Have you ever been so hot, you could see your skin sizzle in the sun, popping like hot oil in a pan? Could you genuinely hear the marrow boiling in your bones? Has your face ever melted off, dripping from your skull like a Nazi opening the Arc of the Covenant?
Because if you have, you’ve gone quite mad.
However, it feels like those things might be possible in Vietnam during the month of May. Forty degrees centigrade is no environment for a human, and yet, there they are, the denizens of Saigon, wearing hoodies in the heat, and gloves in the sun.
Thankfully, Vietnam has its own Cameron Highlands-style hill station, namely a town called Dalat. Its altitude makes it a blessedly temperate place to visit, and a welcome break for our delirious pores.
Dalat is home to Vietnam’s only vineyards, producing inexpensive wine of dubious quality for the local market. It’s not awful. And seeing as imported wine is so dear, it’s certainly palatable if you’re on a budget. But you won’t be taking any home to impress your friends over dinner, put it that way.
Most of the town creeps up hill from the bank of a lake, over which domestic tourists pootle on swan-shaped pedalos. It’s a bit of a honeymoon spot for the locals, I think, and there’s a fair amount of romance kitsch if you care to find it. The flower gardens, for instance, looked particularly puke-inducing.
Eat food, drink wine, stroll around. It’s liberating to do these things without worrying about salty sweat stains leaving chalky ghost-like apparitions over your clothing. Wonderful!
But the real beauty of Dalat requires a ride around its winding provincial roads, specifically with some Easy Rider guides. That’s one thing about Dalat – the abundance of elderly men striking up conversation with you in the street, hoping you’ll opt for their tour of the countryside.
We hadn’t been in town long when Binh approached us. “Hey, where you from?” he asked, approaching our restaurant table on the street. When we said “London”, he was delighted to tell us his daughter was studying at Southwark University.
Now, we’ve read since that this is a common opening gambit – a little white lie to create common ground – but it really didn’t matter, because Binh was funny, charming and friendly. The fact he was offering a tour was convenient, as it meant we could hang out with him for a day, not to mention his best buddy, Mr Chung.
The pair of them had fought in the American war for the South Vietnamese army, Binh in the air force, Chung on the ground. You could tell Binh had spent a lot of time with Americans by the way he said “American chopper,” in a surprisingly convincing Texan drawl.
Initially we were shown the Dragon Temple on the outskirts of town. It’s most notable for the giant dragon statue in its front courtyard, a wonderfully sculpted beast that snakes around a garden path, forming arches with its body, under which you walk.
But there are four other statues that resonated more with me.
If you grew up in the ‘70s, or if you had older brothers who did, you might recognise these guys from Monkey, a kung-fu TV show chronicling the adventures of legendary Chinese demi-god Monkey and his companions Tripitaka, Sandy and Pigsy. Here they all were, almost entirely ignored by young whipper-snapper tourists. Don’t they know? – the nature of monkey was irrepressible!
Beyond the temple, the tour of the countryside began with a view over the farmlands surrounding Dalat. Apparently, farmers these days do very well for themselves, due to reforms introduced in the late ‘80s by a chap called Nguyễn Văn Linh – the General Secretary of Vietnam who favoured “Renovation” (transferring Vietnam from a Communist to a socialist-oriented market economy).
Food for thought
I expect land reform probably wasn’t what you came here to read about, but it was most enlightening to hear how effective it had been in transforming the country from centralised farming to practically free-market profiteering. Suddenly, everyone had loads to eat, and the farmers had enough money to build houses a wolf would struggle to blow down.
Instead of being told to grow rice, farmers could grow cash crops, like coffee or flowers, and change up the use of the land according to the season. They could start growing mushrooms, which aren’t seasonally dependent, cleverly growing them vertically from hanging sacks of powdered wood.
Later, over a lunch that consisted of almost a dozen dishes, Binh explained how impoverished the country had become during the aftermath of the American war, particularly when the Soviet Union was forced to withdraw its financial aid due to an escalating cold war with the Americans.
Now, he happily declared, was like living in a paradise.
It was during that lunch that I noticed Mr Chung had a number of mannerisms that reminded me of my Dad. He was quite content to listen to the conversation, and interjected only rarely, either to offer more food or smile broadly with squinting eyes at some happy perk, like dossing during the low season, or eating like Kings for a pittance.
Binh, too, showed a fatherly side at times. While expounding the results of the Americans’ deforestation tactics – a youthful tree line that’s more forest than jungle – he deftly plucked a bug from my shoulder mid-sentence, as though from a child in his care.
We were also shown a silk factory, where we saw the cocoons of silk worms being boiled, then unthreaded, before being fed into a cloth-making machine. It’s still boggling to think silk is made from the secretions of a caterpillar. What’s next? Hammocks made of spider webbing?
How about weasel coffee? You must have heard of it… it’s the kind of wacky item you might see on The One Show, or on Richard & Judy. They feed coffee beans to civets, collect their droppings, and extricate the undigested beans from the excrement. Sounds delicious, right?
I log that one in the How did they discover that? category of human innovation, along with the century egg, how to fillet a fugu puffer fish without killing someone, or the mystery of meringue.
Before heading back to town, we stopped at a pair of waterfalls. The first, Elephant Falls, is a thunderous torrent of water under which you can clamber, but do so with appropriate clothing, because the spray that erupts as it crashes below will have you drenched within seconds.
It’s a lovely place, accessed via steep and precarious rocky paths, a hastily built metal rail slowly being subsumed by the indomitable crawl of nature. Watch where you place your hands, there are caterpillars mooching down the railings with spines that make sea urchins look cuddly.
The second falls we came to, at the end of the day, were quite close to town, and therefor a favourite for tour groups, specifically Russians, led by grumpy, microphone-clad tour guides, like the lost love-child of Britney Spears and Vladimir Putin.
There’s a bobsleigh from the park entrance to the waterfall below, which would be fun but for seriously irritating old women who hold the breaks down all the way to the bottom, making every potentially exciting twist and turn a teeth-grinding disappointment.
The waterfall isn’t even terribly interesting, unfortunately. And if you want a picture, you’ll have to wait for the Russian girl to stop posing for her hubbie’s camera, with her bum arched out looking sultry, like she’s farted but it smells kind of sexy.
The next day we stopped by Dalat’s oddest attraction – Dang Viet Nga’s Crazy House. Let me tell you, it is most certainly zany with a capital Zoinks!
The hotel-cum-tourist-attraction was voted the world’s oddest architectural feat in 2000somethingsomething. A cross between a Final Fantasy VII maze and a Hansel & Gretel house, you’re free to trounce all over the place seeking out its innumerable nooks and crannies.
It’s interesting, imaginative, with a child-like enthusiasm for impractical design, but there’s an element of cheapness to it, inherent in the overuse of sculpted concrete. Regardless, it’s an absorbing hour or two walking over the rooftops and peering into bedrooms.
We could have stayed in Dalat longer, but we had yet more friends from home to see – this time in the centre of Vietnam, in the historical town of Hoi An. So we returned our hoodies to the bottom of our bags once more, and readied ourselves for the descent.
Up close and personal
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