All posts by Jim St. George

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!

Here we are with our old classmate Lin Liu, living in Hanoi as an American diplomat. Right below us (we’re in her apartment) is the lake where John McCain was shot down and captured.

We’re spending February in Vietnam. We’ve been here twice before, first for three or four weeks in late 2001/early 2002 and then again almost exactly 10 years ago early in our big adventure. We’ve long described Vietnam as one of our favorite countries – great food, friendly people, interesting history, beautiful beaches, and some lovely cities – but we both wondered if we would like it as much this third time. Maybe we’ve kind of seen it all already and we would just be reliving some Greatest Hits experience. After a couple days in Hanoi, though, I’m inclined to think we will really enjoy it. Simply put (and something I would never have imagined saying growing up during the war) I love Hanoi.

If you have to take a flight half way around the world, might as well do it in Business Class with a bottomless glass of champagne, right?

First, though, we had to get there. It was supposed to be straightforward: Qatar Airways, one stop in Doha, a modest layover, then on to Hanoi. Everything was fine until we got near Hanoi when the pilot announced that due to weather conditions we would have to circle for a while. And another while. Until finally he announced that we would have to divert to Bangkok. OK we thought, we can sit it out for an hour or two until the plane is refueled and the weather clears up as the forecast certainly showed it was to do. (Even then, at one point the plane did a big loop, turned around and headed back to Hanoi. Yay!! Except the celebration was too soon: the weather fogged up again and we turned back to Bangkok.)

So we go on to Bangkok, land, and hang out on the plane for a couple hours while the airline tries to figure out what to do. Eventually the weather in Hanoi cleared, but too late: the crew had “timed out” and they couldn’t take the plane back to Hanoi. They tell us instead we will deplane while they figure out if they can get another crew or if we’ll have to spend the night.

Mark and I then tried to decide whether we should just buy a one-way flight to Hanoi so we could be sure to get there (and the pre-paid hotel room!) that afternoon. Seats were available and they were pretty inexpensive. One problem: Qatar Airways insisted – insisted! – on holding our passports when we went through immigration. They said it was the Thai officials and maybe it was, but it made no sense: Americans can go into Thailand without a visa so what’s the problem? Just have us go through immigration like anyone else. Absolutely no way: we had to give up our passports. It was only for a couple hours, though, they explained, as we’d be flying out between four and five that afternoon.

That was just a big old lie, though, to get us to quiet down and give them our passports. Instead they took us to a hotel maybe 30 minutes from the airport and nearly an hour away from the center of Bangkok. And there we stayed overnight with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

While the diversion to Bangkok was a fiasco, we tried to make the best of it. There was nothing very interesting around our airport hotel, but we did find one tiny local restaurant that got good reviews so we tried it. Colorful, local, and cheap, yes, but … not as great as we’d hoped.

The next morning when we got to the airport it was an unbelievable zoo. Somehow no one had figured out how to get our passports back to us so when someone went to the check-in counter – dedicated to our delayed flight – the staff would just start looking through the passports one-by-one, trying to match the name or picture with whoever was standing in front of them. Apparently no one had ever heard of “alphabetization.”

And speaking of stupid, the new boarding passes they issued still had yesterday’s date, since that was the scheduled departure. So when I got to the security line they didn’t want to let me through – my flight had been yesterday. Eventually a supervisor came over and showed the agent a little scribbled note that explained the discrepancy. Even then we weren’t free, though. Thai officials didn’t want us to go through the normal passport line since we’d come into the country without having our passports stamped. Instead they herded us, one-by-one as people gradually worked their way through all the hoops, into a holding area. When could we go through? Once all 174 people had made it through. That was insane and was going to take hours … and who knew if someone had gotten lost or went through a different line or whatever. So finally they realized the stupidity of that and when there were maybe 30 of us let us through.

OK, fine. Eventually they got that sorted out and we flew on to Hanoi. And within about an hour of checking into the Metropole Hotel – the grand dame of Hanoi’s luxury hotels – I was over all the frustration. Around the center, French Quarter, and old town, at least, Hanoi is just such a beautiful, exciting, vibrant city that you fall in love immediately or, in my case, fall in love again. The weather was pleasant, temperature in the 70s and overcast so not too hot. The street life is alive. And right in the middle of everything, just a block from our hotel, is Hoan Kiem Lake, where the people of Hanoi run, walk, take pictures, play badminton, exercise, and just enjoy life. I’ve gone out for early morning runs and walks every time I’ve been in Hanoi and this trip was no exception. It just makes me happy.

We took a break while walking through the old city and sat on a second-floor balcony of a coffee shop watching a random intersection. The noise, the chaos, the colors … it was exhilarating. Watching cars, buses, scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians pushing through with little or no traffic controls you wonder how people survive but somehow they do.

Sadly though, we’d only booked three nights in Hanoi, in part because we weren’t sure we would really want to stay longer. But since we lost a full 30 hours to the Bangkok fiasco, in fact we only had one full day to enjoy it. We made the most of our time there, spending much of the day with a former classmate who is part of the American embassy in Hanoi. She showed us around a bit, including a spectacular street-food lunch, a local coffee shop, and a great place for dinner.

Lunch with Lin was a special treat. She took us to a popular little “restaurant” that was mostly just stools on the sidewalk, where they specialize in Bun Cha, a Hanoi specialty of grilled pork patties, grilled pork belly, in a divine broth with rice noodles and tons of fresh, local greens. Oh man.

One of the things we noticed as soon as we got into the city that it just seemed cleaner, nicer, wealthier than we remembered it. And as we walked around you could see unmistakeable signs: nicer restaurants, five-star hotels, a Four Seasons under development. People were better dressed with maybe just a little more spring in their steps.

And sure enough when I looked it up, Vietnam’s economy has been on a tear. Inflation-adjusted per capital income is up nearly 75 percent over the last 10 years. And given the challenges of addressing rural poverty, and especially the historic interest autocratic governments have always had in keeping people in the capital happy and complacent, I suspect income growth in Hanoi is measurably larger than that. It seems as though things are going well here, at least so long as you don’t do anything to promote democracy or anything stupid like that.

It was all over too soon though and after just a day-and-a-half we were flying down to Danang for a few days at a resort near Hoi An. We have four weeks here so there’s still plenty of time to soak up Vietnam.

The people of Vietnam are always so friendly. These kids were doing some assignment with their teacher so a couple of them interviewed me. Very cute.

It’s the start of Tet here, and the Sunday we arrived there were hundreds of mostly young women and girls dressed up, posing, and having their pictures taken. Very colorful.

Here’s a classic Vietnamese picture. The local guy taking a break, napping on his scooter. We’ve taken this picture on each of our trips here.

The bridge to Ngoc Son Temple in Hoan Kiem Lake in early morning fog

I love walking or running around the lake early in the morning where you see every kind of exercise imaginable. Here we have a group of older women pounding each other on the back. Looks like fun!

More women exercising

Yet another group of women out early. I suspect they were practicing something for a Tet celebration.

Mark on one of the crazy colorful crowded Hanoi streets

While Vietnam is modernizing rapidly, untold millions of people still make their living the old fashioned way.

Me & Lin at a very pleasant little coffee shop/art studio. It’s the sort of thing that I just don’t remember from 10 years ago and certainly not from our first visit 23 years ago.

And finally, how happy do I look stranded here in Bangkok. Fortunately though as they say, all’s well that ends well. And this ended well. Eventually.