White wine and weasels in Da Lat

So after a fun few days by the sea in Nha Trang, we headed south and inland to the ‘Vietnamese alps’, a place called Da Lat. The journey there was as eventful as ever, we saw a two-legged Chihuahua running down the street in Nha Trang on his front legs and we spent the next four hours holding on tight as our driver took us up and into the hills at speeds you wouldn’t have thought a big tour bus could reach. We were a little dazed too after staying up until 4am to see England knocked out of the Euros 🙁

Some background info, Da Lat is a popular holiday town for the Vietnamese, being much cooler year round they can grow all sorts of fruit and veg there, even grapes so you can get Da Lat wine. It’s not the sort of stuff that you’d want a case of but it’s ok. Due to the French colonial past the buildings here look like ski chalets, much wider than anything you see anywhere else in ‘Nam. The nights here get cold too, we were wearing our jeans and hoodies in the evenings it was that chilly.

After arriving at our hostel we were met by Mr Rot, the owner and a rather theatrical chap. We’d heard that he organises his own tour of the local countryside and other travellers had raved about it so we booked ourselves on for the following day. We then headed out to see what the place had to offer. Not a great deal actually apart from a ‘crazy house’, a few lakes and lots of ridiculously hilly roads. So what the fudge is a ‘crazy house’??? We thought we’d go and take a look, sure enough it turned out to be a house… that was crazy. Designed by Ho Chi Minh’s successor’s daughter, the crazy house is a load of weird themed rooms connected by winding staircases and high narrow corridors, I told you it was crazy. We spent an hour walking around and getting ourselves lost in the place. There are about 5 rooms in various areas where you can pay big money to stay for the night, that’s fine if you like having a 6 foot tall fibreglass bear/kangaroo/eagle staring back at you all night with evil red glowing eyes. The beds were round with mirrors above them, nice touch but not all that romantic really. The best bit was the wall of breasts, literally hundreds of boobs that appeared to be running down the wall. Emma had a funny turn after walking over one of the high paths, there wasn’t really a handrail to hold on to and it was pretty narrow so she spent the next 20 minutes a little shaken.

We then headed downhill to the lake which turned out to be a hell of a lot bigger than we’d realised. Everyone seemed to be staring at us again like when we were in China so we did get a bit of a sinister vibe from some of the characters walking around the lake with us. Continuing back into town I nearly fell flat on my face a few times after slipping down the steep sloping edge of the pavement. Not great when you’ve already spotted a few used needles left lying in the gutters, luckily we managed to avoid them!

So after a rather uneventful evening we headed back, apprehensive about our tour the next day which I didn’t mention would involve us riding our own motorbike 120KMs. I was hoping to get a chance to try out a bike again, but before we knew it we’d had breakfast, been given our child size helmets and were being expected to pull away on the bike we’d just been given. So Emma would be driving again which was a bit disappointing for me, great for her though.

Before we knew it the other 5 bikes in our group had gone, so we quickly tried to follow. Emma was still getting used to the bike and me trying to be a good passenger. As we reached the end of our hostel’s driveway we looked out at the busy T junction ahead and realised we didn’t know what way the group had headed! Great, we’re left behind already and won’t be joining in on the tour today. Just as this sunk in another bike with Rot driving appeared from behind and led us onwards, we hadn’t seen he had been waiting. So off we went, stopping for petrol briefly before leaving the relatively busy town of Da Lat for the twisting mountain roads of the surrounding countryside. Emma was still getting used to the bike and was pretty traumatised from the dual-carriage way she’d driven down back in Ninh Binh, so she was taking it pretty slow.

We had no idea where we’d be going other than that we would be meeting Rot’s real family today, he was born to a hill tribe family and adopted when he was young and raised in Da Lat he told us. Our first stop in the middle of nowhere turned out to be an insect breeding farm. As we walked into the place crickets were being bred everywhere, Emma spotted a humongous spider hiding between two of the cages. So what are these crickets bred for?? Pet food?? No, human food. With flashbacks of Wangfujing snack street in Beijing we were presented with a huge bowl of deep fried crickets and Rot was keen to see everyone diving in. Again, once you get over how the things looked they were actually quite tasty, I could imagine sprinkling a few through my special fried rice.

Off we went again. Riding at the back of the group with Rot’s sister leading and Rot himself in front of us, we were aware that he’d stopped suddenly ahead, we thought he must have had a puncture so Emma pulled up next to him. He was chatting away with a guy who had a weasel tied to his bike by the front leg (see the pictures). Rot was bargaining with the man to buy the weasel it turned out. Eventually 300,000 dong was handed over (about £10). The weasel was one of those famous ones used for making Kopi Luwak coffee. The weasels love ripe coffee beans, they eat them, crap out the bean having digested the surrounding fruit and then some twisted individual picks it up and puts the kettle on. The stuff sells for a fortune. We suspected either Rot wanted to start making his own expensive coffee or that he’d eat the animal. The guy who’d caught it already had three different woman who were bidding to buy the poor creature for their dinner. So off we went, with Rot having a weasel tied up in an old sack hanging off the back of his bike. It must have been quite hot dangling over the exhaust.

We’d now ridden quite far and had entered a small town where we pulled up at a market. Rot took us round buying loads of snacks and sweets for us to try all the while winding us up about what we were actually eating. He seemed to know everyone in the market and being the extroverted guy he is, led us around picking up every fruit, vegetable and bit of meat demonstrating how and why to eat it. We were shown seeds that were used for shampoo, leaves that when drunk as tea would help men piss and fruits that make your teeth go black. We were shown a whole shop that sold paper items intended for people’s deceased ancestors. You could buy paper suits, wallets, money, mobile phones, aftershave, anything that you can think of. Rot told us about Vietnamese funerary customs, the date of people’s deaths is celebrated more so than the living’s birthdays. All these paper items when burnt are sent to the deceased for their use, very handy. As we carried on through the market we saw fish being dispatched and some anxious looking chickens. We then reached the dog meat stall. A small dog had been slaughtered that day and Rot was now holding up the various butchered cuts to show us (again see picture). He explained how Vietnamese love their pet dogs, and then in his own words “once they reach the age of about 5 and have puppies …….. fuck them!”. As we walked on, Emma noticed the remnants of poor old Rover’s mouth laying on the floor.

On we rode further afield stopping off at a panoramic viewpoint and then at a coffee plantation. Apparently Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer and farmers can make a fortune growing the stuff. He reckoned $30k a year off one field, that’s pretty good money in Vietnam. He then explained the dangers of the job like the insects and coffee vipers just as he threw a rubber snake at a guy in our group, he screamed like a girl and jumped back while we all laughed at him. All the while Rot creeps up on people and pinches their ankles to make them jump. He did the same thing to me in the market earlier when I was stood next to a bucket of eels.

Then we were off to a small silk farm and were shown around by Rot’s sister. We saw every stage of the process and were walking between the huge machinery and the girls working away. I won’t go into the detail of the process, but after all the silk is taken from the cocoon, you’re left with a pot of hot silk worm larvae. Rot’s sister laughed as she shoved one into my mouth. I chewed away, the flavour was like a musty old muddy potato. I was doing fine until I tried to swallow it and it got stuck in my throat. After a few gags Emma handed me some water so I could wash it down. Silk worm isn’t something I’d rush to eat again.

On again and this time a short stop at a waterfall. Nothing incredible although the walk to get to it was. This wasn’t your average tourist friendly path, just heaps of huge slippery boulders to climb over. Amazingly no one hurt themselves and we arrived right at the bottom of the waterfall. We were soaked by the spray in the air which was a welcome break from the sun’s heat. We trudged back the way we came arriving safely by our bike.

On we went, now riding through narrow slippery paths between paddy fields, Emma was doing really well with the bike on the uneven terrain. We then arrived at Rot’s village and all parked up in his real parent’s back garden. His real family had a nice new house paid for by the proceeds from their coffee plantation. We sat down to a quick noodle and tofu lunch, cooked by one of Rot’s sisters who was a Buddhist Nun. After, we went for a walk around the village, everyone else here lived in little wooden shacks. It was clear Rot’s family were far better off. We saw cotton growing outside one of the shacks and then Rot poked his head in to see if anyone was inside. An old lady and a few middle aged ladies appeared at the door and invited the 14 of us in. The tour group all sat on one side of the hut and the village ladies on the other, Rot sat between us translating. The next three hours we both agreed were some of the funniest and incredible we’ve so far spent on this trip. One by one we each asked a different lady her name, Rot told us what to say and we tried our best to copy him. They spoke a language that’s name I cannot remember, it was very different to Vietnamese. Rot regularly inserted their own swear words into whatever we had to repeat, so we’d be asking these lovely old ladies “what’s your fucking name?”! They would burst out laughing and whack him in a way reminiscent of my lovely old Nan Doris. They would reply to us something like “where are you from big boy?”. This carried on for about an hour while we all had tears of laughter running down our cheeks. Rot then went on to explain some of the customs of these people that are a little unusual. Contrary to nearly every other culture in the world, families here buy men for their daughters to marry. A good strong man who can work all day in the field may be worth two water buffalo, a lazy drinker more like two chickens. Poor families often cannot afford a man for their daughters or maybe only one man for one of several daughters. The family we were with, were a 71 year old lady with her four daughters, only one daughter had been married. The remaining three were happy for their married sister, though that didn’t stop Rot from asking them if they would be interested in buying any of the guys from the group. One sister was interested in a huge kiwi guy and another in a very dark skinned Australian who she thought would work hard all day.

It was customary in this village for girls to marry as early as the age of seven and children were often conceived by ten year olds. We were then told about the process of childbirth. When a lady gives birth she must go alone to the river to do so. After, she washes the baby and then stays in her hut alone with the child for 14 days. It is important that no one else must touch her or the child during that time. Food is brought to her but must not contain any meat for that period. When the 14 days are up she burns all her clothes and at this point the family may meet the new arrival. The old lady had given birth 14 times, she gestured how she would turn the baby within her womb by pressing her stomach. We were all speechless. Of her 14 children 10 had survived. She was now a widow and free to remarry if she could afford a new husband. Another thing, the husband can be a child if his parents are willing to sell him. The guy who lived across the street had been married to a pair of sisters whose parents could only afford for them to share!

We then started talking about their diet. A tall pot with a long wooden spoon inside was passed around. The contents smelt incredibly fragrant, we were all invited to taste some of the dark grey paste. It was very salty and tasted strongly of ginger. Once we had all finished tasting some, Rot asked the old lady what it was, he understood the word ‘ginger’ from her but not the other word, so the old lady gestured with her hands and made a squeaking noise. He burst out loud laughing as he understood and told us….mouse! We’d eaten mouse ground up with ginger! A pot of fermented rice was then passed round which we both passed on, we still had a few hours to ride back and didn’t want to chance getting the shits. The old lady then grabbed the mouse and ginger pot and shoved the spoon in her toothless mouth liking off loads of the paste. We all winced a little after seeing how the spoon is usually used.

The ladies went on to demonstrate how they made their garments from the cotton they grew. A lady sat and wove some cloth using a frame held taught by her feet. We were all invited to take a piece of cloth, we didn’t have to pay but all still did as it was the least we could do after such a fascinating afternoon. One of the unmarried ladies sung a traditional song whilst Rot translated, some of the lines were “I have no husband, the moon, the river, the farm, you are my husband”.

After many group pictures we reluctantly left the beautiful and fun-hearted ladies and walked back to Rot’s parent’s house. His sister had set out a huge table of fruit and invited us to join her in trying them all. Now this girl loved her fruit, as she prepared each piece she’d eat a bit and drift off into ecstasy in her head before remembering to pass it round to us. As she worked through the different fruits she’d tell us each time how this was her favourite. We tried dragon fruit (we’d eaten this in China expecting something incredible, it looks amazing, but doesn’t really taste of anything), lychees and many other lychee like fruits whose names I cannot remember. We enjoyed one called the custard apple, though soon after we were handed a piece of Durian which smells like sicky old socks, it wasn’t my favourite. She then took out a tub of ‘Vietnamese chocolate’, a sticky black tacky paste. I tried some and found it to be pretty unpleasant, she then told us it was fermented weasel shit, great!

We then started talking about Vietnamese customs and Rot’s sister got talking about how many Vietnamese want to look more western. Apparently our frog eyes and big nose are very attractive. She also told a large a guy in our group that he was very attractive because he was so fat, it showed that he must be wealthy to be able to afford so much food! Like most other Asian countries they all hide from the sun too, dark skin shows that you work outside, pale skin shows that you’re well paid. In Vietnam you always see girls riding down the street in hoodies with their faces covered despite the temperature.

We now left the village and started heading back. We stopped off briefly by a tree whose fruit was used by woman as lipstick. Rot went around all of the girls sloppily applying some on each of their gobs. I had to run away when he tried to put some on me. Then off we went again stopping to see mushrooms being grown in huge wet humid tents. We then drove for about an hour until we were passing through some beautiful alpine forest, the air was now really cold, we were wearing jeans and hoodies and it was getting dark. Rot untied the poor old weasel who must have had the day from hell. We all walked a short way into the woods and watched the sweaty weasel crawl out the bag, all dazed and confused as he ran off into the undergrowth. I’ve never released a weasel before but it felt good 🙂

Emma then drove back into a very busy and very dark Da Lat, she’d done so well and until you’ve experienced Vietnam you won’t understand how well! We parked up at the hostel, pleased to be off the bike. Rot got us all to stand in a huge circle linking arms before luzzing his Mum’s bike helmet into the middle. We played football with it for ten minutes allegedly winning a free beer if we could kick it through the person opposites legs. Despite a few goals no beer appeared but we didn’t care. We’d had probably the best day of our travels so far, one we certainly won’t be forgetting anytime soon. So whilst Da Lat was far from our favourite place we’d had an amazing time.

Goodbye for now everyone. P.s. here comes the biggest gallery yet and there are a few pictures of a slightly graphic nature, you have been warned!


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