Lakes in the Central Highlands of Vietnam
Vietnam has lakes. Lots of them! Two of the most beautiful lakes – Dalat Lake and Lak Lake are in the Central Highlands – yet they couldn’t be more different from each other.
Dalat is a mountain town famous with honeymooners and romantics. At Dalat Lake manicured grass lawns sweep down to the water where boats shaped like swans float around and couples pose for selfies or drape themselves over each other dressed in beautiful wedding outfits.
On the hillsides above Dalat Lake you can catch glimpses of luxury villas which hail from another era. They are painted in subdued pastels and sit safely behind walls and gates. Dalat is sophistication rising above the chaos of a busy Vietnamese town.
The traffic spoils the peaceful looking views as it circles the main road around the lake. Lorries heave themselves out of the town coughing grim grey smoke into the air and motorbikes are a constant buzzing nuisance until you get used to them and then you hardly pay them any attention any more.
I had arrived at Dalat Lake on the night bus from Hoi An, breaking for a couple of hours at five in the morning at Nga Trang and switching to a mini van for the journey up into the mountains.
Not long out of Hoi An our bus hit something. It swerved and rocked violently and I was almost shaken from my precarious perch – top bunk in the centre. The driver slowed right down but never stopped and I do still wonder what we hit.
There is a problem in many countries in S E Asia with hit and runs. I am never too sure if it is an urban myth although there is stuff on the internet to support it. The rule tends to be that if you injure a person you are responsible for their medical fees and for the support of their family which can obviously run into thousands and thousands of pounds whereas if you kill somebody you get a one off fine of maybe five thousand pounds! Many stories circulate of drivers reversing over bodies to make sure of the fine rather than a lifetime of debt.
At night time the central square below the main market and close to Dalat Lake comes alive with street vendors selling food of all descriptions. The bars and clubs thump out their beat and spill backpackers and locals alike out onto the pavements and everybody promenades around the town just waiting to be seen
There are rooms here to be had for the taking, from hostels to luxury pads. Many places are advertised as homestays although in reality they are family run hostels.
Vietnam is a country with a coffee culture and everywhere vendors serve the best coffee in the world from tiny little shops or street stalls. People perch on their little plastic chairs while the caramel, smokey flavoured nectar drips tantalisingly slowly through the filter and into their cup.
There are many things to see and to do at Dalat Lake. There is of course the lake itself, there is the Crazy Hotel which a labyrinth of weird. Here tourists pay to wander around the grounds, tunnels and passages have been constructed throughout the building and across the roof stairways designed by goblins curl up to tiny little snooks in something that reminded me of Gaudi on acid. Outside the town there are a riot of waterfalls and beauty spots waiting to be explored. You can easily pick up a guide from one of the touts or tour operators in town and go off on an organised tour or hire a scooter and ride out yourself.
In total contrast to Dalat Lake, this vast expanse of water at Lak – the largest natural body in Vietnam – is edged by paddy fields, reeds and forest. The villages that surround Lak Lake are populated by some of the ethnic tribes who still live, for the most part in their traditional communities.
Long wooden communal houses on stilts turned silver in the strong sunshine blend with the trees. Buffalo and pot bellied pigs live underneath the homes, wandering along the dusty mud street looking for scraps while chickens squawk and chase each other, avoiding the elephants which wander along.
Yes, you did read that correctly. Elephants are owned and worked here – sadly now for tourists to ride, but they have owners who commute on them and who ride them to their homes, tying them under a shady tree while they go and have their lunch.
Here the noise, depending on the season, is of the primitive looking tractors which plough up and down in the gloopy muddy water as the villagers prepare to plant the rice, the wind makes the ears of rice hum and the lake water shiver, the occasional ‘plosh’ as the fisherman quietly throw their nets from their wooden canoes and the grunting of contented, happy animals settling down under the wooden homes to sleep.
There is a tiny restaurant for when you want your coffee fix, or you could go to the local shop where the owner will drag her little table over to the edge of her patch and you can take your coffee with Lak Lake as a backdrop.
There is a lodge here which offers rooms – private and in a shared dormitory, a small guesthouse and there are homestays. These homestays are in the communal longhouses on their wooden stilts. You may end up in a large room with simple mattresses on the floor and mosquito nets all by yourself or you may be sharing with 10 other people and with the family sleeping behind a curtain at the other end of the room.
There are a few bicycles for hire so take yourself off into the surrounding countryside. You won’t be bored as you cycle through the different villages each with subtle differences in housing and the people, through the rice fields where the workers always jump up and wave a cheery hello, along the forest paths or across the river on one of S E Asia’s floating planks ferries.
Evening entertainment for us was being invited to see a traditional dance and music presentation, sitting on a log by Lak Lake and watching the stars, wandering into the local town for unidentifiable but excellent street food and, on one very blurry night, being dragged into a local wedding party.
Every day a new tent would be erected outside a groom’s family home (or the bride’s, depending on whether the village people were a matriarchal or a patriarchal group). The basic marquee with brightly coloured curtains of fabric would then host a few days of serious drinking and partying and karaoke turned up at full volume which would blast across the lake.
Gosia and I were stood listening to a live band which was playing in one marquee and we were commenting on the numerous plastic water bottles which were on the tables when the drummer broke off his playing and came outside to drag us in.
Sitting us in the thick of the celebrations we then became the attraction with the bride and groom and their family lining up to have photos taken with them, they brought us plates of food and people kept insisting that we drink the water.
Eventually, frustrated by our reluctance to just drink water at a wedding party, one guy on our table grabbed some shot glasses and handed them to us. Oh well, water shots was a new one on me but not wanting to offend I downed it in one.
Water? Seriously, this was rice whiskey at its roughest. Choking back tears as the liquid burnt my throat the ladies then brought over the gourd from which you drink from a shared straw. Rice wine, rice whiskey and lao cao, I’m not sure which was which by the time we staggered home but I woke up the next day with a hangover from hell.
Returning to the home with a tin of biscuits as a thank you present, there was no sign that there had been a party; just a family of the hairy black Vietnamese pigs snuffling about where the marquee had stood.
Which lake is the best?
I am going to sit on the fence here and advise you to visit both Dalat Lake and Lak Lake. They offer totally different experiences and the bus ride from Dalat to Lak is worth it just by itself.
Do stay in one of the communal longhouses in Lak and do go and get your breakfast at the local market. You really should cycle around the countryside and dodge the herds of cows which wander up the main street on their way to and from their grazing and you should certainly sample a Vietnamese pizza from one of the ladies cooking on the steps at the night market in Dalat.
The minibus ride to beat all minbus rides
It seemed every minivan ride that we had taken in Laos and then Vietnam was squashed and oversubscribed so when we got into our fifteen-seater for the five hour ride back to Dalat and there were spaces to spare Gosia and I were overjoyed.
Just twenty minutes into our journey we stopped at a local ethnic community where three teenage girls were waiting with, we thought half of of the village gathered to wave them off
The three girls got on – and then the rest of the village until it was physically impossible to push anybody else in through the door. They were sitting in the foot-well, lying in the aisle and standing behind each row of seats holding on tight, occasionally collapsing onto the knees of the people behind them.
And then we continued, swerving around switchbacks for four and a half hours, my camera was passed around for hundreds of selfies and the plastic bags came out as just about everybody started to vomit.
There were THIRTY ONE people in a minivan for fifteen but not one person complained moaned or was miserable despite the vomiting and the cramped conditions. It is a lesson to us all – be grateful for what you have. The alternative was no ride to the town.
There is a transport challenge in the Smash the Pumpkin Project. I certainly think that this minivan ride would fit the criteria for that challenge.
Check out this page and discover how you can build your self confidence with a series of motivational challenges. I have also decided to plan my travels a little more so that I can give some of you the opportunity to travel with me (click here for more information).
I would love for you to join me later this year in Spain or early next year in Malaysia, but in the meantime, you can continue to get your travel fix by signing up for regular updates to my blog in the box on my website www.scarletjonestravels.com
I look forward to connecting with you. Thank you for taking the time to read my article.