The young man at our Saigon homestay had said Dalat was a city for two; for romance. So far, not so much.
We felt solid leaving Saigon. Like we had a grasp on things and were ready to tackle new places and adventures. The Phuong Trang bus ride to the mile-high city of Da Lat was advertised as 5 hours, with two stops for bathroom breaks and food. In reality, the bus left Saigon just after 11am and arrived around 7:00pm, teetering along at 20-30 miles per hour most of the trip. Riding through outer Saigon and into the mountainous Central HIghlands region, we passed rows of makeshift homes; the ground littered with garbage. A reminder that this is still a developing nation that struggles with shoddy infrastructure and limited environmental awareness - things we often take for granted.
Everything about the bus ride was, let’s say, interesting. The bus itself contains three rows of ‘sleeper’ compartments, with both bottom and top bunks. However, anyone taller than 5 feet and wider than 18 inches will have some trouble ‘sleeping’ in the half reclined leather chair, half roller coaster seat. We rotated positions, side-saddle first, then cross-legged, then legs bent and knees up. Tight, but overall doable. Near the end of our journey, the bus driver pulled over and a few passengers rushed to pick up an injured Vietnamese boy. No one on the bus spoke English and we had no way to tell what was wrong (and if he was okay), before he was whisked away in a separate van. A very strange situation that was even harder to comprehend.
After finally arriving in Da Lat, we were approached by a taxi driver, offering a ride to town for 100,000 dong ($5). We disregarded the feeling that we were being ripped off, as a hot shower and dinner were calling. When we arrived at our hotel, we were told that, although we had booked through Expedia, there were no more rooms available and we were to stay in another hotel two doors down. Our ‘new’ hotel room housed two full beds, two extremely old looking flowered blankets, no sheets, tattered mosquito nets, a dirty bathroom and pleather chair, all enclosed by thin, hospital green colored walls. The addition of shouts from the room upstairs and stank eye from three middle aged women sprawled out on the lobby couch didn't help the situation. Bad vibes overall. Our intuition told us to go.
It was after 8pm when we scrambled to find a new room, not knowing that the national holiday had resulted in Da Lat being 95% full for the night. Combing through the intensely packed hilly city streets, we finally found a small hostel with a ‘caveman’ themed room that was available, but by the time we got there, it’d been taken. It was 9pm with no food since that morning and we were out of options.
Our solution: locate a hillside cafe and inhale a plate of crispy potatoes (french fries) along with white rice, sauteed vegetables and multiple beers. Not exactly the awesome street food we’d enjoyed the last few days in Saigon, but the buzz and full stomach made our sleeping situation more bearable. Resigned to the dirty hotel room, we both slept atop the sunken mattress in our clothes using our packable jackets for pillows.
As with all travel “curveballs”, the morning brought perspective, and as we sleepily walked out of the hotel into the city at 7am, we determined a few things: (1) we’re not 22 anymore and don’t exactly want to crash just anywhere, (2) a little extra planning goes a long way (knowing about the holiday would've helped), (3) customer ratings on Booking.com and TripAdvisor are crucial, (4) we navigated a shitty situation quite well (good to know since there are sure to be more).
A nap and 2 cups of Vietnamese coffee later and we’re ready to retry Da Lat.