by Jane | Sep 24, 2017 | Asia |
Hoi An. I had heard mixed reviews about this city in Vietnam. It seemed that everybody loved it but many people didn’t like its Disneyfied atmosphere: so I went to find out for myself what the truth was about Hoi An and what there was to do there.
This is what I discovered:
Love is in the air. Everywhere!
Love is in the air
Hoi An is a totally photogenic town and it has marketed itself well. It attracts hordes of newly-weds on their honeymoon and couples who want to pose for their wedding albums. Dodging the tripods and the professional photographers can prove quite difficult. Shop keepers are more than happy for lovers to pose in exchange for a small fee in front of their colourful lanterns and in some places it can be difficult to walk along the canal bank without wandering into somebody’s photo shoot.
Hoi An reflections in the canal
- In Hoi An the tourism is orchestrated and managed at a highly professional level.
- There will be a zillion people crowding onto the bridges for the best photo shot.
- They will use elbows to move in front of you!
- The food and drink prices are inflated
- And yes, the touts will hassle you on every corner….
…..but after the brashness of Hue and Danang I have to admit that I did like Hoi An.
Things to do in Hoi An, Vietnam
My friend Gosia and I arrived on the local bus from Danang without accommodation and we wandered around the streets to find the best hostel for our money. As it was the shoulder season there was plenty of choices and we could bargain for a discount. We soon found a reasonably priced hostel and Gosia and I quickly dumped our bags and went out to explore and find out what we could do in Hoi An.
If you want to check your accommodation in advance, you can search for hostels here with Hostelz.com or you can look for hotels and other accommodation with Agoda.com. I use both sites when I am travelling – even if I don’t book in advance.
Hoi An – a pretty UNESCO listed town
Hoi An old town
The heart of Hoi An as far as visitors will be concerned is the compact old town area which is focused around the canal.
Hoi An gained special importance in the 15th century when it grew and thrived as one of the major South East Asia trading ports. You will find a mixture of authentic housing styles and luckily the authorities have recognised the attraction of these. Unlike in much of Vietnam where the old is getting ripped out at speed, here in Hoi An it is being repaired and repainted.
Hoi An canal
The brightly painted houses are festooned with flowers and in the evening the trademark silk lanterns light the streets with warm colourful glows and attract hordes of people like bees around a honeypot.
Ancient temples offer tantalising glimpses into a mysterious past and you can jostle for a picture on the old wooden Japanese covered bridge (for a price). You can browse among the hundreds of tiny shops which sell artisan products and where you will find a whole host of things made out of silk and made-in-a-day clothes or you can relax and sip mojitos on a roof terrace overlooking the canal.
One of the best things that Hoi An has done has been to ban motor vehicles from the old town for much of the daytime and for all of the evening. Whilst the streets are packed with visiors at least you don’t have the eye-watering pollution and traffic fumes that plague the other towns in Vietnam and while the noise levels are intense, they are at least not the exhaust drones of cars and lorries.
Get your Lonely Planet guide here and discover where you can avoid the crowds and the pollution in Vietnam
One of the downsides is that you have to purchase a book of tourist tickets in order to gain access to the Japanese Bridge and to many of the temples and places of interest. I only had time to visit one or two of the attractions but it wasn’t possible to pay at the individual sites. Why not offer the book at a discounted rate? I would willingly have paid slightly over the odds to see the one or two choice places that appealed ot me.
Hoi An Temple
Beware of this trick
The touts do a pretty good job of leading you to think that you need to purchase a ticket to simply enter the old town area. This is NOT true. The book of tickets will give you access to many of the temples and the Japanese Covered Bridge but ANYBODY is free to wander around the old town area without a ticket. We saw a lot of tourists hesitantly parting with their cash, believing that they had to do this so that they could enter the narrow streets.
The Japanese covered bridge in Hoi An
The old town of Hoi An is a gem and whilst outside of the UNESCO listed district is a new town; it’s still worth a wander around. Here life goes on as normal away from the tourists. Coffee shops and markets are filled with the local Vietnamese residents. Small family run businesses trade as they have done for years and you can find the best Banh Mi stalls in Vietnam.
A long straight road leads you away from the city to one of the beaches. I hired a bicycle and I cycled along this road one morning whilst heavy lorries honked and swerved around me as I tinkled my bell and I in turn swerved around clusters of school children on their bikes and I avoided herds of cows that were being led through the traffic.
Ho An’s Beach
Once away from the town, the terrifying road thankfully quietened down and I pedalled alongside the vegetable garden area of this region. Irrigated fields stretch for miles, where many of Vietnam’s green vegetables were growing and people worked in the fields shaded from the sun in their conical hats. The road became dustier and sandier and eventually I reached the beach.
Hoi An Beach
After the tourist bubble of Hoi An old town the beach was a welcome relief. Yes, it was busy and yes, it was lined with beach bars, but the overwhelming noise level that had accompanied everything that I had done in Vietnam to date was toned right down.
I treated myself to a cocktail and I settled down on a sun-bed on the sand. I watched the fishermen surfing the waves in their little bouncy round coracles and I relaxed. It was lovely to escape the chaos that was all I knew of Vietnam to date.
I would soon discover the interior beauty of Vietnam away from the tourists, but for now, with my cocktail, my book and my thoughts I was very happy.
Things to do in Hoi An; visit the beach
Night time in Hoi An
The old town is always busy but it REALLY comes alive at night. The silk lanterns swing in the breeze, glowing with warm, colourful lights and the street food market sets up on the canal side. The air is filled with the smell of barbequed food and stir fried noodles and you will be spoilt for choice with places to eat.
For me, the best place was down by the canal where among the tiny little plastic tables, you squat on a low stool and eat traditional dishes from the region while ladies run to and fro encouraging you to eat more. Like everything else in Hoi An, this is street food manufactured and repackaged for the masses but it was fun, tasty and much cheaper than the restaurants.
Hoi An at night
When you are eating street food or in a smaller cafe in Vietnam it is often normal to simply toss your chewed bones, serviettes and rubbish under your table as you eat (obviously check what the local people are doing first!)
If you are lucky there will be a small bin or a bucket there for the bits, but more often than not the debris simply collects around your ankles until the evening winds down and the street traders sweep everything away. To begin with, it felt quite naughty to throw my chicken bones onto the floor, but after a while, like everything else, it soon becomes the norm.
I met up with my friend and fellow blogger Donna Wanderlust from Haute Culture Fashion and together we hired one of the totally over-the-top tourist boats that silently glide around the canal at night. Surrounded by young couples who were gazing deeply into each other’s eyes, Donna and myself roared with laughter as our lady pushed us around on the water in the dark with her long pole and she encouraged us to launch the little paper and candle boat that we had bought. She told is that this would bring us good luck and enduring love (this concept is similar to the Loy Krathong festival in Thailand).
I also met Nam in Hoi An and a few days later I did finally escape from the cacophony of noise when I took a motorbike through the Central Highlands. Read about that trip here.
Donna Wanderlust poses with the laterns
Would I return to Hoi An?
Yes I would return.
I didn’t have time to go to the water puppet theatre (although I did catch a show in Saigon) and I didn’t have time to explore some of the Chinese and Buddhist temples and shrines in the town, but I would definitely return to Hoi An if I go back to Vietnam.
Hoi An – early morning
Whilst most things in the town are overpriced, you can buy ‘fresh’ beer for about 30 pence a pint, silk sleeping bag liners for $5 and you can drink mojitos as you watch the sunset from a roof terrace above the canal.
If you can’t get to Hoi An and you fancy one of the silk sleep sacks (great for travelling) you can get one at this link: Silk sleep sack
You WILL get pestered by touts (be firm but polite if you don’t want to buy), you could pay over the odds for bicycle hire, a hotel room, food and tours (bargain hard), but you will get the most beautiful photo opportunities and you will get a glimpse into another era (albeit freshly painted) from the past.
If you have enjoyed this article and you would like to know more about my adventures in South East Asia, click here for more articles.
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Things to do in Hoi An
*Banh Mi – a French style baguette stuffed with a variety of things. You can choose from belly pork, pate, grilled chicken, fish or meatballs, cucumber, cilantro, onions and then there are the salsas. This very basic meal is food heaven.
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Things to do in Hoi An, Vietnam
by Jane | Oct 13, 2016 | Asia |
We could have taken a series of night busses to get from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, but my friend Debs and I decided to go by train. It would take 33 hours!
Two months previously Gosia and I had entered Vietnam overland at the middle point from Laos and we had headed south in order to find some warm weather. We spent time in Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh city but I still wanted to visit Hanoi in the north. (As you can see there are a lot of letter ‘H’s’ in the Vietnamese language!). We could have flown.
The observant among you will be noticing that Gosia seems to have been replaced by Debs. That happened in Cambodia. After meeting Debs in Siem Reap and spending time clambering around the temples I had to say an emotional goodbye to Gosia who has the rest of her life to get on with – and then on with welcoming my friend Debs who had come over from Spain.
one of the many rivers that we crossed
Hi Chi Minh to Hanoi
On the train we had reserved the top bunks in a 4-berth cabin which we were sharing with the sweetest young Vietnamese couple. The lady was nearly nine months pregnant and oh so shy. Her husband spoke very softly too and the pair of them slept for most of the journey while Debs and I kept our eye on the lady with the coffee trolley and the hot water urn in case we had to help with a birth.
2nd class recliners
I thoroughly recommend taking the train in Vietnam if you have the time as it’s quite an adventure in itself. We were in the better class of carriage – with soft bunks, although goodness knows how any of the smaller Asian people manage to climb up into the top bunks. It was a bit of a scramble for me and Debs and we are both quite tall.
our sweet travel companions
There was a middle class section on the train with reclining seats and the cheap seats with hard, wooden slatted benches. Because our companions slept a lot and we couldn’t really see the scenery from our top bunks, Debs and I spent a lot of time in the middle class carriage where there were plenty of spare seats.
somewhere from Hi Chi MInh to Hanoi
In our middle class carriage we were invited to share food with the other passengers and we were included in whatever they were saying and doing, not that we understood much at all, but it was a lovely community spirit. Passengers boarded the train and left throughout the journey so there was plenty of interesting people-watching to do.
3rd class – it later became packed to overflowing
We walked through the lower class carriages where we found people trying to make themselves comfortable on the floor underneath the benches. They were lying on sheets of cardboard and most had wrapped themselves up in fleecy blankets. A food trolley was pushed along the train at regular intervals by two of the grumpiest men ever. Despite their sour faces they did a roaring trade in instant noodles, some grey looking Vietnamese soup and crisps and crackers, although everybody seemed to have brought along their own picnics too.
dawn breaks somewhere between Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi
In contrast, the lady who was in charge of the urn of boiling water for teas and coffees was wonderfully happy and was soon pouring us her super strong coffee shots unasked and watching us until we downed them. That was great until it was time to sleep when it took an awfully long time for the rhythmic clicking, clacking and rocking of the carriage to finally trump our overdose of caffeine.
some of our passengers
We passed through some spectacular countryside where rural life carried on unchanged for centuries. Workers in conical hats waded knee deep in paddy fields and buffalo stared at us as we clattered by. Despite the length of the journey from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi and warnings about the rail system we arrived in Hanoi just 3 minutes behind schedule having travelled almost the entire length of Vietnam.
somewhere in Vietnam
Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam and huge; yet unlike Ho Chi Minh City it really has a nice cosy feel to it. Or at least, it does in the old town where we stayed. Narrow little streets throng with daily life, obviously there are billions of motorbikes and street food stalls, but unlike Ho Chi Minh, the traffic seems to move a little less frantically and you can actually walk on many of the pavements.
you can walk on the pavements!
By now, we had finally perfected our Vietnamese road crossing skills.
This is an art in itself as rivers of motorbikes flow along. You need to trust to luck and simply step out into the road. Head up and look directly at the riders, put one hand in the air if it is particularly busy and under no circumstances, stop, hesitate or change your pace.
just step out and cross your fingers
They WILL go around you avoiding each other in the process but the minute you hesitate all can be lost as they in turn hesitate and chaos will ensue.
For those of you who are interested in facts and figures how about these?
- 90 million people in Vietnam
- 8 million people in Hanoi
- 4-5 million motorbikes in Hanoi (39 million in Vietnam)
- Nearly everybody who rides a bike in Vietnam wears a face mask (to protect against the traffic fumes and the rays of the sun)
And while we are considering facts and figures…
- 9% of Vietnamese people are Buddhist – most don’t have a religion but they do believe in Buddhism
- There are 54 different ethnic groups
- Vietnam enforces a 2 child policy. Parents have to pay a fee or a fine for extra children but this depends on the ethnic group
- Over 90% of the population over the age of 15 are literate
After a couple of months in Vietnam it felt great to watch newbies hover on the kerbside for ages wondering how on earth they are going to get to the other side! And then to step out and sail past them (with fingers crossed, buttocks clenched and whispering a mantra for survival.
how about this for a front garden?
The weather was quite cool when we were in Hanoi and the skies grey. I got sick again and in the end I spent far too long in my hostel with bronchitis but the one thing that struck me was how varied the countryside and the people, the food and the customs and clothes are in Vietnam.
watch your step
by Jane | Sep 20, 2016 | Asia |
Vietnam is a country of contradictions and contrast; possibly more so than many other countries that I have visited – and here in Ho Chi Minh City the differences really stand out.
In the beginning I took some time to warm to Vietnam, but as soon as I acknowledged this juxtopostion (the fact of two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect) I settled down and I viewed the country and its people differently and I began to appreciate it. And to like it.
Take Ho Chi Minh City for example.
Many people think that Ho Chi Minh City is the capital of Vietnam. It isn’t – Hanoi is the capital city but it is understandable how HCM can lead you into forming this opinion.
a typical street scene in Ho Chi Minh City
To add to the confusion (or it confused me anyway) Ho Chi Minh City was formally know as Saigon but was renamed in order to honor Ho Chi Minh who led the country and defeated the Americans in the war. The name Saigon is still widely and fondly used in all circles – and at the risk of offending some people, you do have to admit that it sounds somewhat more romantic than Ho Chi Minh City.
With 8.2 million people Saigon is more populated that Hanoi. The roads are CHAOTIC. In fact the roads are so chaotic that the scooters have rat-runs along the pavements in order to beat the blockages at the junctions-. You have to keep your wits about you as sidewalks are used as bike-parks, shop fronts, street food eating areas and roadways.
This is the pavement not the road
It is steamy and sultry and hot in Saigon. People live side by side all crammed on top of each other with chaos and noise in a tropical sticky atmosphere. The pollution is horrible and the noise is dreadful but there are many reasons to visit this city.
The attractions of Ho Chi Minh City
First and foremost the best things has to be people watching and the coffee culture. Vietnam has the best coffee in the world and here in Saigon you can find coffee everywhere. It is served in the best coffee shops or for the best atmosphere sit on a tiny child-sized plastic chair on the pavement. Wait for the caramel, thick liquid to drip through your battered tin filter cup and ponder on the little known fact that Vietnam is the biggest exporter of coffee in the world.
The water puppet theatre
This was a real cultural gem. We had already seen shadow puppets in Laos and now we went to the theatre in Ho Chi Minh City. Musicians and singers lined the edge of the stage which is dominated by a shallow tank of water. Like the shadow puppets show in Laos I didn’t really have a clue about what was happening but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole event as the skilled puppeteers manoeuvred their puppets in the water, splashed us in the front row and dragons, dolphins and farmers acted out a story in front of our eyes.
the water puppets
The War Remnants Museum.
This museum was hard to deal with but I believe is a very important part of any visit to Vietnam. It tells the story of the Vietnam/American war with a lot of photographs and a lot of personal accounts.
Apparently the story used to be very weighted in the favour of the Vietnamese (but why not – it is their story to tell) but I understand that it is presented in a slightly more balanced way now.
But no matter because war is horrific no matter what side you are on and atrocities are always committed by both sides and it is important to see the pictures and hear the first hand accounts.
I was walking down to the river one evening with some friends and we came across a tiny little shop jam-packed with very odd things in jars. We got chatting to the owner and it turned out that some of the jars contained snake wine – used to treat a variety of ailments in the Chinese traditional way. Egged on by each other we drank a glass of the wine. Trying not to think about the snakes coiled up and festering in the jars I drank mine, only to discover that we had been given some ancient recipe similar to Viagra.
testing the snake wine
Cu Chi Tunnels
These tunnels are a minivan trip away from Saigon but are well worth the trip. Yes, they are touristic, yes they are busy but they also give you an excellent insight into certain elements of the war and I truly appreciated the hardships that the occupants of the tiny tunnels had to endure. You can marvel at the ingenious ways that the people disguised their tunnels and even more so, how claustrophobic the tunnels must have been.
these tunnels are tiny
Central Post Office
This vast hall is worth a peep inside just for a fantastic photo shot of the rather special ceiling. It often feels that there are more tourists than customers inside but you realise why once you are there with this glimpse back at this building with its origins in the French occupation.
the opulent post office ceiling
There are green spaces everywhere and people use them. You will see pairs of children playing a game where they kick a large badminton shuttlecock to each other and circles of teenagers playing keepsie-upsie with a rattan ball. There are of course men and women of all ages practising tai chi, we saw a salsa dance club and men playing Chinese chess under the trees. In a city where the pollution levels are so high, the parks are a welcome relief if only visually.
taking time out from the chaos
Walk along the riverbank
We wandered along the riverbank several times. At night the grassy banks were packed with courting couples sitting and cosily sharing picnics on their blankets. During the day Gosia and I got terribly lost when we crossed one of the bridges and turned right instead of left. As usual, we got lost in a down-at-heel, dodgy area where I guess few tourists wander. The people were rough around the edges, living in wooden and tin shacks and growing vegetables in the earth underneath the motorway but we were not robbed or beaten and they couldn’t have been nicer as they laughed at us and pointed us the way out of their area and back to the mainstream city.
Ben Thanh Market
This market is enormous. Under cover, it is a rabbit warren of stalls piled high with everything that you could ever need. At night, the streets that surround it attract more vendors firing up their burners and heating oil to sizzling point in their woks whole flies are attracted to their bright lamps in their millions.
The narrow lanes of District 1
Behind the chaos in District 1 which is one of the most popular areas for tourists, there is a labyrinth of narrow lanes where it seems that time stands still. Immediately after plunging into one of the alleyways the noise from the traffic is muffled. As you walk past tiny little homestays and bars you can’t help but peek inside homes where grandad is sleeps on a mat on the tiled floor and girls huddle over their homework surrounded by boxes from the family businesses.
the lanes of Saigon
Where did I stay?
As usual, we stayed in a backpackers hostel. Gosia and I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City without any accommodation and then had to walk for a couple of hours in the heat with our packs trying to find somewhere that wasn’t full (but was within our budget).
We finally came across the Hang Out hostel which had only been opened for a short while and was just perfect for us. It included a complimentary breakfast and free beers every evening and was a major hub for people gathering to buy and sell their motorbikes (next time I also want to ride the length of Vietnam under my own steam).
I stayed at this hostel each time that I visited Saigon and I would do so again. It was perfectly positioned with the myriad of interesting little lanes behind them and the vegetable market that set up on the pavement outside early every morning.
I want to go in THAT hostel
I hope that this article gives you an idea of some of the things to see and to in Ho Chi Minh City. Sadly I never got further south to the Mekong Delta and I never got up into one of the sky bars but I had a great time.
If you fancy travelling with me in in Malaysia and you want to join in the fun, check out my travel buddy information here. But remember, as this is a 1 to 1 experience it is strictly first come, first served so if you are at all interested, drop me a line and find out more.
And to round off this article I shall leave you with a few more pictures of the chaos that is Saigon.
quiet down an alleyway
water puppet actors take a bow
a fighting cock takes no notice of the traffic behind him
selling something tasty
the veg market
street traders outside my hostel
nobody bats an eyelid
snake wine anybody?
by Jane | Sep 6, 2016 | Asia |
Lak Lake in the Central Highlands of Vietnam is a magical place.
In this article the photographs will tell their own story about this wonderful region. Join me as I show you beautiful, tranquil images from this region I spent almost a week recharging my batteries with my friend, the extremely talented photographer Gosia, living in communal longhouses, cycling around dusty lanes and paddy fields and getting to know the local people.
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
It was here at Lak Lake that I finally, eventually came to love Vietnam. Most people live in traditional villages with the majority of the homes being the wooden communal longhouses. The residents are farmers, working hard in the paddy fields, walking their buffalo and cattle to the fields each day and rearing the friendly little black Vietnamese pigs and chickens.
sunset over Lak Lake
Dawn over Lak Lake
If you want the opportunity to travel with me and experience sights like this for yourself I can now offer you the chance. Read more about it on my Travel with Me page here
hard at work preparing the rice fields for planting
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
The lady above had childlike qualities. She would wander around the village muttering quietly to herself and moving with perfect grace and poise. Gosia gave her some biscuits. The lady sat down and seemed confused by this action which is when Gosia took this image of her.
taking the cows home through the town
taking the farm workers home
fishing on the shallow lake
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
I love the grumpy face on this market trader. She agreed to her photograph being taken but refused to smile for it.
we cycled several hours in searing heat to get to this reservoir
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
We stopped at a roadside cart selling sugar cane juice. These three little girls were playing outside their home and pretending to be shy. Their father (the juice seller) was encouraging them to come over and chat to us. This photograph was totally unposed
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
motorcyclists stopping for directions
transporting troops I think
another stunning sunset across the paddy fields
more transport options. Sadly the elephant rides were quite popular with the day trippers
31 people in a 15 seater minivan. For 5 HOURS!!! No air conditioning and copious vomiting by the Vietnamese
ladies herding their buffalo breaking for lunch in the shade
taking the kids to school
children playing in their family boat
a friendly goat
the wedding marquee set up in the main street
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
Drinking rice whiskey, rice wine and rice vodka at the wedding.
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
We stayed in three different communal longhouses. This was the first one
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
traditional communal longhouses
Every village had its own customs, house designs and traditions. In some of them, the number of windows would signify the number of females in the home. Each time a girl was born a new window would be cut out of the side of the house.
Woller choosing his breakfast
wide load #noroadrules
nothing is impossible
I helped this lady load her motorbike as she couldn’t balance the boxes and tie them all down by herself. I watched her ride away with my heart in my mouth – hoping that I had strapped things down properly with her
problem? what problem?
our favourite breakfast stop in the market
This lady would bring all the other stall holders over to watch us eating at her place. She was so proud. And hardworking. In the evenings she ran a food stall out on the street with her children helping her.
hammocks outside a roadside drink stall. So sensible
cute little piggies
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
Another proud father on his motorbike who asked Gosia to take a picture of his daughter
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
roadside food stall
People hate the sun and wrap up tightly against it despite the heat. To be brown signifies to be a poor farmer. Pale is more beautiful
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
Would you eat your breakfast here? This would be a perfect food challenge if you are doing the Smash the Pumpkin Project. Read about that project here and find out how challenging yourself with little things like where you eat your lunch can boost your self-confidence and self- esteem
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
We gatecrashed a Russian tour group’s cultural evening.
view across Lak Lake
The coffee shrubs were in full blossom when we were there. The scent was amazing – similar to jasmine.
drying rice in the road
cooking up the pigs lunch
stopping for a break
meeting the kids
We had stopped for a beer at a tiny hut by the road. I gave some old teeshirts to the mum. They were worn and slightly damaged but she dragged me over to see her sewing machine and then dragged the kids over to pose with me. She would alter them for the children
children by Lak Lake
kids are the same the world over
One evening there was a tap at our door and these two little boys came in. They poked around our bags and belongings and then spotted the computer. They only left when the battery ran flat
elephant rides at Lak Lake. Be a good traveller. Don’t ride elephants
another sunset over Lak Lake
staying at the hostel on Lak Lake
rural scene unchanged for years
funeral flowers at the cemetery
panoramic view at one of the reservoirs on our bike ride
Peace and quiet
cycling along almost deserted dusty lanes
green fields and lotus flowers in the lake
ordinary people living their ordinary lives
Photo: Gosia Czerwinska
You can read more about Lak Lake on my blog post at this link: Dalat Lake or Lak Lake. What’s the difference?
Thank you to Gosia Czerwinska for some amazing photographs and some wonderful memories.
by Jane | Aug 17, 2016 | Asia |
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.
night bus experience
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.
Dalat Lake in the sunshine
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.
elephant crossing Lak Lake
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.
peace and tranquillity at Lak Lake
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.
traditional communal homes at Lak Lake
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.
the bride and groom
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.
bringing the cows (and the elephants) home
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.