Stage 2: Mui Ne – Dalat – Nha Trang (332km)
Still smarting from being told off by the police, I left Mui Ne and began the climb up to the cleaner air of the south-central highlands . After the searing heat and blistering wind of the sand dunes, Dalat was a welcome relief. Humidity is a dirty word that shall not be spoken. Instead, misty clouds hang in the valleys between the hills until late mornings, and the air is full of an earthy pine smell from the forests that ring the town. The steep streets are dotted with kitsch cafes, shops and restaurants. The slopes surrounding the town are a tapestry of market gardens, butterfly parks, flower gardens and strawberry farms. The whole is a very appealing reprieve from the chaos and bustle of the highways, and I happily settled in for five nights.
A trip to Dalat wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the ‘Crazy House’, so I decided to take my turn. Listed as one of the ten most bizarre buildings in the world; a fusion of Disney and Dali, or a Gaudi vision on LSD. A map isn’t necessary to find it because it stands out loud and rude above the otherwise the well-behaved colonial buildings like a lumpy, melting high-rise. The house is the creation of a female Vietnamese-born, Russian-trained architect. Doing away with conventional building wisdoms, she paints her ideas on canvas and has local, non-professional craftsmen transform them into the full-scale version in steel and concrete. The result is a sprawling mess of organic shapes, warped bubble rooms, crooked turrets and cement animals. There is a complete absence of straight lines, perspective and, from what I could see, convincing structural soundness. Frankly, it is anything but attractive, and in places looks decidedly unstable – as though it might be in need of a visit from the town’s building inspector. After an hour, it had messed with my depth perception and I was getting vertigo trying to walk across three-storey high overpasses with their flimsy, token effort safety rails. The visitors book is full of visitor’s raving about the fantasy experience, but to me, it looked like the result of vodka with breakfast. I left for the safety of a café at street level before the whole thing caved in; steel, concrete, two giraffes, and about 150 visitors with selfie sticks.
Any of the wagon-wheel of roads leaving Dalat arrives at a jaw-dropping waterfall. On a day trip to Pongour Falls, I was crossing a bridge when I saw a grey, hairy rock out of the corner of my eye. When I looked back I realised that I was looking at the pointed head of an elephant grazing on the embankment below the road. I quickly hit the brakes, trucks and minivans screeching past with a cacophony of airhorns, and looped back onto a side road so that I was below him. Elephants in Vietnam are critically endangered – with less than 100 still existing in the wild and around the same number in captivity. Mostly the wild ones are found in the remaining central-western forests bordering Laos and Cambodia, so I have no idea what this fellow was doing on the edges of Dalat. He looked very underweight to my critical eye, and I can only imagine that he was a captive animal, used for work or entertainment, and with his handler close by in the trees. In any case, he made the most of the opportunity to graze, stuffing in trunkful after trunkful of grass, and was quite unbothered by me or the volume of traffic that was rumbling past on the bridge only a few metres above. I know that Vietnam’s roads are dangerous, but this is about the last hazard that I was expecting to encounter.
After four days in Dalat I left for Nha Trang; and finally found the sort of landscapes that I came to Vietnam for. Coming down to the coast from the highlands, the road weaves like a tangled ribbon along the hillsides, skirting high above spectacular valleys and crossing countless bridges over rivers and waterfalls. I left Dalat early and rode through the heavy morning mist, stopping after several hours to perch on a rock overlooking an incredible valley view. I was partway through a bagful of croissants that I had smuggled from a bakery, when a trio of overcrowded minivans with fogged up windows came to a screeching halt at the nearby lookout. The several dozen occupants hobbled out, gasping for fresh air and popping joints back into place. They snapped off a couple of hurried photos before their impatient drivers herded them back into captivity, slammed and locked their sliding doors, and went roaring off again. No doubt eager to get to town and backload with another group. Within minutes all of them arriving, they were gone, while I still had one croissant left, the absolute mid-morning silence, and a view that words fail. It was at that point that I knew that being independently mobile in this country is worth the risks of the roads.
After a few hours of riding the exhilarating hairpin bends, I arrived in Nha Trang. The humidity returned like being smothered with a hot, wet towel, and after almost a week of being cool, my body went back to the exhausting job of sweating for a living. The beach is a blindingly white curve to both horizons, ringing a bay dotted with islands. For the uber-rich, it is possible to stay at an offshore resort that is accessed from the mainland by a cable car. There is also the c700AD Cham temples that despite the hoards of squealing, package-deal tourists, are incredibly atmospheric. Nha Trang is promoted heavily as a beach party resort town in the northern hemisphere, and consequently there was no shortage of borderline overweight men walking the streets wearing nothing but speedos and sandals. I checked in to a nha nghi in the middle of a street full of cafes with Russian menus. In keeping with the high-octane party vibe, I headed straight for the Yersin museum, dedicated to the French bacteriologist who identified the causative agent of the bubonic plague (Yersinia Pestis),but was bitterly disappointed to find it closed for renovation. Instead, I returned to my Russian café strip, scalded my mouth on a startlingly strong café sua, and quietly settled down to the business of watching the vulgar parade of alternating bleached and bright red bodies.