One of those things about travelling around everywhere, you often meet some of the greatest people in places you would never expect. Returning by flight to HCMC after my first trip to Dalat, I was walking out to get a cab to the hotel and saw that one of the girls there in line for a cab had a UNV of Hawaii backpack. I asked her if she went to UH, and found out that she was doing the Masters of Business program that was offered by UH in HCMC! We split a cab and ended up becoming great friends as we discussed all the things we both loved about Oahu – where she had gotten to go to as well.
A year later, and I was once more headed to Dalat, but this time around Phuong and her friends were going to take me around and show me what they liked about the city and its cultures. I had asked them to take me not to where the tourist go, but the places an insider that lives in the city likes and would want an outsider to see. They had three full days to take me around and do as much as we could. The only downside would be that I was coming in the rainy season when it was likely to rain about 2pm each afternoon since late July was only time could get to go. But they sure made a great start in recommending the Saigon Dalat Hotel as the place I should stay in.
If you ever really want to see a place – there is no better way than to have friends show you it. I am a great admirer of both Vietnamese culture and history, and am always like an open book in learning while there. My days there were spent riding around the mountains and across the hills on motorscooters, going to waterfalls, lakes, pagodas and temples, different markets (both the Central market in downtown and out to the ethnic museum/market), small specialty restaurants (such as Tomato and Tu Hanh), and even to two of the girls houses to eat. It was by far one of the very best learning experiences on Vietnamese culture that I had had in my many trips there since my initial trip to Vietnam 7 year ago.
My new friends did very good at taking me out to their favorite flower park that was next to a Danish water purification plant (seeing a Danish flag flying over any place so remote is unique in itself). It was a very beautiful place by the lake and they brought along a picnic lunch that one of the girls had made and that we had on a raised covered area by the woods that looked like a small wooden pagoda. We spent the whole morning wondering around and testing my knowledge of tropical flowers and the tribes of the hill peoples of Vietnam. There were no other western tourist I saw - though we did see plenty of Cham tourist and a few Nungs as well.
The Vietnamese people in Dalat are such super friendly people, and always eager to test out their English with you, or to laugh with you as you mispronounce Vietnamese. The foods from the area include large numbers of dishes with fresh fruits and vegetables – since it really is the growing area of Vietnam for some many things because of the soil and climate there in the mountains. I was lucky enough to get homemade ice cream made with fresh Dalat strawberries at one girls home. The ice cream was French style – not American – and absolutely spectacular. That she was the assistant chef at a large hotel kind of gives you an idea of what the whole meal at her house was like and why she knew the local specialty foods so well. That was a food vacation experience of a lifetime because the focus of food culture I have learned in the USA is always Saigon/Hanoi/Hue and here was something very different.
So when it comes to travel, just remember that sometimes the greatest of friends might just be on that same plane with you and that sometimes being friendly may well get you a whole group of friends and a travel experience of a life time. I look forward to seeing again three great friends on my next visit to Dalat and keeping them laughing the whole time again. And should they ever come to the USA for a visit - it sure will be difficult to compete with the experience they had shown me.