Image: Hector Garcia. Flickr.
During my time in Vietnam in the summer of 2015, the city of Da Lat stood out as the bridge between the bustling South and the busy North of the country. It also served as a respite from the extreme humidity that we had become accustomed to- as three boys from the south west of England, a cooler environment with a higher chance of rain felt like a slice of home. Its temperate climate stands in contrast to the usual tropical weather that Vietnam experiences, earning it the nickname ‘the city of the eternal spring’, and making it home to some extraordinary sites and landscapes in its surrounding area.
The road leaving Da Lat.
For some time we had waited for the opportunity to rent mopeds and explore the Vietnamese countryside in our own way; dictating our own pace andgoing beyond the ‘beating track’ when it comes to the usual sightseeing. Da Lat provided the perfect environment for this. Having seen the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City, we decided it best not to rent them here mainly due to the congestion as well as the absolute recklessness in which the locals drove. In Da Lat we faced a quieter, smaller and seemingly safer location. The climate also meant that agriculture here was more apparent than anywhere else in the country, therefore we came into contact with the rural Vietnamese- who were very surprised to see three white boys seemingly racing each other on mopeds this far out of the city.
We negotiated a price to rent the bikes for a whole day, something equivalent to around £8 with us also providing the fuel. This didn’t exactly break the bank either.With the bikes sorted, we asked the owners of the hostel we were staying at if they knew of anywhere worth visiting that was outside the city. We wanted the journey to be as much an activity as the site itself. They immediately recommended a place known as ‘Elephant Falls’, about 35KM outside of the city. Using a scrap piece of paper- an envelope if I remember correctly- they hastily draw a map with directions to a nearby road that if we managed to get upon would take us the majority of the way with little turnings. With none of us having ridden a moped before, we were shown the basics along a relatively quiet road outside the hostel itself before we felt comfortable enough to go it alone. Despite their best attempts at helping us understand their instructions, it took us a grand total of five times across the roundabout to eventually grasp which way they wanted us to go- I seem to recall us even getting lost trying to find a gas station to fuel up.
Navigation problems having been overcome, we were off and heading away from the city into the farmlands; a side of Vietnam that we were keen to see. We were of course looking forward to reaching the waterfall but the array of scenery coupled with the local villages meant that there was plenty of stops along the way.
Celebrating with the owner.
The most notable of these stops was an incredibly fortunate one. At around the half way mark of our journey, we thought it best to break and try and get some lunch at a roadside restaurant. We parked up outside and entered to find that we, as expected, were the only westerners dining. Unfortunately the name of the place escapes me. We were greeted by a girl younger than us, assumedly the only one with any grasp of English, who explained that they could only offer us the one dish: rice with an assortment of different meats. This was perfect and was more than likely to be something we would order anyway. Opposite us, a cluster of locals, the only other people in the place, were drinking and eating- clearly celebrating something. Curious as to what, we asked our waitress, who relayed to us that it was actually the owners and a few friends celebrating the opening day, hence the limited menu. Before we knew it they had joined us. Apparently we were the first of what I hope will become many westerners to dine here. They were clearly keen to mark this occasion, offering us multiple shots of rice wine- which we did with them- as well as leaving us with a full bottle free of charge. Probably not the wisest idea as we still had half of the journey there and a journey back to undergo but when else do you get this kind of opportunity. One of the locals in particular was very invested in the occasion, so much so that he could barely stand; a fact made even funnier when he passed us on his motorbike not half an hour later. It was great to experience this with such a friendly and sharing collection of people- something we told two Australians along the road in our recommendation of the place.
Inside ‘Elephant Falls.’
Our next stop didn’t come until we reached the waterfall itself. It was as picturesque as expected but the true beauty of the place came from the seclusion surrounding it. We were the only people; tourist or westerner; who had come to see it. At first we had to scale the rocks to get down beside the waterfall. It felt to us like a proper adventure and was all the more satisfying that we had to make our way down a wet, slippery and ridiculously steep path in order to view the waterfall at its best.
It was along this route that we found the piece de resistance- a crevice leading inside the waterfall itself. Being stood within a waterfall was undoubtedly one of the coolest experiences of my life and not just because of the photo opportunity.
Incredibly, there was also a Pagoda situated right next to the waterfall. The temple, properly named ‘Linh An Tu’, was home to the ‘Happy Buddha’, aptly named because of the massive grinning Buddha statue around the back of the grounds. Despite this, the temple was particularly special to me due to its rural setting. It had an air of authenticity about it that I didn’t get from the urban counterparts. Its seclusion certainly gave it the feel of religious centre and not just tourist attraction.
Having seen the suggestion of our hostel owners as well as the bonus of the pagoda, we set off back towards the city of Da Lat. Though we took the exact same route as our journey there, new points of fascination still presented themselves, and we stopped in a small hamlet that advertised something called ‘Kopi Luwak’- coffee made from beans eaten and excreted by the Asian palm civet. We’d heard about the ridiculous price attached to it, with 1kg fetching as much as £700, and with myself in particular being an avid coffee lover we decided we would stop to see how it was made and whether it was really worth raving about. The farming methods were themselves questionable but the coffee was exquisite. They also showed us the barrels upon barrels of rice wine they were fermenting; the smell of which was most unwelcome after our lunchtime debacle.
It was after leaving here that our day took a somewhat downward turn. We’d spent the whole day zipping around the narrow country roads- if indeed they could be defined as such- assuming that we had become quite adept aboard our mopeds. We revelled in the fact that we were able to take over locals who had been driving these roads for years, when in fact it should have rang alarm bells immediately that perhaps we were approaching the many bends at far too great a speed. It was on one of these bends that my friend, who was situated at the back of our three man convoy, had his bike escape from underneath him and found himself thrust to the floor. The two of us up front were oblivious to this and so carried on up the hill until some frantic Vietnamese bikers signalled us to return below. We immediately knew what had happened. A local was scraping him off the floor and propping him up on the side of the track as his bike lay buckled and smashed in the road. A sense of panic filled the pair of us who watched on as blood poured from both his knee and elbow, the latter in which you could see his bone. I quite honestly didn’t feel like getting back on my moped at that point but then it was decided that I would be the one who returned to the nearest village to try and get help. Fantastic.
It was now, in a startlingly contrast to my approach throughout the rest of the day, that I drove with some sensibility and caution. I arrived at a restaurant and attempted to explain the situation to some locals who didn’t speak a word of English. All I had at my disposal was the translate feature on one of their Ipads. I eventually managed to express my need for a taxi to take both my friend and his bike, which was rendered useless, to the nearest hospital. I returned to him being lifted in and driven off. All that was left to do was drive back to Da Lat, something the remaining two of us were not keen on.
We arrived back to the hostel we were staying at to a collection of other travellers attending to our battered and bloody companion. One of the workers there, Wyn, hoisted him on the back of his bike and drove him the short distance to the hospital with the agreement that we would meet him there. We dumped our bikes and did just that. The pair of us walked in and were immediately directed to the only white patient in the hospital.
Soldier down: Inside Da Lat hospital.
The hospital did not match any preconceptions and was actually remarkably clean. It was littered with people who had evidently been waiting for a while to be seen, and yet our friend had been bumped up to be seen immediately. An indicator of the universal language that is money. In retrospect it is a pretty shocking concept but at the time he was in such need of assistance we were just happy he was being helped straight away. They cut through his blood soaked laces and sock and then cleaned both his leg and his elbow with iodine. Which looked ridiculously painful. The doctor then stitched his elbow up in a very improvised way before sending him off for x-rays. He was sent in for two x-rays that luckily for him showed that he hadn’t broken anything, it was just deep cuts he had to deal with. Meanwhile, we were outside the x-ray room discussing what we were going to tell the insurance people because we weren’t covered for the renting of bikes. We expected it to come to quite a substantial bill considering it had to cover two x-rays, the painkillers prescribed and an hour of the doctor’s time. It came to the equivalent of £7. We couldn’t quite believe it. Not only had he not had broken anything but he also avoided any serious damage to his bank account. It left him with a pretty cool scar as a souvenir from his time in Da Lat and a memory none of us are soon to forget.