After departing from Ho Chi Minh City by plane, Annin, Lisa, Pase and I made our way to Da Lat – a city in the central highlands known for strawberries, flowers, and cool weather. It’s also more of a destination for domestic tourists, and is often skipped by foreigners, which is a big mistake in my opinion.
Flying in it was very clear that the area was going to be beautiful – we could see mountains and lakes from the air. The drive from the airport was also beautiful, even if the cab driver made a mysterious call in the middle of the drive, handed us the phone and a voice informed us we would have to pay d30,000 ($1.50) more than the taxi voucher said. Despite our protests, when we arrived at our homestay, the taxi driver was adamant, and eventually we had to give in. This is a pretty common occurrence in Vietnam – many times you can get a taxi voucher from the airport with a flat rate for taxis, but they will try anything and everything to get more than you paid for, since they can pocket any extra money, rather than going through the airport service.
In any event, we arrived safe and sound at our homestay, and were immediately given a delicious lunch of homemade noodles, and the owner of the business, Hoang, told us all about his decision to turn his family’s house into a homestay, his tour offerings, and a bunch of other information. It was all a bit overwhelming, so we retreated to our rooms and decided to just walk into town by ourselves, rather than take him up on a tour.
The homestay was a bit out of the way, but it was a nice walk into town. On the way we passed three different pagodas, all of which were very interesting. The first was very pretty, and we saw monks walking across the grounds and praying in a nearby building. Walking around, a man informed me that the bonsai trees cost several thousand dollars, which was very impressive, but unfortunately he couldn’t explain t to me why there were two topiaries in the shape of teapots… I suppose this will remain a mystery.
Pagoda number two was attached to the first one, but was rundown and seemingly abandoned for the most part. It was clear that people maintained the altars, which held fresh flowers and offerings, but the rest of the facilities were in disrepair. It was a bit eerie, wandering around, but also very beautiful.
The final pagoda was probably the strangest. We were drawn in by a giant sculpture of a dragon, which we could easily see over the gate and down the street. This thing was massive! It circled half the grounds, and was quite a sight. And it wasn’t the only spectacle – the entire pagoda was littered with sculptures and paintings of various Buddhist stories. Honestly, we thought they had something for every single Buddhist story, from the life of the Buddha to the Journey to the West. It was fascinating, and we all wandered around testing our memory of each story depicted.
After taking a plethora of photos at the monasteries, we walked into town in search of the lake. We never actually got there, but we did wander into an awesome bakery where we purchased everything with an interesting name, and a few things that just looked great. We kept wandering around, but eventually had to call it quits in order to return in time for dinner at the homestay. We found a taxi and set out, but after a few blocks it became clear that the meter was rigged. We debated what to do for a minute, and decided to call him out on it. We told him to pull over and hopped out of the cab. The price was double what it should have been, and we refused to pay. We started walking away and the taxi driver, angry at our decision, started following us, and tried to cut us off by driving up onto the sidewalk. We continued walking around him, even when he tried this at least three more times. When we got to an intersection, he took a right, headed in what he knew was the direction of our homestay. We promptly took a left, and walked on until we realized he had given up and driven away. The whole experience was a bit scary, but everything was fine in the end. Most of the areas were well lit and crowded, and when we got out we realized where we were, and walked the remaining distance to our homestay without incident.
Dinner that night was a group affair – we helped cook curry and a few other dishes, then sat outside with the other homestay guests, plus people from the hotel down the street. There must have been 15-20 people total, and it was a bit awkward, but the food was tasty. That night we played cards and proceeded to eat all of the baked goods, some of which were better than others. One particularly memorable item was a “coconut cake” that tasted like mashed potatoes… not what I was expecting. After Annin crushed us in the card game, we decided on our plans for the next day and went to bed.