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Published: October 1st 2013
Tara in Wonderland
At the crazy house
...I'd hope to find a place in Da Lat, for although Tara and I had spent only four or five days in the refuge of the old French colonial administrators, fleeing the heat of the valleys in the city of a thousand pines, there was something that drew me to the place, made me feel like I could hang my hat, so to speak. 'There isn't much to do there,' 'it's ok for a couple of days,' 'the valley of love looks like it's from a cheesy romance flick,' are among the descriptions I heard about Da Lat which sounded just fine to me since when traveling it often seems you need to make an excuse to just do nothing and here is this unassuming mountain town making the excuses for me. On the way up, we had passed through the party town of Da Nang - held in high esteem by many of our friends - but opted instead to head into the highlands for a few days in Da Lat, and when we arrived the Sinh Tourist bus dropped us at a small Sinh Tourist information shack adjacent to a hotel and we hit the road on foot, already
noticing that the 'downtown' area could be experienced on foot. We sucked in our first breath of cool air since Sapa and the sky was a clear crystal blue like I imagine it high in the Rocky Mountains, tall pines held the small town nestled in the valley, emerald and blue. We weren't swarmed by any fast talking guesthouse hawkers with their photobooks and in fact, nobody bothered us or seemed too concerned about our presence at all, which felt alright and no shitty tourist gifts being sold on the side of the road, just stall upon stall of delicious broths and noodles cooked for a king, the aroma sifting up into that cool crisp sky. It reminded me a lot of our hometown in Thailand, but a little less dirty and a whole less hot - and there in the center of town it was clear that tourists might come and go but otherwise life went on at a leisurely pace.
We wandered for a bit and eventually came upon a street with a few guesthouses and a bar or two aimed at travelers like ourselves and so we hunted down some decently priced accommodation and found a
nice place for $15 where the sign outside assured us that the proprietors spoke English and also rented motorbikes, neither of which proved accurate but we settled in all the same. For the second time in Vietnam and likely the last in several months, we made our way upstairs and turned on the heat. When we headed back outside to find some dinner it was actually a bit of a challenge as there wasn't immediate evidence of an easy place to find something both vegetarian (for Tara), identifyable so that we could point and nod and foremost and of utmost necessity authentic and delicious. We eventually fell by a small shop with lots of pans of various vegetarian specialties and soy concoctions with textures and flavors shockingly similar to meat - rarely can such a shop be missed in Vietnam and it's neighboring nations with the giant yellow banners and red Chinese characters - and so we filled up a couple plates which the woman priced by eye, her expression one of weighing an important decision with great care - $1 per plate it was decided and plenty of strong-Chinese green tea, soy sauce and spicy tuong oc. By the
Inside the Pagoda
Buddha statues mix with neon lights and colorful mosaics in the funky pagoda at Chua Linh Phuoc
time we left the clouds had arrived in full force and it was legitimately cold - we had paid $15 each for knockoff but well-made water-proof North Face jackets in Sapa and we would carry them regularly during our time in Da Lat, necessitated by the rapid temperature swings in the high-land valley. As the days passed we came to notice the patterns of the bright blue mornings with the white puffy clouds and how, with time, the clouds would grow more numerous and darker, giving way to an increasingly dark horizon and finally the sky - increasing hues of grey until it was time to run for cover - would explode, only to be followed in turn by a cool, crisp starry night sky.
In the mornings we fell in love with a little coffee joint with two locations around town called 'Windmills,' it wasn't authentic Vietnamese slow-drip coffee by any stretch of the imagination but then again we had already tasted plenty of that - instead just a unique little hipster joint with unparalleled blended coffee drinks but more importantly a staff who seemed to absolutely love their jobs and just about everything else in fact, which
would come in our minds to represent Da Lat's signature claim to brilliance - the unique nature of the people here. Having studied history throughout my time in university and my graduate studies and then teaching the subject for three years, I was all too familiar with our national legacy in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and we came to the country somewhat expecting to be met with suspicion if not hostility - despite reports to the contrary from friends, I felt almost as if I needed to explain myself to everyone I met, but our time in Hanoi was a shocking reminder that this is not the Vietnam that exists in the minds of our parents and grandparent, indeed nearly 80% of the country is under the age of 40 and therefore have little or no memory of the war years, bombing raids and the aftermath - though many continue to suffer genetic defects from chemical defoliants that have poisoned the earth here for generations still yet to come. Rather than hostility we were met, at least in the majority of tourist areas, with people willing to go to almost any length to get your attention, and then your money
- an experience especially prevalent in Hanoi which I have yet to write about - but sadly for the most part - with plenty of exceptions along the way, most people seemed uninterested in any type of interaction that didn't involve some cash changing hand - Communist Vietnam, indeed. But there were always exceptions to the rule and incredible people along the way, but it seemed as if the entire town of Da Lat was in on the exceptional tones - no one seemed interested in scamming us or selling us anything really, but they were always ready with a big smile and kind gesture - and the young university age employees at Windmill exemplified this - huge smiles, questions about where we came from, what was our favorite music - sharing their own, a desire to practice their English and of course plenty more smiles and lots of delicious coffee.
The remainder of our first day was spent wandering around the town and eating a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and since Da Lat is well known for it's wine which we had been buying all around the country, we hit a little
shop which was selling it in all of it's varieties and very reasonable too. That night as we returned to our guesthouse there was a group of Vietnamese college-age kids and a young foreign girl plus a foreigner who looked as if he might be working at our guesthouse - though we later found he was dating the young Vietnamese girl who helped run the place - and he asked if we would like to join for a drink - in retrospect I think he might have been trying to get us to buy from the bar, but we just uncorked our wine and sat down around the group, who were jamming on an acoustic guitar on the stoop under the cool night sky. We sat and sipped our wine straight out of the bottle on the roadside in a way that would bring a prideful tear to the eye of any slack-jawed American wineo and listened to the tunes, not saying too much since they were singing and since we really hadn't made introductions - for a few minutes it was a touch awkward to be honest but after the music stopped and we got to chatting they turned
out to be just the type of people you would expect a group like that to be and we got to know what the world looks like for a group of kids in Da Lat. One of the young guys asked if we liked wine which was fairly evident by this point and when I told him we did he asked if we would stop by the restaurant where he worked because he had a bottle he wanted to give us as a welcome gift. We agreed that we would try to swing by and thanked him for his generosity and kicked it there for another hour or so before everyone was on their way and we had just the right buzz for a great night of sleep.
The next day we went down to find the old lady working the desk - the one who speaks Absolutely no English - and I mean Absolutely with a capital 'A', and tried to arrange to rent a motorbike but she had no idea of what we were speaking. Eventually we led her outside to the sign that said 'we rent motorbikes' and also, rather comically, that the staff spoke English
and French - she still wasn't fully getting it but then we pointed to a motorbike, pointed to ourselves, all sorts of gestures before she finally took me by the arm and led me into a small guesthouse / restaurant next door where the woman spoke some English and also rented motorbikes - this new woman then tried to convince us to leave her neighbor's guesthouse and come to hers, but we arranged to rent the motorbike for the bargain price of $5 per day and we were on our way. Having not yet fully mastered the weather progressions, I took the clear blue sky and sun-shine as an indication of a warm, beautiful day and so we jumped on the motorbikes and tried to make our way to Chua Linh Phuoc temple out in the countryside and boy did we get lost alright but it made for part of the adventure and we were all about it as we rode up high above the town, then out past acres upon acres of greenhouses and forested hills until the dark skies started to roll in and then we just got cold and nervous and were about to give up when
by chance we spotted the funky temple off in the distance and so we really bawled it up the hill and through the ornately decorated gateway, parking as the sky opened up and really f---ing let loose, and I can not understate that enough - having lived in Thailand for a couple years we had seen the sky piss plenty of times but this was something else. We sought refuge in the main temple, a contemporary, unique structure that, taken along with the rest of the complex, is an absolute must see in South East Asia, there is simply nothing else I have seen that is anything like it and even if you're 'templed out' as I hear time and again, the visual beauty and amount of patience, energy and vision taken to create such a shrine seems unparalleled in my mind - the only temple I have seen before or since that might rival this temple is a castle-like structure in the middle of nowhere along a quiet road near the River Kwai in Kanchaburi, Thailand. To begin, the entire temple as well as a separate eight-story pagoda also located on the grounds are decorated, almost completely - inside
and out - by brilliantly painted terra-cotta mosaic. The statue of the Buddha in the main hall is adorned with flourescent-neon lights that would normally serve as decorum for the windows of a local bar and the entire scene was a mix of beauty, serenity, peace and a little bit of head-scratching. Since the rain showed no sign of letting up I took a spot on some of the meditation cushions with a few other visitors and sat for awhile, then we explored some of the adjoining rooms, one of which held fine wood carvings unlike anything I have ever seen, with massive tables and chairs of intricate oriental aesthetic carved out of gargantuan single-pieces of wood with price tags upwards of $5,000 but which could likely sell in the States for $30,000 without the bat of an aristocratic eye-lash, I was both awe-struck by the majesty and saddened at the implications for Vietnam's tragically fragile forest systems. After a couple of hours the rain continued to roar and so we sprinted through the torrent so that we could explore the pagoda. At this point we were visibly shaking from the cold and my bare feet in flip-flops felt as
if they might be experiencing frost bite but we had to dig the incredible art work that adorned each level of the pagoda - the pictures can tell you more than I can, but still do no justice to the incredible minds that dreamed up this fantastical site. As if all of this wasn't enough next door there was a three-story tall statue of some Chinese diety coated entirely in - shocking to the unsuspecting first-time view - what had to be millions of tiny dried flowers, completely from head to toe.
By now we had been at the temple for several hours and were famished beyond description, and with no end to the rain in sight we came across a small vegetarian food stall also located within the grounds. Adhering to Buddhist principles the only meal served was very simple, pre-cooked tofu and stir-friend morning glory, $1 and it really didn't sound that appetizing but at this point it was really time to eat and so we ordered a plate to share. The woman proceeded to take a huge scoop of the tofu - which turned out to be exceptionally well flavored - and the greens - delicious
as well - and heat them up in a wok before serving them over rice with two-bowls of hot revitalizing soup, delectable condiments and all the hot tea we could drink. So delicious was the meal, I - who hadn't really even wanted to eat it - was tempted to order another round but we decided to save our appetites for dinner. The rain had slowed to a mild downpour and so we decided to just take it in stride and got back on our motorbikes, lamenting the decision to bring a long-sleeve t-shirt as opposed to the thick, rain-proof North Face knockoffs. It was the coldest I had been in South East Asia, save perhaps for a similar motorbike ride through a downpour in Krabi one night during Songkran. So cold were we, in fact, that after some hot showers we literally curled up under the covers for about an hour and cranked the heat to the max. I had already turned in the motorbike keys and given up on the idea of visiting our friend at the restaurant to get the free bottle of wine - which either way I felt bad about accepting - and so we
called it a night, venturing out only briefly for some Bahn Mi around the corner. With Sandwiches in hand we curled up and hoped to catch an episode of Game of Thrones on my computer which, because of a defective fan, was overheating at an alarming rate. We made it only about 10 minutes before the computer went into emergency shut-down mode and so we added electronics store to our itinerary so that we could try to find an external cooling pad.
We woke the next day warm and refreshed and after some delicious Mi Quang - a heaping bowl of noodles in a yellow-orange broth with a savory, almost creamy texture and plenty of fresh herbs and chilis, or course - from a small street vendor, we made our way to Windmills and then back on the bike to check out a local landmark named Hang Nga Guesthouse -popularly referred to as 'crazy house' and also a restaurant just up the road which had received rave reviews with a moderate price tag. The crazy house was designed by a local Vietnamese girl who had studied architecture in Moscow during the Soviet years. Despite the location of her study,
the building could not be more antithetical to the cold, technical and industrial aesthetics of Soviet-era architecture. The complex is a sprawling, non-symmetrical and seemingly organic composition of bizarre brilliance, the primary structure resembling a banyan tree branching out in all directions, interspersed with living trees, and renditions of animals, psychadelic mushrooms, gigantic spider-webs and the lot, such that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters would have felt right at home within it's walls. The Vietnamese government, originally hostile to the project eventually warmed to it and construction continued over the years, often with paintings by the architect - Dang Viet Nga - inspired by the natural beauty surrounding Da Lat, interpreted and implemented by local builders. Who knew you could find Salvadore Dali and Alice in Wonderland fused into a gigantic guesthouse - yes you can actually stay here in the unique, animal-themed rooms for about $40 / night - in the hills of the Vietnamese central-highlands?
After our trip through the 'crazy house' and a delicious lunch we returned back to our room to relax for a bit. Almost immediately we were surprised by a knock at our door. I opened it and was shocked to see
the young man from the jam-session two nights previous was standing outside my door with a bottle of wine in his hand - 'I'm sorry I missed you yesterday', he said, and handed me the bottle of wine with a big smile, 'this is one of my favorites,' he added. I was nearly jaw-dropped by the generosity of this young man toward a stranger and could only shake his hand, smile and thank him profusely - it was a true testament to the kind of people we had been meeting in Da Lat, he asked for nothing in return except that we might be friends on facebook, and so I invited him to have a glass with us but he said he had to be on his way to work and that was the last we ever saw of each other. Now that we had a nice bottle of red we had to get the computer fan so we could wind down with some Game of Thrones and so we walked around the corner to a relatively large and modern electronics store. When we walked inside we were instantly approached by several employees doing their utmost to welcome us and
help us out, they worked with their English the best they could and took great pride in their ability to speak with us, smiling the most earnest smiles you could even imagine. Although we were after a piece of equipment that cost only about $15, more and more of the young employees joined the entourage and soon we were completely surrounded by at least a dozen kids in red uniforms with big smiles on their faces, some spoke English while others just smiled. As the kid with the best English opened up the boxes to show us what they had, I glanced around the circle, one young girl smiled and said 'how - are - you ?' slowly and carefully, while others waved, mouthed hello or just glanced down to the floor nervously, others tried to get in and help the leader and give us small bits of information in English about the product, while one young guy in the back was practically jumping up and down as he asked 'where are you from?' The procession followed us down to the cash register and then to the front door where the entire group wished us a good night and said
they hoped to see us again. It seems a strange thing to say, for certain, but visiting the computer shop in Da Lat was one of the very most memorable experiences from my entire trip through Vietnam. We ate dinner at a delicious vegetarian restaurant next door - Da Lat has a lot of these - and on the way out bought some 50 cent Bahn Mi sandwiches just in case we got hungry later. With our new external fan we made it through almost an entire episode of Thrones before the computer overheated.
On our last day in Vietnam we just bummed around town which was fine for us, such a quaint and colorful little haven it was under those almost surreal blue skies. We ate dinner at a restaurant called The News and New Art Cafe - be careful of imitators with similar names - and while we were eating the restaurant proprietor approached us with an easel, paper and black finger paints, which I am told he does for each and every customer he serves, and proceeded to paint us a beautiful painting of a bamboo plant using only his fingers. After dinner he took us
around his restaurant and told us about his paintings and the unique style he uses, some of which are painted with finger paints while others are done with syringes, giving a surreal textured appearance. He told us we must send him a photo when we were married and he would send us one of the paintings adorning the shops wall as a gift, and based on the sincerity of his voice, truth be told I don't doubt that he would - and the food was pretty damn good too! Before we left he made sure to give us his email and facebook, just so we could be sure to contact him when we got married.
So what to make of Da Lat?, a place where some people think there isn't much to see, isn't much to do. There are no deep and mysterious caves, ocean-views with limestone karst mountains, there are no desert sand-dunes or world-renowned tailor shops, no controversial museums of government propaganda. But there is a little town somewhat separated from the reality of you or I, and with amazing people who you might never run into in the hustle and bustle of a heavily
touristed city. Due to the city's relative isolation, I suspect, and perhaps owing to the fact that it was spared much of the bombing and fighting that continue to haunt much of the country in veiled but significant ways, Da Lat is unique to the Vietnam we experienced in our short month in the mysterious land. Sometimes having nothing to do is a gift, it allows you to mingle a bit more with the type of people you may otherwise never meet, and that, perhaps, is the greatest blessing that befell us in our time there. Ultimately though, it seems that there is more than this, a certain creative and artistic magic, tinged with a joy and exuberance yet remarkable simplicity that you can't really put your finger on and, perhaps if you aren't careful, may elude your grasp entirely. Maybe you too can travel to Da Lat someday and see if you can experience it for yourself, so long as your aren't expecting too much, or looking too hard, I suspect a little bit of the magic might find you as well.
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