We heard good things about Dalat: more laid back than the major cities; capital of cafés, cute architecture to check out; cooler climate; and a favorite spot for Vietnamese on holiday.01
Playing Vietnam’s Weather Game
On the way south, we had wanted to visit Da Nang and Hoi An (which are near each other). We’d heard several folks say that Hoi An—home of brightly colored buildings, canals, and tailors—was their favorite stop in Vietnam.
But it turns out that it’s tricky to pick a single time that’s great for visiting all parts of the country. Vietnam is so tall—spans such a wide latitude—that sunny and pleasant temperatures in one part often means typhoons or scorching heat in another.
If you do go to Vietnam, and you want sunny weather that’s not too hot, let me save you hours of research:
- December seems best for visiting the north (Hanoi and its satellites)
- February seems best for visiting the middle and south (Da Nang & Hoi An, Dalat, Ho Chi Minh City + satellites)
Since we were here in November, Hoi An’s was scheduled to have rain so heavy that its streets would become navigable by boat. So we skipped this time around.
Hanoi 🛩️ Dalat
As seems to be the case everywhere in the world, even if you’ve got ample time and like trains, short flights are somehow so cheap they’re hard not to choose. Combine that with Vietnam’s aging train infrastructure, harrowing tales of bus rides, and how long the country is, a short flight is much more comfortable.
We’d read about domestic flights being chaotic. Partially due to many first-time fliers, but also because bag theft is so common that there’s a whole bag tag checking procedure when leaving the airport. We experienced neither of those, and it was a totally uneventful trip.
What struck me most about Dalat is how different it was from what I saw in travel blogs.
I am empathetic to travel blogs. Surely they do better if they make a place look as romantic and wonderful as possible. And even though I wouldn’t count my blog as a travel blog,02 I quickly succumbed to the practice of photographing things that photograph well. In other words, I found myself taking and posting photos that looked the best rather than were actually representative of what a place is like.
I resisted this—only posting photos of nice things. But when making a website, I have no goal other than making something beautiful. And, especially with an iPhone camera, it’s hard to take beautiful pictures of everyday things.03
Let me give some concrete examples. Photos of Dalat04 generally focus on three categories of things:
- French colonial architecture
- Officially Mandated Tourist Activities (OMTAs)05
Expectation: walking around Dalat, you will whimsically wander between spacious, airy, tropical plant and natural wood-filled cafés. You sip your artisanal coffee in peace and quiet. Here is photo proof this reality exists:
Reality: Cafés like this do exist. They’re not abundant—most cafés actually focused on food, and served OK coffee only incidentally. They would often be extremely noisy due to being open-air and with hordes of mopeds blasting by.
But the real lie is subtle. Because the part that isn’t true is what wasn’t said, it’s what you filled in with your mind:
… whimsically wander between …
You see those cafés and, at least if you’re me, assume that the rest of the city will kind of thematically match them. Spacious, calm, pleasant. Then you arrive in Dalat, and it’s actually like this:
This is what walking around Dalat is actually like. The central areas are completely, totally, utterly jammed with domestic tourists. Hundreds of clothing stands and dozens of food vendors line the sidewalks and fill warehouse rooms. Mopeds blast everywhere, all the time, and are sometimes parked in such a dense arrangement you have to pick your way through them to walk down the street.
French colonial architecture.
Expectation: Immerse yourself in a fairytale06 world of eye-catching, tastefully decaying buildings. You, dressed in your most whimsical travel clothes, happen upon quaint building after building, each of which delights the senses and stirs imagination. What could be inside? Here’s proof:
Reality: You trudge for fifteen minutes up wet, winding streets. Mopeds keep blasting by you. Should you have taken one? It didn’t seem that far, but it’s all uphill. Nothing around you looks particularly French.07
Finally, you arrive. Or wait, have you arrived? It’s all fenced off.
Ah, that’s right, a footnote somewhere mentioned this might be the case. Well, looks like it’s not very much in use. The other footnote said you might be able to find a guard to open the fence, but the only one is very far away and doesn’t look remotely interested in your Instagram trespassing. Well, no problem, I’ll just lean my phone through the railings and take a shot:
Then, after cropping heavily and slapping a thick filter on top, we have the photo I put above.
Though you got the photo, you feel sort of… empty. It was all anticlimactic. The photo is devoid of any emotional connection. It’s like a label on an empty drawer.
But, no matter. Post it online. Perpetuate the narrative.
I’m going to say something that, if I’ve done my job right with the last couple posts, you wouldn’t expect: the OMTAs were the best parts of Dalat.
What made them good was you could do them on your own terms. No buffet room, no tour bus. As such, they let you choose your own adventure. Navigate your way there, get lost, get stuck in the rain, fail to find transport back, find a weird café to kill the time in. They provided an outline for the real experience.
Plus, them being full of domestic tourists made them feel better somehow. Like, at least if we were doing stupid shit, we were doing stupid shit locals do.
I’ll give each OMTA excursion its own section.
Trai Mat is one town over from Dalat. It has a big wild Buddhist temple complex and an as-bizarre-as-advertised Cao Dai08 temple. It is also connected to Dalat via the only operating chunk of a restored old train line, which runs a handful of times a day to ferry tourists between them.
We planned out the morning so we’d catch one of the trains according to a photo of the schedule I found online.09
We arrived at the train station, which is also a ripe ground for photo ops.10 I had read that if you’re taking the train, you don’t have to pay the entrance fee to look at / take five hundred photographs of the station. As we walked through the parking lot, a guy who looked 50% official flagged us down and wanted money. I tried arguing for a while that we were going to take the train11 but it wasn’t going anywhere so I paid him.
We get to the ticket office, only to find the schedule had recently changed by just enough minutes (30) that we had missed it and would need to wait two-and-a-half hours for the next one.
Since the thirty minute novelty train is just a ten minute drive by car, we Grab’d over to Trai Mat instead and set to work checking out the local religious stuff.
One thing European Christian churches and late Buddhism Asian temples have in common is an awe via level of detail quality to them. E.g., the drawings on each of the thousands of tiles just making up the upper part of this railing.
The Cao Dai temple—massive and very close the to totally packed Buddhist temple—was completely empty. And it was decidedly strange. It feels like if you took a heaping handful of other religions’ icons, blended them together, and ran them through a coat of pastel paint.
Maybe some things are best left unexplained.
This tourist attraction is kind of like if you had Dalí, Gaudí, and Kafka collaborate on a motel complex with the goal of receiving the most possible ADA lawsuits. I had minimal hopes for this and it wildly exceeded them, mostly due to its scale. The place has this cult classic-like feel where you don’t know if you’re enjoying it on its terms or your own.
The King’s Residence
It actually turns out that the previous king had several summer residences in Dalat. They feel a bit haphazardly kempt, like everyone’s preserving something but the reasons why have been forever lost to time. We wore slippers inside and spent time investigating, e.g., the royal bathrooms.12
Cable Car to Truc Lam Monastery & Tuyen Lam Lake
You can ride from just outside the city, across the forest, and over to a (relatively) quiet Buddhist monastery next to a lake.
Dalat’s elevation (1,500m AKA 4,900ft) is really apparent here. The prickly foliage, cool air, and frequent cloud cover made me feel right at home
Oh yeah, and even got another lovely addition to the casual copyright violation collection.
Dalat’s Food Scene
I go back and forth about whether to post negative stuff.
Often, I just leave it out entirely. I want my writing to be generally positive and optimistic—an outlook somewhere in between what I have and what I want to have. Plus, pessimistic writing risks multiple failure modes. One is that it becomes boring. How dull is it to talk to someone who just complains—or even worse, read their writing? Another is that it risks coming across as sneering, which I think is inevitably the result of a lack of empathy going deep enough.13
But, like omitting negative results in research, it means half the picture only gets painted. Travel writing, particularly on blogs, seems especially susceptible to this. I think this is because the purpose of most travel blogs, as I hinted at above, is to sell you a fantasy of your own future trip. The better the fantasy, the more you’ll like the blog, and the more ads you’ll see and affiliate links you’ll click.
OK, so that’s the lengthy preamble. Dalat’s specialty food and drinks, in our experience, were decidedly meh. This was only disappointing because Hanoi’s kicked so much ass.
Here’s what wasn’t meh: the weird empty Korean party bar next to our hotel that was multiple stories tall, had five people working there, and we were the only customers who ever went inside. We went most nights so we could horribly monopolize their pool table.
And there were a couple gems. La Viet Coffee, mentioned in the café section of the post, also had great coffee and creative, delicious food. The other one: a spit-roasted chicken restaurant with killer herbal tea and fragrant sticky rice. I think this was the best non-deep-fried chicken I’ve had in my life. We went back.
One Last Thing
For some reason, I’ve found myself using a bunch of semicolons the last couple posts. Sorry. Going to try to cut that shit out. ↩︎
For me, a true “travel blog” has to have the aim of making money. Almost every page should be in the format of (The Perfect) Itinerary for X days in Y. The pages should be chock full of ads and affiliate links. In contrast, I aim to provide neither good advice nor helpful information. ↩︎
If you don’t believe me, look at any random street photos by someone like Craig Mod (e.g., here), who is using camera equipment ballpark $5k or $10k. Then, go and take similarly simple / atmospheric photos of your own with your phone. Compare them on a monitor. You have no chance. Your phone sensor does not capture enough light, and your aperture is too small. Relatedly, this is why it is dangerous to look at blogs of people with good cameras. It will convince you you need to buy an expensive camera. God help my wallet, this may have already happened to me. ↩︎
When researching Dalat, I used the travel blog Wander Lush (e.g., here’s her Dalat entry). Aside from a handful of things being out-of-date and hence (a) double the price or (b) unavailable—which is inevitable for anyone lower budget than Rick Steves—it was generally quite helpful and inspirational. With that said, it totally succumbs to the beautifying / mystifying / idealizing I wrote about above. ↩︎
I’ve been addicted to this term (OMTAs) since I accidentally coined it in the Seoul post. Is it annoying you? Let me know in the comments! Oops just kidding, I deleted the comments because nobody used them so it was embarrassing. ↩︎
Ignore the whole colonialism part and focus on the architecture part. ↩︎
Except maybe the stray dog over there. Are you French? Bonjour, pooch? ↩︎
Don’t have the bandwidth right now to read about Cao Dai on Wikipedia and splat out some pithy essence for you. If you’re interested, give them a Google. I’ve heard it’s a trip. ↩︎
The trains were one of those “we run at these times, but only if it’s full, or else we’ll wait” kind of situations, making any day scheduling a bit tenuous. ↩︎
The other surreal thing about the train station is that every single vendor there, without exception, was blasting American Christmas music. Keep in mind, this is mid-November, which is early even by USA standards. I couldn’t quite grasp it. The best I could describe is it seemed like it was trying to give everything a festive vacation kind of mood. I guess it worked? ↩︎
Insert we’re taking the train, so we shouldn’t have to pay this particular fee hand gestures. Boy I’m going to slay at charades after this. ↩︎
One takeaway is that bathrooms have improved a lot in a short amount of time. E.g., most hotel bathrooms are better than this king’s one. ↩︎
Even if sneering isn’t intended, writing is finicky, and it could come off that way. ↩︎