|At Cam Ranh Bay|
We flew on Vietnam Airlines from Hue airport to Nha Trang. It took just an hour, but when we landed at Cam Ranh Bay airport we knew we were someplace different. The scenery and temperature were Tropical with a capital T, and we caught beautiful views of the bay on the 27 km drive to the city itself. Cam Ranh Bay was a major U.S. naval base during the Vietnam war, and after the United States exited Vietnam in 1975 it became a base for the Russian Navy until Russia also departed in 2002. The Russian legacy is seen in the popularity of Nha Trang with Russian tourists. Our guide disparaged the Russians for what he felt was bossy and rude behavior. Ironically, he had positive things to say about the many American veterans who come to the area to reconnect with their wartime experiences.
|Low-key resort off the coast of Nha Trang|
|Fishermen use these small round rowboats to get around the bay|
Back in town, we had a very nice dinner at Lantern, a small restaurant that actively supports a local orphanage. We sat next to two Norwegians, the first we've seen in Vietnam. Coincidentally, on the other side of us was another Norwegian (no relation). We introduced them to each other and soon they were deep in conversation. While they talked Norwegian, we practiced our English with the guy from Ireland at the next table. It's an international world!
While in Nha Trang we also visited a couple of religious sites--the Long Son pagoda (a large, active Buddhist temple with a huge white Buddha at the top of the hill) and the Hindu Po Nagar towers, another Cham site. Interesting to see that many Vietnamese, no matter what religion, visit the towers to pray.
|Po Nagar Cham towers|
Beach time was over, for the moment, as we next headed into the mountains to Dalat, a former French hill station that was "discovered" by a Frenchman in 1893 and became a popular escape for the colonialists from steamy Saigon. We were enthralled with the scenery as soon as we left Nha Trang--again, the countryside was very reminiscent of parts of Hawaii. Gorgeous green, pastoral valleys surrounded at first by low hills and then, as we climbed up further and further, by steep, foliage-covered mountains with waterfalls tumbling down them. The road was new and excellent (though already showing some signs of breaking up in places). The ride from Nha Trang to Dalat took about 3 1/2 hours and was worth the time, even if there were no reward at the end.
But there was! Dalat is a center of coffee production and flower growing, besides having strong vestiges of the French influence in the chalet-style architecture of the houses and public buildings. A culinary specialty is artichoke tea. The outskirts of the town are packed with greenhouses for the flower industry. The city is big (over 400,000 people) but has a very nice feel to it. And the weather is much cooler and less humid than in the steamy lowlands, a welcome relief. I think that the place I'd most like to live in in Vietnam is Dalat.
Our hotel, the Ngoc Lan, combines nice atmospheric touches like large French windows with more modern decor. It looks over the manmade lake in the center of town and is a short walk to the night market, which is the liveliest market we've been to in Vietnam, with beautiful vegetables, piles of clothing, and interesting street food along with some of the other standard stock. We decided to skip the street food, though, and instead ate dinner in a small, friendly bistro, Long Hoa, around the corner from the hotel.
|Pancakes on the steps near the night market|
|For sale at the Valley of Love|
The city is also said to have "four seasons in one day," which isn't much of an exaggeration--we experienced summer and fall as the sunny skies gave way to a heavy downpour while we were walking in the park, causing us to scurry back to the car. We slept through winter, but the morning was definitely springlike.
One site we found very interesting was the former summer palace of the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, whom Vietnamese today label as a "French puppet." The residence was built in the 1930s; Bao Dai lived in it only until 1945, when he was forced to leave the country for France after Ho Chi Minh took control. It retains the original furnishings from the 1940s and has a strange art-deco feel to it (without the art or the deco). Lots of Vietnamese were visiting while we were there, and once again we were photographed like we were part of the display.
|Bao Dai's summer palace--or is it a hospital from the 1940s?|
|Coffee and tea, growing next to each other|
|Nothing stops a bus like a gaggle of ducks crossing the road|
|Do Russians love kite surfing?|
|Almost as many kites in Miu Ne as there are balloons in Cappadocia|
Next: our final Vietnam stops, Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta