This morning, in a slumberous daze, my flickering eyelids open, and I find myself face to face with a stunning view. A raging sky of fiery orange and bruised purple obliterates the last remnants of my sleepiness, luring me out of bed and onto our balcony to take a photo. We really need to get up early more often.
Coming back to bed, I resist urge to crawl under the covers for another hour of sleep. Instead I wake Tyler, who grumbles and fidgets and rolls over. Despite his protestations, I persist, reminding him of this happy fact: we're due to join our friends for breakfast. Pete and Natasha are in town!
We're meeting at Pete and Natasha's place this morning: Dreams Hotel. We're eager to see them and keen to hear about the adventures they've been having. It's hardly been two weeks since we saw them last, but a lot has happened!
Unfortunately, getting to their hotel turns out to be a challenging task. Instead of the ten minutes it should take, we spend nearly an hour walking the streets, thanks to the Lonely Planet effect. One byproduct of a favorable mention in a popular guidebook: lots of new places will crop up around the original with very similar (if not exactly the same) names.
After visiting no less than four "Dream"-based hotels, we finally find the right one. For the next hour, we chat with our friends while they eat their constantly re-supplied brunch spread of dragon fruit, papaya, mango, bananas, passion fruit, baguettes, fried eggs, bacon, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, peanut butter, jelly, honey, cold milk, cereal, meusli, yogurt, fruit juice, tea, and coffee.
The food looks so good that we decide to partake as well, paying three dollars per person for the pleasure. It's more than worth it for the bacon and peanut butter alone. When we're done eating, we discuss possible options for our day of hanging out.
There are plenty of touristy, sightseeing opportunities in the city, but none of us are feeling particularly motivated to go to them. Eventually, we decide that a stroll through the local market sounds just right.
The market is bustling and chaotic, a riot of colors, smells, and textures. There are dry good shops with baskets, cookware, machetes and twine; butcher stands showcasing dead animals of all kinds, blood dripping in little rivulets onto the floor; and produce isles abound. A food court rounds out the market, providing a convenient place to stop for lunch.
In the shaded halls of the covered market, we sample a local specialty of artichoke tea (which tastes, unsurprisingly, of artichoke, reminiscent of the water one boils them in), and admire the jewel-like collections of candied fruits, from kiwis to plums, mangoes to persimmons. There's a fair few stray animals about as well, sniffing at all the food, we even see a few sleeping in cardboard boxes.
The best part of wandering around the market is the opportunity everywhere we look for photo-taking. There is so much stuff everywhere covering every square inch of space that we could spend hours simply documenting all the goings-on of just a single market stall. We're not the only ones who love to take pictures, Natasha and Pete stop to take photos just as often as we do.
At one point, an elderly market seller who sees us enjoying ourselves and all the colorful photo-taking opportunities waves us over enthusiastically, asking for us to take her picture. When we oblige and show her the photos, she cackles with a nearly toothless grin, throwing her hands in the air with delight. What a sweetheart!
By now it is mid-afternoon, and we're all hungry again. So, we head back to the covered market and the food court above it. I get Bún Chả Giò, a bowl of vermicelli rice noodles covered in spring rolls and doused with a tangy sauce, while Natasha gets a bowl of Phở. Pete and Tyler go with the Vietnamese staple of meat and rice.
We all sample Pete's "Number One" cola, and the familiar flavor has us grasping for a name of something equivalent back home. The best we can come up with is carbonated fruit loops, liquefied Jolly Ranchers, or maybe a Red Bull.
Feeling like we've done the market justice, we decide to check out some of the stores along the main street. Natasha has a hankering for a hat, and we all join in the fun, trying things while persistent salespeople badger us: "Hello, where you from, you buy from me!" / "Lady, you buy sunglass, I give you good price!" / "You try something, you buy something!"
At the end of the shopping extravaganza, we each end up with a nice hat, except for Tyler. I must say, though, the frilly cowboy hat was really fetching. ;-)
Much later in the evening, with the sun sinking beneath the horizon, we're absolutely pooped from a fun day of wandering. After returning to our respective hotels for some rest, we re-group with Pete and Natasha once more. Not only does their hotel provide an impressive breakfast spread, they also offer free access to their rooftop hot tub and sauna!
Sneaking up to Pete and Natasha's room, we change into our cycling gear (which doubles at our swimming gear) and head up to the top floor of the hotel. In an open-air cupola of sorts, a hot sauna awaits, as does a tub of steaming water. I wish it were a bit hotter, but regardless, the warm soak feels so relaxing, especially with a night view of Da Lat and the chilly mountain air blowing in from open windows.
Once we're all plenty relaxed and wrinkled from so much steam and water, we dry off and pad drippily downstairs. After changing into dry clothes, we head over to a pizza restaurant for a snack and a drink. It is there that Natasha and I happen upon the coziest alcoholic beverage ever: hot lemon rum.
The warm glass mugs of sweet, citrusy rum are so good and so comforting on this cool mountain evening that I practically beg the waitress to let me see how the drink is made. What I find down in the tiny restaurant kitchen is ridiculously simple and obvious. Here's the basic how-to:
Lemony Limeny Rum (as Natasha calls it)
Dump a heaping tablespoon or two of sugar into a glass and fill with hot water, stirring to dissolve the crystals.
Add a glug or two of rum.
Float a lemon slice on top; serve with a couple wedges of lemon or lime to squeeze in more citrus.
Wrap fingers around mug to warm them.
Enjoy on a chilly evening.