Heading north from Ho Chi Minh City, travelers usually head one of two ways: the sand dunes of Mui Ne or the flower-covered mountains of Dalat. We couldn’t decide so we did a zigzag and squeezed in both! They couldn’t be more opposite but both lovely in their own right.
With strong winds blowing from November to April, Mui Ne attracts kite surfers from around the world…and lots of package-tourist Russians. With the communist connection, Vietnam allows Russians in without a visa and cheap flights, so this town has basically become their Cancun. We did not see this coming, because if we did we would have bought a Russian phrasebook. Signs, menus, and most of the people were Russian-only! It is quite the scene on the strip but get a little out of town and the beauty begins.
We rented a motorbike and got out of Moscow Dodge making our first stop at the Mui Ne harbor. It had fishing boats like we’d never seen before from elaborate wooden vessels to these big circular plastic bowls (how you steer one of these we have no idea). The seafood in Mui Ne is incredible and made to order each night at the strip of open-air restaurants (eat the scallops, don’t eat the crocodile!).
Our favorite spot in Mui Ne was Fairy Spring. We’d read about these surreal rock formations but until you see it, it’s hard to visualize. A river runs from the dunes carving this red sand hillside into drip-castle formations. It seems less than promising when you park but keep wading up the river and it gets better and better, ending at a lovely little waterfall. (FYI: beware of pushy little kids trying to charge you for the unnecessary guiding/stalking). The White Dunes are also an essential stop about 30km out of town (see Facebook slideshow to see our attempt at sand sledding and acting like Lawrence of Arabia).
Unlike Mui Ne, the charm of Dalat is the locals. The cool climate in the mountains draws Vietnamese couples and families to this getaway. It’s also the agricultural capital, with its fertile soil bearing fruits, flowers (over 300 varieties!), coffee, tea, and just about everything that the lowlands can’t grow. The town was founded by the French in the late 1800s as a summer getaway so it’s made of a unique mix of colonial mansions, Vietnamese farm houses, and Buddhist temples.
The city center of Dalat is not much to write home about but hop on a good ole $6/day motorbike rental and you’ll discover all sorts of interesting sites. One odd-ball gem is this 1950s pagoda built from glass and ceramic debris. Notice the dragon slithering across the facade…12,000 empty bottles make up his scales.
Thien Vien Truc Lam isn’t on the must-see list but this lakeside monastery is a peaceful place for a stroll (except for the man-eating penguins…see FB slideshow for explanation).
Remember, that $6 motorbike? Well it got a flat tire somewhere between a mountain peak and a city dump. We walked our moto down the hill to the nearest bike repair shop (it was only 1km away–these shops are literally everywhere in Southeast Asia). We were a little nervous waiting for our bill and it turned out to only be $3 and came with a rice wine shot. Gotta love it.
With our brand new tire we continued 25km out of town to Elephant Falls. What makes these falls interesting is that you can’t see them in a single glance. These massive mossy rocks block the best vantage point so you need to climb over them, around them, behind them to get a good look. They make you explore and get a new perspective each time, Iguazu Falls is our favorite waterfall in the world for the same element of discovery.)
For each natural tourist attraction in Southeast Asia, there is usually a Buddhist temple that goes with it. Across from Elephant Falls was this little temple and monstrous laughing Buddha. Don’t ask why but we contemplated climbing in his belly button.
Last but not least, we visited the famous “Crazy House” or Hang Nga Villa. A Russian-schooled Vietnamese architect built this surreal space over the course of 20 years and is still making tweaks and additions to this day. Trying to bring design back to nature, architect Dang Viet Nga doesn’t believe in right angles but soft lines and rough texture. It’s open for visitors and also overnight guests with suites like the Bamboo forest and Termite Room on offer. Like all things in Dalat, what it lacks in historical significance is made up for in gobs of character.