“OwwwwEeee! Hawakaya-yayayyaaaaaaa ayyyyiiiii!! Welcome home babies!!!” screamed Mama through her contagious smile, jutting out her under bite and baring all her teeth. Mama ushered us into Dalat Family Hostel, pinching our cheeks and arm fat while simultaneously slapping our asses. The other family members took our backpacks while Mama assigned us seats at the long dining room table, which was shaking since Mama forced everyone to drumroll when we entered. Mama grabbed my shoulders and plopped me next to Alex from London, who told me that we got a much nicer welcome than he did.
According to Dalat Family Hostel’s sign out front, Mama has been adopting family members since 2013. She has the energy of a 2-year old on Red Bull and the heart of Pope Francis. Within seconds of our arrival she got behind the stove and fried up a feast of vegetable, noodle, and egg concoctions. More and more dishes kept appearing in between bites, which Mama and her helpers would slide on the table while simultaneously chanting in Vietnamese and hugging us. Mama loves to play matchmaker, and she would constantly grab a boys head under her left wing, a girl’s head under her right, and bang them together while pointing at us and making kissy lips (complete with kissy sound effects). She also loves pretending that she doesn’t know English- a brilliant trick so she can selectively understand backpackers’ requests and ignore the more annoying ones. And like any loving Mama, she feeds you until it’s physically impossible to eat anymore. Be prepared to gain about 7 pounds if you stay at Dalat Family Hostel. Just as I swore I couldn’t eat any more lunch, Mama and her helpers Sushi and Annie set their notoriously delicious banana pancakes in front of us. Half the reason we booked Dalat Family Hostel was because other travelers had raved about Mama’s banana pancakes. They never stop coming. From lunch to midnight, Mama produced upwards of 40 plate-sized pancakes. She has a knack for good timing too- she’ll bring late-night pancakes and French fries out after rounds of drinking games.
The first day there, all we really did was gorge ourselves. After lunch we attempted to explore downtown Dalat, walking in circles around the quaint, lakeside mountain village. The French discovered and designed Dalat in the late 1890’s and it became a tourist haven- “City of Love” or “Le Petit Paris” feels like a Vietnamese European Breckenridge. Time flew by, and we scurried home to make 5:00 family dinner. The multiple-course dinner cost 50,000 Dong ($2.24) and Saigon beers were just 10,000 Dong ($0.45)- everyone had a grand time, given that everyone was a young extrovert. The hostel played club music ranging from Macklemore to Kygo to The Pussycat Dolls throughout supper, and then forced everyone to stand up for a rowdy rendition of “The Macarena.” After dinner, Mama’s team surprised one of the guests with a birthday cake decorated with a fruit penis and then made the birthday boy select three people for a cocktail-bucket-chugging contest. I was selected, and for Amurica, I won (out of 50 guests we were the only Americans). Later in the night Mama gathered us in a circle to repeat Vietnamese chants after her- however her ridiculousness has drawn me to the conclusion that Mama does not speak Vietnamese, but instead a fabricated “Mama Tongue.”
Dalat Easy Riders were pressing a hard bargain for a motorbike tour of the surrounding area our second day, but we were seasoned travellers who picked the cheaper “DIY” option. Alex, Grace, and Daniel from London joined our group and we were off! We made it up the driveway, almost to the road, when Daniel crashed into a wall. Blood gushed out of his leg, but we carried on in search of a rural waterfall. Anika steered our bike while I entertained myself on the back by brainstorming falling tactics for our inevitable crash- I would curl myself into a cannonball and jump to the left, away from the motor. When we arrived at Pongour Waterfall a few hours later, we were completely famished but none of the stalls seemed to sell anything more substantial than Pringles. Thankfully a Vietnamese fairy godfather entered the picture- an off-duty tour guide who managed to order seven bowls of ramen for us. Pongour Waterfall was stunning, a waterfall over 100m in width and 40m in height. However, we couldn’t lollygag – we had to drive 50 kilometers back to Dalat and it was late afternoon.
Word to the wise: don’t motorbike with a group larger than two or three people, especially when different experience levels are involved. On the way to Pongour Waterfall we kept stopping and looking back to keep our group together. But about 10 minutes into our drive home, it started pouring rain. I’m talking raining obese cats and chubby dogs. We pulled over and were tempted to wait the rain out, but then it’d be dark and wet. So we bought ponchos, and made a game plan to drive slowly and stick together. Anika drove while I kept an eye on the group- we were doing a splendid job staying together, and the matching ponchos made this task a breeze. It wasn’t until we pulled over at the fork that I realized our “friends” were Vietnamese- it seemed every single driver had purchased the same damn poncho. Daniel, Anika, and I waited on the side of the road for half an hour, but it was getting too dark to spot them or to drive safely. My stomach twisted in knots the whole way home, imagining the worst. Surely the Viet Cong had sliced them into human sashimi by now. What would I tell their parents? Thank the Lord the rest of our group arrived home thirty minutes later. They’d taken a wrong turn, but found the way back to Dalat by asking locals- unfortunately every other local pointed a different direction, so this process took some time.
Our soggy group missed family dinner, but Mama whipped up more supper for us ‘cause she’s the best. After dinner, there were speeches and cake cutting for Vietnam’s Woman Day. Since Vietnamese women are treated as subordinates to Vietnamese men, this is the one day a year where a man will cook, clean, and do other “female chores.” Annie and Lucky made tear-jerking speeches about how lucky women in Western countries are, but mostly about how Mama “adopted” them as adults and offered them a new life and family in Dalat.
I came to Dalat for Mama’s pancakes, but the real tourist-draw is canyoning. Our hostel offered the “best” tour or the “cheap” tour that “no include insurance but you get a free T-Shirt.” Obviously we opted for the budget tour (we have our own travel insurance, don’t fret… well half of us do). The “Viet Action” tour began at 7 AM. First they chucked us down a natural waterslide, headfirst. Then we abseiled down a 15m cliff, into a creek where they prompted us to float headfirst down a “lazy river.” This was undoubtedly the lowlight of our tour. The “lazy river” was like the intersection of the 405 and 10 during rush hour, with tangled limbs and human pileups on boulders.
After this journey we we reached a 25m waterfall that they thought we should rappel over. We were skeptical, but did it for the T-Shirt. Nicole and Silken abseiled down the waterfall next to each other, after Silken made our guide pinky-promise she would “no die. I live!” I was certainly scared for my life during my descent- not because of the height, but because a 300-pound Maori man started descending after I did, and at a quicker pace. His massive calves caused even more water to shoot at my face so I couldn’t see, and he began backing into me. If he fell, I’d be smashed between the waterfall and his blubbery, tattooed body. But alas, I survived. We took a breather by cliff-jumping, where Nicole opted for the highest option, propelling herself off an 11m ridge with her New Balances. Our final challenge was abseiling through the “Washing Machine,” a 16m rappel with a mystery ending. Nicole went first, and as she got harnessed she just kept saying, “No. No f-ing way, are you serious?” – this was a rare occasion where our little daredevil looked petrified. We had to lean back over a cliff, rappel down, and then let go while a waterfall carried us into the pool below. But it was fun, and “Viet Action Tours” rewarded us with steamy pork and rice, plus a snuggly and dry T-Shirt. We had an incredible time, made possible by the rad guides at Viet Action Tours- let them know we referred you and you’ll get 10% off!
As if Mama wasn’t crazy enough for us, we were told to visit Dalat’s “crazy house” before leaving. If Walt Disney, Salvador Dali, Dr. Suess, and Antoni Gaudi collaborated on a hotel, the result would be Dalat Crazy House. In reality, Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga gets credit for Crazy House, which is listed as one of the world’s “10 most bizarre buildings.” Good luck finding a right angle in this constantly-evolving architectural masterpiece. We climbed steps disguised as tree stumps up winding staircases that were suspended 4 floors above the courtyard, clinging onto vines (2-foot tall handrails; definitely not up to American safety standards). Although Crazy House isn’t huge, it’s impossible not to get lost in this magical, whimsical world. We exited through the shroom garden and bird cages so we could catch our night bus to Hoi An.