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Dalat Cowboys and Love Valley provide comic relief in an alpine setting

After a rest day in Saigon spent photographing street urchins and visiting a museum or two, I set out on the next leg of my journey: a trip to Dalat and Nha Trang. Dalat is a city high in the central highlands region and Nha Trang is a popular beach resort. These are both popular destinations that the sterile tourist buses operated by the Saigon cafés go to for a very reasonable price. Of course I didn’t want that so for a not-so-reasonable price I’d get a guy to drive me on a motorbike from Saigon to Dalat to Nha Trang. From there I’d send him back alone while I lay on the beach for a couple of days before taking the tourist bus back to Saigon. I’d need the driver for four days and expect him to drive me about 325 miles before driving himself another 270 miles back to Saigon.

Thao didn’t want to make the trip so he introduced a friend of his, Ha, a very likeable guy of about 40 who spoke very little English but was beginning to make an effort to learn. In Dalat I loaned him my phrasebook for a day to study and copy down vocabulary. He also owned a larger bike. Most of the motorbikes are the Honda Dream variety, one step above a moped; but Ha had a 125cc, the largest anyone in Vietnam without connections can own. We agreed on $85. He proved to be a careful driver and even admonished me once or twice for what he thought was jumping off the bike too quickly.

Dalat (pop. 125,000), about 190 miles northeast of Saigon is an attractive city sitting atop a plateau at about 5,000 feet. It’s a relatively new city established in 1912. It is one of the most popular destinations for the domestic tourist industry. If there’s one thing that’s popular with the Vietnamese, it’s kitsch, and Dalat has no shortage of kitsch.

Aside from the ability to stop anytime for any reason, one of the reasons I wanted a motorbike was to see Dambri Falls. About halfway to Dalat it is one of Vietnam’s largest (over 300 feet high) and most impressive waterfalls. As it’s only about ten miles from the highway it surprised me that the tour buses skipped it. Dambri is indeed a very impressive waterfall with an equally impressive water volume. I had to keep some distance away to remain dry, which turned out to be a pointless effort.

The road to Dalat began with an amusement park ride called ‘Friday morning rush hour in Saigon’. It was insane. We only made contact with two other vehicles (one motorbike, one bicycle), which judging by Ha’s reaction and the other drivers’ reaction this was clearly a common occurrence and in the absence of property damage or bodily harm, there was no point in even stopping. Once out of the city we followed National Highway 1 for awhile, past a lot of factories, a lot of industry, and a lot of noisy traffic. Another hour or so and we turned left on Highway 20, the real road to Dalat. The scenery quickly changed to rolling hills. Soon we passed a large man-made lake to the left and soon after that we began our climb to the first plateau. The surrounding scenery was very rugged and junglelike. Although the mountains weren’t much more than 3,000 feet, they were very steep and covered with dense vegetation. Once on the plateau the land changed back to rolling hills with the occasional bump in the earth that might be legitimately called a mountain. We reached Dambri at lunchtime.

After Dambri another old friend returned. As we’re riding along the crest of a high hill leading back to the highway I see off to the northeast, our desired direction, that big old black monsoon cloud happily dumping inches and inches of rain wherever it goes. Thirty minutes later we were in a drizzle, I stopped Ha, ran into a store and bought a couple of cheap ponchos to keep the bags dry. Good timing, within minutes we were in a deluge that was to last for three hours, causing us to skip a few things I had wanted to see on the way to Dalat. The rain didn’t stop until we were about fifteen miles outside Dalat. By this time we were both drenched and cold. Up on this plateau the temperature was closer to 70 degrees and not the 95 degrees of the Delta. But Dalat sits up on another higher plateau and is thus even colder. Soaked to the bone but enjoying the brief respite from the storm, we wound our way up to Dalat, 5,000-foot elevation, and 55- degree weather. No sooner do we enter the Dalat city limits the sky opens up again. Another monsoon. Of course neither one of us knows where we’re going and Ha wants to drive around in the pouring rain and ask directions. I force him to pull over by the Central Market where I duck under cover, dig out my map, and navigate us to the Mimosa Hotel. We were both shivering when we reached the hotel. Literally. “Da-da-da-da-dooo y-y-y-y-y-ou ha-ha-ha-have annnnnny-y-y-y-y ra-ra-ra-rooms?” I ask. My shoes never dried until we reached Nha Trang three days later. My clothes only dried because the next day I gave them to the hotel to wash. In my room they were as wet the next morning as they were the moment I checked in.

In the warmth of my room I peeled off my clothing, warmed up with a hot shower and then settled in for dinner at the hotel restaurant. The Mimosa Hotel is one of Dalat’s oldest hotels located in an old building that is still in reasonably good shape and still maintains a lot of its old character. And though a little damp, at five dollars a room what more could you ask for?

The restaurant served up decent food and soon a few other foreigners wandered in; a couple from Sweden, a guy from Canada, and another guy from Norway who had some strange ideas about travel. We got into a short debate about whether or not China was cheap to travel. The answer depends on where you go, the southwest region of the country is one of the cheapest destinations in Asia, the eastern cities (Beijing, Shanghai, etc.) are some of the most expensive destinations in Asia. But he stubbornly maintained that China was a bargain. When I mentioned Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong he shrugged them off, “Not China.”
“Beijing is not China?”
Umm, okay.

The following day started out clear, sunny, and cool. I planned to see some of the surrounding waterfalls, visit a minority village, and maybe take in some of the sites within Dalat seeing some of Dalat’s famous kitsch for myself.

I saw a couple of waterfalls, a lake or two, a pagoda, and Bao Dai’s Summer Palace. I also visited a Koho minority village commonly known as “Chicken Village”, where I perhaps made the mistake of putting to much faith in guidebooks. I came expecting a quaint little village devoid of beggars and greedy souvenir and craft sellers. So no sooner do I get off the motorbike that several young children come running up to me with their hands out. This was instantly followed by a woman persistently asking me to visit her craft shop. Ignoring them all I walked off into the village which consisted of a few dirt lanes, small wooden shacks, and small gardens that probably did little more than feed the families. This was a poor village.

There is legitimate debate on the appropriateness of promoting villages as tourist attractions. Northern Thailand is full of minority villages and these are major drawing points for the regional trekking industry. Around Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and other areas numerous tour operators offer treks through the mountains, jungles, and villages. The villages are always described as ‘authentic’. What is 'authentic', anyway? When is a village not a village? Anyway, at some of the villages, the inhabitants have been paid a small sum of money to dress up nice for the tourists, hide the television sets, and sit around and do authentic hill tribe activities like making blankets. On the other hand, some villages do exist in a much more natural less-affected state. But keep in mind, the moment you and me - the tourists, set foot in any one of these villages, the cultural pollution begins.

As I walked through the village, I happened across a few children playing in a lot. This of course generated my interest to take a couple of photographs. While I've encountered many camera-shy children who didn't want their photograph taken, of the hundreds of children I have photographed in Asia, or attempted to photograph, I have never encountered a hostile reaction, until this day. No sooner do I set a shot that an older boy of maybe ten jumps up points an accusatory finger at me and screams “No!” Okay. Fine. I put the camera down, but that wasn’t good enough. The kid starts throwing rocks at me. The rocks were too small to pose any danger but the reaction disturbed me. I stayed in my crouched position for a few more seconds staring in disbelief at this furious kid while another small rock lands a few feet to my right. I say nothing, get up and start walking away when another rock sails past my head. That was enough. I stopped and turned to face this kid now standing about fifteen feet away from me. I took a few steps towards him, shook an angry finger and said, “That is enough. I’m leaving, okay?” Though I doubt he understood my words, he understood my tone. He just stood there glaring at me for a few more seconds and then turned and walked away. I did the same. While I’ll be the first to admit that I was invading their privacy, what disturbed me most was not that the kid didn’t want to be photographed but rather his violent response. The first thing I wondered was whether or not that was his own behavior or was he acting on the instructions of an adult. Then I also wondered what must have transpired before me to create such a hostile reaction.

I continued about the village for another fifteen minutes. I found Ha sitting by the large chicken statue that gives the village its name. Nobody is really sure why the chicken is there, even though it’s only about twenty years old. A number of theories have been offered, some historical, some practical, and some outright mythological. But for however it got there, Ha was now there trying to get rid of a few beggars.

At the front of the village we stopped by the same craft store where the young woman running the place had persistently tried to get me inside. I agreed this time to have a look. She put on the hard sell, continually reminding me about what a poor village this was, how they were a poor minority group receiving no help from the government, and finally how her poor dear old grandmother spent days and days weaving these blankets. The latter related to me only after I countered her price for a blanket with a considerably lower offer. Despite my less than positive impression of the village, I did buy a blanket - I needed one, and they were quite nice.

As a postscript, just after I left Vietnam the newest edition of the Lonely Planet Vietnam guidebook was released. I read their updated review of Chicken Village. Although they toned down their opinion a bit, (the 1997 edition gave a glowing review, praising the absence of beggars and lack of commercialism), they still seem to believe that there are no beggars in Chicken Village. And no mention of rock throwing children either. My advice, give this place a miss.

There are several waterfalls around Dalat that are worth visiting. There are also a few lakes but neither of the two I saw really impressed me. The first I saw was the Quang Trung Reservoir, and the other is in a place called Love Valley, which is also a manmade lake. When I mentioned Love Valley to Ha, he made a disgusted face and managed to say, “No good, no good, Love Valley, ugh, no go, no good.”

“I know, I know. But I want to see,” to which I laughed sarcastically and Ha seemed aware that I knew exactly what I was getting into.

Love Valley is the epitome of kitsch. The souvenirs, the paddle boats, the benches with big pink hearts overhead, they all make for a most interesting experience. But nothing beats the Dalat Cowboys. Local men dressed up in exaggerated American western garb, looking like they stepped out of a bad 1950s television show with their horses no less decorated. It’s a sight. In the valley’s defense, the natural scenery is not bad; it’s an attractive lake in an attractive valley against the front side of Lang Bian Mountain. Apparently Dalat is a popular honeymoon destination for young Vietnamese couples and Love Valley is one of the main attractions. But as a foreign visitor coming with no romantic intentions, I walked away with nothing but a good laugh. But it’s what I came for. When I came out and saw Ha I just busted up laughing. He did the same. What a place.

There are several palaces around Dalat that had originally been built by Bao Dai, the emperor of Vietnam from 1926 to 1945. Visiting the Summer Palace provides an opportunity to wander about a 25-room residence still kept as it was thirty years ago. Not a bad place to live. We then headed for the Governor General’s Residence, another palace built the same year, 1933, as the Summer Palace and also containing 25 rooms. But it was closed, reserved for a wedding reception.

We returned to the hotel and I let Ha go for the day. It was still only about 4:00 p.m. so I went to take a walk around the city. Dalat is an attractive city and as it’s a tourist hub, it’s far more prosperous than most Vietnamese cities. The center of town is dominated by a central market and is also one of the highest elevations within the city. On a nearby set of stairs many women sell a wide variety of food and down below are many more tables and vendors creating a fairly lively night market. Off in one direction is a mini (about one-third size) replica of the Eiffel Tower. The streets are winding and I managed to get completely lost as I walked around. About 5:30 it started to rain but not heavily. Nonetheless I didn’t need to get anything else wet so I figured out where I was and located my hotel returning reasonably dry.

The My Dung restaurant... care to see the menu?

The next day I planned a trip to another minority village, the Lat village. This is located about 12 kilometers north of Dalat on the other side of Lang Bian Mountain facing away from Love Valley. From the village it’s possible to climb to the top of the mountain, or ride a motorbike to a slightly lesser peak. I planned to do one or the other but hadn’t made up my mind yet. The highest peak of Lang Bian is about 7,900 feet but at Lat Village you’re already between 5,500 and 6,000 feet so it’s really not that big of a mountain. Going to Lat Village and Lang Bian Mountain requires a special permit from the local police. This involves either visiting the police yourself or getting your hotel to put your name down on a tour. Either way it’s five dollars.

When we left my hotel it was cloudy and by the time we reached Lat village it had started to rain. Fortunately the rain stopped as quickly as it started. I wandered the main street of Lat village, a series of small wooden buildings. Many villagers looking entirely western walked around paying no attention to me. Though there was nothing special about their style of dress it was clear to my eyes that these people were definitely not ethnic Vietnamese, as is true of quite a few of Dalat’s residents. Then it started to rain, again. I located Ha and we rode to the end of the village, which is also the base of the mountain. It was about 9:30 a.m., I decided to wait an hour or two and see what the weather does before making a decision about going up the mountain or not. On the left side of the road were a few tables under a roof where drinks and snacks were available. A number of tour van drivers were relaxing, waiting for their cargo to return from wherever.

A young village woman ran the place and she proceeded to sit down at my table and talk with me. Ha was at another table preparing for a nap, probably hoping I wasn’t going to have any insane ideas like asking him to take me up the mountain in the rain. But there was no danger of that happening, I didn’t want to get wet anymore than he did. The young woman started shuffling a deck of cards, “play?” she asks me. Of course I couldn’t refuse. What better way to pass a rainy morning than by playing cards with a young village woman? So I taught her Rummy 500 which she got the hang of pretty well. I ‘helped’ her in the beginning so as not to discourage her by running up an insurmountable early lead. Her name is Phuong - a Lat villager of about 22. In addition to speaking passable English, she spoke Vietnamese and the local Lat language. We passed the morning playing cards and making small talk. Ha was soundly asleep in a chair, probably dreaming of Saigon, where he’d be warm and dry, not stuck on a wet chilly mountain waiting for some foreigner to finish playing a card game with a village girl. By 11:15 the rain hadn’t quit and Lang Bian Mountain was almost completely lost in the clouds. I decided to give up. I woke Ha and told him ‘let’s get out of here’ to which he was all too happy to oblige. We made it back to the hotel by 11:45 reasonably dry. Our timing couldn’t have been better. No sooner do we return and reach the safe confines of the building that the sky completely opens up. I ate lunch and told Ha he could do whatever he wanted, if it stopped raining and I wanted to go somewhere I’ll find him, and not to worry about it if I don’t. It didn’t matter; the rain never let up. It was another deluge that lasted well into the evening. The day was a complete washout; my afternoon spent reading a book in my room, periodically looking outside to check on the weather.

The next morning brought bright blue skies. It was also departure day. We we’re going to leave the mountains for the coastal resort town of Nha Trang. This was the only day I really got my money’s worth for having hired a motorcycle. We left Dalat on a back road, one ignored by all the buses due to the many winding and twisting turns the road takes as it meanders across the plateau, then out of the mountains, and finally down to sea level. The area reminded me a lot of southwest Virginia. The Dalat area wasn’t so much dramatic mountains, but rolling hills covered with forests of mostly evergreen trees. But what was mostly definitely not southwest Virginia was the endless terraced fields growing crops of whatever - tea, coffee, bananas, etc. After one final tortuous road brought us down out of the mountains the landscape changed quickly. In a short time what had looked like southwest Virginia now resembled southern California. Hills almost completely devoid of trees, limited to mostly scrub, reached all the way to the ocean. We continued on a flat road with mountains behind and to each side of us, passing through friendly villages, dodging water buffalos, chickens, and the like.

We came to a large town just as school was letting out for the lunch break. This instantly filled the road with hundreds of bicycles carrying uniformed boys and young women in ao dais. “Hellooooo” they yell to me. And there we turned left onto Highway 1. It was a scenic drive on a fairly empty stretch of highway with the mountains to our left, the South China Sea to our right, and the ever-present smell of salt air.  



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All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.