I MET A GIRL IN HO CHI MINH CITY IN MARCH 2007 AND WE GOT TO KNOW EACH OTHER ELECTRONICALLY, WE VISITED EACH OTHER VIRTUALLY, AND EVENTUALLY GOT FAMILIAR IN THE FLESH. Since that time I have been back to Vietnam twice to see her, and deepen the bond which is now, ever so slowly, blossoming into love. It is funny that whenever I go to Vietnam to see her, she suggests that we go to a Vietnamese honeymoon spot. When I made my first trip to see her on Christmas Day 2007, we had a midday drink at the Binh Quoi Tourist Village, and half the punters at the place were getting married. The next day we got the bus to a beach resort on the South China Sea, just south of Mui Ne. Candlelit dinners, long walks on the sand as the surf tumbled and the mist rolled in from the desert dunes... need I say more? Had I been more aware, I would have seen a pattern, and discerned a reason guiding the pattern, one which says everything about Asian feminine fantasies...
Alas I didn't see and recognise the pattern then, consumed as I was by my own private paranoias, and it is only now, that the patterns are becoming obvious, so obvious they cannot be denied...
For my most recent tour of duty in 'Nam, codenamed Operation Obsessive Love and the Rolling of the Dice (April 26 2008 -- May 04 2008), Nga suggested we hit Dalat (called Đà Lạt in Vietnamese). Ram and raid, that was the plan. I had actually been there once before with some Anglo-Saxon girls back in 1997, and I didn't particularly enjoy it first time around -- probably due to the company I was keeping. In short, there wasn't enough loving going on! And as Nga no doubt knows all too well, Dalat (Đà Lạt) is the love capital of Vietnam -- it is the most popular honeymoon and couple place in the entire nation. Had I been a bit more on the game, I would have guessed what was on Nga's mind, when she suggested we go there -- she was entertaining some kind of feminine fantasy. No doubt Vietnamese girls fantasise about a romantic tryst in Đà Lạt, rides in the swan boats on the lake, and posing for photos in front of all the waterfalls and statues, just as much as a white guy might fantasise about getting booty. Kitsch enough as fantasies go, but cute nonetheless. Đà Lạt has always had a reputation for kitsch, as LONELY PLANET was reporting years ago. If romantic folly is your thing, then Đà Lạt will deliver it... in spades. Romantic swan rides on the artifical midtown lake. A great rose and orchid garden haunted by cowboys touting rides on their horses. Grevillia and eucalyptus trees from Australia lining the streets and lake banks, villas and gorgeous hotels and spas all over the verdant hills. Look one way, and it looks like Europe in high summer (more than 2000 French villas can be found here, a legacy of colonialism.) Look the other and it looks just like Australia on the outskirts of some scrappy country town (must be because of all those hardworking no-nonsense eucalyptus trees!) Sometimes it is hard to see the real Vietnam here, especially for those accustomed to the hot lowlands, and I am sure this is why Đà Lạt is so popular. There are heads of deer and wild boar and bovine type animals hanging from walls at all the Đà Lạt lodges. For Vietnamese folk, this is the place where they can fantasise that they are in the middle of romantic Europe, without paying for the transcontinental airfare. And that is why they come.
Yes sir this place is big on illusion, which makes it cool in my books -- one can see the Vietnamese imagination at work. At the Langbiang mountain trail up in Montagnard country, I saw tourists riding what looked like zebras... but I am sure they were just horses given the painted stripe treatment. The zebras are just as fake as the fake North Face backpacks on sale in Ho Chi Minh City. But as in the rest of Vietnam, the fakery is so good it is charming in its own way. Anyway, to reiterate: If you want confirmation of the romantic status of Đà Lạt in the modern Vietnamese soul, just look at the names of the big attractions here. The Valley of Love (Thung Lung Tinh Yeu) is right up there at the top of them, and when I went there with Nga in late April 2008, I had to photograph her doing all the standard Thung Lung Tinh Yeu cliches. For example: posing in front of mock Greco-Roman statues and statues of deer and other animals (some of them, such as the rhinoceros, which used to live in these foothills in the not so distant past.) I took not too unlovely photos of her in front of Thung Lung Tinh Yeu signs in three languages: Vietnamese, English and French. (The photograph of her before the French sign reading Vallee D'Amour was actually pretty hot and I am sorry she got to keep that one. I would have loved to have posted it here.) Perhaps it is all the mimosa and pine trees and the cool, springlike temperate hill climate which draws all the domestic Vietnamese tourists in, this place is a hill resort in the classic tropical sense.
Chợ Đà Lạt // Dalat Market
Originally located on the top of Dalat's central hill, and known as the Wood Market because of the material it was constructed from. The Wood Market burnt down in the late 1930s, and in the late 1950s it was moved downhill, to its present location. The market now stretches between two concrete buildings in the bottom of a steep ravine; a walkway linking the top of the hill to the second level of the market. (Source: The Last Appetite.) As you take the walkway down to the market from the hotel district on the hill, you will doubtless pass Montagnards with sooty faces, hard at work selling charcoal. Down in the markets, which are as dark and dirty in 2008 as they were when I first visited in 1997, you will find a bounty of Vietnamese Highlands fare. The last time I breezed through with Nga, there were clumps of mudlike frogs popping and plopping, in dirty cages. Big stacks of artichokes, sixpacks of Tiger beer, artichoke tea, and sweets made from various berries including strawberries. On the 2nd floor of the Market, there are around 4 small vegetarian (com chay) restaurants/food stalls.
Right next to the Dalat Market (market is chợ in Vietnamese) is the Night Market, in the Hoa Binh Zone, in the area around Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, Le Dai Hanh Street and Tang Bat Ho Street, within walking distance of many restaurants. On weekends walkers can stroll to the market on a pedestrian walkway that was opened in Dalat on November 2003. Tourists should note that all vehicles are forbidden on this walkway between 7p.m. to 10 p.m. Footprints Vietnam says: "Dalat Night Market also has a food-corner offering dishes made from shellfish and duck eggs. Steaming hot pots of shell-fish and duck eggs are hard to resist in the colder climate of Dalat (eds. note: the duck eggs actually have embryoes inside.) Enjoying this special dish with hot soya milk on a cool evening is an unforgettable memory (that's if the embryoes don't freak you out!). The market also sells vegetables for tourists to buy as gifts to take home for their friends."
Hồ Xuân Hương // Xuan Huong Lake
The central part of town is clustered on the northwest side of Xuan Huong Lake where the majority of restaurants, markets, banks, cafes and budget accommodations are found. Footpaths and roads circle the lake, making for easy hikes and bike rides. There are three large cafes built on stilts over the lake. Though better known for their views than food, they do make for convenient rest stops if you decide to make the 3-kilometer hike around the lake.
The week that Nga and I were in town just happened to coincide with two major holidays in Vietnam, holidays which really bring out the Vietnamness of Vietnam, if you understand me: I am referring to Reunification of the South Day on April 30, and International Labor Day on May 1. All the way from Ho Chi Minh City up the highlands to Đà Lạt, the highway was hung with Communist flags: the grand old hammer'n'sickle alternating with Vietnam's gold star on red standard. All that week TV stations were pumping out patriotic fare: grainy black and white footage of girls shooting down American planes with anti-aircraft guns. Movies, some of them quite artistic, about war heroes struggling to adjust to the peace in post reunification Vietnam. Plenty of odes to that great humanist, Ho Chi Minh. Tonnes of rich Ho Chi Minh City residents on holiday in Đà Lạt, most of them in the mood to party. After circumnavigating the lake, Nga and I walked into an event on the shore: gangplanks, mud, crowded stalls, a dancefloor set playing cheesy house music and Vietnamese pop, meat on a stick and a lot of shops selling capitalist fare. A lot of people spending money buying the latest diamond studded knife sharpeners from South Korea. Which seemed strange to me given it was a Communist holiday, and it further bolstered my suspicion, that Vietnam is not really a Communist (or Socialist) country, economically at least. Nga haggled for business shirts and pants and baby clothes in one of the clothes stores, which was actually pretty funky -- full of Vietnamese and Chinese designs. In the alleyways outside, guys and girls were walking around in motorcycle helmets, which seems like it is the latest fashion accessory here. While prices rise up to 50 per cent during the Unification Day/Labour Day holidays, it is definitely worth being in Vietnam for the festivities, and experience one of the vestiges of the Communist Age. As Vietish blogged in 2005: "Today is what they call Liberation Day in Vietnam - the 30 year anniversary of the end of what is known here as the American War. The 30th of April is the day when the Vietnamese tanks entered the Presidential Palace in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the Americans surrendered. Celebrations have been going on for over a month, as different areas of Vietnam were liberated at different times, however, the 30th April 1975 was the official end to the war.
"I have to say that I have really enjoyed the last week, which has been full of events as part of the build-up to today. At the college where I live and work, there have been performances every night of singing, dancing and plays, and the tv has been full of programmes of the war, most of them unseen before as they have only recently bought from French tv programme makers. However, behind all the jubilation, it is clear to see that for many, the war still holds horrific memories. Despite the celebrations, few people actually talk about the war other than in terms of a factual account. Nearly ever man over the age of about 50 was no doubt a soldier and I would say that most families lost a relative, friend or neighbour during the war. The only sign of this that I see are black and white photos of soldiers hanging above the ancestral alter in people's houses. I spoke with a close friend about this and she simply said that it is too soon for people to talk about it. On TV there are numerous programs about the war, and particularly about the horrrific effects that Agent Orange has had on generations of Vietnamese people..."
One of the best things about Vietnam is that you get to do a lot of things by yourself, it is a very Do It Yourself country. If you were going to the equivalent of Langbiang in other countries, you would probably get there by bus or train, or something boring like that. In Vietnam you can just hire a motorbike (cheap), and get there yourself (no license required.) That is how Nga and I made it to Langbiang, a 2000+ meter high mountain not far from Dalat. The weather was on a nasty tip as we departed from Thung Lũng Tình Yêu, swinging wildly from searing sun to drenching rain. It was the monsoon season, and there is nothing like getting stung by bullets of cold rain, to appreciate the subtleties of the Vietnamese climate! We scootered along on the edge of the road, passing some truly gorgeous scenery: vegetable farms heavy with the stench of manure, eucalyptus trees, tonnes of cute colorful houses inside which inhabitants lounged in front of flickering TV screens, or maybe indulged in a game of billiards. The rain came and went, in waves. We made glacial progress, especially when hills were involved. Nga hasn't yet mastered the art of gear changes, and I have yet to master the art of driving at all. I just hang on to the back, trying to keep the rain out of my eyes. And it stings when the rain hits you at speed! The hills seemed to get steeper and more daunting, the closer we got to Langbiang. Dogs, chickens (some of them on the way to slaughterhouse), the stench of manure. Plenty of stopping and asking for directions. When we finally scooted through the decrepit Montagnard village which lies at its base, and saw the large Hollywood style letters on the hill proclaiming its name, I thought to myself: Surely we can't make it up to the top of that mountain by ourselves, on this little bike! That mountain looks tall. That road is steep. We can't make it!
Fortunately enough, you can't ride to the top of Langbiang on your own bike -- you have to surrender that at the base camp. There, once you have made it through the scrum of Montagnard husslers and beggars, the guys peddling horse rides and even pretend Zebras, all the crocodile tears and the appeals for petty cash, you're in -- the mountain rises above you, its peak usually hidden in mysterious cloud. Most of the Viet's choose to ride to the peak and back in jeeps which scream up the steep, winding road at high speed, their air horns rending the alpine calm asunder (the round trip costs 100,000 Dong.) Since this is Vietnam and you can do everything yourself, Nga and I chose to walk. About an hour later I started to regret this decision. I didn't ken it at the time, but the trek from the base at Langbiang, to the summit, takes you from an altitude of 1450m to 2169m. That is more than 700 meters, straight up! No wonder I was so tired and cranky when I went to bed that night. It kind of reminded me of trekking in the Himalayas in Nepal -- the gorgeous forest occasionally breaking to offer glimpses of rural ideal, the sense of rising from one world, to the next, to the next. Splatterings of rain came and went. I kept saying to Nga: "Surely it can't be too much further... it is just around the next bend!" And of course the next bend opened to the vista of a long black road snaking ever up, steeper than ever, into the misty distance. Of course it doesn't look that steep in the photos.
The rude blare of a jeep, headlights through the gloom, and Nga and I had to scuttle out of the path of another suicide driver. Groups of young Vietnamese hanging out the back, laughing at us as they passed. A lot of people wanted to shout hello at me because I was a foreigner. My shoes, about two sizes too small, started to pinching hard. We climbed another hundred meters, the angle of the road seemingly about 45 degrees. I eyed all those passing jeeps enviously, imagining how comfortable those passengers inside must feel. Had I known how tough a summit Langbiang would prove to conquer by foot, I would probably would have opted to ride.
Nonetheless, there is something cool about getting to the top of a really high mountain -- finally the trees break, the mist clears, the sky opens up -- and you see you have run out of world. The road comes to a stop. We were at the top! We limped past the five or six jeeps parked in the car park, towards a restaurant and observation deck with telescopes to marvel at the broad 360 degree view of the Central Highlands, including Đà Lạt and its burbs, the wibbly wobbly river and the stormclouds stacked high in the heavens. I was immediately mobbed by a bunch of Montagnards selling stuff. Despite the pinched toes in my shoes and my weary limbs, I felt a surge of elation. Unlike all the other lazy bones here, we had climbed to the top by ourselves. We had conquered the mountain!
Victor Phung wrote on Trek Earth: "The first time I came to Langbiang, the highest mountain of Lâm Viên highland was 15 years ago and the first night I spent in xã-Lác, the village of the Lạch ethnic minority people, was my birthday of 20. At that time there was no school in this village and most people here could not read, write even speak Vietnamese. Their main work is woodcutter. Now coming back xã-Lác everything has been change. I can not recognize anything except the mountain Lambiang and an old church. The Lạch people still use their own language but they also can speak Vietnamese even some can speak English. There are 3 schools in this village and most of children can go to school to study..."
Writes Viet Scape: "Prenn fall is located at the foot of Prenn pass and is about 10 km from Da Lat. Around the fall area was once a thriving wild life refuge. Visitors to the fall can visit the various habitat of the animals in this region. Today, Prenn fall is a destination to visit in Da Lat. A local compared the scenery at Prenn fall to those drawn in paintings. The water falling from the top of the fall creates a sheet of silver pouring into a pool of water at the bottom. Behind this sheet of water is a wooden and bamboo bridge where visitors can cross behind the water..."
Thung Lũng Tình Yêu // The Valley of Love
The aforementioned Lonely Planet says: "Up in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, in the Annamese Mountain range, is the raunchily named Valley of Love. It used to be the Valley of Peace until university students changed its name and cemented Dalat's reputation as the hot Vietnamese destination for couples searching for a cooler climate..."
Apart from walk around the admittedly beautiful lake, the big thing to do in the Valley of Love is pose for pictures with your friends and/or lover. There are plenty of photographic props available: statues, concrete mushrooms, even stone rhinoceroses (believe it or not, tigers and even rhinos used to live here until quite recent times) and mock Montagnard houses on stilts. Like the elephants and the rhinos and the tigers and deer, the real Montagnard are gone, banished by the Vietnamese invasion. The real Montagnards have been pushed aside, into squalid hamlets on the outskirts of town; simulated Montagnards have taken their place. In much the same way white Australians appropriate Aboriginal icons like the boomerang and didgeridoo to spice up their culture, so too do Vietnamese rob from their own mountain Aborigines. At Thung Lũng Tình Yêu, Vietnamese visitors pay a small fee to dress up in colorful Montagnard garb, play with Montagnard instruments and weapons and tools, and basically pretend they are Montagnards on what is essentially stolen Montagnard land. Of course the same thing happens in Ainu and former Jomon Japan, as this photo illustrates well. One can't condemn the Vietnamese too harshly for this kind of cultural appropriation -- at least they seem to be curious about the mountain peoples of their vast mountainous land, and curiosity is not necessarily a bad thing. But strangely, when Vietnamese do encounter real Montagnards, such as the scavengers at the base camp at Langbiang, they tend to cringe with terror, and move away fast, looking away. Granted the Montagnards are most likely begging or trying to sell you something you don't need at the time, and they are kind of persistent as hell too. I always try hard not to be annoyed when they are bugging me, because I know I am trespassing on their country. If only domestic Vietnamese visitors would show the same respect!
Vườn Hoa Thanh Pho Đà Lạt // The Dalat Flower Garden
A preferred hang out for ridiculous cowboy guys pimping horse rides, guys with hoses and gnarly old bonsai trees, this is a popular destination for domestic tourists. They had a big flower display at the end of 2007 but unfortunately, Nga and I couldn't make it to see it. Strangely, when I went there at the end of April 2008, I didn't think there were that many flowers nor plants there, less than you might find within striking range of Singapore's Changi Airport. This place underwhelmed me. It was kind of bare, bare as a Vietnamese zoo might be bare. There are muddy ponds and gum trees proud on the surrounding hills. An array of cloud types in the steaming heavens (I was there in the wet season might I add.) It is not exactly dense -- there is plenty of open grass, and the at the time of my and Nga's visit, hardly a soul there apart from the cowboys and hoseguys. Ying, who professes the power of love, and who has sat in a cowboy hat on the horses at the Valley of Love, said after mounting a crriage at the Flower Park on her blog: "Giong lo lem hi!" Perhaps that means something like "Giddiup!"
When you travel in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, it is essential to know that you are visiting stolen land -- the Vietnamese are traditionally rice growers from the coastal plains, and the Highlands are not their natural habitat. Actually, at least half of Vietnam could be considered stolen when you consider that in the not so distant past, the Malay style Champa Civilization was erecting cities and building temples in the south of the nation. The Vietnamese conquered the Chams, and integrated them. Not that I get so upset about this kind of historical narrative -- the strong always conquer the weak, shit happens. Maybe someday some foreign race will land in Vietnam and subjugate the Vietnamese (perhaps it is happening right now as we speak, perhaps I am in the vanguard of the new land grab.) Every country has its skeleton in the closet, and for Vietnam, the skeleton is Montagnard in general shape, and form.
Last year (2007) World:Bridge (A Refugees International Blog reported: "During the Vietnam War many Montagnards, an ethnic group that lives Vietnam's Central Highlands, fought with U.S. special forces against the Communist Vietnamese forces. Since the war, the Montagnards have received harsh treatment from the government, in part because they sided with the U.S. and in part because many of they are Christian.
"Beside religious repression, the Montagnards also protested the government's confiscation of their ancestral lands, which the communists plan to use to grow and export coffee. According to the Montagnards, this practice has led to widespread malnourishment and starvation in the highlands..."
By destroying all of the Montagnards' church structures, communist authorities have forced Christian religious services underground in the house-churches. According to Montagnard sources, when the police discover these house-churches, they burn the homes, jail the pastors and fine the congregation. Currently, minority pastors cannot perform weddings or baptisms or even minister to the dying or provide services for the dead. As a result, the government effectively has cut off the people from their spiritual shepherds. (Source: Unsourced.)