DALAT, VIETNAM – There I was, standing face to face with a monstrous bear who stared back at me with vacant soulless eyes.
Well, to be honest this was no man eater; in fact it looked downright friendly. Even the two giant bees perched on each of his shoulders were smiling. The truth is that this cartoonish statue stood guard inside my room at the Hang Nga Guest House in Dalat, Vietnam.
Known by both locals and tourists as the “Crazy House,” this garish hotel-slash-cultural curiosity features a design that seems inspired by hallucinations. Staircases wind haphazardly around the cave-like structure, easily leading visitors back to where they started instead of their desired destination.
Each room has its own statue which corresponds with the animal name, hence the ursine fellow accompanying me in the “Bear Room”. The other accommodations on hand include eagle, tiger and kangaroo themes. Here visitors can pay 30,000 VND ($1.50) to tour the grounds, or stay in rooms that range from $35 to $100 a night. However, as “out there” as this guest house may be, it is no lone bastion of weirdness in this mountain tourist destination. The Crazy House is merely the headquarters of weird for the city of Dalat.
Located high in the mountains of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, Dalat is a relatively young city, having been founded as a French resort town at the start of the 20th century. It quickly became a popular retreat for French colonials and other elites looking to escape the stifling heat of Saigon. The plazas and broad boulevards are a testament to its colonial past, while the city’s bustling markets reflect the city’s present status as a major agricultural centre. Strawberries, coffee, lettuce and flowers are among some of the temperate crops grown in the region.
Through all the conflict endured by the country in the past century, Dalat emerged almost entirely unscathed. Some say it was because all sides simply enjoyed coming to the area too much. It remains a popular spot for domestic tourists, with prices that are quite reasonable even for Vietnamese standards. However, compared to the increasingly busy tourist destinations of Vietnam, Dalat is still relatively unexplored by Western visitors. Visitors will also be pleasantly surprised to find that this busy garden market town seems to go about its business while tourists go about theirs. The town is mostly devoid of the touts and hawkers common to bigger cities nearby, like Saigon and Nha Trang.
Of course, there is a long list of ways the city is different from anywhere else in Vietnam. Upon arrival in Dalat, the first thing visitors will notice is the weather, which is decidedly moderate compared with the rest of this tropical country. At an altitude of 1,500 m the climate remains pleasant but cool for the entire year. Nearby valleys spend much of their time shrouded in mist.
In place of palm trees and cacti, the vegetation features pine trees and colourful flowers, giving one the impression more of cottage country than Southeast Asia. The average temperature rarely strays from the 18 C to 25 C range, and over 1,750 mm of rain fall every year (compared to 830 mm for Toronto). A typical day there will see mostly sunny weather interspersed with short but refreshing rain showers.
This unusually consistent weather earned the city the appealing moniker, “The City of Eternal Spring.” In fact, with a little digging one will come across a half-dozen nicknames, including “The Honeymoon Capital of Vietnam,” “The City of Flowers”, and “The City of Thousands of Pine Trees.” It’s a reflection of just how eccentric this town really is.
The bear that had greeted me at the Crazy House is not the only wildlife in the city. Nearly all of the city’s attractions have found a way to incorporate strange cartoon animal statues into their operation. A few kilometres southeast of the downtown area, the Cap Treo cable car is an enjoyable fifteen-minute ride over pine forest. For 70,000 VND ($3.50) a return trip, it takes you to the Truc Lam Monastery, what appears to be a Buddhist Temple devoted to kitsch. Hedges are trimmed into dragons and decorated with wire loops for the eyes, while penguins stand open-jawed and head in the air, awaiting your trash and recycling.
On the other side of town, visitors can check out the Cam Ly Falls. 20,000 VND ($1) will buy you entry to the grounds surrounding the modest waterfall, which are decorated with more of the city’s delightfully tacky statues. Soaring eagles and bellowing elephants greet you, while a family of lemurs stands next to a sign wishing visitors a happy 2011. Vietnamese “cowboys” are on hand to pose with tourists for pictures, accompanied by scraggly ponies including one crudely painted to look like a zebra.
That is not to say that the whole town is wacky. At the end of a long day, one can settle down in one of the many normal hotels and guest houses in the city, including the Dalat Du Parc Hotel. Built by the French in the heady boomtown days of the early 1930s, it features a beautiful cable-car elevator still operational after all these decades. Standard rooms can be found there for as low as $35 a night, with suites ranging up to $100.
While visiting Dalat it would be negligent to miss the extensive offerings of the city’s many bustling markets. The fog-bound valleys of the region hold a vast greenhouse of flowers, fields of strawberries, grapes and coffee. The centre of the city has a large roundabout with a massive indoor warehouse market on the north side, where a kaleidoscope of fruits, vegetables, flowers and other goods are on display. Vendors here also tend to be less interested in haggling than other parts of Southeast Asia.
Of course, it’s easy to find oddities in the market as well, since in the end it’s nearly impossible to avoid weirdness in this city. Among the tourist haul from the last day of my trip were a bag of local coffee, dried kiwi candy, and an ugly knitted strawberry keychain.
Everyone has their limits though, as the vendors proved unable to convince me of the need to purchase a strange glob of fuzzy brown fur with spines poking out of it, for fear it would re-awaken from its slumber one stormy night back in Canada. I my mind, that weirdness might be best left in Dalat.
This article was originally published here at inTravel Magazine.