Weasel Coffee and Waterfalls

My alarm is set for 6:30 but I hit snooze a few times before getting up. Whenever I stay somewhere for more than one night, and sometimes even then, my backpack looks like it’s exploded. Stuff goes everywhere, nothing is folded or rolled properly, it’s terrible. Staying for three nights is like a curse. I have a lot to pack up.
We’ve purchased some bananas and a mango for our breakfast, and I expect that we’ll have lots of time to cut up the mango while we wait for the bus that is due to pick us up at 7:30.
I finish packing and relax on the bed, taking advantage of my last few minutes of wifi before going downstairs to wait for the bus.
At 7:20 we get a knock on the door, telling us the bus is here. Here?! Early?! Well, I never. Luckily we’re all set to go so we grab our stuff and head downstairs to pay quickly before boarding the bus. It’s a smaller bus today, more like a minivan, and has pretty comfortable seats. Quelle surprise!

It’s a five hour drive to Dalat, which isn’t really that far from Nha Trang, but the winding mountain roads make it hard to get anywhere quickly.
One of my Dad’s employees is Vietnamese and is actually from Dalat! He gave me some great tips for Vietnam during the six months that I worked at dear old ECOH (an Environmental Consulting company. Check them out.) I really look forward to seeing where he grew up, and have heard nothing but good things from other travellers we’ve met along the way.

When we do finally arrive, we are bombarded with the usual hotel and motorbike hawkers. Some of them speak French, and seek out Tamara specifically to try and convince her that she needs to be driven into town. I know for a fact that we do notneed to be driven, because I’ve pulled up a map of Dalat on my phone before arriving. We’re a 5 minute walk from the centre, tops. She politely explains to one of them that we don’t need the motorbikes, and one of them kinda freaks out at us. All in French, and very quickly so I don’t understand every word, but yelling is the same in every language. Whatever dude.
I’ve read that we can find accommodation for $6/night here, so that is our goal. If successful, it will be our cheapest accommodation yet. As we start our walk into town we are still followed by a few desperate hawkers. One man in particular, who introduces himself as Mr. Gentle, keeps popping up on his motorbike at every corner. He has dorm accommodation for $6 each and says he will include breakfast, but we were hoping to pay $6 total, so it’s not ideal. We take his card and say we’ll come check it out, but apparently that’s not good enough. Every time we round a corner, he’s there, and he’s offering us a new price. We eventually talk him down to $6 a night for a private room. He makes us promise not to tell the other guests what we’re paying, but says he’s desperate for more business because he’s only been open for one month. It’s May, which I believe is the absolute lowest tourist season in Vietnam. This has it’s perks when you’re trying to save some money. We follow him to his hostel and find our room. It’s small and simple but has some charm, like the tacky, fuzzy leopard print table cloth on the coffee stand. We also have access to a balcony with a nice view that is shared with the dorm room, so that’s a bonus. It’s 1pm and we’re ready for lunch, so Mr. Gentle suggests we eat next door. I can’t read him yet. I don’t know if I think he’s a creepy hostel guest stalker with a fake smile, or a genuinely nice guy. I’m especially skeptical about the restaurant because he obviously has to suggest them, but their price is only 25,000 dong ($1.25) for a bowl of beef pho. I am very okay with that. Compared to the 55,000+ I saw pho for in Nha Trang, this is a pleasant surprise. And the soup is yummy to boot!

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After lunch we head in to town to find a place to rent motorcycles so we can head out to Elephant Waterfall. On our way, we stop at a little shop to pick up some necessities. I get two packets of tissues and a whole tube of Crest toothpaste for 16,000 dong. 16,000!! That’s not even 75 cents. I love Dalat, I’m never leaving. Everything is so affordable here!! Kevin, why did you ever leave?!

Before finding a motorbike rental place, we stumble upon an eager motorbike taxi driver…obviously. He works for a company called EasyRider which I’ve been hearing about since we got to Nha Trang. I don’t know what it is, but it sounds like a tour and tours have not been kind to us in the past. I’m pretty reluctant. He’s asking $20. The price listed is $25, but “because it’s the low season” he will give us a discount. I’m sure everyone hears this line. He shows us a list of all the sights we would see, and one of the things on the list includes lunch. We’ve eaten, and I feel like no lunch should give us another easy discount. We don’t want to see all the sights on the map, just the Elephant Waterfall, and after seeing the silk extracting factory, rice wine and coffee farms listed, we’re happy to stop there too. It’s already 2pm, so we can’t fit in a whole day of sight seeing anyway. We bargain the price down to $13. He says he’ll help us out because we’re poor students and he understands. We’ve managed to save so much money on accommodation and food so far in Dalat, that I’m not totally opposed to spending some on an afternoon of activities…and he doesn’t seem to be budging any further than $13. He seems very nice, and has great English skills, which will come in handy should we have any questions. We agree to $13 and he calls up a friend so we can each have our own bike instead of trying to cram two of us onto one. He introduces himself to us as Happy, and his friends name is Thai. Everyone in Dalat seems to have a nickname!
Still feeling a little skeptical and hoping we haven’t just signed up for another stupid tour, I give Tamara a “we’ll see” look, and get on the back of my motorbike before I go flying through the streets of Dalat.

My driver is an expert, and is not kidding around with this traffic. I don’t know much about motorbikes but the quality of this one seems great. No loud sounds from the engine, road bumps feel minimal as we hit the occasional pot hole, and once we get to the open roads, he rips around corners with ease.
We pass through some pretty dodgey roads undergoing construction, which makes me really thankful that we didn’t try to drive this on our own. I don’t think I would have made it.

30 minutes or so later, we’ve reached our first destination: the coffee bean farm. Tamara’s bike driver gives us a mini tour and explains the different types of coffee grown here. His English isn’t quite as good as that of my driver, and he has a tendency to mumble so it’s hard to understand. When he explains “weasel coffee” to me, I’m sure that I’ve misheard him.
But it seems that I have not. Coffee beans are harvested, dried in the sun, and then fed to weasels who then poop them out, still whole, apparently weasels don’t chew their food, and lastly roasted to make a “distinctive aroma”, as our guide keeps describing it. We even get to see the weasels and a little basket of their pooped out coffee beans. Deeeeelish!
The farm grows two other kinda of coffee, but this one is by far the most interesting.

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I’m not a coffee drinker, but apparently, when in Dalat, one must drink weasel poop. We order a cup of this strange coffee as well as a cup of one of their more familiar blends to compare flavours. I think we’ve really lucked out today by starting our trip later in the afternoon. We are the only people on the entire coffee farm, and get to sit in a bamboo-built cafΓ© overlooking the coffee fields, mountains and a river. It’s scenic and serene; far higher than my expectations were set.
We each try the crazy weasel coffee, and I find it’s actually quite good. Very full bodied and aromatic, but not in the way you would expect. We also get a pot of ginger green tea thrown is as part of the experience. I think it’s provided as a palate cleanser, but I use it to wash down the coffee flavour. The weasels haven’t changed me; I’m still a tea lover.

Next up on our itinerary is the Elephant Waterfall. It’s why we’ve come today! We had hoped we could swim here, but our drivers laugh and tell us that the water is far too dirty. That’s a little disappointing but waterfalls are always cool in any case.
We drive through a small populated area named Nam Ban village, where many locals are out selling fruit on the side of the road. There’s not a tourist in sight, which makes me become even more confident that we’ve made a good decision with these EasyRider bikes. The village only lasts for a kilometre or so before we’re back to empty country roads. I take in the smell of fresh mountain air and the bright red earthy sight of the road in contrast with the lush green vegetation around me. It really is the most pigmented dirt I’ve ever seen. I make a comment about it to my driver, Happy, and he explains that the mountain used to be a volcano many years ago and that’s why the colour is so intense. How cool!!

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We arrive at the Elephant Waterfall and are guided down by Tamara’s driver. There is a heavy water flow over the top of the falls, and the water is a reddish brown colour due to the volcanic dirt. They weren’t kidding, this doesn’t look like an ideal place to swim at all! Our guide points out one of those sensitive plants that closes when you touch it, and we have fun discovering the bizarre awesomeness that is nature.

I get distracted on the way down to the foot of the falls by the unbelievable number of dragonflies. The sky is scattered with the beautiful hovering insects for what looks like miles. I’ve never seen so many dragonflies in my entire life as I can see right now. For lack of a better way to describe it, it gives the sky an air of mysticism. It’s beautiful and I feel like I’m in some sort of paradise. It’s one of those moments you can’t capture on camera, but I’m pretty confident that I won’t forget such a sight.

Our climb down to the falls is slightly challenging, but only because we’re in flip flops, and all the rocks and tree roots are slick with mist. We have to mind our footing quite a bit, but our guide does a very valiant job of making sure to hold out a helping hand on our descent.

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We climb down through a cave behind the falls, where the mist is probably it’s most intense. I try to venture over and get as close as I can, but I only make it so far before I’m blinded by the combination of wind and water. Both Tamara and I get absolutely soaked in a matter of seconds just due to our proximity to the falls, laughing the whole time. Tamara says it’s “same same but different as swimming”. I think it’s even better! I think it’s so incredible how much sheer power can come from something I also drink from a small glass.

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Once we’ve had enough of the water filled wind tunnel behind the falls, we get back to relatively dry land where our guide is waiting for us. He takes a whole bunch of pictures of us trying to approach the falls, and I’ve never been more thankful for a waterproof phone case. Even from where he stood, the mist was intense and my phone looks like it’s just had a bath.
He offers his jacket to Tamara to keep her warm, which is the kindest thing I’ve ever seen. Our drivers are the best!

We climb back up to where the bikes are parked, and get back on the road, still drenched from our little waterfall adventure. My hair dries quickly, as my driver travels at high speed to our next stop. I think we’re now headed back towards Dalat, but I can’t be sure. It’s easy to get turned around on the mountain roads…and let’s be honest, my internal compass is dodgey at best.

We pull over and get to step inside a small silk separating room. Women are lined up at a machine that reminds me a whole lot of my time in Tasmania sorting cherries. Sort of an assembly line of silk worm cocoons. The silk worms are submerged in boiling water to loosen the silk strands around their bodies, and placed by hand into a machine that inexplicably is able to unravel the cocoon down to a thin single strand. This then gets fed up to a big spinning wheel, where the silk is re-ravelled into large spools. I’ll never completely understand how it works, but it looks amazing.

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Our guide tells us that they use the shells of coffee beans from nearby farms to fuel the silk separating machine. What? Efficient and Eco-friendly while making a luxurious textile? I love this place.

Rain clouds are rolling in, as I’m told they do every evening in Dalat. Our drivers have brought rain ponchos for us, but are trying to beat the rain to get us home dry. Well, relatively dry. It’s a little late after the waterfall.
We just have one more stop to take a quick tour of a rice wine farm.
Dalat is famous all over Vietnam for it’s wines, and I go in expecting to see rows upon rows of red and white wine barrels aging in a cellar. Instead, I realize that we’ve come to a place that manufactures rice wine, like 65% sake-like rice wine. Not wine wine. Silly me!
It’s just as interesting, and although they’ve finished brewing for the day, we get to take a tour of the room where they dry the rice, liquidate, mix, steam, and ferment it in giant blue plastic barrels. We see a heap of steamed rice sitting on a tarp on the ground, absolutely covered with flies. For some reason this doesn’t bother me one bit. Sure, it’s not super hygienic, but I guess if I know that other people drink the wine made from this stuff and don’t die, I don’t really care. In some ways I kind of like it because it emphasizes the rural and small scale kind of production here. That makes it more interesting to me.

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We drive back to Dalat, the sky covered with black clouds, but without a drop of rain. We thank our EasyRider drivers and get a photo with them to remember what a fun afternoon they showed us.

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Just as we start to walk up the hill to our hostel, it starts to rain. Just on time! I still don’t mind, because my clothes still haven’t dried.
We spend a bit of time at the hostel showering and changing into dry clothes before venturing out for dinner. It’s tempting to eat at the same place we did for lunch to ensure a cheap meal, but we decide it’s best to walk down to the centre and check out the restaurants down there too. We come across a skinny and dimly lit restaurant with very affordable prices. I order a bowl of soup for 30,000 dong ($1.50) and a glass of white local Dalat wine for 15,000 ($0.65). Tamara orders a soup and a glass of red.

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When our food comes we don’t speak until we’ve finished our meal. I didn’t realize I was hungry until the bowl of delicious noodles was set in front of me. One woman is sitting with her laptop and watching a movie at full volume in the middle of the restaurant, so we don’t stay for another glass of wine.
We head back up to our hostel and sit at the restaurant where we had eaten lunch, just to enjoy a beer on the patio. When the mosquitos get bad, we retreat to our room and sleep.

In the middle of the night I wake up to the sound of mosquitos buzzing around my head and itchiness all over my body. Nooooo! How did they get in here?? I’m too lazy to get up and retrieve my bug net from my backpack, and I don’t want to wake Tam.

Just kidding, after another 5 minutes of buzzing I do it anyway because I can’t sleep like this. I feel awful when she wakes up as I’m clumsily trying to assemble my net in the dark, but she gets up and helps me, the angel. She also laughs hysterically when I crawl into my little tent. It’s the first time she’s seen it. You laugh now, but who will be using the most tiger balm tomorrow hmm? This tent is a god send (it’s actually an aunt-and-uncle send) and allows me to get some sleep.

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