There I was, standing face to face with a monstrous bear who stared back at me with vacant soulless eyes.
Well, to be honest this was no man eater; in fact it looked downright friendly. Even the two giant bees perched on each of his shoulders were smiling. The truth is that this cartoonish statue stood guard inside my room at the Hang Nga Guest House in Dalat, Vietnam.
Known by both locals and tourists as the “Crazy House,” this garish hotel-slash-cultural curiosity features a design that seems inspired by hallucinations. Staircases wind haphazardly around the cave-like structure, easily leading visitors back to where they started instead of their desired destination.
Each room has its own statue which corresponds with the animal name, hence the ursine fellow accompanying me in the “Bear Room”. The other accommodations on hand include eagle, tiger and kangaroo themes. Here visitors can pay 30,000 VND ($1.50) to tour the grounds, or stay in rooms that range from $35 to $100 a night.
However, as “out there” as this guest house may be, it is no lone bastion of weirdness in this mountain tourist destination. The Crazy House is merely the headquarters of weird for the city of Dalat.
Located high in the mountains of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, Dalat is a relatively young city, having been founded as a French resort town at the start of the 20th century. It quickly became a popular retreat for French colonials and other elites looking to escape the stifling heat of Saigon. The plazas and broad boulevards are a testament to its colonial past, while the city’s bustling markets reflect the city’s present status as a major agricultural center. Strawberries, coffee, lettuce and flowers are among some of the temperate crops grown in the region.
Through all the conflict endured by the country in the past century, Dalat emerged almost entirely unscathed. Some say it was because all sides simply enjoyed coming to the area too much. It remains a popular spot for domestic tourists, with prices that are quite reasonable even for Vietnamese standards. However, compared to the increasingly busy tourist destinations of Vietnam, Dalat is still relatively unexplored by Western visitors. Visitors will also be pleasantly surprised to find that this busy garden market town seems to go about its business while tourists go about theirs. The town is mostly devoid of the touts and hawkers common to bigger cities nearby, like Saigon and Nha Trang.
Of course, there is a long list of ways the city is different from anywhere else in Vietnam. Upon arrival in Dalat, the first thing visitors will notice is the weather, which is decidedly moderate compared with the rest of this tropical country. At an altitude of 1,500 m the climate remains pleasant but cool for the entire year. Nearby valleys spend much of their time shrouded in mist.