My last full day in Dalat had a lot more planning than usual. There was still a number of things I wanted to do see and eat prior to hitting to the coastal settlement of Hoi An and have Dalat be a speck in my rearview mirror. The sense of urgency meant gone was the indifference to time which is a constant companion on holidays. The fear of missing one of my planned stops straightened the spine and had me more alert than six cups of ca phe sua da.
Breakfast was the buffet at the hotel. The buffet concept and I have grown apart from the days in the early 1990’s when at high school the zenith of dining was the Pizza Hut all you could eat for $5 deal. But like the curiousity surrounding the status of an ex love I was intrigued to see if there was still something that could be rekindled, if only for a morning. What does she look like after all these years? Has she let herself go with a heap of fried food or is she more health conscious than ever?
The short answer was the buffet didn’t offer up anything new or exciting, other than the yoghurt was better than I was expecting. Most dairy in Asia isn’t as creamy as what our Australian palates are accustomed.
While not technically Vietnamese there was a wonton noodle joint that I saw was packed each time I passed by. The added bonus was it was across the road from a cafe so I was able to have a quick condensed milk hit while I watched the line died down. There is something about the old man cafes that have the young upstarts covered when it comes to Vietnamese style coffee. At the cafe a tussle broke out over the music when Boney M got displaced mid “Rasputin” by a heavily tattooed older man for Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone”. This is why I am a strong opponent of the “jukebox” sysyem in cafes where anybody has power to change the music whenever they see fit. I didn’t want to be the innocent collateral damage over a disagreement of two shitty songs, I had to get out of here and slurp down some noodles before S Club 7 started playing.
I know, how many soups can you have? But if you think about it the combinations are limitless because there are so many animals, vegetables and plants you can stick in a bowl. On this particular occasion it was pig a few different ways, as buoyant as always. Thin strips of pork, minced pieces of pork, some wontons and then sprinkled with some crackling (because they didn’t think there was enough pork already?) The owner got the thumbs up – the tourist’s code for “delicious”.
A bellyfull of coffee and pork I paid a visit to the Crazy House. No, it’s not a mental asylum for the overeater, however the jury is probably on the fence on the owner/artist’s mental state. This is the kind of woman that has taken the whole home renovation show too seriously and gone to a whole new stratosphere. Part Salvador Dali, part Alice In Wonderland and a bit of Dr Seuss for good measure, this is a passion project that got out of hand. Originally known as Hang Nga Guesthouse people that visited kept saying it was batshit crazy and the Crazy House name is now its sobriquet.
The whole structure has a maze of steps and secret passages designed to be climbed. This is where my problems began, as I have a fear of heights and this coupled with Vietnam’s fairly lax safety culture meant that I wasn’t going to get very far. Don’t know whether it was my brain telling me to abort, or the fact my legs turned to custard but either way I cut my losses, swallowed my pride and opted for the safety of the ground.
There are a number of rooms that can be rented out for accommodation including a honeymoon suite. Having a group of nosy Norwegians scampering past the window giving their fellow backpackers a blow by blow description of the post wedding shenanigans would be the best way to dull your wedding bliss.
The heartbeat was returning to normal when I found a place well known for its Nem Nuong, a Vietnamese dish where you roll your own spring roll. Like an IKEA furniture catalogue with foreign instructions I was given a plate of bbq pork sausage, a bucket of herbs, cucumber, pork crackling, rice paper and a peanut dipping sauce. The rest is up to you.
Thinking that the rice paper may be a tad dry I opted for a single sheet but that ended like a finger through single ply toilet paper. Second attempt was a thing of beauty (it’s in the eye of the beholder isn’t it?) when I double-sheeted. A crunchy, meaty, fresh tasting parcel. The public humiliation of the Crazy House was all now washed away in a sea of peanut sauce I would be happy to be drowned in.
I couldn’t recreate the magic of that second roll, the locals were dishing out advice about my technique and trying to get in my head when I was at the top of my game. My portion allocation also went astray meaning that the last couple of rolls were going to be cucumber and pork crackling only if I didn’t call in the neighbourhood quantity surveyor. But for that fleeting moment I thought I had mastered this ancient art.
That night was a wander through the markets, taking in the sights and smells that one final time. I’d had enough pork to do me for a while so what better time to try out what is known by tourists as a “Dalat Pizza”. Dry rice paper covered with some oil, herbs, egg and a mystery meat. Fold it over like a delicious birthday card, all for the price of $1.25AUD. There are a cast of thousands selling these things but this guy had a bit of showmanship, hence he got my money, he could teach the old ladies a thing or two on marketing. Here’s a snippet of him in action
While not a “pizza” (bahn trang nuong is the Vietnamese name), I wasn’t going to get caught up in semantics as it turned the dull looking rice paper into a thing of beauty.
The old ladies that weren’t selling the pizza were showcasing Dalat’s fine produce. I needed something fresh and what could be more healthy than a punnet of strawberries covered with sugar and shaken up in her impression of a NutriBullet.
On that last night I also found a place ladelling out Che. This is an Asian dessert which is especially popular in Vietnam. As dairy is a rare commodity, this uses beans, fruits, seeds, ice, jelly, sugar (mountains of sugar) and coconut milk to form something that looks like it should not be eaten into a satisfying pallate cleanser. The Che family tree has two branches, one being in a cup served as a drink and the other in a bowl. First up, the cup option. This one had corn, tapioca pearls, clear jelly, pieces of shredded coconut and some ice. Topped off with a splash of coconut milk.
There were three options for hot Che in bowls and a Chinese family with a couple of young kids could sense my curiosity. Some words were exchanged, followed by bowls of the hot version. At this stage the kids thought it was funny to see a white giant crouching to eat Che. Even though I was two metres away he had a pair of binoculars out looking at me like a scene from Gorillas In The Mist. Even Mum was taking photos and smiling at me. Who knows the Chinese Government have now got me on file with a gobful of Che but it kept the kiddies smiling so it’s not that bad I guess?
Fairly foreign to most in Australia it is not going to be everybody’s idea of a refreshing dessert. But it isn’t the last time I charm the locals over a bowl or three of Che. Dalat, it’s been the highlight so far but things must move on. Next Hoi An.