Da Lat has taken an almost mythical position in the Vietnamese psyche (and one westerner we know - eh Kate?).
It is portrayed as the land of eternal spring (and to be fair the weather remains within a respectable 10-30 degrees bracket), overflowing with bounteous fields of flowers and vegetable gardens.
My work colleagues rave about the place, and it's the top destination for Vietnamese Honeymooners apparently. In fact 'Oh Da Lat!, it's sooooo romantic' is the considered opinion of my fellow workers.
Well. Now we've dealt with the myth, let's look at the facts.
Da Lat has only one good thing going for it. The road out of it preferably seen from the back of an easyrider motorcycle tour bike.
Don't get me wrong, and there's lots of evidence on this blog to prove it, I absolutely love Vietnam.
I love every small town I pass when travelling, I think about what it would be like to live in a H'mong village nestled below mount Fanzipan, I daydream about living as a fisherman, using one of those brightly painted boats with the giant eyes on the prow, a Vietnamese flag fluttering in the sea breeze, or bending low, up to my knees in muddy water as I bring in the rice harvest...all very romanticised I know.
But I will never, I repeat never will consider living in Da Lat.
From it's garish amusements (Vietnamese dressed up like cowboys driving pony traps? Please!) to it's lake (read muddy pond), I just cannot see the attraction of the place.
Da Lat itself is a very diffuse settlement, with the accommodation snuggled around a low rising stretch on land on the north side of the pond, mostly consisting of grey Soviet style unpainted concrete blocks. Even the much vaunted market is a disappointment, consisting on it's ground floor of identikit stalls selling the same stuff - sugered dried strawberries, tea and coffee.
Above the market is a row of brightly lit cafes (there's no real nightlife to speak of), and we passed a few hours in a place that did a half decent attempt at pizza. What is it about mountain resorts in Vietnam that ensures the food is so poor? It's one of the few things that takes the shine off Sapa too.
Da Lat supposedly is brimming full of interesting tourist attractions, but I think we must have missed them, so instead we went to the 'crazy house' and the 'railway station' - sounds good already eh?
The Crazy House to be fair is actually pretty remarkable. It has been designed and built by the daughter of a former President of Vietnam, which explains her blatant flaunting of any planning regulations. It was however the one highlight of our time in Da Lat. It had the air of something from Alice in Wonderland
about it, all curling staircases, concrete toadstools and animal themed bedrooms (you can actually stay in the house). A veritable temple to the versatility of concrete.
The other highlight - and it had good reviews in the Rough Guide - was the art deco railway station, finally put out of action by the Cong Sang guerrillas in the mid-1960s, cutting Da Lat off from the rest of the national rail network up until this day - another triumph for the VC then! ;-)
Ultimately the art deco station was another disappointment. It's architecture smacking of suburban tube station (for once the French architect had an off day). I actually think Hanger Lane tube station might have more original art deco features.
Of course, I'm quite willing to admit that this view of Da Lat may have been coloured by other factors. Firstly our friend Kate has been absolutely raving about the place since we've known her, and as she has impeccable taste we thought we'd be on to a winner. Secondly it pissed down with rain for most of the time we were there, giving it an atmosphere akin to off season Blackpool according to Felicity, and thirdly our hotel the Fortune was a disaster.
Looking at the hotel from the outside we were happy with it. A giant block perched in one of the streets leading down to the mudhole (lake).
It makes a pleasing impression on the eye, with rose frontage, neon pink 'FORTUNE' on the front, and a nice use of white fairy lights down it's extensive window frontage. The reception was a gigantic space and the young woman working on the reception was very efficient and helpful. It felt clean and modern, including a smart looking lift, which chimed pleasantly when you reached your floor.
Our room was on the fourth floor, with a view onto the street below. The bathroom was nice and clean and there was plenty of hot water. It was strange staying in a room where air conditioning wasn't necessary, so much so that we needed a duvet.
I suppose you're beginning to wonder what the problem was. Well it only became apparent later. At this point we nipped out to meet Mark and Kate for a drink as they were in town waiting to start their week long easyrider tour of the central highlands.
After eating at the completely adequate V Cafe we joined Mark and Kate for drink in the dingy Saigon Bar - described in the guidebook at being Da Lat's only 'western style' bar. The bar was so low lit that we thought it was shut when we went past it the first time. Soon we found ourselves BGI beers in hand, pondering the fact that there doesn't appear to be a single comfortable seat to be had in the whole of Da Lat. After a swift drink it was back to the hotel after wishing Kate and Mark good luck for their forthcoming motorbike tour.
So return to the hotel we did, exhausted by our brush with death earlier, ready for an early night.
Now the problem with the hotel became apparent...
The Fortune is basically a gigantic concrete shell, with the rooms built around a central shaft containing the lift and stairwell, the unfortunate by-product of this design is that all sounds, be it a sneeze on the ground floor, or a child walking on the floor above reverberate throughout the entire hotel as though it's happening just outside your door.
The hotel had also decided to cover almost every surface in ceramic tiles adding to the swimming pool acoustics. Much of the following hours were therefore filled by cheerful Vietnamese tourists coming home and whispering good night to each other at 50 decibels, a baby being taken out into the corridor somewhere in the hotel, because it was keeping the inhabitants awake (what about the rest of us!?),
and a man who had been exiled to the corridor because he had only managed to cough up half of his lung and had to spend the next three hours getting the second half up out of his windpipe.
What a contrast the next morning was...as I removed the plump pillow from on top of my head...maybe it was the heady mountain air, or had I developed appalling bad taste overnight, as it sounded like I'd been transported to the set of 'the Sound of Music'...was it my imagination or could I really hear teenage girls singing alpine songs presumably about goats, milking and other healthy outdoor pursuits just outside my room? My brain slowly clicked into gear...no it's not Switzerland and it's not 1939...they're singing in Vietnamese, a song about cats apparently, as the ditty ends with a giggly 'MEEEOOOWWW!!' from the alpine chorus.
Ah yes. I forgot. In addition to the murmurings from the other hotel guests the other night, the lift made a revenge appearance, it's sleek modern look and helpful cheery chime came back to haunt us as it appeared to be irresistibly drawn to our floor throughout the night - DING DONG, DING DONG, DING DONG returned again and again, as the phantom lift caller ensured we would always be on our edge.