A cooking class, a moped tour, and an overnight bus – our last day in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) was certainly a packed one.
And what’s the perfect way to heal oneself from this enjoyable chaos? An escape to the mountains of Vietnam, of course. Welcome then to Dalat.
But first, let’s recap on our last day in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is perhaps one of the greatest places we’ve visited – worthy of a lengthy holiday in itself. There is just so much on offer, from the historical sites of the Reunification Palace and the Cathedral, to the street markets, vast array of bars and restaurants, parks, and much more still.
Yet what Jo and I had not done too much of was exploring other districts and ways of life. Sure, you can soak up a lot just by wandering, but it’s not in-depth.
So we decided to book two tours: a cooking class to understand Vietnamese cooking; and a moped tour of the city to get around a bit.
Let’s start with the food. Beginning bright and early at 08:30am, we left our hotel to meet our cheery chef at the famed Bến Thành Market, a massive market full of dried food, sweets, rice, pasta, fruit, vegetables, and fish. Lots of the latter, actually. It was pretty hard to stomach for two vegetarians, but was interesting nonetheless.
After facing the market, we took a taxi with our chef to the Saigon Cooking Class, not too far from the Reunification Palace in District 3.
We knew the menu beforehand, and it certainly seemed challenging. We started off with a quick soup, or Phở in the local language. Afterwards, we moved on to the prettiest dish: a banana leaf salad, containing tonnes of vegetables and a rather wonderful chilli and ginger dressing, which we prepared by hand too.
And to finish? A Vietnamese pancake, of course. It’s made sort of like a normal pancake, and then a filling is dumped onto the batter, which is then flipped over. The result sort of resembles a calzone, to be frank. But the pancake tastes much better (sorry Italy).
The cooking class was around 40 dollars each, but this included the market tour, the ingredients, transport to and from the kitchen, the cooking class itself, and the meals you made. Not bad for a near five-hour course.
Then we had some time to kill. So on a whim, we called a local tour agency who we had heard good things about named Tiger Tours. We called them, asked if they have anything for half a day (as we needed to be back at our hotel around 11pm to catch a bus to Dalat). As it is low season right now, we were lucky – they had a ‘twilight tour’ which takes you, as a passenger, around the city for three hours.
We were apprehensive at first as we had seen all the main sights. We notified our guides of this, and they seemed to think it was no problem at all as there is still so much to see. How right they were.
Soon we were zipping in and out of traffic, snapping pictures of districts we had never seen, and eating from cafes that we had not seen in any guidebook anywhere. Not only that, but we got an insight into the lives of two young women who work in Vietnam.
Jo was chatting with one of the guides about siblings, and the guide was stunned that Europeans can have more than one. It was little bits of insight like that which added so much value to our trip. It’s one of those times you realise that everything needs perspective.
Dalat’s death ride
Now, you’re probably going to think we are exaggerating when we say this but the bus trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat was one where life flashed before our eyes.
We were prepared for a scary journey; we had read the horror stories of the overnight buses that go too fast, due to ignorant bus drivers who care about the dollar and nothing else, normally due to incredible time constraints and company demands.
We were prepared to dispel these tales. Instead we can only confirm them. It is important to note that any bus journey in Vietnam is scary to anyone from outside Vietnam, purely because the vehicle standards, comfort levels, and driving habits are not quite up to European or American levels. But this trip really scared us.
We had read good things about Futabus Lines, so perhaps was just an off night. Despite a storm and clearly over-congested roads, he drove way too fast and dangerously for six hours straight. It was beyond anything we have experienced before.
And the experience was not helped by the position of the seats. Lying down in what can only be described as a coffin, you’ve no idea where you are going, how fast you are really going, or what’s ahead. A couple of times we held onto the curtains in the bus for security. (We actually forgot to take pictures, which we blame on tiredness. Pommie Travels capture it well though!)
Sadly, it’s not our last overnight bus trip either. However, the bus company we have the next trip with do seem so much better (Sinh Tourist). We took another bus trip with them, and the driver was incredibly safe (actually a little slow!).
Dalat’s peaceful relief
Arriving at 6am in Dalat, we took a taxi to our homestay. We knew it was a little out of the way, and that pleased us. After a few days of smog and chaos, a peaceful farmland retreat sounded perfect. And it was.
Dalat is beautiful. There’s no other way to put it. And while it is not the most exciting town in the south of Vietnam, Dalat certainly has charm.
The trick though is to book tours. The actual town of Dalat is pretty damn dull, to be frank. With monsoon rains on our first day in Dalat, we didn’t actually get anything done. What we learned afterwards is that there was plenty to do, you just needed to book a few activities in advance (some were even far enough outside the town to escape the monsoon).
There are plenty of tour operators in the town of Dalat, and the one we picked was Groovy Gecko tours. For 25 dollars per person, we could trek the highest mountain in the region – Lang Biang. They also offer mountain biking, canyoning, rock climbing, white-water rafting… The list goes on.
The only problem we found with Groovy Gecko was the difficulty level of their differing trips. The trek we signed up for (the ‘Three Peaks’ trek) was classified as ‘moderate’. It was not moderate by any means.
The trek was tough. It did not just involve walking, but climbing, scrambling, and really getting intouch (literally) with nature. While it was good fun, you need a decent level of fitness to do it. So while one of us (*cough* Josefin *cough*) took the jeep to the top, the other one walked the full 14km trek.
The view was incredible. Worth the sore legs? Sure.
But there’s no need to climb a mountain for the views, really. Our homestay – the Authentic Family Homestay, just outside of the town centre – provided wonderful views over the greenhouses in the valley of Dalat. (Dalat is famous for its vegetables. With temperatures never dipping below zero, and rarely going above 30 degrees, the town is a farming paradise. That’s why it has the name of ‘the eternal spring’.)
And Dalat, the homestay in particular, will certainly forever hold a special place in our hearts. The family at our homestay realised it was Ashley’s 26th birthday and threw a surprise party. Even the tour guide who showed us up the mountain was invited – and he bought cake!
No time to rest
But we cannot rest too much! Right now, we’re writing this post in retrospect from the beach in Nha Trang (we will cover that more soon, including the serene bus ride into this beach resort).
(Oh, and here’s a beach shot to make you jealous.)