Without a doubt, Dalat is best known for the ‘Crazy House’. The gaudi-inspired structure is reminiscent of Surrealism and something one would expect to see in Europe. Instead, it sits squatly in the middle of the highland resort town, arrogant, out of place, and beautiful. Dubbed the ‘Land of Eternal Spring’, the Dalat in guidebooks seem to be filled with nothing but clichéd attractions such as swan boats and horse carriage rides. Turns out, it has MUCH more to offer, as anyone volunteering abroad in Vietnam will discover.
Welcome to Dalat, a highland town, the Paris of Vietnam; a unique and refreshing side of the communist state and her people. If you are heading off to volunteer in Vietnam, don’t miss out on the wonderful adventures to be had here.
1. Dress up for Hang Nga guesthouse, also dubbed ‘Crazy House’
More at home on the set of a Tim Burton movie than in a humble, industrious small town, the ‘Crazy House’ is the stuff twisted fairy tales are made of. Think odd-shaped rooms, sculptures of wild animals, and tiny nooks and tunnels – fantastic photo-opportunities coupled with sometimes rather treacherous steps makes for hours of fun.
Noteworthy: The architect behind the ‘Crazy House’, Dang Viet Nga, did not receive official support for the project initially. She started off with funding from private donors, family, and friends. She also opened it up as a guesthouse, so interested travelers could spend a night or two, an option that is still available although construction can sometimes inhibit availability. It was only later after the guesthouse started receiving attention and praise that the government stepped in with aid.
There is an entrance fee of 30,000 VND. However, you might find that no one is manning the ticket counter. In that case, just make a donation instead. Don’t go there in boring tee shirt and khaki pants- wear something whimsical or quirky to maximize the photo opportunities!
2. Shop at the Night Market
Every weekend, the locals hold a huge night market and hawk everything from winter jackets to vegetables. Locally produced wine and fruits are also available – it is like a farmers’ market of sorts, but less pretentious. Check out the tubs of fresh seafood – everything from squirming eels to lazy crabs, then hunker down and order. Remember to triple check the prices of different stalls. A good way to make sure you are not being quoted ‘tourist’ prices is to scrutinize how much money the locals are handing over.
The seafood here is known to be fresh and succulent. A simple dish of grilled scallops, served with crushed peanuts and a handful of fresh herbs, was simple and heartwarming. While the food there may not be out-of-this-world yummy, the feeling of sitting on a tiny rickety stool, surrounded by the fierce chatter of the Vietnamese and the cool, wintry air makes the whole evening seem magical.
3. Picnic at Dalat’s Flower Gardens
Beautiful and well-maintained, it is the ideal spot for an afternoon picnic to relax after your hours of volunteer work (one of Vietnam’s famed baguettes and coffee, anyone?). While some may think flower gardens might bore everyone except those with green thumbs, this place is a sight to behold. Flowers of every color, and every imaginable texture, from velvety roses to those with tissue-paper thin petals, grow here. The vibe of the garden is very relaxed, and one can easily spend an entire afternoon there. A lake with swan boats is just around the corner of the entrance, for those who want to replicate a kitschy romantic experience.
4. Have Coffee Over a Gorgeous View
At the coffee plantation, you get to see coffee beans in various stages of growth and the civet cats that help produce the infamous civet cat coffee. The best part of the visit for coffee fiends, however, is sampling a freshly dripped cup of coffee from an extensive coffee menu.
The enterprising owner of a plantation had a giant wooden hut built so visitors can linger over twenty different types of coffee beans and powder, tea leaves, handcrafted bags and scarves, all while enjoying a freshly dripped cup of coffee. Few things are more comforting than sipping a steaming cup of caffeine while overlooking green trees and blue lakes.
5. Dine Where the Locals Dine
That sometimes means eating at establishments that don’t seem fit to be termed ‘establishment’. If you have a weak stomach, start at the more upmarket (read: not roadside) diners first, before graduating to the authentic hawkers. The best meal most people have in the whole of Vietnam is not at a luxurious hotel restaurant, but at its dingy roadside counterpart. Try to wander off the usual touristy main street, and venture into where the locals go. If you spot haphazardly placed plastic tables, a cloud of billowing smoke, and an aroma that makes your tummy rumble, you’re in the right place.
The working class Vietnamese are not known for their table manners, so don’t be alarmed if the man next to clears his throat and spits in the middle of the meal, or a lady lets out a loud sneeze and sends snot flying. If you didn't spot anything land directly on your food, it’s probably safe to continue wolfing down the delicious meal.
Dalat may not be as cultural as Hanoi or trendy and gritty as Ho Chi Minh. Instead of hordes of Western backpackers, Dalat is a tourist hotspot for Vietnamese from other parts of the country. As a result, much of the area is catered to Vietnamese tastes, by the Vietnamese themselves. This makes it the perfect destination for volunteering abroad in Vietnam.