Keys (aka Eileen) is a Tour Leader with Stray New Zealand, and also our Environmental Officer, based in our head office in Auckland.
A keen and experienced traveller, we sent her off to Vietnam for the very first Stray trip, to explore and report back on her experience…
Day One: Dalat
At last the start of my Stray trip was here. We met up outside the designated guest house in HCMC, and were introduced to our tour leader, local guide Hang and driver. It took a while to exit the city, partly because of its size and partly because of the labyrinth layout which made different streets appear to go in certain directions. Navigating the streets is considerably easier than it would have been [where I live] in Auckland as it seems the Vietnamese drivers are not only great at being aware of other road users around them, but also are good at showing what their vehicles are doing – at times with the aid of horns, indicators and slow, deliberate movements. Because of this, you can pull a U-turn across 8 lanes of traffic, to find the oncoming traffic just slows gently to allow you to do so without the slightest evidence of inconvenience.
Once we cleared the city boundaries it felt like we passed a wedding function every 5 to 10 km. The general format was open marquees on the side of the highway, and on the inside we could observe the bride dressed in red and often the groom in a white suit. All the guests would be sitting around the marquee on small plastic stools and every now and then you’d catch a guest singing karaoke on the stage. This made for an entertaining ride from sea level into the highlands.
We stopped at a roadside restaurant to have some lunch. The food was laid out in a window and you chose the dishes you want, all served on top of a huge plate of rice. My delicacies included fried pig ear brawn, morning glory salad, pork ribs and pigeon eggs. It was great getting to sample so many dishes in one fell swoop!
As we started to climb we encountered more and more coffee plantations. It is harvest season here so the beans are laid out to dry in front of houses providing a patchwork of greens, reds and blacks. Pulling up outside the Datanla waterfall complex, I didn’t really know what to expect – it had a really flash entrance for a waterfall. Once inside, our guide Hang explained to the group that we all could catch a self-drive roller coaster down to the waterfall and this would save us having to take on a gazillion steps. Obviously we thought this was a fantastic idea and before you knew it we were strapping ourselves in, releasing the brake to our very own roller coaster adventure! The corners were well signposted so you knew when to brake and it was great fun; accompanied by landscaped gardens and stunning scenery.
Piling back into the brand new Stray minibus, we continued further up the road to Dalat, our home for the next two nights. The entrance to Dalat city was a sight to behold as it is set on a lake and has a real European (French) air to it. The temperature was definitely cooler now that we were 1500m above sea level, and the street market was in full swing as we wound our way through the serpentine streets.
Our Stray accommodation was a guesthouse right in the centre of town, close to the cafes and restaurants for which Dalat is famous. There was a good travel shop next door and they were able to give us the run down on the wide range of activities to do in and around Dalat. These included rock climbing, canyonning down 3 -5 waterfalls, hiking and/or mountain biking through the highlands, visiting nearby coffee plantations or silk worm factories.
I decided to do a combo tour; this could be done on a motorbike or by car. There was no doubt in my mind that by motorbike was the most Vietnamese way to do the trip, after all they are clearly the preferred mode of transport throughout the country. So the next morning I met my guide and off we went on a Honda 125. Driving out into the countryside, the first stop was just a few minutes out of Dalat at a flower-growing village. We visited a greenhouse and saw roses and chrysanthemums. These are grown for the internal market as well as exported to neighbouring countries because the high altitude makes favourable growing conditions. We then headed across a pine covered mountain range and dropped down into more coffee plantations on the other side. They had both robusta and Arabica coffee bushes and I was astounded to learn that Vietnam is the number one exporter of robusta coffee.
They also have a special type of coffee process here known as weasel coffee. It was about $3US/cup which is really expensive for Vietnam as coffee is normally 60c but this coffee is considered a delicacy and therefore commands a higher price. The weasels (civets) are fed coffee beans and as the outer husk is removed in the digestion process, this lowers the acidity and modifies the flavour of the coffee bean. The weasel dung is then collected and the beans separated and washed. Then the second husk is removed and the beans are roasted as per normal. The weasel coffee appeared more oily, than normal coffee and the flavour was indeed distinct. Nevertheless I’ve been very impressed with Vietnamese coffee anyway on this trip, so won’t feel too hard done by if my budget and geographic location do not allow me to become a weasel coffee convert.
The next stop was in a village and here I actually got to meet some weasels. They looked a bit like racoons and there were some baby ones with their mums which were particularly cute.
I tried some rice wine here as well and wow, is that stuff strong!
Just the smell of it almost knocked me on my ear so after a polite sip we headed back to the bike and off to a silkworm factory. There was a pungent odour, not unlike a wool scouring smell and that makes sense as in order to get the silk, they drown the worms in hot water which are wrapped up in little cotton wool, actually silk, type cocoons about the size of a chicken egg. Once the worm is dead the silk is loaded onto spools and unwound from the cocoon releasing the worms which are a golden colour and slightly smaller than your little finger. These worms are sent off to the city to be sold in local restaurants. A local farmer turned up with a big sack of silk cocoons while we were there and it was weighed in front of us.
After this we went to the local waterfall known as Elephant waterfall. You could walk behind the waterfall and it was about 30 metres across, 9 metres high so there was quite a lot of spray, which was refreshing. From here we headed to a local pagoda, which had lots of coffee drying on the huge concrete patio in front. Behind the pagoda was a huge statue known as the laughing Buddha. Buddhism is the predominant religion in Vietnam with about 80% of the population professing this religion.
The last stop on the tour was a cricket farm. These insects were housed in a big enclosure at the back of a house and fed fresh vegetation such as coffee and banana leaves. These are also used in certain restaurants in the city although I haven’t seen cricket on any menus so far as it is more for special occasions. At the conclusion of the visit I got to try some, straight out of the fry pan and, to be honest, with a bit of chilli sauce on them they were actually really tasty. They were not too large, unlike some I’d seen in Thailand at a street market so these ones weren’t too difficult to try a bit like crunchy chips.
We headed back to Dalat over the pine covered mountain range, which was about a 30km ride and I caught up with our Stray local guide for dinner. Hanging out with Hang was the perfect way to sample some of Vietnam’s street food. My Vietnamese is still far too simple to know what I’d be eating otherwise and Hang was kind enough to explain the options to me. (For reasons like these it definitely makes a big difference having a local guide!) The first night in Dalat, I had tried chicken stomach soup, which doesn’t sound remotely appealing but they brought out a chilli and ginger sauce that did wonders for the chicken stomach slices. The second night we ate on a street corner. Seating was provided albeit a stool just 10cm off the ground that in my home country would probably just be used for kindergartens. Nevertheless we squatted on our stools and my taste buds were in for a treat. Hang had tried octopus soup earlier but that vendor had already sold her two pots of food and gone home. Instead we had fish soup which had lots of vegetables in it and pork crackling, not to mention a chunk 2cm x 2cm of a dark solid substance which looked like liver. Hang explained this was pork blood and although I was a bit dubious at first it turned out to be really tasty. We also had some green papaya salad and this was mixed with chilli and some sweet dressing – definitely the best salad I’ve had in a long time!
After that we headed back to the café and restaurant area of town and caught up with the rest of the group who were eating at a more western style restaurant. This turned out to be amusing in itself as things are so often lost in translation. Audrey had ordered extra bacon with her meal. When it came there was no bacon on the plate and so she reminded the waiter of her request for extra bacon. He seemed to recall her earlier order and raced off to get some. He came back with a hamburger bun. Initially we thought the bacon might be inside but in fact it was just a bun. Last night when we ordered chips at a restaurant they came with a side of sugar and butter, no tomato sauce! At any rate, trying the local cuisine and the locals’ attempts at ours is all part of the joy of travelling.
Keys travels on Stray’s Dong Pass, exploring Vietnam on and off the beaten track.