Sunday, April 4, 2010

High society

Coming to the town of Da Lat has convinced me that I’m a bit like one of those old Doctor Who monsters, the Ice Warriors. I’m not green or scaly or from Mars, but when the temperature gets too high I do start staggering around and moaning.

I’ve had three months of feeling hot and sticky and now I’m in a place where I don’t have to switch the fan on. I find it absurdly refreshing, having to wear shoes in the evening to stop my feet getting cold. So thank you, 19th-century French colonialists, for building this hill station 1,500 metres above sea level. I can totally relate.

I left Ho Chi Minh City three days ago. There’s a travel firm that sells ‘open’ bus tickets from there to Hanoi, dropping passengers off at five other towns and cities along the way. When you want to continue on the next stage of the journey, you just confirm the day before. For some of the longer rides they even have sleeper buses which, unlike those in Laos, have single berths. Remember me saying you can’t wear a seatbelt in bed? Boy, was I wrong.

The morning trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Mui Ne was on just such a bus and I was in an upper berth just behind the driver. With my large trolley case stowed safely away, I set about finding somewhere to store my daypack/rucksack (containing my laptop, camera and other heavy items). I didn’t realise that the empty berth just across from me was going to remain that way and that I could simply leave it there. Instead I used my bicycle lock to lash it to a shelf jutting out of the front of my berth, directly above the driver’s head.

Yeah, I know. Clearly I haven’t been eating enough brain food.

Not long into the journey, it slipped off, snapping one of the shoulder straps and nearly braining the driver as he drove through city traffic. I guess he managed to duck his head out of the way just in time. In any event, I was intensely relieved that I hadn’t caused a pile-up.

When we got to Mui Ne - a row of shops, restaurants, hotels and travel agents on a road set back from a beach - I knew in an instant that I wouldn‘t like it. To me, a beach resort is a brief stopover on the way to somewhere more interesting, so after checking into a guest house and taking a token stroll along the sand for ten minutes I dropped in on the travel agents and confirmed my journey to Da Lat for 7am the next day.

At 6.45am, in rode a member of staff on his motorbike. “Oh my god,” he said ominously as he spotted me waiting outside. Apparently they’d cancelled the service because I was the only person who’d booked. However, it turned out that there was a midday bus I hadn‘t been told about. A midday bus with cracked windows and a tiny amount of legroom, which turned up at 1pm.

During a rest stop, I got chatting with a young couple from Wales. “We tried to book the 7am bus yesterday,” said the woman. “They told us it was full.”

Still, after all that hassle, I’m happy now. Happy to be in Da Lat, because it’s so cool. In every sense.

I may well stay here a week, in my big posh hotel room that costs £6 a night. Why? Because the cold has woken my brain up. All of a sudden I want to revise my TEFL course and look for work. And this is a wonderful place in which to do that, while simultaneously downloading Doctor Who and Ashes to Ashes on the excellent wifi they have.

On what felt like a warm summer’s day in England, I spent yesterday sightseeing. I bought a replacement bag in the market

and. on an impulse, a stupid spivvy hat at the city's flower gardens,

stroked some tethered horses,

then carried on to the art deco railway station, built in 1938,

where I caught the tourist train to a place called Trai Mat.

It stopped for about 40 minutes, allowing passengers to visit the fantastically garish Linh Phuoc Pagoda before returning to Da Lat.

Lulled into a false sense of security by the mild weather, I thought I’d skip the smothering-myself-in-sunscreen routine and fly in the face of Baz Lurhmann's sound advice. As a result my hands, neck and face are burnt, providing me with one more excuse to stay indoors.

It's crossed my mind that I could live in this city, actually. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

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