BUON MA THUOT: The Vietnamese man smiled and posed for his friend with a camera. It was a bizarre scene. He was wearing a cowboy hat and sitting on the back of a white horse which had black zebra stripes painted all over it. His friend took the picture and he got off the back of the mournful looking creature and handed the hat to another friend for his turn for the camera. Welcome to tourism Vietnam style.
The location was at the bottom of a mountain. Tourist buses were unloading masses of domestic tourists who then proceeded to jump into the back of a jeep to be transferred up to the top of the mountain. Zebras and Montagnards, or "hill-tribe people", selling handicraps completed the circus that was this place. This place was Dalat - Vietnam's version of a ski resort, minus any snow.
The "Zebra" of Dalat
Dalat, with an altitude of 1500m, is nice and cool and has a spring climate year round - a lot like Goroka in PNG, but without the dusty streets and frontier feel. Local Vietnamese flock here now for the same reason as the French who originally came and built the place in the 20s - for the nice climate. What that means is that the sights to see in the town itself are a bit minimal, unless you like looking at old French villas or nice lake. The only thing left to do is the kitsch touristy day trips around the town.
The climes were a bonus for us as well after the month long sticky heat we have wadded through in the Mekong and Cambodia. It was fantastic to be able to get back under the covers of a blanket without needing a fan whirring overhead all night. But all good things must come to an end and we have ventured back into the heat now.
Getting out of Dalat showed another side of Vietnam's tourism, the one geared towards foreigners. You can hardly walk around Dalat without bumping into an "Easy Rider". These are a band of initiative local guys that offer customised multi-day tours on the back of a motorbike. We were given the hard sell on a few occasions, being shown former testimonials from tourists of all nationalities and photo albums. Even a pair of Kiwis came up and sat down opposite us in a cafe to extol how wonderful their trip with a couple of the guys were. The Easy Riders are the "real deal" apparently.
And while getting shown the countryside on the back of a motorbike sounds appealing, unfortunately the guys have realised they can charge a good deal more than any other tourist activity in the country. After travelling for month averaging $25 a day each for everything; accommodation, food, transport and sightseeing activities - the $60 per day sans food or accommodation is why most of the Easy Rider guys can afford to live it up in the cafes and bars in Dalat - drinking and smoking.
So we decided to have our own real deal Vietnam trip and got the $5 bus out town north to Buon Ma Thuot. It was on this that we saw a new side of tourism in Vietnam - and it wasn't the shite bus that was worse than a Lae to Mt Hagen one. It was Dzung, a student from Hanoi, who was travelling independently around his own country using the English language Lonely Planet because there is no equivalent written in Vietnamese.
Meeting Dzung, we jumped off the bus, not a moment too soon (it was one of those trips where they have 20 seats and they pack in 30 people), 50km before Buon Ma Thuot and wandered around a natural lake in called Lak Lake. Dzung became our own little free guide - although it was the first time he had been there as well, but at least he could speak the language in a place not so used to tourists yet. After lunch and a few hours at the lake we headed into BMT on a local bus, and were sad to say goodbye to our new friend as he had to hightail it back to Hanoi for the start of his semester at RMIT (needless to say when Rob gave him one of her old cards from RMIT he was pretty impressed). He has promised to take us out to the student bars in Hanoi when we get there - student price in a country where beers are 75cents!
So Buon Ma Thuot is the heat again, previously before Dalat we had managed to survive it at the coast for the first time on the trip. It was our holiday from our holiday. A little bungalow 20 paces from the white sandy beach was a tough gig. Every morning I got up and wandered down to jump into the warm surf and watch the locals fish from their strange round boats. Afternoons were reading books and napping. Luckily I picked up a battered copy of War and Peace from a guesthouse in Phomn Penh and am currently making good headway through it.
In between the beach and the Angkor temples there was some backtracking through PP and Saigon. I am loathe to backtrack but this did enable us to visit a couple of places which we had missed in these cities. The Cambodian National Museum with its vast Angkor period artifacts could be appreciated more since we had been to the temples and the Chinese district in Saigon, Cholon, was interesting to visit with its numerous pagodas.
Smelling the incense in Cholon
But back to the circus mountain. After purchasing tickets to enter this place, we were not sure if the jeep ride to the top was included, so we jumped in the back of one and then discovered that you actually had to pay extra. Being the tight-arses that we are we said bugger that and decided to hike up to the top of a peak away from the rest of the hoards. After a certainly more sweaty ascent than the other tourists in their jeaps, we descended three hours later and the buses were all gone. The zebra was still there though, tied up to a post, looking mournfully at the ground.