In the morning we walked around the Dalat Flower Garden in the sunshine, although a group of girls were wearing thick winter coats (as was everybody in Dalat during our stay). After lunch we headed to Dalat's train station, which unfortunately has no links to the North-South line linking Saigon to Hanoi, and serves only to take tourists on a short sightseeing line to a neighbouring village and back about five times a day. Chris and I did exactly this- taking the train to Trai Mat, from where it was a short walk to an interesting pagoda embellished with roaring dragons and decorated all over with broken tiles.
Later in the day we went to see the summer palace of Bao Dai, Vietnam's last emperor, who abdicated in 1945. We had difficulty finding the place as it was not marked on the map in our guidebook, and the label of 'Palace' on our hotel's tourist map took us to Dalat Palace, evidently one of the grandest hotels in the town. It took some exploring around backstreet neighbourhoods, directions from local people and braving some impossibly steep hills to eventually find the palace, just in the last hour of daylight. Surprisingly, the palace, built in 1933, was a small and slightly grubby art deco building that we actually confused with the toilet block when we first approached it. Inside it was very modest, perhaps because all of the silverware and crockery were stored separately. But the original furnishings remained, making walking through the rooms feel like stepping back in time. The surroundings were very nice, set in pine forest and with attractive gardens. We returned the bikes just as it got dark and rewarded ourselves for the hard day's work going up and down Dalat's hills with large slices of cake from a lovely bakery.
Yesterday was an even better day. We had arranged a tour with the Easy Riders, the infamous motorbike group of Central Vietnam. We rarely walked down a street or stopped at a bench in Dalat without being approached by a member of the club, or an imitation one, offering us tours and sightseeing, but we already knew that this was something we wanted to do. Our two guides for the day were really fun and friendly guys who had good knowledge of everything they showed us and were able to answer all of our questions. Our day began with a cable car journey over a pine forest up to see a pagoda and the Paradise Lake. From there we travelled by motorbike, admiring beautiful views of forest and countryside and taking in numerous stops, including the largest waterfall in the area, Elephant Waterfalls.
We saw a number of cottage industries and were able to enter Vietnamese people's homes to see how they made their living. These included making rice paper, brewing rice wine, cultivating silk worms, growing coffee trees and even the production of Ca Phe Chon, or 'weasel coffee'. A special Vietnamese delicacy is coffee that has passed through the body of a weasel. The acid in the weasel's stomach improves the quality of the coffee, we were told. This technique was first discovered by the French, who introduced many new crops to the fertile soils around Dalat, including coffee. They found that weasels would eat the best coffee beans and excrete them nearby. Somehow or another, they were to discover that this made for improved-tasting coffee after roasting. We saw a room of caged weasels used to create Ca Phe Chon at the back of a house that also brewed rice wine and raised chickens. It was interesting to see how households often relied on multiple incomes in this way; the people who made rice paper also collected scrap materials to sell in Saigon and the coffee farmers used waste coffee shells to create organic fertilisers and also kept bees to create honey from the pollen of the flowers of the coffee tree, ensuring a reliable income outside harvest season. Many buildings we drove past were drying coffee shells in their front yards, gardens or roadsides- this even included petrol stations and pagodas- any spot with sunshine was claimed.
Another interesting part of the tour was visiting a village in the countryside that has been supported by the government since 1975 when people from the highlands were forced into the lowlands and taught how to produce a variety of new crops. Here, the society is matriarchal ("Like us", I said of me and Christopher). We were told that if a man wants to go away travelling he must ask permission from his wife first. If she agrees, she will stamp her foot-mark on a piece of paper, to be carried around by her husband during his travels. If he returns later than agreed then... bad news. Our guide told us to look out for old men around the area walking with a limp.
We learned a lot during the day and really loved travelling by motorbike through such beautiful scenery. At the end of the day we were both sunburnt and I had one bruised knee and one burnt ankle from a hot exhaust pipe, but we were both very happy. Today it was a tedious nine-hour us journey back to Saigon, but it's good to be home. In only two days we will be welcoming my family and Jessica's friends over for Christmas.