Day 5 – Onwards to Da Lat 50km
The air was crisp and stung my sleepy eyes. It was now appropriate for me to wear socks with my flip-flops; my feet were as elegant as a two-toed sloth’s. My grey scarf was wrapped tightly around my chilly neck. My small backpack, containing my now damp clothes, was tied onto the bike seat with a bungee cord. Our bikes impatiently revved as we discussed a few last minute plans then it was time for us to embark on the final leg towards Da Lat in the South Central Highlands.
It was along this road that the flora began to evolve. No longer did we see the palm trees of the tropics, instead we saw pine trees lining the pass taking us higher into the mountains.
Winding down the steep Dalat streets, we found cheap accommodation fairly quickly, bearing in mind that it was the Tet New Year’s Eve. We threw our bags into our rooms and took a little stroll around the city centre.
The first hotel in Dalat was built in 1907, when the city was a part of the French territory called Cochinchina. It is now one of the most popular destinations for tourists and travellers alike, although usually those with a more adventurous streak. With buckets of outdoor activities such as mountain biking, hiking, canoeing, even ostrich racing, there is no excuse to laze about in this city.
Partly restricted with what we could actually do due to Tet. (most outdoor activities were fully booked or cancelled), partly laziness (I know I said there’s no excuse but with a high of 16°c it was freezing compared to our usual dose of 32°C!), and mostly because our spa experience, or lack of, from the night before had given us a mild case of hysteria, Neha and I decided we desperately needed a foot, leg, arm, shoulder and head massage, while Gareth had a quiet lakeside beer, observing the Vietnamese tourists at their most relaxed. During the hour and a half of delicious prodding I woke up three times snoring and with increasing amounts of dribble on my cheek. I could barely remember my name.
It was an early night for us party animals but at the stroke of 12 we were awoken to thunderous bangs of fireworks and excited shouts to mark the New Year of the Snake.
Day 6 – Da Lat to Nha Trang 140km
The following morning, while we were going out of Da Lat, we passed by hundreds of people walking along the road. They were all heading to the local cemetery where they were going to be spending time paying their respects to their ancestors – and more than likely enjoying a bevvie at the same time – a tradition across Vietnam that is acted out on New Year’s Day.
Immediately after we passed the cemetery we were on the most stunning road to Nha Trang. Never have I felt so invigorated. It was the quintessential long and winding road, not a soul in sight. Suddenly there was a fear in my mind. We were vulnerable, more so than ever before. There was no point indulging in this fear so the only option was to carry on and hope. I set my mind to enjoy the solitude that comes with riding a bike.
As we moved higher into the mountains the clouds were ominously grey and foreboding. We pulled up to one of the few local shops in the middle of nowhere that had remained open, bought a coke and, just to be sure, pulled on our raincoats. If there was a sudden downpour again like two days ago then we’d be much more prepared. What we hadn’t expected was to be riding on a main road with visibility at 5 metres.
A cloud rested on the mountain. There was only the sound of a natural spring waterfall shyly spilling down the face of the cliff that hung beside the road. I held my breath as I slowly rode into the white curtain that opened up a little more of the road. The deep mist whispered, ‘If you keep moving, I will keep revealing’.
It wasn’t long before we were out of the clouds, I could still feel the mist on my cheeks as we stopped to survey the road ahead. It was now all downhill, down towards heat, down towards sea, down towards white sandy beaches and pink tourists and over priced hotels and poorly concocted Bloody Marys. It was just what we needed.
Day 7 – Nha Trang Second Day
After almost a year, the first piece of clothing I adorned was my bikini. Neha and I went to Thap Ba Hot Spring whilst Gareth had some alone time. We picked up a map in the hotel and found the spring with little difficulty. Pulling up into the car park, an immediate sweet earthy scent enveloped me.
We needed help buying our tickets because we had no idea what we wanted. A lovely and informative Vietnamese receptionist advised us to buy a communal ticket, which meant, worst-case scenario, we’d share a mud bath with 10 other people. The ticket only set us back 120,000 dong each, so just under £4 or $6.
We shoved our clothes into a locker and moved on to a warm outdoor mineral shower. A few men and women were there already cleaning mud out of their hair and cleavages, all trying their best not to be seen with their hands down their pants scooping out the hard to reach places. When we were sufficiently wet we waited for our communal bath to be filled with a sludgy beige mud. We were to be joined by three young gap year kids; an Aussy girl and two other British girls. Not just a Western tourist attraction, Thap Ba had plenty of Vietnamese tourists enjoying the therapeutic soak.
We spent 15 near-ambrosial minutes pouring the fragrant mud over our bodies. What spoilt it for me though was having to make pointless small talk and listening to the irritating giggles of the young girls we shared our bath with. With only a few years between us I realised that:
a. all I wanted them to do was shut the hell up while I savoured the moment, and
b. I was turning into a miserable old boot.
When the too-serious-staff told us our time was up, we slipped and skidded our way up some hot stone steps and sat in the heat of the day as the mud dried and cracked over our skin.
We were back under the mineral shower to wash off the mud and finally directed to a steaming hot mineral bath to finish. We were left well alone so we bathed until we resembled giant Shar-Peis. We could have also spent time swimming in the mineral pool at Thap Ba but having just gone through the decadence of the past two hours I didn’t fancy smelling of chlorine.
From nippy Da Lat to balmy Nha Trang, within four hours of travel we’d experienced a transformation of climate and lifestyle. Nha Trang was where we could indulge in the luxuries of life whereas Da Lat had felt like just another transit town. We didn’t want to move and Nha Trang was trying to convince us to stay, ‘you don’t need to go anywhere else, explore me, I’ll keep you well’. And stay we did. But maybe we shouldn’t have.
To be continued…