Thursday, 17 March 2011

The great push north

Thursday 17th March 2011

MP3 track of the day: Singing in the rain – Gene Kelly

Weather: It's cold and raining in Da Lat. You don't understand, I've worn my coat today for the first time since the beginning of January. You still don't understand; it's been so cold that I've worn my gloves and my wooly hat. Also it's been raining heavily, so much so that I'm soaked. I'M LOVING IT!


Yet again I woke up before my alarm was set to ring. I got ready and left my dorm as quietly as I could. With my pack on – which immediately felt lighter having lost 2.5kg worth of souvenirs – I made my way, for the last time, down those eight flights of steps. Once downstairs all the lights were off and I could just make out the owner, sleeping on a mat on the floor. He must have been on door duty last night; I tried not to wake him but I failed. Once he saw me he got up (which I'm sure he was thrilled about) and switched on the lights. I used the guesthouses PC's to see if my guesthouse, in Da Lat, had emailed me any further information. They hadn't; however I did get an email to say that my F1 Chinese ticket was ready for posting. I gave a holding reply and said that I will give a posting address when I reach Hanoi.

I didn't have time to eat my breakfast before a lady, who worked at the guesthouse, called for me to follow her to the coach. The guesthouse kindly wrapped up my breakfast, consisting of a bread roll and a small bottle of water, for me to take on the coach. Again the lady directed me to the same road where I boarded my coaches to the Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi tunnels. She asked each driver in turn which coach went to Da lat. When she found the correct one she smiled at me as an indication; I said thank you, put my big bag into the holdall and went inside to search for a window seat. There were only six other people on board and so I managed to find a window seat with ease. I was offered a bottle of water however I declined as I already had three. It wasn't long before we set off.

My tip was scheduled to take eight hours. However, looking at the map, I wasn't sure why it would take that long. I knew that Da Lat was in a mountainous region, 1,500 meters above sea level. I knew that narrow, winding roads would be apart of this trip, however Da Lat was only 250km from Ho Chi Minh City. Well one reason for the eight hour journey time became apparent very quickly. Unlike the rest of South East Asia the road system here was very organised; there was a lane for motorbikes, and scooters, and then another three lanes split up into 'lorry, bus and car', 'bus and car' and 'car only'. The roads were all surfaced with tarmac so neither the condition, or the organisation, of the roads were to blame for any additional time, however the amount of traffic was a nightmare. Getting out of Ho Chi Minh City took forever and once out the traffic didn't stop. Urban areas seem to sprawl from Ho Chi Minh City for quite a fare distance and, where there are people, there was traffic. I didn't mind though as this gave me more time to just look at the view which, at one point, consisted of a theme park that looked rather fun.

We stopped quite a few times on the outskirts of the city, picking up even more passengers. One couple looked at their tickets before sitting down. I got my ticket out to find that seats had been allocated. 'B13' was my seat which, fortunately was the seat in front of me. Moving a row forward did mean that I left the crumbs from my breakfast behind. On the bad side the view wasn't as good from this seat. To make matters worse the lady in front of me pulled her curtain, and mine too, to block out any potential sun. I'm sorry love, I want to see where I'm going … I tucked the curtain around her seat so that I could see out of my part of the window, and she could block out the sun. The bus I was on was called a 'open tourist bus' however I was the only tourist on it.

It wasn't long before the lady in front realised that she had made the same mistake as I and searched out her allocated seat. I therefore re-opened my curtain so that I could see more of the world outside. The view hadn't changed much since leaving Ho Chi Minh City. It was still predominantly urban, however the buildings had become more shanty looking. This, however, didn't include the sheer amount of new christian churches built along the highway. I was stunned, I must have seen forty brand new, well constructed, christian churches within thirty minutes of drive time. I thought that there was no place for religion within a communist society? All the churches were well designed with a huge statue of christ standing out the front; the sad fact was that, as I looked at the opposite side of the street, shanty buildings used as residential homes looked like no work had been done on them for a very long time.

A lady was picked up outside one of these churches; she sat in the row in front of me, reclined her seat, and then pulled the curtains. Look if you wanted to sleep, catch a night bus. Again I hooked the curtain around the chair in front of me and looked out into the view. It was at this point that the ratio of urban to rural started to change. More trees, vegetation and mountains could be seen. We started to climb higher and at this point we made our second stop of the trip. The time was 11:30am and it was out lunch stop. I wasn't that hungry so I declined the offer of food; instead I had a look around the area and took a few photos. It took me a while to realise that I wasn't feeling hot or sweaty. I was wearing trousers, and a long sleeved cotton top, yet I felt a reasonable temperature. I smiled hoping that this midday maximum temperature would remain within Da Lat.

Time was called and I boarded the coach. At this point the usual Asian DvD was put in the player and I had the option of watching the Vietnamese equivalent for Eurovision, on a plasma screen TV. Instead I remained glued to my 1ft square of window. As we got higher and higher the terrain changed for the better. Huge mountains – that I hadn't seen since northern Laos – were piercing into the thick cloud above. Vegetation, trees and rocks were all that could be seen for miles around. The view was truly sensational and yet everyone else was sat, curtains pulled, watching Vietvision or sleeping at one in the afternoon. I couldn't believe it; it made me so mad, especially because my view was being cut. I dismissed everyone else and decided to loose myself in the outside ocean of greenness.

Eventually the road leveled out, the landscape changed and I could see fields within a wall of mountain peaks. It was like Vietnam was a two-story house and I have just come up the stairs to the second level. We pulled in for another stop and, thankfully, it was the 'lady in fronts' stop. She departed the coach, I pulled the curtain back, and then, almost immediately, another woman took her place. She decided to sit in the window seat directly in front of me. Yet again she pulled my curtain (I'm going to chop these curtains down in a minute) and she also decided to recline her seat into my knees. Not content with the amount the seat had reclined she gave one almighty push to which I replied with a cry. She tuned around to see my, rather annoyed, face and moved to the seat opposite. She had pushed back so hard that my knee caps really did hurt. Once she had moved I lapped the curtain back around the seat in front of me for the final time.

The time was only 1:30pm however the distance markers indicated only 20km to Da Lat. I was sure that it wouldn't take another two hours and thirty minutes to arrive, and I was right. At 2:30pm I stepped off the coach brimming with enthusiasm for Da Lat … If Da Lat was half as good as my trip up here then the ride, plus the money, would be worth it. I had though that, considering when I reached Ho Chi Minh City my coach had dropped me off within the city center, that I had left these 'out of town' bus stations behind in Cambodia. It would appear not. 70,000 dong (£2.15) it cost me to be driven 8km, from the bus station, into town. This was doubly annoying as my hotel said that the bus usually drops customers off at the door. As we drove I looked at Da Lat. It seemed quite nice; it didn't seem architecturally brilliant, however due to being dispersed up a number of levels, it did have quite a unique charm. Once at my guesthouse I was met by a Vietnamese guy who's English was pretty shocking; he was pleasant enough and he showed me to my room. This time I only had to travel up one flight of stairs however, when he opened the door to my room, I was a little disappointed. I was spending a lot more money staying here, per night, than I would usually spend and so I was expecting something … well something more. The room was clean, it had a double bed and a big bathroom with hot water. However the room itself was bland. The guy looked at me and said 'bat boy'. A look of confusion ran over my face and so, adopting the English method of raising your voice if a foreigner doesn't understand you, he kept saying 'bat boy' 'bat boy'. I wasn't sure if he meant that he was a 'luggage boy', and a tip was needed, or if he was being rude to me. To stop me punching him in the face I said that I would pay my bill down at reception. He left and I unpacked my things.

Once downstairs I immediately discovered that he was trying to say 'passport' and not 'bat boy'. I handed my passport over and I was told to settle the bill at the end of my stay. I then inquired into coaches to Hoi An, my next stop. Due to the guys level of English this was quite a difficult feat. At one point I was told that a bus left Da Lat every hour and it took ten hours to arrive in Hoi An. Firstly Da Lat is quite 'out of the way' so I couldn't see a coach departing every hour, secondly my guidebook stated the trip should take sixteen hours. Time rolled by and eventually the guy fetched the owner, who spoke English very well. I finally found out that only one coach left per day and it was at 4pm from the out of town bus station; someone would pick me up at 3pm and take me there. He was still adamant that the journey time was ten hours and so I left purchasing the ticket until I had walked around Da Lat for a little while.

Half of me was itching to see this mountain town, the other half was itching to wear my coat in the rain. I haven't felt rain in such a long time ... getting drenched was fun. The town is tiny and soon I got my bearings; I stopped at a cafe for 'lunea' (like 'brunch' but for lunch and tea) where I ordered a huge, eight sliced, chicken sandwich with chips. I ate and left the cafe bound for my guesthouse, however taking an alternative route back. On the way back I popped into many bus ticket offices and was told many different stories. I was told that a coach left for Hoi An at 7am, 11am, 12:30pm and 1pm; I was told that it would take anywhere between 12 – 18 hours and the price was just as fluid, between $16-$18. The only thing everyone agreed on was that I would arrive in Hoi An the day after departing Da Lat. I opted to purchase my coach ticket, at my guesthouse, for 4pm on Saturday. It was at the top end of the pricing scale however, if was the latest leaving coach and, if anything went wrong with my pickup, they would be in trouble.

I went up into my room to surf the web, book accommodation in Hoi An, and plan for tomorrow. Basically I have one and a half days here in Da Lat. Being a small place I reckon that was enough time. I shall get up early tomorrow and make the most of my only full day here. Starting with the things furthest from the guesthouse I shall walk around the 'man-made' lake, located to the east of the city, taking in the temple, church and flower gardens that surround it. Next up will be the train station where, if I want, I can take a short ride to a pagoda. After coming back there's the x-South Vietnamese leaders (Bao Dal's) summer palace before finishing the day with another pagoda. This would leave me with a quick tour of the town and a waterfall before taking my coach. It's going to be a whirlwind of a stop so I hope the weather improves for tomorrow (not the temperature, just the rain).

Toodle Pip!

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