I arrived in Dalat not really knowing what to expect, only that I was leaving the crowded streets of Saigon for what the guide book describes as the jewel of the central highlands. I was not disappointed when the bus let me off in a mountain town that could easily sit somewhere in the Swiss alps. The cooler air was a respite from the stupidly humid heat I’d experienced of late, and combined with hilly streets brought memories of SF, whose cold summers I’ve been pining for.

After showing me a few hotels and guest houses in the rain, a local easy rider convinced me to take a tour of the area with him the following day. The Vietnamese easy riders are a network of motorcycle guides who offer tours of the country, primarily in the central highlands, that can span anywhere from one day to two weeks. Having already purchased tickets on the touristy open-bus circuit, I settled on a one day excursion.

Our first stop was the Hang Nga Gallery and Guesthouse, possibly the coolest looking, though at times creepy, place to crash I’ve seen to date. Designed by Mrs. Dang Viet Nga, who studied architecture in Moscow, it is a counter-cultural maze-like complex of rooms that borrows freely from some amalgam of Disneyland and Alice in Wonderland. The rooms look like dens in a hollowed tree, with irregular wooden furniture and large animal carvings. Five-foot tall eagles, bears and other creatures maintain guard and fake shiny stalactites line the hall to the dining area. I’m not sure I would want to stay here alone at night, but certainly makes for an entertaining visit that wakes up the kid in you. Maybe that is one reason the place hasn’t been torn down by the government as anti-socialist or counter-revolutionary.

Next I visited one of the palaces of Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam. Like the Reunification Palace in Saigon, this palace has been left largely unchanged since it was last used, in this case the mid-forties. This was his summer palace, a peaceful getaway overlooking the valley, and a perfect vacation spot.

Dalat seems to be a vacation destination for many people these days, and the great number of classy mini-hotels and attractions here point to domestic tourism, something I hadn’t seen much of in Cambodia. In fact, Dalat’s attractions are highly polished for visitors. I visited a modern pagoda, finished within the last ten years, whose neatly manicured grounds and beautiful interiors are on par with those I’ve seen in Japan. It overlooks a pristine artificial lake whose dam controls the flow of water to, among other places, a waterfall I would visit next. In addition to the normal half-mile hike down to the cascade, one has the option to take a single-car roller coaster, replete with hand brakes. The tracks guide you quickly through lush gardens down to the picture-perfect water, giving what is usually a nature-oriented excursion an amusement park feel. Likewise, a local makeout spot called the Valley of Love now charges admission to its lake, souvenir shops and costumed cowboys.

Ouf.. I managed to escape the tackiness and find a little local character at a small coffee and tea plantation, local vegetarian restaurants and the windy alleyways in town. But the main attractions are cheesy, seemingly for the honeymoon set.

It’s too bad, really, because between the tourist traps are the beautiful and lush fields, the region being famous for its artichokes, strawberries and wineries. Now that I think about it, it sounds a lot like northern California, which may explain why I enjoyed it so much. I was pretty tempted to take the Easy Riders up on a ride through the Central Highlands to my next destination, but for some reason I was feeling less than adventurous and decided to stick to the tourist bus, where everyone reads the same guidebook between naps.

With a sigh, I’ve promised myself to do it right the next time around.

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