recall, I neglected to mention much about what exists outside the walls of Chez Loco. That is a real shame because Dalat ended up being one of my favorite places in all of Vietnam.

I arrived into Dalat via a surprisingly comfortable seven hour bus ride from Saigon aboard a bus line that has not decided whether it wants to be called Fula or Pula. The buses say one thing and the uniforms another. With clean buses, competent drivers and free bottled waters, Pula/ Fula made the ride through glorious mountain passes even more enjoyable than I had expected.  They also set me up for certain disappointment in the north, but that's a story for another time. This story has more to do with Easy Riders and their motorcycles than Pula/ Fula and their buses.

No sooner had I stepped off the bus' free hotel shuttle and into the Crazy House, that I met my first Easy Rider. In retrospect, I'm surprised it took that long.  As the story goes, when Vietnam began getting tourists in earnest, a Lonely Planet writer came through, met a handful of guys who offered motorcycle tours of the region and after hiring them for a few days, raved about these self-proclaimed Easy Riders in the first edition of the Vietnam LP guidebook.  Travelers soon came in search of these two-wheeled tour guides and thus an industry was born.  Suddenly, anyone with a motorcycle and a basic command of the English language labelled himself an Easy Rider, with the result being a ratio of at least 3 riders to every tourist.  It appears there have since been attempts at organizing, collecting dues and licensing the name, but the result is three separate clubhouses within feet of each other and whispered accusations of so-and-so not being a "real" Easy Rider.

I'm not sure if the first guy I met was a real one.  Not sure about the second one either...him I met as soon as I wandered into downtown to grab dinner on my first night and he followed me from place to place showing me his book.  If there is such a thing as a rule for being an Easy Rider, surely it is the possession of the book.  This book is a journal of sorts filled with glowing testimonies written by former guests from every end of the Earth. As soon as I would respond that I was from the US, they would quickly flip to recommendations from fellow Americans. I got the feeling that I could have told them that I was from the Republic of Vanuatu and they could have found a corresponding letter of praise. It has reached such epic proportions that I even found restaurants showing off letters from, let's say, Miles in the UK who found their beer to be cold and their waitresses friendly. While on one hand, word of mouth is always good, I wondered about the true usefulness of these reviews. The writers of these exhalations may very well be nim-rods and Miles from the UK might not have a clue what he is talking about.

With this is mind, I went about choosing an Easy Rider by feel. I wanted someone who I could communicate easily with, who was unlikely to get both of us killed (or at least less likely than most) and whose bike looked comfortable enough to sit on for hours at a time. It did not take long for me to meet Truong Tue. With a hippy-ish ponytail, a kind smile to match an easy-going manner and a near perfect command of the English language, I knew he was my guy. He showed me a lists of his standard day trips and smiled patiently as I added and deleted attractions at will. In the end, we had an itinerary mixing a few cultural and scenic spots with nary a shopping stop or silk factory on the agenda.

We began with a ride out to an overlook with a view of the area's farms. Since this is the site of every single postcard photo in all of Dalat, we were quickly joined by at least a dozen other Easy Rider/ tourist combos.

We continued to a flower factory where we lost the touristic caravan. I think this was because the farm was not really open to the public but happened to be owned by Tue's friends.

A popular stop is a visit to a K'ho minority village. The one we visited was a two-block long grouping of shacks held together by nothing more than tape and hope abutting decidedly nicer, sturdier homes. The marked difference amongst people who all work the same land is one of luck. Those families who happen to produce a majority of male heirs reap benefits from dowries provided by their less fortunate female bearing neighbors.

This would be the place where I would also post photos of Elephant Falls, a small waterfall named after pachyderms that long ago roamed this area, but the climb down involved wee slippery looking footholds with a 30-40 foot drop off to the side. I rationalized that no way was this waterfall more impressive than Niagara Falls or Victoria Falls, and I have seen those, so I happily continued next door to the Buddhist school and monastery.

We finished off the day across town at Paradise Lake. Next to the lake is a gentle climb up to the Thien Vien Truc Lam meditation center, surrounded by colorful flower gardens, peaceful monks and chattering Vietnamese tour groups.

The hilltop center is also accessible via cable car from Dalat. I had already had a day full of spectacular views from the back of Tue's bike, but even with his very safe driving, I was still not comfortable enough to ride and take as many photos as I would like at the same time. To make up for this, I opted to take the cable car back.

Tue waited for me at the other end to deliver me back to the hotel where we had had started the day. I had enjoyed the experience of riding through the mountains and breathing in the cool, clean air so much that I was reluctant to let it come to an end, so as Tue was saying his good-byes, I hopefully asked if there was possibly more to see, say, another day's worth. Turns out there was...

Day two began with a stunning ride out to Ankroet Lake, the result of a nearby hydroelectric dam. I think if everyone could begin their day with this kind of scenery and this level of peace and tranquility, psychologists would be promptly put out of business.

To counter this a bit, and because we had already hit most of the cool non-sucky sites on day 1, we rode for a while until we came across the XQ Embroidery Center. This is really just a collection of shops selling handicrafts but arranged to look like a very idealized traditional village. There are well-manicured gardens, artisans at work and cultural performances. The entire place speaks to a substantial monetary investment on the part of its founders, which is why it so baffling that no one bothered to throw in an extra couple of dongs for adequate translations. The signs, for the most part attempt to tell the history of the different trades on display, as well as describe the products displayed. What I don't think they were aiming for is unintentional hilarity.

Across the road from that linguistic boondoggle is a another disaster in the making. It is the Valley of Love. Lonely Planet described it as being so tacky that even the Vietnamese, fine purveyors of all things kitsch, snickered at it. That alone made it too tempting for me to pass up. Tue, as well as other Easy Riders, warned me about just how horrid this park was but I was undaunted. As it turns out, they were wrong. It was way crappier than they could have possibly expressed. It attempts to be a combination romantic destination/ children's playground. Those two things don't go together...ever.
I can't think of anything more antithetical to getting into a sexy-sexy mood than a gaggle of shrieking children running rampant. You can not have proposal point within screaming distance of trademark infringement Mickey and Minnie...

And don't ask me to explain the entire "dress as a person from a minority village and have your picture taken all over the park" thing they had going on...

It was a relief to get out of there and visit another K'ho village, this one known for its massive concrete chicken. The story behind the chicken comes from a legend involving forbidden love, banishment and of course, a chicken. Once again, Tue's familiarity with the locals got us into places not normally open to the public. We were invited into people's home, offered what appeared to be moonshine and followed through the streets by playful children. The law in Vietnam restricts couples from having more than two children, but the minority groups seem to be somehow exempt from this, with each woman having an average of 4 or 5 kids. Through Tue, I spoke with a woman my age who was already a grandmother a couple of times over, all three generations living in a small wooden hut.

When we stopped at Prenn Falls, another people-in-costume-outdoor-shopping-kiddie-theme-park,  but this time with a waterfall in the middle, I began to worry that two was going to be strictly secondary activities.

But, our last stop, at the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, immediately stomped all over any inkling of concern I may have had.  Oh My Buddha, was it cool! It was a mosaic funhouse, all done up in riotous colors and hidden passageways.  There is the main temple with four levels to explore, overlooking a courtyard with a cement pond with a ginormous beer dragon snaking in and out of the water.  (Note: I don't think they actually call it a beer dragon, but since it is made up of over 12,000 beer bottles, I think it is a fitting descriptor.)

Across the way is a seven story pagoda, fronted by a Buddha rising nearly the same height, made entirely of dried flowers. Inside the pagoda is a stack of post-it-notes and a huge bell.  The idea is that you write a prayer on the post-it, attach it to the bell and bang away.

The rest of the pagoda is just as subtle. Not since two days prior, in the Crazy House, had I been so excited to explore a set of buildings. Both are such obvious labors of love and artistic whimsy.  They're just phenomenal.

Leaving the temple behind, we made a quick stop at an old colonial train station, before returning to the hotel.  When given my big chance to write in his book, I really wanted to emphasize how fantastic Tue had been, what a kind, knowledgable, hard-working guy he is.   I think I may have filled in a little over two full pages, but know I did not do him justice. I just hope that it was enough to sway the next tourist that rolls into town looking for an Easy Rider that, unlike the fictional Miles from the UK, my advice was legit.  This is truly something not to be missed.

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