Here in Da lat city, in the beautiful, south west highlands of Vietnam, we had planned to get behind one of the famous ‘Vietnameasy Riders’ and head for the hills. However, when our two bikers turned out to be what looked like an eight and a half year old boy, and a poor guy with the use of only one of his arms, I made the unilateral decision that I wasn’t comfortable putting my life in his hand !
We are both quite adventurous when it comes down to it, but thought this was one trip we should keep at arm’s length. Besides, the kid should really have been at school.
Instead, we restricted our mode of travel to footwork, and and an old locomotive, a relic from the country’s ‘L’indochine’ past. To be honest, we’d probably have been safer on the back of ‘One Armed Luke’s’ mean machine.
The tiny wooden train rattled precariously along the decripit tracks, blowing it’s whistle continuously, warning any countryfolk not to step onto it’s path. On one of the many unguarded, almost imperceptable, crossings en route, we almost took out two cyclists and nearly turned a youthful, daydreaming baguette seller into sliced bread.
His mother would not have been proud.
When we reached our destination, which seemed to consist of two tyre shops, three naff cafes and four puzzled locals, Andrew turned to me and asked in his best Canvey Island accent,
‘Why the fuck have you brought me here?’
I must admit, it was difficult to come up with an answer immediately. Especially as we had been promised an exciting ride aboard a romantic steam train and spectacular scenery. As it transpired, our route took us past a million plastic greenhouses, and the engine was a deisel, belching fumes into the open carriages, almost suffocating the poor Chinese family who had barged their way to the front of the train.
Serves them right for having no manners, I almost thought, but then my Buddha nature kick-started, and my sympathies were aroused. After all, being gassed to death by an Eastern Thomas The Tank Engine, is probably not the nicest way to go! Death on the Oriental Unexpress. Very Christie-esque!
I left Andrew sitting in one of the better establishments, with one of the ferocious Vietnamese coffees which seem compulsory here, and a packet of hideous ‘Craving A’!
I then headed off up the one street to find something to see. It seemed we were in, what one calls, the arse end of nowhere! The end of the bloody line. Everything looked lost and so I turned to head back towards Puffin’ Bill, when suddenly my path was blocked by a very stern woman with a vicious crew cut, with whom we had shared our carriage on the way.
“Where do you go?” She demanded.
“Back to my friend for coffee”, I fearfully replied.
“You don’t want to see Pagoda?” She shouted.
“There’s a pagoda?” I stuttered.
“Yes! Of course!”, she shrieked, “why do you think everybody is heading in this direction? For fun? Come now, or you have no time.”
I was a little frightened of this nanny-like European.
Earlier, when still at the station, she had forced me into going onto the crowded platform, and coralling passengers to make their way to the ticket office. The lacklustre lady behind the counter had informed us, that unless we had at least twenty people to ride the train, this choo- choo wouldn’t be a’chugging. Not even to the arse end of nowhere!
My strident tour guide woman, who had a distinct look of Eva Braun, was in no mood to be left motionless on the platform. So, she organised a flash mob in the waiting room, to make it clear to la femme de billettes, that unless we departed, she may end up as the departed one!
Sweating on the track, after we had reached the arse end of nowhere, I assured Ms Braun, that we would definitely make the effort to visit the temple, she had worked so hard for us to get to.
I returned to my partner and told him, in no uncertain terms, we were to climb the hill to the pagoda. I could see in his ‘seen one temple, you’ve seen ’em all’ expression, that he wasn’t keen.
To be honest, neither was I. We were both sunburnt and exhausted from our 15km midday hike the previous day, after refusing the services of the ‘Vietnameasy Riders’.
More than satisfied with the hard ride we had just undertaken, I could have been swayed by Andrew’s lack of enthusiasm, and joined him for a steaming glass of tar in the relative cool of the fanned shack he had found. But the Neo-Nazi like voice of our travelling companion was still bellowing in my ears, and the thought of the teutonic ear-bashing we would receive on the return leg of our journey, persuaded me to persuade him to undertake the sweaty pilgrimage.
And we were so glad we did.
As we turned off of the ‘high street’ onto a lane of charming wooden shuttered homes, we were astounded to see a pagoda of such ethereal unearthliness, curving and winding it’s way skyward, just feet in front of us. This majestic place had been hidden from us, that is, until we left the road most ridden. Down this small, dusty, unpreposessing track lay a secreted wonder. Andrew stood agog! I was only partly surprised, as I have always been party to the virtues of magnificent secretions in back alleys.
Still, this was a wondrous affair.
All at once, we were as alight and colourful as the buildings before us. The joy and exuberance that emanated from these, almost miraculous structures, was quite tangible. The happiness and religious fervour which came from some of the faithful visitors was also quite obvious too. It was an enchanting site and an entrancing sight.
“This is why we came !” exclaimed Andrew, at his most blue-green eyed and innocent.
I could only nod.
We were indeed, very fortunate.
Back on board our non-puffing engine, I thanked Eva for her friendly coercion.
“Of course” she replied, now in an utterly charming manner, “we have been here before. You really had to see it.”
She sat back contentedly, as we rattled back along the tracks to Da Lat; a touristic Mary Poppins, her job done.
Da Lat City herself, is very pretty. If somewhat over manicured. She reminds me of one of those other infamous easy riders, the Essex Girl. Her flowerbeds primped and pruned to within an inch of their horticultural lives. Her perfect aquamarine lake expertly shaped like a Saturday night eyebrow. The collars and cuffs definitely match here.
Gazing at the giant, fibre glass, swan-shaped pedalloes, propelled along the surface by the immaculate footwear of the party dressed peddlers, I had to smile.
It was like an episode of T.O.W.I.D. The Only Way Is Dalat!
Although, I fear that had the rather ample Gemma Collins, that well known Essex bird, taken one of these birds onto the water, the outcome may have been somewhat less graceful. Being a little less diminutive than the usual Vietnamese honeymooner, it would probably have been her swansong!
Today, we bid adieu to the land of the bikers and hikers and head for the sophistication of Hoi An. An affluent town in central Vietnam. But we shall never forget the heavenly, other worldly pagoda or the easy ride we have had of it in lovely Dalat.
We loved her make-up.
As they’d say on Canvey Island ….
I’m not being funny darling, but she was reem.