It has become kind of a tradition with my family to take a week-long vacation in early summer. Since most of us work in academia, it’s the most convenient time (later in the summer we would be busy preparing for the upcoming semester); plus, the kids won’t have to wait too long for their vacation.
This year our destination is Da Nang, a city in Central Vietnam best known for its beaches. Most travelers skip it altogether or only use it as a transition point between two more popular destinations – the ancient capital of Hue and the old town of Hoi An – but we’re all about avoiding the crowd, so to Da Nang it is.
To shake things up, we also decided to take the train instead of flying. Sure, the trip takes 15 hours instead of 1,5, but it’s fun to sleep on the train (we had an entire compartment to ourselves), and you can catch some epic sunrise and sunset too.
Another great thing of train travel is you get to go through the Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass, the most beautiful coastal road of Vietnam (called “a ribbon of perfection” by Top Gear). You can’t get views like these from a plane:
In Da Nang, we rented an apartment right by the beach. It’s in a newer part of town, so we had the beach almost to ourselves. To avoid the sun, we only went to the beach very early in the morning (I’m talking about 5 AM early) or late in the afternoon.
If you go early enough in the morning, you can see the fishermen coming back with their catch in distinctive basket boats. You can even buy their fish – it doesn’t get fresher than that!
Of course, being so close to the famous old town of Hoi An (it’s only 30 km away), we had to take a day trip there as well. However, it wasn’t easy with two kids in tow, so I didn’t get to see as much of the town as I’d wanted. I’ve been there once before, but that was years ago and I didn’t remember much of it, except that it was very pretty. It’s still pretty now, like a more compact version of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, only with Chinese and Japanese influence on the architecture rather than French. Unfortunately, it was also very hot and insanely crowded. Otherwise, I would’ve gone back there by myself to really explore the place.
There are also plenty of day trips and hikes that can be taken from Da Nang, but I was feeling lazy, so I just wandered around the waterfront area of the city, which isn’t far from our apartment. It’s a great place for people watching, and when Da Nang’s many bridges, the most famous of which is Dragon Bridge, are lit up as darkness falls, it is quite an impressive sight.
All in all, it was a good trip. I still prefer the “discover and explore” type of travel, but it’s fun to just relax once in a while.
I just got back from a week-long trip with my family to the city of Buon Ma Thuot, the biggest city of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. It’s in the same region as Da Lat, but it’s less of a touristy place, which was why we chose it as more of a getaway destination for some relaxing time rather than a place for dicovery. Plus, we were traveling with my niece and nephew, so a slower pace is much better for them. I appreciated it as well – I had the misfortune of getting sick right before we left, which means I spent the first three days being high on cold medicine and the next three days coughing my lungs out, so the slower pace allowed me to at least enjoy myself to some extent.
Just because Buon Ma Thuot isn’t a touristy place doesn’t mean that it’s short on sights. Within the city, you can visit the Dak Lak Museum (Dak Lak being the province of which Buon Ma Thuot is the capital city) with its awesome architecture, the hunting lodge of the last emperor of Vietnam, and the various Roman Catholic churches and Buddhist temples. Most of these are designed to mimic the traditional “longhouses” of the Central Highlands ethnic people, so they’re really cool.
Outside of the city, there are more natural sights. There’s Buon Don (‘buon” means village), well-known for its domesticated elephants and the Srepok River, there’s the Dray Nur waterfall and Lak Lake, the second largest fresh water lake in Vietnam. You can hike around, or just pack a picnic and enjoy the cool shades by the water, which is what we did.
Another thing Buon Ma Thuot is famous for is its coffee – it’s known as the “capital of coffee” of Vietnam. Unfortunately, I don’t drink coffee, and we were there in the wrong season to see the plantations – they’re best when the plants are in bloom (around March) or when the coffee cherries are harvested (around November). On the other hand, if you want to see the waterfalls, the river, and the lake, the rainy season is better. The weather was super nice anyway – the rain mostly came at night; during the day, it was clear and sunny – so I didn’t mind.
And finally, as is the tradition, let me end this post with a photo of a local cat:
As I mentioned before, during the student exchange program between my school and the Singaporean school, it was my job to accompany the students on excursions to teach them more about the Vietnamese culture. Most of those excursions took place around Hanoi, but during one weekend, we went out of the city to Mai Chau, a small town set in a valley northwest of Hanoi. It’s small and therefore not as well-known as other destinations in the north, such as Sapa or Ha Giang, but it’s quiet and relaxing, and the landscape is very pretty, if not as grand as those of the mountainous towns.
Because the drive took so long (the distance is 150 km, but the road is winding and dangerous, so it took us over 4 hours to get there), we opted to leave on Friday evening, so that we could get some rest and an early start the next day. We stayed at a traditional stilt house, surrounded by verdant rice fields and rolling blue hills. For the Singaporean students, who have lived in a city their whole lives, it was quite impressive.
On Saturday morning, we were picked up by electric cars that took us around town to visit some of the surrounding villages and take in the local life.
Then, in the afternoon, we rented some bikes to go exploring on our own. We went deeper into the hills, through bamboo forests straight out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and beautiful green fields. It rained a bit, but that didn’t stop us, and we were rewarded with a rainbow later!
That night, we were treated to a performance of traditional songs and dances at the hostel, which was fun.
On Sunday morning, I left the students to their own devices (they must complete a short film during the course of the program, so a lot of them went off to shoot) while I walked into town to check out the weekly market. It’s not that different from our normal markets in Hanoi, though you don’t often see live frogs or beetles being sold in Hanoi 😉
These ladies are selling betel leaves and tree barks for paan
After lunch, it was time to head back to Hanoi. On the way, we also stopped at a rock quarry so that some of the students could finish their shooting – the quarry is covered in pure white rocks, so it makes for a very striking background for their film.
All in all, it was a fun trip, for me as much as for the students. I’m glad I got the chance to check out a part of Vietnam I haven’t been to and discover some new beauties.
Da Lat may be the City of a Thousand Pines and the City of Flowers and the City of Eternal Spring, but what I love most about it is the architecture, which is why I saved it for last. You see, it used to be a resort town back in the French colony period, and the wars didn’t touch much of it, so it is full of French-style villas. Our hotel, for example, used to be the summer house of the Governor General of Indochina back in the day. Even the more currently built houses followed the same style, so the whole town looks like something in the south of France or Switzerland.
Da Lat is known as “The City of Eternal Spring” or “The City of Flowers”, so naturally you find flowers everywhere. One of the few touristy things that my family did while in Da Lat was to go to the Flower Park, and it was worth it. Yeah, you get the tour buses and the people who go there solely for the photo ops, but the place is big enough that it doesn’t really bother me. All the locals kept saying that the rainy season has ruined a lot of the flowers, so I can only imagine how amazing the city must look in the spring when all the flowers are in bloom.