Da Da Da Lat

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April 17th 2012
Published: April 21st 2012
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Vietnam, one country, so skinny....but sooooo long!!

I feel like my time spent here has mostly been on buses. To get to my next destination it takes 11 hours, me sitting next to an elderly Vietnamese man who, I suspect, is trying to block out my existence by holding up his newspaper like a wall between us. Our bus driver is anything but considerate and I believe he might be mistaking the sound of the horn for a catchy tune because he leans on it about every three minutes, even when the road ahead is clear.

We drive through Saigon city limits and buildings get closer and closer to the ground until there are only two room shacks lining the road, and hammock stops where motorists can escape the sun for a few hours and take a nap beneath the trees. Rice fields flooded with water line the road, cows graze in a field nearby, and a farmer squats down in the dirt, a basket at her feet and a cone hat protecting her from the sun. In the distant rise hills that look green and lush, though I can't tell if it's a mirage creating new colors where

Just because they're pretty
none exist or if there really is something beyond this great, flat expanse. We cross a bridge, a wide blue lake shifting beneath and dotted with floating houses.

After stopping for lunch the road suddenly plunges into the green hills I had seen earlier and the world turns jungle, trees blocking out everything, even the sky. We follow the pass up, our bus barely making the corners with motorbikes whizzing around either side; lanes disappear and now I think the horn might be the only thing that would save us from a collision with oncoming traffic.
We arrive at Da Lat, a mountain town northwest of Saigon and as I step off the bus before I have time to breathe I'm bombarded with "Hello! You want motorbike?"

This is Da Lat's mantra, though I prefer this sale to the other offers I got in Saigon. But it's a quieter town with a less hectic feeling. The night market floods out into the streets, vendors selling clothes, shoes, bags, spiderman trinkets, and of course food. Here I see what looks like talons roasting on a woman's portable coal burner, the claw still sharp enough to rip flesh. Baskets of strawberries are everywhere, some put into colorful arrangements and I'm reminded of Valentine's Day back home. I buy a shirt, feeling too shy to bargain and as I leave I take note of the sparkle in the vendor's eye and I know I've been had.

The morning brings temperatures in the mid 20s (Celsius that is) which is apparently COLD in Vietnam. Yet this does nothing for me because I am still sweating as much as ever. My first stop is The Crazy House, which reminds me of Gaudi's architecture in Barcelona. The ever expanding structure represents the elements, the outside looking like the stone is melting front the morning's heat. I walk up stairs designed as tree trunks to a room glittering red, like stalagmites (or is it stalagtites?) grow from both floor and ceiling, bleeding as they emerge. The next room runs blue like water, the furniture carved into waves, the bed bursting from beneath the surface like a whale and the skylight is dappled purple from the sun shining through the vine of colors above. Narrow pathways, a sharp drop to either side, lead me up and up until all of Da Lat opens before me, rising and falling with the hillsides. It's a perfect combination of Vietnam: natural, rustic, surprising, but then behind the surface where construction has stopped and mounds of garbage occupy floors of tall towers I can see the poverty and corruption of the country. It's a two sided world.

I take a ride up above the city, a gondola going over the green hills until I can no longer see the town and simply swing over trees with no ground in sight. To every side is green, the sky baby blue, and a man-made lake peeks out from around the hilltop, its surface smooth and clear, perfectly reflecting back an image of a cloudless afternoon.

Returning to Da Lat as clouds roll in I take a paddle boat out onto the lake, its front the head of a duck. I spend an hour writing on the water, floating back and forth between restaurants and empty parks, locals not yet out to enjoy the cooler temperatures. I learned that Mr. Duck (Quackers to his close friends) was much more difficult to maneuver than he first appeared, which resulted in a near collision, both with a family of three and with the terrace supports of a restaurant. But never fear, when my hour was up I docked safely, only slightly ramming the dock.

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