Da Lat is a little town about six hours northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. Popular amongst locals, it’s not as often visited by foreigners.
Upon arriving in Da Lat, it will be quite clear that it’s a tourist town – one where everyone is bundled up to combat the perpetually cold weather.
When I first arrived in Vietnam, I was afraid it would be hard to head off of the typical backpacker trail. But then I found a few gems that ended up being the highlights of my trip. Da Lat, though less off the beaten path than some places I later found, ended up having a lot to offer:
What sold me on Da Lat was what came back when I typed it into Google images. This is also what led me to Cameron Highlands in Malaysia in the past since I don’t carry a guide book and generally pick my locations like a blindfolded fool throwing darts at a map. Since it served me well in the past, I employed this method once again.
Elephant Falls was what dominated the search result and intrigued me to visit. I was not disappointed.
Given it’s 30 km outside of the city center (and most maps don’t really do well at showing where it is), my travel buddy that month, Darius, and I rented a couple of motorbikes from our respective guest houses for 100,000 VND each (about US $5), put 50,000 VND worth of gas in and got going. For the most part, it was a straightforward set of directions along the same major road, checking my phone’s GPS every now and then to make sure we were on the right track.
What I found less than enjoyable was the 10 or so kilometers that were spent going downhill on roads that were incredibly sandy and rocky due to some logging. This is how I have previously crashed a motorbike so that was in the back of my mind the whole time.
Despite the large sign on the right that proudly said, “elephant falls” we managed to drive right by. Luckily I knew the Vietnamese phrase for the falls – Thuc Voi (pronounced “tuck voy”) and some locals pointed us in the right direction. The falls themselves are impressive but what I think a lot of people miss is the fact that you have to go climbing on some difficult and slippery rocks to see the base of the falls – and rainbow – as pictured above.
Do it yourself:
- Get to the falls via motorbike if and only if you’re confident on the sandy road conditions. If you are, it’s my favorite way to travel as I love stopping to take pictures, having the freedom to explore other areas around the falls, and feeling the wind in my hair – it’s fun!
- If you still want to take a motorbike but aren’t confident driving yourself, Dalat Easy Riders will drive you on nice big motorcycles, but are pricey. Can be booked at plenty of places in the town center of Da Lat
- Otherwise, take a taxi (bearing in mind they charge around 10-14k VND per km. Only trust Vinasun and Mailinh taxi companies) or local bus. The local bus will have “Nam Ban” written on it and departs from the terminus at Khu Hoa Binh north of the Hoa Binh theatre in the centre of Dalat. Cost is 20,000 VND and remember to tell the attendant on the bus that you want to get off at Thuc Voi
- Entrance is 10,000 VND/person
Truc Lam Monastery:
This monastery is absolutely beautiful! I was so moved by the peaceful atmosphere – wind chimes gently singing in the background and incense wafting from every direction, that I sat in the temple across from the Buddha and meditated for the first time in over a year. A Vietnamese man seated to the left of me felt the same urge. We made eye contact, smiled, and meditated in unison, his positive energy slightly guiding my way.
Part of the beauty was taking the cable car to get there, which on a lucky and clear day, showed us a beautiful vista of a part of Vietnam that is covered in pine trees!
The grounds were so beautiful and well-maintained, we stayed for a couple of hours happily:
Do it yourself:
- Truc Lam is pretty close to the town center and easy to get to. Take a taxi for just a couple of dollars (by meter) to the cable car entrance. The best way to do this is to take a map with you and show him on the map where you’d like to go
- The cable car costs 70,000 VND roundtrip and is well worth it to see the beautiful scenery. Be aware that it closes between noon and 1:30 for lunch and for the day at 4:30
Having a BBQ with some locals at Paradise Lake
Just down the steps from the monastery sits Paradise Lake, where we explored around a bit while waiting for the gondola to open again at 1:30. I gingerly made my way to a picnic table where a few locals were preparing a BBQ, smiling warmly, which they returned to ensure that it was alright for me to walk in front of their view of the lake for a quick photo.
What ensued was one of the highlights of my trip when one of them asked me if I’d like to join them for a BBQ. The answer to this question is always an enthusiastic yes!
It started off with vigorously fanning a little clay hibachi BBQ burning with some small coals, followed by grilling some marinated pork:
Then they invited Darius to take over grill master duties – pictured here as he mastered his chopsticks grilling technique:
We wrapped the pork in French bread, dipped it in a mixture of chili sauce and mayonnaise, coupled with cucumber and some coca cola to wash it down – not something I normally drink as I find it too sugary, but enjoyed nonetheless out of politeness:
Then came the lemongrass fish. Ohhh the lemongrass fish! It was delightful.
It turned out that they were a group of recent university graduates who had all attended the same school in Ho Chi Minh City. They were vacationing in Da Lat for part of their Tet (Lunar New Year) holidays.
Their welcoming attitude and desire to share their culture with us really warmed my heart.
The time came too quickly to leave. We had an onward bus to catch that afternoon. Luckily, we traded numbers and even met up again for another traditional meal in Nha Trang several days later.
It’s moments like this that remind me of why traveling is so special and humble me to the amazing people that this world holds.
Do it yourself:
- Luck of the draw, but around Tet in Vietnam it’s good luck to share your meals with guests, so it is not altogether uncommon for this type of thing to happen
- Chances are better of getting invited if solo or in a duo
- Smile, be friendly, and accept generous offers of goodwill