D.I.Y tour in a taxi around Da Lat, Vietnam

We planned to spend just 3 nights in Da Lat, high in the Vietnamese hills, so we were short on time to see the sights. The attractions in Da Lat are pretty far apart and it’s not possible to walk between them. Because of this, there are a number of motorcycle tours around, with a particularly famous group called “Easy Riders”, but the cost can be pretty high as its a per person rate, so for a family of 4 like us, we would need to hire 4 bikes with 4 guides. We had intended to have an Easy Rider tour before we arrived here, but on our budget, we just couldn’t stretch to this.

Renting our own bikes was also a non-starter as the police were now clamping down locally on tourists without Vietnamese Licences. This was because of an accident last year when a local elderly lady was hit by a tourist on a moped, which ended up breaking her leg.

So instead, it was suggested by the owner of the guesthouse where we were staying, that hiring a taxi and driver for the day would probably be the better budget option. We just needed to plan where we wanted to go! We grabbed a few ‘Tour Guide’ booklets from reception, and started to put our own tour of Da Lat together.

Not really knowing the geography of everything, we spent an hour or so checking online where everything was and looking at Trip Advisor reviews. We then had a rough plan put together. I took our ideas and showed the plan to our guesthouse host to see what he thought. He actually added a couple of things to the list, as they were attractions either on the way, or pretty much in the same place. He then called a local taxi for us and we agreed  price- US$45 for the day. Unfortunately, our driver didn’t speak a word of English but it never mattered! We managed using the written ‘tour itinerary’ put together by us and the guesthouse chap, and universal sign language!

So this is our Brooks Do-It-Yourself 1-day tour of Dal Lat.

Our first stop was a monastery just on the outskirts of Da Lat and en route to our first location. Upon arriving, my heart sank as the car park was full of about 20 silver Mercedes mini-buses. The usual Chinese tourists were everywhere! They filled the gift shop at the entrance and covered the front steps. There were selfie-sticks galore. This is a monastery! Reluctantly, we left the taxi and crossed the car park. At the back of my mind, I hoped the driver wouldn’t leave. One of the first things you see is a 10 foot tall photo of western tourists covered in crosses highlighting the dress code and what not to wear. It wasn’t that we looked like the people in the picture exactly,  but we weren’t quite dressed in long trousers, skirts or had long-sleeved shirts. Not really ideal for a monastery or temple, so we made the decision to leave immediately and move onto location number two on the tour.

Next up was a park which housed about 5 waterfalls, falling down through a valley. The carpark again had a few minibuses but this time only about 3-4. Ideal!! The entrance fee was around 100,000Dong for the family (£3.30). One reason I chose this place, was because to get down to the falls, you can either take a gentle walk down through the gardens or…… take the roller coaster!

So, after buying more tickets (140,000dong for return fares), we all jumped on and raced down the hill!

I read beforehand to leave a gap to the person riding in front, because people always stop to take selfies. So true! Ruben went first, and half way down caught up with some other tourists, who were stopped, and in the middle of taking a selfie. Unfortunately, Ruben was travelling pretty quickly at this point, so he crashed into the back of the guy, holding aloft his iPad, which once Rubes crashed into him, whacked him square in the forehead. Ooops!

When we arrived at the falls it seems as though any bit of available land was taken in order to sell something, including crafts, food, archery, photos. Even a pony ride!! The falls were impressive and we got a couple of great pictures. You can then pay for a gondola ride down to the next set of falls, or do what we did, and take the footpath. It was a great walk and barely challenging. The kids enjoyed it and I kept my eyes open for Pythons or spiders- you cant be too safety conscious!!

The third falls were much bigger and you can again, pay for a elevator ride to the bottom. Unfortunately the footpath ends here at the top, so we went no further.

We returned up to the first falls again and then sat in the toboggans to take us back up the hill to the entrance. After quickly getting approached by somebody who wanted to sell us a photo of Rosie and April, we left and jumped in the taxi to continue The Brooks Tour.

The third attraction on the list was probably the best temple and pagoda around the Da Lat area. The Linh Phuoc Pagoda. Its located outside the city to the east and sits in a quiet residential area. We pulled up and there were no tour buses. Nobody! At this point you think, “Well, is it closed? Are we allowed to be here?”. Our driver motioned us out of the cab, then parked somewhere shady, popped his seat back and went to sleep. We were stood in the middle of a car park not really knowing where to go or what to do. Should we pay? Are we dressed correctly? All signage is in Vietnamese.

So, we gingerly drifted through the open spaces and took refuge inside a gallery behind the pagoda. It had 2 floors of intricate wood carved tables, statues, Buddha’s and dragons. On the lower floor there are 6 wax, very lifelike meditating monk statues. After leaving the gallery we decided to be brave to walk up some stairs to get a better look at the pagoda. It is incredible, as the outside is decorated in colourful mosaics. Once we arrived on the first floor of the adjacent building we noticed a huge bell in the centre of the pagoda. On it were pieces of paper, with wishes written on them, glued on. April and the kids each wrote out a wish, and with the help of kind, elderly nun, stuck them to the bell.

What made this experience even better, was we were allowed to climb the stairs floor by floor to the very top of the pagoda. As we climbed up to each floor a huge Buddha statue sat gracefully looking out the windows. They were so big they must have been placed there as it was built. The walls and ceiling didn’t have a free space without a design on them.

On the top floor of the pagoda was a golden Buddha. The stairs to the top get pretty steep and are a snug fit at the end. Thankfully, Rosie only made it to the third floor before needing the toilet. Otherwise I’d have been freaking out about getting her down. To the left of the pagoda is a temple you can enter, but due to what we were wearing, it wouldn’t have been right to go in.

After a few nervous giggles about the snoring taxi driver, we loudly arrived back at the cab and headed back into town for lunch. The guesthouse owner suggested a bit of a locals-only place on the edge of town. Its the sort of place with no menu, you just choose what you want from the trays of meat, seafood and vegetables on display. Again, luckily for us, a kind lady spoke some broken English and helped us order. The prices were half of anything we’d paid in town for dinner and the food was amazing. The kids were great and tucked into food non of us recognised. Somewhere in there was spicy tofu, marinated chicken, bbq pork rib, mixed veg, and two huge bowls of steamed rice. Super tasty and we left feeling stuffed! Total price for lunch was 163,000dong (about £5).

The second half of the tour would take us about 30km south of the city. We were heading for a Silk factory and more waterfalls. The drive to our destination took us through some fantastic countryside and along some of the new roads dug out of the mountainside. Although in Vietnam cars drive on the right, our driver obviously wanted us to feel at home and spent most of the time driving on the left, heading into oncoming motorbikes, diggers, trucks and buses. Unlike Bali where beeping your horn alerts fellow road users of your presence, in Vietnam it means simply, “Oi! Out the way. I ‘aint moving!.”

Once I’d finished my prayers for safe passage, we arrived at the silk factory. As with most of the tour, I had no idea what to expect (yes I created it, but little research went into it!). The factory is a small set up with large room housing the looms and the spinning machines, winding the raw silk into threads. There is a row of huge baskets holding what look like cotton balls. In fact, they are the Silk Worm Cocoons (complete with live worms inside). The cocoons are dunked into warm water and silk strands and pulled into a machine which spins many threads at once into a single strand. This is then wound around a large wheel. The process continues down the line. However, we got distracted when one of the workers kindly came up to us (we were only people there) and placed a Silk Worm on my hand. Now, when I was 5 years old I had a box of silk worms as pets when living in South Africa, so I knew they were harmless. The kids looked freaked out so I turned on the “Super brave dad holding the moving large white bug” routine. It took about 5 minutes but the kids eventually manned-up and held the silk worm…..which then turned into a squabble about who could hold it the longest and an argument ensued, complete with stamped feet, pouty lips and cross faces. So that was the end of the silk factory. The bloody worm; the thing the factory needs to operate and create its fabrics ended up distracting from what we were there to see! And then came our next issue. Have you guessed? Where do we put the silk worm now we are about to leave? “No Rosie we can’t keep it, and no, don’t just put it in that bush outside.”. After safely returning the worm back to its friends, we headed for our final stop on The Brooks Tour. The Elephant Waterfalls.

I have no idea why its called this. Other than 3 plastic elephant statues at the edge of the protective fencing outside, there are no signs of real one, or even an Elephant shaped rock or something. None the less, this was something different again and once more, no other tourists in sight. Our driver again said something, which we think was, “Have a great time exploring this natural wonder. I’ll park up here and wait for you guys. Go and have fun!”. Or it could have just been “Get out! We’re here.”

The view from the top of the falls is great and its just and the end of a  grassy lawn. There is a small pathway around to the right and that’s when you finally begin to praise good old Health and Safety standards in the West. What I like about Asia is that if Health and Safety existed here as in UK, the place couldn’t survive. The way the steps and bridges are constructed to get you to the foot of the falls is brilliant. Each part was thought about when they arrived. The steps go up and over, around the edge and down the sides of rocks and the cliff. Nothing has been cut or dug out, merely cemented on top.

Towards the bottom, the rocks were too slippery for Rosie in her flip-flops, so we turned back and found another route, which led us half-way down the falls. The view was amazing and what made it special was the lack of shops, food stands and tourist tat. It’s literally just a beautiful waterfall.

After taking our photos, we headed back up to the top. Once there, back in the carpark, we were greeted by a couple of lovely ladies who have a small silk shop selling hand made bags, scarves etc. They took one look at our hot,tired, sweaty faces and poured us each a glass of cold water and took exception to Rosie, leading her off to show her their shop. Rosie was great and played along and had some pictures taken with them. The ladies were great fun, very hospitable and  we decided to buy a couple of handwoven pencil cases for the kids as they were well made, pretty cheap and useful items. Plus, if we’d had to buy tickets to see the falls then the cost would have been more than the pencil cases. And we wanted to thank the ladies for their kindness, rather than just ruthless selling tactics.

So a great variety to the day! Yes, 40 per cent of it was visiting waterfalls, but we’d traveled to and fro around Da Lat. If you look on TripAdvisor, there are so many more things you can do here. Its a great little place. The temperature is slightly lower than Ho Chi Minh City, which really helps and the air here is less polluted. We’ve all slept really well. Was it worth making our own tour? Definitely. We avoided places we weren’t interested in, and we felt we could go at our pace. We’ve had tours before and you get taken to an overpriced ‘tourist’ restaurant and are rushed through places. Today, we went at our own speed and tailored it how we wanted. I’d suggest everyone do the same. Maybe try and get a driver who can speak your language!

Cheers, Aaron

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