Da Lat, Vietnam

I rode shotgun in a minivan that went from the beach town of Mui Ne up to the highland city of Da Lat.  About two hours into the drive we found ourselves stuck behind a truck loaded with boxes of live chickens.  One of the chickens managed to escape its box only to find itself in an even worse situation – clinging precariously to the top of a truck going 40 miles an hour.  It held on bravely for about 10 minutes before falling off and landing on the highway in front of us.

Our driver immediately stopped the minivan in the middle of the road.  Not missing a beat or changing his expression, he hopped out, grabbed the chicken, produced a plastic cord (as if, anticipating the appearance of a fugitive chicken on the road that afternoon, he came prepared), wrapped the cord around the chicken’s feet, and opened the side door of the minivan with the idea of tossing the chicken on the floor by the first row of seats.  The British couple who occupied those seats had other ideas, and they expressed themselves loudly and succinctly enough (“No!”) that the driver changed his mind, instead throwing the chicken in the back with our luggage.

As it turns out, the chicken, which must have been injured by the fall, bled on the suitcases of the Vietnamese family that sat behind the British couple.  The wife of the family was especially upset, but the driver gave her a bemused look that I interpreted as, “Hey, free road chicken – what can you do?”

And so I arrived in Da Lat, a city of 250,000 people in the highlands of southern Vietnam.  Da Lat has been one of the country’s top resort destinations for a very long time, and these days it’s a popular vacation spot for Vietnamese families.  The relatively cool climate is a nice break from the heat of the coast, and the countryside is full of lakes, waterfalls, and pine forests.

 

Da Lat Countryside

 
The minivan dropped us off at a tourist office and from there I took a taxi to one of the hotels recommended by my guidebook.  That hotel was full, so I wandered back out into the street, luggage in tow, and tried to figure out my next move.  For a resort town, Da Lat is definitely not mellow.  The winding streets are choked with a constant stream of motorbikes and cars, most of them honking.  Storefronts stretch endlessly into the distance, each of them sporting a brightly-colored billboard that yells at you in big block letters.  The sidewalks are so crowded with people that I had a tough time finding a place to stand without being in someone’s way.  Faced with this maelstrom I just stumbled towards the next hotel I saw.

Initially the hotel seemed OK and I took the room.  But the wi-fi didn’t work, a leaky pipe in the bathroom made a constant dripping sound, and the front desk people couldn’t speak enough English to help.  So I called an audible and got out of there.  Back on the street.  This time, though, I sucked it up and busted out the guidebook.  After orienting myself on the map, I found another recommended hotel within walking distance and managed to navigate myself there without getting run over.  Night and day – the second hotel was perfect.

By this time I’d decided that one full day in Da Lat would be enough, so I scheduled my bus ride to Nha Trang for Friday morning.  Then I booked a generic “countryside tour” for the next day.  Tours can be awful and I try to avoid them, but sometimes they’re the easiest, quickest, and cheapest way to see a place’s popular attractions.  And this wasn’t a group tour, at least – just me with a guide who drove the two of us around on his motorbike.

The guide, Viet, spoke some English, but I struggled to understand most of what he said and ended up tuning out whenever he delivered a memorized lecture at one of our stops.  It was more interesting to get to know him as a person than it was to listen to him recite a speech about the history of rice wine.

Viet politely answered my initial questions – he was 24 years old, he had been married for 2 years, he had an 11-month old son, and he had lived in Da Lat his whole life – but he really lit up when I asked him what kind of music he likes.  “Scorpions!” he said with a big smile.  I thought I must have misunderstood.  “The band Scorpions?” I asked.  “Heavy metal?  From the 80s?”  Sure enough – he pulled out his cell phone and played “Still Loving You” to confirm.  He said Scorpions is the only Western band he likes.  I threw out some others in the same ballpark – Dokken?  Anthrax?  Poison?  Viet flashed a look of disdain for those lesser bands.  He didn’t even approve of all Scorpions songs – only the power ballads.  You have to give the guy credit for assessing the entire musical landscape of the Western world and skimming the cream off the very top.  It’s not often you run across a true connoisseur.   (Feeling the need to intervene, I played him some Guns N’ Roses on my iPhone and “Don’t Cry” may have prompted a reconsideration of his Scorpions-only policy.)

Viet couldn’t understand why anyone would travel alone and he did his best to uncover the combination of character defects that forced me into such an unfortunate situation.  My lack of basic skills became apparent at lunch.  “Can you use these?” he asked, holding up chopsticks.  “Yes, but I’m not good,” I told him.  He watched closely as I used my chopsticks to pick up a small piece of pork and dip it in soy sauce, demonstrating what I thought was a passable level of aptitude.  “I get you fork,” he said grimly.

 

Lunch with Viet

 
I probably should have been more impressed with the stops we made along the way – some nice views of the city, a flower plantation, a silk factory, a rice wine operation, a cricket farm, the biggest waterfall in the area, an oddity called the “Crazy House” – but the light was terrible for photos and shuttling from one tourist attraction to the next tends to drop me into a daze.

 

Elephant Falls

 

Happy Buddha

 
At a temple near Elephant Falls I noticed a swastika on a Buddha statue.  I know the swastika is an ancient symbol that pre-dates the Nazis, who perverted it into a representation of pure evil, but I didn’t realize it was used by Buddhists.  Apparently in Buddhism the symbol can be traced back to at least the 3rd century BCE as a representation of the harmony associated with balanced opposites.  Who knew?

 

Swastika Buddha

 
Early the next morning I boarded the bus to Nha Trang and kept my fingers crossed that all the chickens on the trucks in front of us would stay safely in their boxes.