Our first big destination north of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was ?à L?t, a mountain town in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and “city of thousands of pines.”
After managing to skirt HCMC on our way north from the Mekong, the road to ?à L?t took us through the beach town of M?i Né – known to be a sleepy surf and SUP (stand-up paddleboarding) hotspot.Like much of Vietnam, sleepy describes M?i Né as it was 15 years ago.
Far from that, it’s now a haven for winter-weary Russians seeking sun and cheap alcohol (though much less so than Nha Trang, further north up the coast).
There are still some surf bums hanging around, but, sadly, much of the local culture hangs in the shadows of what my husband calls “womp-womp” music, strobe lights, and tourist traps that are destroying the local environment.
Take, for example, some nearby sand dunes that overlook the ocean and fishing village in M?i Né. You can visit for free, which is rare in Vietnam (they charge admission to everything). But, you must pay to park at one of the nearby cafes, and the proprietors are all vying for your business, waving at you frenetically in the hopes that you’ll not only park but buy food, drinks, souvenirs, anything.
Once parked, you are accosted by children aggressively trying to sell you rides on a “sled” (usually a piece of plastic similar to a lunch tray) down the dunes. As a result, the dunes are swarming with people and littered with garbage. Not the natural wonder we were hoping to find.
On the bright side, the dunes are big enough for everyone, for now anyway, and with some vigorous walking, we were able to get away from the sledders and trash, find some peace and quiet, enjoy a cold beer, and watch the sunset.
Given this experience, we trimmed our stay in M?i Né by a few days, leaving just enough time to enjoy our first doner kebab in Vietnam (delicious!), check out the nearby ruins of Tháp Po Sah In? (Cham temples built in the late 8th/early 9th century), and get work done on the bikes (oil changes for us both, new rear shocks for me, and a new ignition for H).
We also managed to make our first Vietnamese friend, Binh. Binh, a local motorcycle tour guide who speaks excellent English, kindly volunteered to help us communicate with the mechanics, which was hugely helpful. While it’s very easy to demonstrate an obvious problem, say a flat tire, it’s a hell of a lot harder to communicate something like “my shocks are shot.”
Binh also shared valuable knowledge about the best roads, including the route to ?à L?t. Later that day, we ran into him near our hotel and again the next day at the Cham ruins with two clients. As fate would have it, they too were on their way to ?à L?t. We set out after them the following morning.
Following Binh’s instructions to a T, we finally enjoyed the kind of ride we came for – a desolate ribbon of decent tarmac (see the green line coming out of Di Linh), snaking it’s way up, down, and around verdant mountains hugged with clouds. We couldn’t stop oohing and ahhing, even though we were shivering from our first taste of cold(er) mountain weather.
After a warming bowl of pho in the little town of Di Linh, we found the next stretch of road busier and less scenic. We opted to take a much longer route up to ?à L?t rather than the main road, hoping for less traffic and better views. Though this was the case, neither made it worth the extra 22 miles on windy, steep, gravel roads – H disagreed and really enjoyed it.
Nevertheless, it was love at first sight when we rolled into ?à L?t.
?à L?t is the capital of Lâm ??ng Province and is situated on the Langbian Plateau 4,900 ft. above sea level. Because of its temperate mountain climate, the area is famous for its wide array of quality produce, flowers, and various fruit products (dried, preserved, etc.).
?à L?t has been a resort town by design from its very beginning, a place for the colonial French to escape the heat of HCMC (Saigon as it was known then). As such, it bears the hallmarks of French urban planning and architecture, boasting beautiful villas, gardens, and wide boulevards. It even served as the capital of the Federation of Indochina from 1939 to 1945.
Like all of Vietnam, ?à L?t experienced fighting between Communist and American forces, but the city was largely spared the destruction seen elsewhere (too many cities and towns to list). It seems both sides were reluctant to destroy this gem.
We loved ?à L?t for its European charm, clean streets, and ability to be a major tourist destination without feeling like it. In other words, you can find everything you need here (imported wine and beer, all manner of toiletries and cosmetics, and a decent Western-style meal), but you can generally be anonymous. You won’t find too many restaurants trying to steer you inside or a steady stream of sellers all hawking the same junk and refusing to take no for answer. Only the Easy Riders will approach you and offer a motorbike tour, and it’s a soft approach at that, compared to other places here like Hoi An. It’s just a beautiful town, with nice people, living nice lives.
This made it the perfect place to spend Christmas. Especially because we discovered the Big C. The Big C puts a Walmart Supercenter to shame – this place has EVERYTHING, and for pennies. After setting aside our indignation at what we pay for the exact same items in the states (cookware, towels, clothes, you name it – all a tenth of Walmart prices), we reveled in the commercial, overabundant, fluorescent glory that is the Big C.
- Said bottle of bubbly
- A bottle of red wine
- 5 specialty beers (a Chimay, 2 Hoegaardens, and 2 Leffe Blondes)
- Spanish chorizo
- Blush for me (yes, I am still a little vain)
- Welcome mats (to protect the bottom of our packs from mud kicked up by our bikes)
Biggest regret? Not buying Goldfish crackers when we saw them. And to think we almost walked right by this place…
We floated back to our hotel on a shopaholic’s high, making big plans for our goodies. Since we had all the makings for a great picnic, we decided to do just that, with a hike thrown in for good measure.
Being surrounded by mountains, you would assume there would be an abundance of hiking trails, but then you would be thinking like an American (or European). People in Vietnam do not hike for sport, and any “trails” you find are usually animal/farmer trails. Nonetheless, we managed to follow the example of past intrepid travelers and hack our own hike.
History buffs will know Lang Biang Mountains as the home of Radar Base, a former American installation during the Vietnam War. As always, you must pay to park at the bottom, then pay a park entrance fee, and then pay to ride to the base in bright green, open air jeeps (you are not allowed to drive yourself to the top). You can also skip the ride to the top and hang out at the bottom, where you’ll have a chance to sit on top of a horse painted like a zebra, purely for the photo op. Asia is so amazingly weird. I love it.
In lieu of all this, we decided to start out at the bottom and hike our way to Lang Biang Peak, the second highest in the area. To say this hike was hard is a understatement. Though I’m not mountaineer, I’ve spent my whole life hiking, trying to keep up with my dad. Trust me when I say that’s not easy.
The bottom part of the trail takes you through farmlands and is hard to follow – we got off track fairly quickly and spent a lot of time scrambling and trying to pick up the trail again. It’s also a fast elevation gain. And this is just the first half.
At the midway point, you’ll find a ranger hut. If you have the misfortune of finding a ranger there (50/50 chance), you must pay yet another fee. We lost out and paid the fee.
From the hut, it’s a half-mile or so of easy walking, and then, it gets punishing – as my dad would call it, a stairmaster. It’s a seemingly endless slog of one foot after the other through thick, slippery mud…up, and up, and up. But wow, the views from the summit are otherworldly, and we thoroughly enjoyed a picnic among the clouds.For dinner, we chose the quiet and lovely M Bistro, helmed by a former Cheesecake Factory sous chef in Houston. She was delightful and so proud of her food, going to pains to make H.J. an affogato (hot espresso over vanilla ice cream) when she heard how much he loved coffee ice cream.
To round out the day, we joined the throngs of locals crowding the streets, all surging toward the big Catholic church. The public celebration here was very different than the American experience where everyone stays home.
On Christmas Day, we hired a local guide from Scimitar Easyriders to show us around the countryside surrounding ?à L?t. Hung was the perfect guide for us – laid back, funny, knowledgeable, and laughed at all my jokes. What more can you ask for?
We started the day off right with banh mi and coffee, and then hit up Linh Quang Pagoda. Hung gave us a primer on Buddhist history, basic tenets, symbols, art, and architecture. I assumed wrongly that he was Buddhist given his knowledge, only to find out that he was raised Catholic and is now essentially an atheist. We had an interesting discussion about the role of religion in Vietnamese society, and Hung’s take is that it is not nearly as divisive here as it is in the U.S. I am inclined to agree.
We continued on to a flower farm and then a coffee plantation. Vietnam is the fourth largest producer of coffee in the world, behind Brazil, Columbia, and Indonesia, respectively. In addition to the traditional arabica and robusta coffee, it also produces “weasel poo coffee” (Hung’s term). Kopi luwak, as it’s officially called, goes something like this:
- Weasel eats coffee berries (wild weasels are best since they are selective in their berry consumption, but they are also kept in captivity and force fed for such purposes).
- Weasel digests berry, fermenting it in the process.
- Weasel poos out berries, almost intact.
- Weasel poo berries are dried in the sun, shelled, then roasted and ground into coffee.
This is not a joke. Apparently, it is a delicacy and insanely expensive (try $700/kilogram). You can read more than you ever wanted to know about it here. We smelled both kinds of coffee and preferred the traditional version. As it turns out, we are not as adventurous as we seem.
From there, it was onto nearby Elephant Falls (both a tourist and death trap with slick rocks but still beautiful) and a rice wine “distillery” – nothing more than a local family brewing their own hooch to sell to friends and neighbors. I’ve had real moonshine in the States and thus expected it to go down like gasoline – this was much more pleasant and smooth.
Our final stop was a silk factory. Here’s the quick and dirty:
- Silk worms eat and eat and eat a boatload of leaves (you can actually hear them crunching) before they spin silk cocoons for themselves using their salivary glands. They intend to become moths in this cocoon.
- They are denied their destiny and instead boiled alive to prevent them from releasing enzymes that make escaping the cocoon possible but cause the silk threads to break.
- Not to worry, the dead silk worms are not wasted – they are eaten, of course! Waste not, want not. We both tasted one, and wanted not a single one more.
- Meanwhile, the individual silk threads are extracted and fed onto a spool.
- Individual threads are then woven to make fabric.
The process is intensely laborious, and this is all just to make raw silk – before it’s dyed, made into clothes, embroidered, etc. I will never look at clothes the same way again.
Finally it was time to wrap up our tour, and if you’ve been following along on our journey, you know that means one thing: motorcycle repairs. We both had our oil changed, brakes tightened, and chains lubed; plus, I had a hole in my exhaust repaired. Hung went above and beyond the call of duty: escorting us to the mechanic, translating, and ensuring that everything was done perfectly. He would not leave until he was sure we knew how to get back to our hotel (an easy drive about one km away).
Though we weren’t able to repay Hung for the favor, we were able to repay someone else – Binh from M?i Né! He was in ?à L?t again with clients, so we took him out for a few beers that night. It was the perfect way to wrap up our unorthodox Christmas.
The day after Christmas was our last in ?à L?t, and after talking to our families in the states (12-15 hours behind), we spent the rest of the day strolling, enjoying the sights, and watching the city prepare for the 2013 ?à L?t Flower Festival.
Started in 2005, the festival takes place every two years and showcases the area’s talented growers and florists. In addition to the more than 28,000 flowers and plants adorning the city’s center, there are lectures, exhibitions, award ceremonies, dinners, and performances. It’s an absolutely magical time to visit the city, so if you can time your trip accordingly, do so.
Though many tourists deem ?à L?t “inauthentic” on account of its wealth and French colonial roots, we here at Wanderrlust think it deserves a spot on any tour of Vietnam.
Peace, love, and happiness –