This time last year I was in Central Europe, treading the cobblestone lined streets, taking in beautiful architecture all the while holding some French inspired pastries in my gut and hands. I wasn’t expecting to replicate that experience in the middle of Vietnam, but that is the surprising thing about this tourist hub. Elevated some 1,500 metres above sea level (more than twice the height of Toowoomba) sits Dalat with its brisk climate, lush tropical hills and an abundance of history. Much of the architecture draws on French Colonial styles but does so without losing the Vietnamese flavour that I have fallen for. The French’s greasy fingerprints are all over Dalat, from the food, buildings and even the telecommunications tower which appears to be a replica of the Eiffel Tower. The city is built around a large dam which adds to its postcard feel.
I landed in Dalat courtesy of our fellow countryfolk, Jetstar. Having more than 7kg of luggage I splurged and upgraded to receive additional baggage benefits as well as a light meal on the plane. The upgraded flight was only $60AUD so I cannot question the value of the overall flight, however the meal was as described “light” and they were true to their word. A bread roll, butter and some instant coffee. Without the water the instant coffee was a bit hard on the old throat going down but that’s modern airline customer service for you.
From the airport I had planned a shuttle bus pickup. A forty minute commute along some modern toll roads and then the picturesque ascent up the range. The 7-seater arrived as well as seven humans and fourteen bags. Fortunately I was given the front seat. Unfortunately when the driver put on his beloved dance tunes I was unable to showcase my signature moves with my two bags in my lap rapidly cutting off the blood flow to my legs. The hotel, Nice Dream Hotel, was a step up from Ho Chi Minh City. Modern and situated in the middle of town and it backed into the nightly markets. I walked out directly into the markets only to be greeted by some Vietnamese cosplayers.
With my blood pressure returning to normal range the markets outside the hotel were ramping up. I promised myself I would eat the first thing that anybody offers up. Dalat has an agricultural slant and with perfect growing conditions it feeds a large portion of the country. As luck would have it a man with a dog on his shoulder was selling some kind of rice dish and for $1.50 AUD it’s probably not going to break the bank.
Having such a strong influence I scoped out the French bakery which ranked highly amongst the internet’s movers and shakers. However if Ho Chi Minh City taught me anything, it was to not take their sermons as gospel. One look at the offerings and I was all in. It was pastry season.
The Asian style bakeries give you a pair on tongs and a tray and then you get to business. This one had a list of the ingredients on the blurb of each item, most started “sugar, butter, flour”. If there were no allergies in that lot there was enough containing peanuts to make sure it was only a matter of time before something caused a reaction and you stop breathing. I was facing that problem but not because I have any allergies, I have a problem chewing food and thought it may be a smart idea to inhale an entire piece of cake.
As with most of Vietnam, unless you are buying from a place that has seating it is hard to find somewhere quiet to eat. These photos are taken on the steps overlooking the markets.
After the peanut biscuit I felt thirstier than a sailor who had to drink sea water to see the night out. No beer or coffee at the markets so sweetened soy milk got given another chance. In Ho Chi Minh City the drink was always served chilled given the temperature. However unbeknownst to me Dalat’s cooler climate (it was 12 degrees Celsius) means they serve this piping hot. So hot that the little plastic cup couldn’t be held and I spilled it, narrowly missing my fellow diners, a Japanese teenage couple looking to get frisky near the soy milk stand. Apparently there’s no love if there’s lactose.
A decent night’s sleep and the first great shower since I left home and there would be no stopping me, my first Dalat morning. No plans, get bearings and formulate strategy over a mid morning coffee. Breakfast was a noodle soup (for a change). Pork, noodles, herbs and spices is always a forerunner for a great day.
Given the low temperature I thought it best to head up the hill to investigate further what was a mere blur the afternoon before. A family in the backblocks were selling bahn can. These are muffin-like cakes made from rice flour batter and normally filled with a variety of ingredients. Have never tried these in my life but anything with rice flour in Vietnam was a favourable proposal. The menu was a sheet, written in Vietnamese, where you put the quantity you want next to each box (the same process as some dim sum restaurants). Based on the prices I thought they had three main sellers so I scribbled one next to each. The owners’ daughter took my paper, smiled and shook her head as if too indicate the amount of food was ridiculous. I shrugged my shoulders and waited.
The idea here is to dip the cakes, formed by putting two cooked halves together into the broth and then your cakehole. The broth has an optional pork meatball but the pile of greens is non-negotiable. These ones were of the plain variety but subsequent ones came with quail egg and the third had pork meat and sprouts baked inside. There were two ladies seated next to me who both were on charge of their cooking station. A rice batter was poured into the moulds and then given a little cover so that steam could get the batter all hot and bothered. At the exact right time the covers that resembled small hats were removed and the filling added and hat replaced.
The whole process is complete in a couple of minutes with the goal to get a slight char on the outside but remain fluffy on the inside. Tracking the cooking progress of each of the morsels is a quickfire game of memory for the ladies. After the first plate I needed to get to the toilet (nothing to do with the food, just a timing thing). The owner pointed me to the toilet but when he realised it was being used he took me into his house. I paused to take off my shoes and he shook his head (he thought I was busting), so I kept walking past the wife who was catching up with the soapies. As with most of these eateries they started lives as garages and then got converted.
The staff found it amusing that I would peer at what was being cooked, they would offer it to me and I would say “okay”. I became the “okay” guy that they would playfully mock as each batch came hot off the pan. A beer, two serves of the dipping soup and three plates of bahn can set me back $8AUD.
On the descent back down I found a place whose speciality is bahn beo. Common in Vietnam but difficult to track down in the touristy areas. Think of rice ravioli with little pieces of shrimp in them. Always come with a vinegar type sauce and something with a bit of crunch. It’s that chewy rice sheet texture thing that gets me everytime. The photo is horrible but it memorable. I tried to buy this from an old lady in Dalat on my last day so I could get a better photo and relive the magic but she thought I underpaid her (she was going senile).
On the way home I took a few a few shots:
First to admit that the food intake was at capacity for the day so dinner was bahn xeo. A crepe made with rice batter, coloured with tumeric (no eggs whatsoever) and contains some herbs, sprouts and a shrimp or two. In the south these are broken up and rolled in lettuce leaves and eaten. In the north you substitute the greens for dry rice paper. I prefer the greens.
It was about this time in the night I starting cursing myself that I only will be here for another thirty-six hours. Though I covered close to twelve kilometres today and there is the odd ache, Dalat should be the Vietnamese word for happiness.