Vietnam Travel Diary 4: Dalat & Ho Chi Minh City

Chasin’ waterfalls in Vietnam’s highlands, plus a dose of culture in ancient Saigon

Our final week in Vietnam saw us heading south towards Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). To break up the long travel, Chris and I decided to stop for a few days in Dalat, Vietnam’s highlands and bread basket of the country. Dalat is an agricultural paradise, full of ardent green valleys and low mountains. Nearly everything imaginable is grown here, from coffee to flowers to tropical fruits to vegetables to grapes for wine (Dalat boasts Vietnam’s only wine region in fact, although locals told me it wasn’t great wine compared to the French, Australian, and Chilean wines readily available in stores).

We spent a few days in Dalat touring the sights, although we honestly didn’t love the town. There isn’t much tourist infrastructure in Dalat at this time, and it really just felt like another generic town. We also arrived at just about the worst time: a number of unfortunate tourist deaths the week prior had caused many tour companies to have to scale down or close their operations temporarily while a review was conducted, so many activities weren’t available. The deaths were due to 1) a flash flood, and 2) a selfie-taking tourist falling backward of a rock. While both of those sound like tragic accidents to me, it’s probably a good thing that the government demanded a review.

The waterfall at the bottom of the roller coaster. The further walkways were closed due to the above-mentioned tour company review.
Another lovely terraced waterfall, about an hour drive outside of Dalat.
Chris enjoying the spray from the falls.
Roaring Elephant Falls. This waterfall was unique in that it was literally in the centre of town.
The top of Elephant Falls, looking down into the valley below.
A relaxing garden beside the pagoda, looking out across one of the region’s typical lush valleys.

Our Dalat tour took us through many types of farms and factories. We ate fried crickets at a cricket farm (a well-loved Vietnamese snack), discovered how to make rice wine, and stopped by a traditional silk factory. While I think everyone knows in the back of their mind that silk comes from silk worms, I’d never really thought much about what the fabrication process might look like. While I can say that I was mildly disgusted by the whole thing, I did end up trying a cooked and flavoured silk worm – another traditional Vietnamese snack. It was not good.

Rice wine marinating with some unusual flavours: scorpions and a snake. Apparently people actually drink this stuff.

One of the highlights of our tour of Dalat was a visit to the weasel coffee farm. Aside from having amazing fresh coffee and a stunning view, the farm also produced the famous ‘weasel coffee’. We’d seen weasel coffee around Vietnam during our travels, but I’d always just assumed it was a brand name. Turns out, weasel coffee is actually made with the help of weasels. I will not go into more details on how specifically they help.

Visiting a stunning coffee farm near sundown. Three types of beans are grown here: robusta, arabica, and moka.
The farm’s weasels live in this large enclosed house. I now know that weasel are like cats: they like sleeping up high in little boxes.
Enjoying some weasel coffee on the deck.

After Dalat, we bused down to our final stop in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam with nearly 10 million people. HCMC was an interesting contrast to the small towns and rural life we witnessed in much of the country. The city was about as modern as it gets, and it felt for a while like being back in North America. Saigon, as the city was known until 1976 when the city was renamed after Ho Chi Minh, is full of history, French colonial buildings, and museums.

This old post office is a common tourist stop in downtown HCMC.
The old opera house is a historic and cultural landmark.

A must-do while in the city is a visit to the War Remnants museum, a museum documenting the history of the American-Vietnamese war. The visit is heavy, but the museum is extremely informative and well-run, with an optional audio-tour that sheds a lot of light on the complex history of the conflict.

The end of October rolled around during our time in the city, and what better way to celebrate Halloween, we thought, than a trip to Ho Chi Minh’s famous beer street? The street, lined with small pubs and big, noisy clubs, was even more of a spectacle than we expected, with lights, smoke, and fantastical projections. Halloween added to the revelries – the street was jam-packed with families with their costumed kids in tow, driving or walking by to witness the chaos. We had some beers here, but left before the party got out of hand. Apparently the celebrations on beer street can last well into the morning. My favourite moment? As more and more patrons arrive for a beer and seats run out, the waitresses simply pull out some more of those classic tiny plastic chairs and set up seating on the road itself. However, this is apparently illegal. At one point, one of the waitresses at our drinking stop somehow realized the police would be by momentarily, and rapidly ushered the outmost group to join a group at a table behind them. Within seconds, their chairs were gone, a couple patrons made some new friends, and any evidence of non-compliance was gone!

Enjoying some local beer on beer street (although we were disappointed to learn that Bia Viet is owned by Heineken).

One of the highlights in Ho Chi Minh city for us was the AO show, a hour-long cultural show at the Saigon opera house which combined elements of the Vietnamese bamboo circus with modern performance art. The acrobatics were incredible, and the show was surprisingly funny. No photos were allowed during the performance, but I got plenty of pics of the venue.

The inside of the historic opera house.

On our final night in Ho Chi Minh, we splurged on a street food tour – but not just any standard street food tour. The majority of the tours we encountered covered the standard Vietnamese foods we’d already spent a month eating – bahn mi, pho, egg coffee, etc. We instead found an interesting tour with some foods we’d never tried. With a guide and a fairly large group of older tourists, we tried pho bo kho (a pho-like beef stew), barbeque duck eaten with a French baguette, a Vietnamese pizza (a rice crust covered in a scrambled-egg-like mixture topped with shrimp and sauces), steamed rice rolls (filled with minced pork and mushrooms), and a caramel flan. We finished up our tour by pulling up some small plastic chairs at a place on Beer Street, having some drinks with our group, downing a quail embryo (more below), and hiding from a torrential downpour of rain.

Pho bo kho, or beef stew soup. Absolutely amazing. It can be eaten with noodles or a fresh baguette.
One of the more questionable things I ate during my time in Vietnam: a quail embryo. The egg was unassuming enough, but breaking open the shell to expose the creature inside was not appetizing. However, it actually tasted pretty good (like chicken, of course!).
We ended our tour on beer street. As we drank, a massive rainstorm rolled in, and we were ‘forced’ to keep drinking until the rain let up and we could leave.

Ho Chi Minh wrapped up our 30 days in Vietnam. Next stop: Cambodia’s south coast.

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