Soft hills, tall pines, a glassy lake and locals outfitted in faux fur rimmed coats, it’s another world at the top of Vietnam. The winding roads are silent for stretches of time, my presence is hardly acknowledged by people going about their days, and even the few moto-men puttering around barely make an effort to convince me to take a ride. It is serene, it is surreal. Dalat’s reputation as a tourist trap confounds me. The tourist guidebooks push restaurants with Western food, the lake is fake, and the kitsch activities are available everywhere, but the locals seem willing to let me blend into the crowd. I wander more slowly, pause more frequently, and venture a little deeper into the nooks and crannies of the city. I find a surprise in the steps.
My heart and stomach tug in unison as my eyes spy the colours and shapes of all that I’m missing from home. Baskets of strawberries, potatoes, and other hearty vegetables line the edges of the main ring in the Central Dalat Market. The cool weather crops thrive and provide a shock compared to all the tropical options usually abundant at market trips. I ponder indulging in stone fruits and potato filled stews as I make my way around market wares piled densely and spilling over into the streets. Motorbikes with fresh pastries or more produce sitting on the back pull up into favoured spots. Shoppers are out numbered and they zig and zag around deftly. Occasionally people move in and out of a small doorway leading to a brightly lit stairwell that tunnels into the interior of the main market. Once drops of rain start pelting the ground around me, it’s my turn to venture upwards.
Steep concrete stairs continue up and up towards a dense and heavy wall layered with housewares and clothing. There’s hardly a break among the steps completely lined with a dizzying array of shoes, clothes and gadget kitsch. I spy the edge of jutting platforms near the top. They’re brightly lit and the walls much more bare. One man is repairing shoes, slowly and carefully. His tools draped around him and pieces of cut curled black rubber scattered by his feet. A few steps up, the backs of people huddled around on bright red stools just inches from the edge intrigue me. Some women stop on the steps and call out a few words to the lady tucked into the corner. A few hand gestures are swapped and she begins to fill bags with little packages, carefully counting it all out. Diners on the stools ask for what they owe, she takes a break to exchange some money and the occupants of the stools change over. I eagerly take a seat while cautiously making sure not to scoot my stool too close to the edge. All those waiting pile in.
Looking at me, all I can figure out to do is wave my hand around her table and hope that I’ve communicated enough. I want it all. As she starts unrolling and cutting into packages wrapped up in leaves, I begin to recognize the delicious treats I’m about to indulge in – a selection of bánh bột lọc. Dried shrimps, mung bean pastes, and green onions are embedded in or are the filling for nearly crystal clear tapioca flour based pouches and glutinous rice flour rounds. Some are fried for a crisp and chewy contrast and then even layered atop one another. Some soak up a fish sauce based mixture poured over it and others slip right around the bowl. The sweetness and savoury pungency hit you all at once in each bite. It’s so well balanced and perfectly chewy. It’s the best version I’ve had this trip. I want to take it home with me but I know that beautiful texture will get lost as each hour goes by. I had always anticipated finding treats at the side of the road, but had never thought to try the side of the stairs.