Mother Nature has been very generous to Vietnam & each region has its own beauty that’s worth seeing but some famous places usually favoured by travelers are now becoming overcrowded – by the rapid growth of tourism industry – and l need quieter alternatives…off the beaten tracks ! As my friend Lian said : “Like the lotus flower rising from the mud to offer at the sky its dazzling beauty, you will be dazzled by 3 gems; Dalat, the Imperial City of Hué & Tam Coc”…hum….Lian, allow me to be suspicious about these “away from the crowds” spots!! She adopts a firm tone & ends the discussion :”Real treasures are in the rural areas or outside cities…Don’t waste time & Go!”
Having regards Lian’s good taste & refinement, let’s check !
DALAT, City of Eternal Spring (The Scent of Pines & Coffee)
In a way, as a hill station retreat to escape from the hot Saigon, that’s sounds good ! There are many ways to reach Dalat and I could fly from HCMC (1 hour / 70 euros) so If you’re wondering why I choose train + bus, it’s definitely an experience in Asia ! (Plus- I’ve read a lot of good comments about landscapes to the “City of Eternal Spring”)
What an ambiance in the carriage! Some sellers propose snacks, cakes or fruits, a group of teens insist on selling me a “Bayern Munich” or “Real Madrid” T-shirt (They don’t have “The Blues” one! 😉 some kids are singing and people is praying… it’s a real “dive” into Vietnam life, a total & cultural immersion! I spend 5 hours contemplating fields, villages, forests & enjoying the authentic atmosphere. In transit in “Nha Trang city ” -described in many guides as a “beautiful seaside spot”- No need to investigate further with all concrete buildings & the big crowd in the train station! One hour after, landscapes are totally changing,we are going up andat this end of the day I’m seized by a biting cold as Dalat approaching. The city is located 4,900 ft above sea level which is a big advantage in Vietnam’s tropical climate. I’ve booked a hotel on a hill (it’s supposed to be a “luxury lodge” but I’m disappointed as soon as I see the main door. Despite all popular reviews on Tripadvisor, it needs a big facelift ! (And it’s packed of Russian & French tourists!) It’s 8 pm – too late to find something else ! As I feel suddenly “depressed” (Drama queen 😉 I leave my bag in my room & I decide to have a drink at the hotel bar (to calm me down! #alibi! 😉 The terrace is lovely & the staff very friendly -as usual ! I decide to write my article but I’m suddenly bothered by a noisy conversation from 5 drunk men – French – with a deep contempt for Vietnamese people ! They’re just “vomiting” critics, complaints, disappointments and before I could have the time to stop them another group of Russians sit & bark orders to the bartender ! It’s too much for me… I run to my bedroom, angry & disgusted! That’s the worst point of my trips (and my biggest obsessive fear: to meet “that kind of people”!) These kind of tourists are convinced to have all rights and they have a horrible disrespectful, vulgar, rude attitude… It’s a classic inconvenience, I know ! But sometimes it’s just difficult to ignore! In the morning – this incident almost erased of my memory – I decide to visit the city.
From the balcony I have the surprise to discover a lovely town surrounded by pine forests & rolling hills. I take a delicious breakfast & ask for a taxi. If Dalat is known for its year-round cool weather, its french heritage buildings, its floral culture such as arboriculture, it’s also a very-very-very busy city ! I’m not in the mood to visit the french retro – vintage quarter…I need Nature ! (I’m living 10 months per year in Paris, so try to understand my point of view)
I ask the driver to bring me to “Lang Bian” moutain -located 12 km away- and the road is just amazing! The dark grey sky announces a big rain and all saturated colors of nature are breathtaking! We cross a large pine forest sublimated by flowery hills overlooking green ponds. We make a stop in Trúc Lâm Monastery (Trúc Lâm Yên Tử, Phường 3) which facing a scenic lake. This gorgeous place has several beautiful temples, gardens & another pine forest as far as the eye can see! I spend the second day at “Tuyen Lam Lake”- the graciousness & the extent of the place offer a wonderful panorama. It’s a poetic scenry of small isands & because of its serene charisma…you feel suddenly in an enchanted world, far away from the chaos of the real world. Lian was 100% right ! If Dalat is renowned for its French colonial heritage, and its climate -to forget the scorching heat of Vietnam- its real beauty is outside the city! You must Stopover !
*I recommend hiring a private driver to explore Dalat’s countryside.
*Ride the Dalat cable 🙂 The 4km line travels over pine forests offer glorious views!
*The city is synonymous with coffee. You can almost smell the hearty aroma of roasting beans in the air! Drink a “cà pê đen” (coffee with condensed milk… delicious!) at “Anna’s Coffee House” located on the “Robin Hill”… spectacular View!
*Taste the local food at “Chợ đêm” night market- I suggest you the bread with meatballs (Bánh mì xíu mại) or grilled rice paper with egg (Bánh tráng kẹp) and finish with Dalat’s famous avocado ice cream (Kem bơ)
*Please, do me a favor, boycott all “Elephant tour” ! (in Dalat & elsewhere! Thanx!)
Queen Hué ! (The scent of the Sacred Lotus)
From Lien Khuong airport -30 km south of Dalat- I’m ready to conquer the Queen and we land under a torrential rain! Your majesty, with all due respect, it’s not a Royal welcome ! Hué is the Ancient capital of Vietnam & classified at the UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1993. It must be crowded and as I approach the city I feel a certain scepticism ! Lian was right until now…is it her first mistake? 😉 The pouring rain hardly helps me to see anything except locals dressed with large rain coats & few tourists making a terrible face (by weather, I guess!) The famous “Perfume River” seems wrapped in a fog & hanted by evil spirits ! Freaky! As I’m reaching the “Botanic House B&B” -which has the privilege of being located in the heart of the old Hué, near the Imperial city – I’m surprised not to see much of the French influence unlike other parts of Vietnam!
The receptionist offers me an excellent Oolong tea & I take advantage of this break to read some articles about the history. I’m particularly fascinated by the fact that urbanism & monuments have been arranged according to the Feng Shui code – their orientation must be in harmony with geomancy, astrology & water. In the middle of the afternoon a strong wind cleans the sky and it’s about time to rent a bike to see her Majesty! Hué is a really pleasant city to ride – even if motorbikes are the great majority of vehicles, it’s not the same madness as in Saigon ! – First, I’m truly surpised by the serene atmosphere! Second, there are not many tourists & it’s quite strange for a so renowned place! One of the best things to do in Hue is the Imperial City & the Forbidden City… a real dive into feudal times! Each palace is an enchantment for its architecture, vegetation & aquatic spaces in perfect harmony -according to Feng Shui precepts! After this very long day, I’m starving ! I go to “Plumeria Restaurant” (recommended by Lian) and the cooks suggest me the local “Bun Bo Hué” (a rich soup containing beef, vegetables, pasta & a pork foot bone which gives to the “bouillon” a delicious flavor) I order 3 “Banh Bot Loc” (steamed shrimp ravioli / fantastic texture !) Afterwards I go to bed …relaxed & fall asleep contented!
My second day is entirely devoted to the “Perfume River”- lifeblood of the city! – and the traditional garden houses called “Nhà Vuon” which really charm me by their subtle architecture respecting the “Qi” codes. These ancient residence symbolize the “Elite refinement” where art of living must combine beauty and poetry for an absolute Perfection …under an appearance of Simplicity ! My time in Hue is short but 3 words resume The Queen: Beautiful, Serene & Hospitable! A break in “her breast” is a Royal stopover!
*Smile. Smile. And smile at the rain…That’s Asia! 🙂
*Hue food is renowned around the country for its refinement recipes- Legacy of its imperial history with complex flavour combinations. The list of gastronomic specialities is endless! Try the “Cơm hến” (clam rice) for lunch at the “Hue 1986’s Bistro Cafe” – a divine & excellent address ! (67 Võ Thi Sáu, Hue, Vietnam 53)
My goddess Tam Coc ! (The scent of Orchids)
For a spectacular end: Tam Coc – “Inland Ha Long Bay”.Tam Coc is located along the Ngo Dong river in Ninh Binh province, through rice fields, canals, limestone grottoes & karstic rock formations. The area is part of the famous “Trang An Landscape Complex” – another UNESCO World Heritage site & it became popular after the movie “Indochine” (With Catherine Deneuve / in 1992!) And 27 years later…nature is still preserved! The spot is not spared from tourism but it’s less crowded than its “maritime sister” ! The dragon and the goddess must love me very much to give me the luck for one night in my daydreamed Hotel- The “Tam Coc Garden”! (advice: Book it early!!!!) It’s an expensive place for the country (150 euros) but it deserves this price, believe me! its marvelous location with a refined decoration + a subtle cuisine! Only 8 bungalows -hidden in a flowery park, filled with orchids- and a huge swimming pool facing a divine lake with 1001 shades of green ! The reflection of the peaks in waters is an idyllic picture ! That unique place is just wasted by the snobbish attitude of the hotel staff … that’s surprising me! The hotel is considered as a “luxury” (according the local standards & International guests) but having regards the majority of Vietnamese people – warm and welcoming- it’s quite strange! I deduce that the staff have received instructions and I forget this “detail” at the pool when I meet a charming Vietnamese couple – from Saigon. During our conversation, they confess me that Ha Long bay (seaside) deserves a visit as well ! In a specific way, with a private cuise, off the classic itineraries! They reveal 2 spots: “Bai Tu-Long bay” located in the north near the coasts & “Lan Ha bay” facing Cat Ba island (a very touristic place indeed…but a beautiful natural park!) As I’m going back to Paris the day after, I promise to come back and expect to discover these places with them ! The Supper in the hotel is heaven & I feel sad to end this trip…so I drink 2 glasses of wine and the goddess is whispering: “Manon, don’t ruin your last day, please! Your motto is CARPE DIEM, so… don’t think about Paris yet!”(yes, I am drunk! 😉 I wake up early & ask for a boat trip at the reception desk. The surroundings are unique because of the rural life, rocky hills, rivers & greenery everywhere ! At midday, I lunch in a lovely restaurant, facing the beautiful “Dragon Mountain” (You again Dragon! Are U following me? 😉 and from the top of the hill… the stunning view of my trip ! Hundreds of limestone mountains, rivers, rice paddies. I’m almost Speechless because there’s only 1 word to say (In advance,forgive the banality!)
“Cảm on !” (Thank you)
*First trip in Asia? Be advised that locals can adopt a confusing behavior to your codes… but that the way it is! Forget your Western rules/ Be open-minded.
*Travel lightly. You will quickly notice that a pretty shirt, a lovely dress or a beautiful pants are worth almost nothing.
*Take a Travel Insurance + a first Aid kit (Eye drops, Imodium, antiseptic, paracetamol) it would be stupid to spend 5 days in bed! 😛
*Avoid sensitive subjects such as “politics” (we all know that Vietnam is communist & there is no need to comment! Your criticisms or remarks might disturb / insult / upset locals.
My last-last-last advices 😉 Smell – Eat – Love!