Creative kitsch of Dalat

Vietnam’s coast line is 3,400km long and it often took us 12 hours to get from one place to another. Vietnam was the first country in SEA where we had to be time conscious when traveling. It was simply too big to hammock for days in one place. To save time we traveled on sleeper buses. We got on in Hoi An and got off in Nha Trang the morning after. Nha Trang was a big busy seaside holiday destination with allegedly the best beaches in Vietnam. We didn’t stop there for the beaches though. We wanted to rent a motorbike and go on a 3h ride across Central Highlands to Dalat. Ideally we’d have loved to do the whole Highlands, but it required 4-5 days and we didn’t have so much time. To compensate that, we wanted at least a taste of the ride. Yet it turned out that to be way more expensive than we expected. The rental itself wasn’t too bad, but they charged double that for bringing the bike back from Dalat. Let’s say we didn’t want it as much when they gave us the final quote. We went to the beach and two photo galleries instead and the day after we took a bus to Dalat.

Dalat was an alter-ego of scorching hot Nha Trang. It was cool and airy and spending a couple of days there was a real treat. We found a pretty room with a balcony, two cute coffee shops nearby and good places to eat (even though nothing could compete with the food of Hoi An). Plus, Dalat was the town of flowers and we feasted our eyes on the many colours of flower varieties from all climate zones.

Yet flowers were not the only source of colour there. The town was brimming with colourful to the point of kitsch decorations and sculptures. Lake that the town was built around was a parade of plastic swan-boats and botanic garden had horses pulling pumpkin carriages. Everything in that sweet plastic fashion. Dalat tried to be both sophisticated and elegant, as well as little crazy and playful. It was there that we visited Crazy House and a Buddhist temple that was even crazier than the Crazy House.

Intuitively, we went to the Crazy House early in the morning, which gave us good two hours of photo freedom before Russian tour-groups arrived. It was a place taken out from Alice in Wonderland movie set. The house was a labyrinth of narrow corridors, tree branch bridges, little balconies, rooms from Hobbiton. It was easy to hide somewhere there in a little corner and feel submerged in the world of fantasy. Wandering curiously around the house at some point we heard banging on a piano. The sound led us to a “living room” where we found a little girl throwing her tiny hands randomly on the instrument. She was wearing a yellow dress and had seriousness of a great pianist. We instantly took a few photos of her and her parents seeing our interest asked us to have photos taken with her. First me with her, then Ale with her, the both of us with her, then me with the father and Ale with the father then all together. It was a series of “I’m having a photo taken with a foreigner”. Not the first one and not the last in Vietnam. But the series didn’t stop there. Every time we bumped into them in the house, they wanted new photos in new locations! So funny.

Crazy House is now the coolest place in Dalat. It stirs many smiles and “wow” faces. However, the road of its lady architect from concept to completion was long and difficult. Dr. Dang Viet Nga had to fight for over 20 years to receive permission for construction. When the government finally allowed her to go ahead with the plan and building started in 2007, it was the residents of Dalat who opposed and wanted to have the house torn down. Dr. Dang Viet Nga resisted the never-ending pressure and today the house is open for visits and even has a few rooms to stay. A low bow to that lady for imagination, creativity and resistance. She has done it all on her own and continues to extend the house, add finishes to the garden and carry out new plans.

The opposition she faced from people and the government surprised us even more when we visited Linh Phuoc pagoda a few kilometers outside Dalat. We thought Crazy House was teleported from a fairy tale, but it was nothing compared to that temple! Linh Phuoc was an explosion of colour and mind-twisting architecture. Nobody opposed to it. Why? Because it was a pagoda? Because it was not designed by a woman? We didn’t have the means to ask. Instead we lost track of time staring at the pagoda’s immensely decorative entrance, it’s walls covered in mosaics, gigantic snakes and the tallest flower Buddha of Asia. It was a lot to take in for the senses.

Yet it was not over-saturation of senses, but the climate that affected my immune system once more. The change of climate from mild Hoi An to tropical heat of Southern Vietnam reverberated in my health. We wanted to go canyoning on our last day in Dalat, but I didn’t feel to great. On one of the evenings we went to cheer ourselves up with the first glass of red wine in months. The owner of the bar was so lovely she gave me her stock of ginger and poured us a shot of sake for good health! Bless her! Her good will didn’t make miracles though and, having to cancel our canyoning adventure, we left Dalat a day early on a night bus to Mekong Delta. But to say goodbye to Dalat in the right fashion, before jumping on a bus, we spent a lovely afternoon in Windmills Cafe indulging in coffee, drawing and reading.

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