Yesterdays first little jaunt into Dalat promised so much, had us so excited for the place we’re about to get into, taste and see. Waking to bleary eyes and no great abundance of energy it’s time to see if it was all just a rose coloured ruse or if Dalat is the beautiful food laden wonderland we hope it is. Walking up the main street everything looks like we remembered it from last night, food everywhere that is as we venture onto salvation in coffee. We’d heard of a weird old place set in a townhouse but renovated to be an architectural masterpiece or a comical disaster depending on your point of view. With the entrance blocked by a rough pile of bricks neatly sealing off any entry like a fort made by young kids playing at soldiers, we have an option to climb over or err on the side of comical disaster. We don’t climb the bricks.
Luckily enough there is coffee everywhere so we need not go far. With the coffee beast sated it’s time for lunch, and who needs a guidebook when you can just apply the Asian food rules for hunting and gathering, there’s just three rules to apply to all but guarantee appeasement of the food gods. First of all and most importantly it cannot be a shiny well presented restaurant and in particular, never a franchise; essentially the more basic the better. First rule satisfied, rule two is that it needs to be busy; basic can mean flexible food health so if they’re not turning over their produce this could mean a volatile bum. With rules one and two locked away in the instant it takes to condemn or elevate a place some refinement is in order; there must be a healthy proportion of locals present, over half ideally.We don’t need to go far, after a dash into the bakery again we return to some metal tables on the footpath directly opposite the cafe with all three rules ticked off in a sweeping glance. We’re ushered inside the small box of a room to similarly rudimentary metal tables adorned with the usual plastic basket that belongs in a pre-school room storing crayons or playing blocks but here the bounty is fish sauce, soy sauce and a few types of chilli. As usual they do just one dish and the beef pho (noodle soup) comes out steaming with the usual heavy dose of the herb garden too fresh to not be still in the ground. We’ve adopted a food rule in Vietnam that we are only allowed to eat at local places, on the street if possible and with only one dubious accreditation in Mui Ne we’ve upheld the rule for over a week now. There is no looking back.
Some may say that all we do is eat. Some may contend that we drink coffee as well. We would have to disagree, there’s beer in there too, but just to upset the apple cart entirely we’re taking in some sightseeing that entails no consumption of deliciousness; it’s a frightening proposition but we’re off to the crazy house. Perched on a hill atop the town with commanding views the crazy house reveals, if nothing else, an apt name. Somewhere between a melting candle, tree roots, a dilapidated castle and an unfortunate drug induced psychosis the crazy house is less a house and more a convoluted network of vine like pathway bridges in a labyrinth that makes Alice’s adventures in wonderland seem positively staid. Weird rooms fit nestled into whatever organic space is offered as we arc across, over and through this monstrosity of childhood imagining as definition escaped easy description. Treetop vine-like pathways give way to bulging caves amid fairytale castles that are melting by the minute; nothing makes sense in this place without a single straight line except for the smile that makes us feel like kids again without the need for acid, mushrooms or cactus root.So with coffee and food in our bellies and the disorienting jumble that is the crazy house it’s hard to know if our uneasy state is a Viet coffee heart palpitation, high blood sugar levels or architecture psychosis; either way we need a little lie down to ease the come down. The much needed rest serves to quell the drug free bender that is Dalat as well as prepare us for the glut-athon to come. We’ve thought about doing a bit of a food gauntlet of the three food rules and Dalat seems the perfect place; we’re planning on starting at the market and buying one of every food we see from street vendors only. A monumental task to be sure but we’re up for it, the ultimate test of the three food rules.
Like prize fighters before the bout we’re nervous, excited and the adrenaline is pumping, we round the bend to a world exploding to colour, light and life. First cab off the rank is some famed meat on a stick, famed for its place on BitJealous.com mind you but famed none the less. We have no idea what it is but not knowing makes it all the better, maybe there’s space for a fourth rule. Some purple rice thing with fish sauce goes down a treat before it’s time for more meat on a stick, this is heaven; on a stick. Some kind of hot soy milk with bean paste refreshes us between rounds before it’s back in the ring for another Vietnam visa. The beef soup stall doesn’t seem to see us so we don’t know how to order that one before it’s up the stairs from the market proper and down the main street.After a few rounds in the ring it’s gluttony five, street vendors zero as we’re still going strong. Chicken and rice time, we’ve seen the red chicken lady before but this is our first date, or bout; who knows really. There’s rice, there’s chicken and on top of it all there’s piles of other stuff: there’s some kind of sausage, a dried fish and some other fatty meat but on the whole it’s just a delightful mystery. Reconfirming our dedication to eating what we don’t know, the best food we eat invariably seems to be the food we can’t identify. The champions of this glut-athon are waning on the home stretch as Viet food makes a charge back, we’re flagging but just like an Asian bus there’s always room for one more. Barbecued banana is topped with a coconut with soy milk fluid and slopped into a small plastic bowl like detention centre gruel but it’s possibly the best dessert we’ve had this year. The rule still applies, there’s always room for one more, a sweet bean drink full of fruit and jelly tops off the sweet indulgence as the final bell rings on the glut-athon of Vietnam. The first glut-athon of Vietnam, there will be more.
We waddle back though the night time streets possibly declaring victory to Vietnam as we pass a couple of vendors we don’t buy from; if this is defeat then call me a loser please. The food rules are not only reinforced, they are now iron clad, there exists no possible reason to go to a western style restaurant and the thought of going to a franchise place seems positively terrifying. We do pass a brief scuffle on the street, two young guys having a scrap that dissolves quickly enough not to donate a lasting discord on our way to food coma. We have an eating disorder it seems, our burden and joy a permanent companion, our internal fight reflected by the one in the street but not so fleeting. We’re not necessarily winning, we’re definitely not losing and all the while it doesn’t seem to matter, we are truly fighting the good fight; someone has to do it