Friday, November 18, 2011

Same same but different

We've continued our exploration of central Vietnam in the past few days, staying a couple nights in the beach city of Nha Trang, one night in cool Dalat in the central highlands, and a night in Phan Thiet (at Mui Ne beach), back on the coast. All these places include aspects of what we've seen in the northern part of the country--busy streets, motorbike mania, life lived on or close to the street, beautiful countryside starting at the edge of town--but they also have their own distinctive style. Vietnamese we've talked to are quick to note that the country has three regions (north, center, south) that aren't always in sync with each other.

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
Nha Trang is a sunny, clean city. Most of the tourism there is concentrated in the lovely beach area. The day we arrived turned from brilliant sunshine to drippy rain by afternoon, so we didn't get to the beach until the next day, which was again nice and sunny. The beach, with mountains in the distance, reminded us of long-ago Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, before high-rise buildings took over the beachfront. The surf was pounding--beautiful to watch. Earlier in the day we took a boat ride to a nearby island that has a small, tropical resort (no lodging, just restaurant and lounge chairs) where we relaxed, swam in the protected bay, and had a really good seafood lunch. Plus a "passion sour" to drink--midori, passion fruit, and lime juice. Delicious--must make when we get home.

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
Dalat is reputed to be Vietnam's "most romantic city." Not sure about that, but it does have a large flower garden as well as a park called the Valley of Love. The views of the valley from the park above are quite pretty, but the love theme is a little forced.

 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. 

Dalat sunrise

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
We would have loved to spend another day in Dalat to explore the surroundings, but our schedule called for us to head back to the coast, to the beach community of Miu Ne, about 4 hours back down the hill. (A drawback of having a prearranged tour schedule is that you can't really change plans on a whim.) The drive down the mountain was on a different road from the drive up, but the views were just as beautiful, dominated by steep hills full of coffee trees (think Costa Rica). Instead of rice drying by the side of the road as in other areas, here we saw lot after lot filled with coffee beans.

Nothing stops a bus like a gaggle of ducks crossing the road

Do Russians love kite surfing?
Miu Ne is a beautiful beach about 10 km from the coastal town of Phan Thiet. The long, sandy beach is lined with Western-style resorts, including the one we're staying at, the Sea Horse. The majority of tourists in the area seem to be Russian, and the most popular activity (besides seaside or poolside lounging) is kite surfing. A nice place for a little R&R and very different from the other parts of Vietnam we've visited.

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

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