The excitement was palpable as we set off early morning. Luggage racks fitted? Check. A small pharmacy? Got it. Matching demin jackets for our group of 7? Yup. The route had been planned perfectly and finally it was the beginning of Vietnam’s TET holiday (lunar new year) where people would flee the city making the usually bustling Saigon a ghost town.
We were thrilled to be joining the masses. Heading off to D2 in the early hours of Saturday morning, there was a contagious buzz in the air. The streets were lined with beautiful TET flowers and a huge percent of the motorbikes had suitcases precariously strapped to the back with smiling families zooming away to see their relatives in distant parts of Vietnam. Moral was high – that was at least until I navigated the group down a car only road where the corrupt police stopped us and demanded all our money. Oops. The rest of the trip through the city was tentatively looking around for the feds and shielding our faces as we drove by as quickly as possible.
We eventually got to Cat Lai ferry and from there drove off to our first stop – Cat Tien National Park.
The novelty of the road trip wore off around 3 hours into the drive. Yes, the scenery was beautiful and yes, experiencing rural Vietnam for the first time was wonderful – but our arses really hurt. The bikes are super uncomfortable and there were countless potholes along the way with some roads actually making you question whether or not you had been flung off Earth and were now driving on the moon. As a passenger on the back of a bike, you become bored and tired. The scenery starts to look the same and there is nothing to occupy your mind so it’s just you alone with your thoughts and now callous-y bum.
Cat Tien National Park
Pulling into Cat Tien, I’ve never been more excited to arrive anywhere. Even more so then enduring a rank 30-hour bus ride through Thailand. We were staying in an Eco lodge called Cat Tien River Lodge. My friend and I shared a room, which was a hut like building with a balcony overlooking the Dong Nai River. We had given ourselves two nights here to recover from the long drive and it really was the most serene spot known to mankind. Not even the giant mosquitos or puppy-sized toad in our room could ruin that moment of sitting on my tasteful bamboo chair in my tasteful bamboo room drinking a beer.
The next day was a lie in with just scraping the free breakfast mark. There are multiple day tours you can do in the park, depending on your time limits. You can do buffalo riding (heheh) visit a crocodile farm or see the monkey and bear sanctuary. We opted for the latter, which really was delightful. Not only did we get to see a moon bear chilling in a bath and one swinging in a hammock – but also the famous singing Gibbons (a type of monkey) who hilariously pulled my friend’s hair as he bent over to tie his shoelaces. The animals are in good health and are well looked after. The bears that live here have been saved from the black market or commercial trade where they are widely sought after for their gall bladders and bile.
We also walked around the park where you could see huge ancient trees and botanical gardens. We left after a couple of hours due to being a bit lost and hot – bring lots of water and rent a bike which is very cheap to make the of most if exploring.
In the evening we took a local boat out on the river to watch the sun setting and to see the wildlife. This was one of the highlights of the entire road trip and 100% worth doing. We took a few beers, and the local guide who spoke limited English pointed out river birds. Amateur bird watching is a funny thing. It’s simply pointing and exclaiming ‘Yes it has a beak, two wings and flaps – it MUST be a bird’. My friend did proudly point out some kingfishers that were electric blue, which was pretty cool.
Morning came and the inevitable 9-hour long drive was looming over our shoulders. A grumpy friend complained about his lack of sleep due to the cacophony of sounds outside his hut saying ‘it was like an orchestra outside my window. Gibbons can fuck off.’ It wasn’t a happy morning.
Onward to Da Lat
The drive that ensued up to Da Lat was incredible, with some parts of the trip looking like you were driving through the hills of Tuscany. Pine trees lined the winding roads that gave off the most beautiful smell. The pressure and attention needed between our two days of driving differed massively as we sauntered up the winding mountain roads. Another 8 hours of driving would pass before touching down in Da Lat – the day of the Lunar new year.
It was freezing! The air was so fresh! The city was architecturally beautiful and people actually smiled and gave way on the roads. It was an unbelievable feeling getting into our cozy airb&b, wrapping up and having a beer on the terrace. We’d finish the night by eating at Oz Burger. The place is heaving with backpackers and serves the tastiest burgers on sweet wooded plates. Top tip: don’t ask the owner if you can have your burger well done – he literally looks at you like you’ve just kicked a puppy.
The next day was New Years Day and nearly everything was shut. We did find a breakfast place called Brew and Breakfast which did a hearty vegan breakfast. My extremely gleeful friend exclaimed that the eggs here were the best he’d ever tasted and he would eat eggs every day if they tasted like that. We later found out it was tofu.
The cable cars were, in fact, open on New Year’s day and 10/10 would do it again. You soar above the city’s farmed verdant hills and on a clear day you can see for miles. The end game is a zen Buddist temple called Truc Lam Pagoda and Tuyen Lake – a scenic man-made creation with a single road winding around it. At 20,000 dong for a round trip ticket, it’s a really lovely, budget-friendly day out.
That night we decided to visit the infamous Maze bar. At LEAST 6 people had recommended the bar as the ultimate place to visit in Da Lat and we were a little skeptical. The bar didn’t disappoint. It was a huge concrete maze full of 5 feet drops and forever winding tunnels. The bar was the ultimate whack-a-mole experience, you’d drunkenly be staggering around another tunnel when someone would pop up from the floor or drop down from the ceiling. On top of that, you’d never quite know when going to the loo if you’d ever find your mates again. The drinks were so cheap, deliciously strong, and this was single-handedly the most dangerous bar I’d ever been in. I can’t rate it highly enough.
The hangovers hit us like a train. But with a limited time frame, a coffee, brofen and a gallon of water would have to do the trick. The morning would be spent exploring Crazy House, an entirely unconventional hotel that completely surpasses your imagination. Tiny pathways loop into the sky from excessive greenery and into different parts of the hotel patched with vibrant colors. It’s completely surreal and an ongoing project since the 1990s. It’s really worth your time.
The last on our agenda would be the waterfall and tobogganing down the mountain – which was an insane experience. You’re hoarded like cattle into rows shoved into little two-person cars which un-elasticated seat belts. You are then free to control your speed down the mountain to break or not at your leisure (well, you can only go how fast the car in front of you are going – the cars have an automatic braking mechanism. This sucks if you’re stuck behind an overly cautious couple/old lady). We had an absolute hoot on this, laughing constantly for the entirety of the ride. What really is hilarious, too, is that they have sneaky cameras pitched along certain points of the ride, which perfectly captures faces of pure joy.
We decided to end the trip with a delicious Indian from a restaurant called Ganesh. The food was to die for, especially after a long day. Finally, we buttoned down the hatches and got into bed early so we were prepared for the long drive home early the coming morning. When 3am stuck, the first casualty of food poisoning went down, swiftly followed by three more of the party. The house was alive with people swiftly darting around doing the Aztec two-step and screaming into the loos. Tears were cried. Pants were thrown away. We had to stay in Da Lat for an extra two days until the drivers got well enough to ride home. Moral of the story is don’t eat Indian food from Ganesh, ever.
All in all the trip was one of the best. If anyone would like any other information about the places or our exact route, please contact me via the home page.