All posts for the month February, 2024

Here I am in a sea-themed room in the Crazy House. Crazy indeed.

D is for Dalat. And for Disappointment. We first read about Dalat back in 2001 in anticipation of our first trip to Vietnam. At an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet it’s a colonial hill-town, first settled by the French in the early 20th century as a place to escape the heat of Saigon. Studded with old French villas and favored with a spring-like climate, with lots of opportunities for adventure tourism in the area, it sounded like someplace we would really like.

As we had to make choices of where to go during our 2001 vacation, it got struck from the list. Then we came back in 2014 … and it got struck again. This time I was determined to make it to Dalat. The result? Meh… More quirk than fabulous.

One of the joys of traveling in Southeast Asia is getting your laundry done. This lovely woman did maybe a week’s worth of laundry for us for a total of about $6.50. And folded it way better than I ever could.

Speaking of quirky, how do you like this little water feature in a park by the train station?

I was expecting some of the beauty of Hanoi and Hoi An, and we just never found it. There was some colonial architecture sprinkled around, but what there was was always surrounded by distinctly inferior stuff. The morning and evening temperatures were quite pleasant, but in mid-day it was just too hot to really enjoy being out and about. And 20+ years after we first anticipated coming here – with age and bad knees inhibiting us – we were way less interested in climbing around in canyons and so on.

Oh, and one other strike against Dalat. We made a rookie mistake and took a nice hotel but that was too far from the center of the city to just hang out in the tourist zone. It was about a 50-minute walk from our hotel to what seems as though it was the city center and while that’s doable, you don’t want to do it very often. On the other hand taking a taxi – or actually Grab, the Uber-equivalent here – was ridiculously cheap and easy, maybe $2.25 or so for the ride. I should add that while the hotel was nice enough, it was quirky. Just weird stuff about how the room was designed and how the grounds were nice but had no place to sit. Just kind of quirky.

Ok then, if it’s hotter than you expect, you’re further away from things than you want to be, and it’s just not that pretty a place, what do you do in Dalat? We found a few things. First up, you have to see the Crazy House. Yup, that’s what it’s called, and it is very aptly named. It’s crazy. I can describe it no better than to just quote Lonely Planet. “Imagine sculptured rooms connected by superslim bridges rising out of a tangle of concrete greenery, an excess of cascading lava-flow-like shapes, wild colors, spiderweb windows, and an almost organic quality to it all, with the swooping handrails resembling jungle vines. Think of Gaudí and Tolkien dropping acid together and designing their own version of Disneyland.” Definitely raising the quirk factor for Dalat.

Atop one of the crazy winding slim bridges with a couple new friends

That pretty much sums it up. The book describes it as a private home, but these days it seems to be a small one-star hotel. The woman who designed it over a number of years has a PhD in architecture and is the daughter of the second president of Vietnam, the guy who succeeded Ho Chi Minh. We were distinctly skeptical about what we would experience there, but we both loved it. Another example that when you think perhaps you’ve seen it all, you haven’t. And a crazy way to spend an hour or so.

Then there was this cog train that takes you about 30 minutes out to a town called Trai Mat. There are only two reasons to go to Trai Mat: to ride the train, because it’s a tourist attraction (described in the English translation at the train station as a “fake antique” car), and to see the Linh Phuoc Pagoda. The train ride itself was fun – on narrow tracks with buildings and farms built right up along the tracks. And then the pagoda was … quirky. Extravagantly colored tiles everywhere, a dragon made from more than 10,000 beer bottles, a seven-story pagoda that you climb to the top of to see … not very much.

The dragon made of 10,000 beer bottles. Quirky, right?

That was about it for sights. Of course our favorite thing to do in a city is to scope out the food scene. This was seriously hit or miss. Lunch at the hotel on arrival, when we discovered how far we were from the city center where we thought we’d find nicer restaurants, was just awful. A Mexican restaurant where we had dinner one night that was the second-highest rated restaurant on Trip Advisor was worse, way worse. Like the worst guacamole I’ve ever had. Just terrible.

I don’t think I’ve ever had pizza this good outside of Naples

The team at Gemination Eatery & Bar

Ah, but then there were some real finds. Like Primavera, a small Italian restaurant run by a real Italian. We stopped for lunch and Mark decided to splurge on a pizza. The second the waiter brought it out and I smelled it and saw it I said out loud “Oh my God, that’s the real thing!” It was a true Neapolitan pizza. We chatted a bit with the owner/chef who talked about getting the crust exactly like they do in Naples. So the next day we went back and both got pizzas. I can spend weeks in Italy without splurging on a pizza, but this was worth it.

And we found what has to be one of the great bar/restaurants in all of Vietnam, a place called Gemination Eatery & Bar. Just a very cool space, well designed, and bartenders who seriously knew what they were doing. As in knew the difference between a Manhattan and a Perfect Manhattan without being prompted. Even knew the proper garnish! The first night we just stopped for drinks, but with every round they brought us some tasty little bite of something-or-other. So the next night we went for drinks and dinner and were thrilled with the food. A place that good, that we loved – you just know it’ll be out of business too soon.

So yeah, Dalat was a disappointment. But D doesn’t stand for Disaster – that would be way too much. Just not as exciting or pretty as I’d long hoped. I will, however, dream about that pizza for a long time. Now get ready for a lot of pictures of the Crazy House.

The Crazy House

A view inside one of the rooms at the Crazy House hotel. It’s only a one-star hotel and I’m pretty sure the rooms didn’t have en suite bathrooms. On top of that, of course, I’m not sure how I’d feel staying in a room with tourists poking their heads in all the time.

Very weird architecture

Crazy winding stairs connecting various spaces

Weird designs on the exterior of one of the buildings

Mark outside one of the first buildings we saw in the complex. It got weirder and weirder.

These narrow, winding stairs are in no way child-friendly

One last picture of me on the stairs of the Crazy House. Gaudí must be in a jealous rage.

Here I am at our Italian lunch spot with a plate of tagliata. That’s before I discovered the pizza.

And that was my little friend for lunch

Our wonderful bartender at Gemination. He could be working at any bar in Manhattan.

Our “fake antique” train to Trai Mat

Korean ladies in a tour group on the train. We were always amused at how insistent so many women here are about keeping their skin completely covered and protected from the sun. You can see the woman near the window wearing gloves. And it was 80 degrees!

Dalat is a major agricultural area for Vietnam. And oddly it seems as though they grow nearly all their produce inside these plastic buildings.

A view inside one of the production areas. The train was just that close to these and many other buildings.

The pagoda. We climbed to the top just because we were afraid we would miss something if we didn’t. We wouldn’t have.

An indication that we were getting close to the pagoda

There was tons of this stuff there

And more pagoda art

I look as though I would fit right in with these colors

As we were walking to the pagoda we walked by this guy working on a backhoe and I thought “Now that’s what Mark’s dad would want to see here!”

Mark on our boat ride out to the resort

After all that time on the beach in Quy Nhon it was off to the beach! Next stop was a stunning Six Senses resort on Ninh Van Bay, just a little ways from the city of Nha Trang. The resort is on peninsula that juts out into the South China Sea, accessible only by boat, so it felt like you were on a remote island. It was a nearly perfect stay.

First, though, we had to get there. Google Maps said the drive would be about three-and-a-half hours, but since we had to catch a scheduled boat to the resort, we left four-and-a-half hours early. And as we sat in the car driving south we kept losing time, minute after minute. We were down to a cushion of only about 25 minutes when the driver turned off the main highway onto a detour of sorts. No explanation, but suddenly we lost another 16 minutes. And on top of that we had to find an ATM en route to pay the driver. We were starting to freak out about missing our boat!

Immediately upon arrival we sat down for lunch. In the sand, under the trees – it was an auspicious start.

Somehow, almost shockingly, we found an ATM right on the route and got to the pier about two minutes early. We don’t like to cut it that close!

Once we got there, though, it was heaven. The resort spans hundreds of acres and they provide you with bicycles to get around. The beach was perfect, the sun loungers were perfect, the weather was perfect … even the food was really good. One of the down sides of resort life is often that while the food may be prepared well the choices are just too limited looking at the same menu every day, in some cases the same menu for both lunch and dinner. Not so here: every night there were options for different locations, different menus, different cuisines.

And there were lots of activities to choose from. So the very first morning I got up early to grab breakfast and go on a scheduled hike. Alas, I mis-remembered the information and got to the starting point a half hour after they left. Not to worry: the resort offered me a discounted private hike the next day. So again up early and this time just me and my guide, Nhon.

The high point of our hike. Then it was down, down, down to that isolated beach you see on the shore.

The hike was nearly two hours, up and over two “mountains” (big hills, to be honest), and it might be the first hike I ever did where I felt old. 26-year-old Nhon would bound up the trail, hopping over logs and rocks, then stop and wait for me. Off he’d go again leaping from one rock to the next, then stop and wait for me. Rinse and repeat, over and over. Old or not, I made it to the second peak and then it was a relatively quick descent to a private beach where I really enjoyed a swim while we waited for the resort’s boat to take us back. For once a beach resort was about more than just reading, napping, swimming, and eating.

Since reading, napping, swimming, and eating was the large bulk of what we did, though, that’s about all there is to say. Except to note again that this was a nearly perfect resort.

Mark thinks I sometimes wear too much pink. He’s wrong.

The second umbrella from the left somehow just fit us perfectly

The view from breakfast

Another view of breakfast

Dinner our first night at Grandma’s Kitchen

Dinner one night was sitting at this little table on the beach with a little grill for squid, shrimp, steak … I don’t remember all of it, but it was all really good. As long as the staff took care of the cooking; we weren’t really very good at that.

Mark at dinner in the main restaurant where you sit at normal tables and order off a menu. Very fancy!

My intrepid guide Nhon, at the peak. He wasn’t quite as tired as I was.

We became very fond of these bikes as we roamed the massive grounds of the resort. The name tags were a nice touch.

The view from our upstairs loft, a lovely place to hang out in the afternoon and evening

The bay, looking across to the mainland

Reading a history of the Greeks. Notice those little bowls on the table beside me? The resort has a free ice cream station from maybe 11:00 AM until 4:00 PM. We resisted the first couple days but then decided it was too good to pass up. Turns out it *was* too good to pass up!

And finally, the boat back. Off to the next adventure!

A rare moment when the sun came out

Our stay in Quy Nhon — and indeed this whole trip to Vietnam — was all triggered by an article I saw in a travel magazine just about a year ago. I read about this cool train called Vietage that makes a six-hour journey through central Vietnam, linking the Anantara hotels in Hoi An and Quy Nhon. In fact, Vietage is a single luxurious train car, organized by Anantara, that is added onto a standard Vietnam Railways train for this particular 200-mile segment of its route. Its passengers pass the time in great style, enjoying lounges, cocktails, and fine dining.

I shared the article with Jim, and we both got excited about doing another trip to Vietnam, with this train journey as one highlight. I soon set about planning, finding flights, booking hotels, etc. I get very engrossed in this type of planning and focus on it intensely for a couple weeks until an itinerary is in place.

But I found the process for booking the train very confusing. I inexplicably could not choose the dates I wanted on the website. I eventually wrote to someone at Anantara for help. They wrote back that the train was out of commission for some kind of maintenance for the entire month of February. What a disappointment! Here I am planning a whole trip around this fictitious train!

I lost my enthusiasm and just quit my planning for a couple weeks. Fortunately, I had not yet made any non-refundable commitments. We eventually decided we were excited enough about Vietnam, fancy train or not, and I should finish my arrangements.

Exploring the village of Bai Xep for a lunch spot. This turned out to be a bust.

At least I didn’t much worry about Jim getting hit by a car because of low visibility in the gloomy weather

We ended up hiring a driver for the journey from Hoi An to Quy Nhoh, and that did actually go quite smoothly. We expected a 5-1/2 hour drive and it actually went an hour faster than that. But no cocktails.

So that is how we ended up at the Anantara resort in Quy Nhon, a place that is otherwise a bit off from the standard tourist route. The resort was nice enough, though the weather and other surroundings were less than entirely hospitable.

Quy Nhon is a beachside community that is a very popular retirement destination for well-to-do Vietnamese. But, according to our travel guide, “for most travellers its attractions are perhaps less compelling.” In fact, the resort was about 15 minutes south of Quy Nhon, a short walk from a village called Bai Xep, which the guide book suggested was more charming.

Now we love nothing more than escaping from a resort for a somewhat more authentic dining experience. So on our second day we walked up the road into Bai Xep to find a lunch spot. But boy, was this town bedraggled! There were some really downscale tourist establishments, but nothing that looked remotely pleasant to us. We made the 15-minute walk back to the hotel eager for another nice resort meal! We could have easily taken a taxi into Quy Nhon for lunch or dinner, but I could not find a single option that looked appealing there either.

So we spent 5 days cloistered at the comfortable resort, where the food was actually quite good. Unfortunately, the weather was not. At the beginning the forecast showed a couple cloudy days, followed by a couple partly sunny days. But every day the forecast shifted, and the clouds hardly ever lifted — until the morning we were leaving, when the sky was clear and the forecast finally showed sun all day. Oh well, that’s the way it is sometimes. Time to head further south and find the damn sun!

Every time the sun peeped out for just a second, we’d jump up and take a pic

The view across the lovely (if usually cloudy) bay

The restaurant at the resort had a gimmick of cooking the food on big slabs of salt, but it did all taste great

I had a beautiful seafood assortment on my salt slab

The view from the very uncrowded pool

Boats on the bay

Our room deal came with a free massage for each of us. Doesn’t Jim look relaxed leaving the spa?

The sun — capture it fast!