Travel / Vietnam

A Tale of Two Cities: Nha Trang and Da Lat

After a few days among the vibrant lanterns and beautiful streets of Hoi An, we continued our journey through Vietnam, heading further south. The next two places we visited couldn’t have been more different from each other, despite being only a couple of hours apart. First we visited the glamorous, albeit slightly tacky, beachside city of Nha Trang, which is popular especially with rich, Russian tourists. After a few days we then travelled inland to Da Lat, a quieter and cooler city in the mountains, which had a slight alpine feel (with cable cars and all). Both cities were rather strange, and neither felt very Vietnamese.

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We didn’t spend long in Nha Trang, but I think a couple of days was just enough. I didn’t particularly like the city itself, which was overpriced, touristy and very Russian. The signs above restaurants were often in Russian and it was just as easy to find Russian cuisine as it was Vietnamese. Nha Trang was quite bizarre, which in itself meant it was a city worth visiting. We spent time on the vast, featureless sandy beach and swam in the sea. One afternoon Toby and I ventured into the city from the beach to source some veggie food, which proved very stressful. Neither Russian nor Vietnamese cuisine seem to lend themselves much to vegetarians, and we were relieved that after about an hour scouting the city we finally found somewhere.

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In general, Nha Trang didn’t feel very Vietnamese at all. The one exception were the Po Nagar Cham Towers, situated on the outskirts. They were built between the 7th and 12th centuries, and are still used for worship today by the Cham people (ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists). We think they were the oldest buildings we’d seen so far on our trip. We had to cover up in order to enter, and the boys were made to don some matching shapeless grey robes. This was definitely the most interesting place to visit in Nha Trang. There were good views looking back over the city and out to sea, and the four towers themselves were impressive.

After a couple of days in Nha Trang we were ready to move on. We took a bus to Da Lat, a small city about 4 hours away by bus. It’s situated in the Vietnamese mountains, so the temperature was a good few degrees lower and it had quite a European feel. It was much less humid and it was surrounded by lush green forests. We stayed in a home stay, run by a really friendly man called Tri and his wife. Tri was really helpful with recommending what to do in Da Lat.

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On the first day we walked to the cable car which then took us away from the city and further into the hills. It was very peaceful, floating in our carriage above the pine forest. We got off the cable car at the top where there was a small pagoda to walk around and nearby, a huge, glistening lake. Tri had recommended we visit the Datanla waterfall, which was a short walk away from where the cable car had dropped us off. We were expecting a beautiful waterfall, akin to those in New Zealand, to match the picturesque alpine setting. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The small area around the waterfall has been turned into a kind of strange theme park, and you have to pay admission at the gate to go and see the waterfalls. We were reluctant, but we had come all this way, so decided to go in. There was a little roller coaster train that could take you down to the waterfall (for an added fee, of course), or you could just walk like we did. The waterfall was very disappointing. We were hoping for lots of gushing water, especially as it was the rainy season, but what we were greeted by was pretty small and unimpressive. I think I would’ve been less disappointed if they hadn’t created such a build up around the waterfall, with large posters and a mini roller coaster. We then walked back to the cable car station, and glided back down towards the city. Aside from the disappointing waterfall, we’d had a great day, and it was nice to escape the city and experience a kind of landscape we hadn’t seen for a while.

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The next day we walked around the large lake in the city. We found a lovely cafe right by the edge of the lake, where we had iced coffees. It was a Saturday so the cafe was full of locals enjoying the sunshine with their families. We then visited the Hang Nga Crazy House, another recommendation of Tri’s. It is a series of surreal concrete buildings joined by and interconnecting set of curved bridges. Although it’s a private house, some of the rooms can be rented for the night. The buildings were designed by Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga, the daughter of a former premier, who had the vision that the buildings would be at one with nature. There are glistening mosaics covering many of the bridges and buildings, giving it a Gaudi-esque feel, but a little more shoddy. It was a fun place to explore and get lost, and we found a small cafe in part of the garden to get a snack. I’d recommend visiting here just because it was so weird.

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For our final night in Da Lat we had dinner at our home stay with our host and the other guests. Tri’s wife had prepared a large BBQ grill for us with lots of seafood to cook ourselves. She’d also prepared some delicious curry and Tri showed us how to make our own fresh spring rolls. It was a very communal way to eat, and we made friends with other travellers and found out more about Tri and his wife.

Our time in Da Lat was a lot more enjoyable than Nha Trang; there was quite a bit more to do. The draw of Nha Trang is definitely it’s beach, but apart from that there’s not really anything else there. Da Lat has lakes, mountains and waterfalls (even if they are a little small), and we stayed with a really welcoming host, which made all the difference.

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