This is the travel diary from Nha Trang to Dalat during our trip through Vietnam: from waking up at dawn in to Nha Trang to visiting the crazy house in Dalat.
Nha Trang to Dalat, Vietnam
The parts of a story are not meant to have equal weight. In fact, I now realize, this is precisely the virtue by which a story lives: the obstacles and story arcs are incidental, the specific elements and images mere artifacts; rather it is through the editorializing choice of weight, be it by hand, conscience or through the fickle trickles of memory, that a story rises from dust and ashes. Uneven, plump at its hips and slender at its neck, humanized and imperfect. There, there we have it.
As many stories do, and usually implicitly, this one begins as I awake, and watch the dawn rosy and dewed, stretch uneventfully – a misleading word to signify the beauteous, celestial and heavenly emotions felt at the sight of a simple pink but stellar hue.
A statue of a dictator or a liberator sweeps through the sky, moved by its own indomitable will.
My love sleeps, curled up in a ball, her lips espousing her forearm, shielded from reality, in an elusive effort to rest.
This memory, through the throngs of sleepiness, remains vivid.
“Where are we?”
“We’re in Nha Trang, Vietnam’s Fort Lauderdale.”
“What is that?”
“A beach town in Florida.”
“Ah, like Saint Tropez in France.”
“Yes, a little bit like Saint Tropez in France. Come, let us see the sun rise above the beach before our bus.”
We walk on a dream, a surreal Western-like imitation of a Polynesian hut – a modern café – appears by the beach. Cross a large boulevard and onto the cold, grainy sand.
Dozens of early risers have already made their way, setting up towels, mats and tents, stretching.
Walk along the beach. To the left, the city hall, surmounted by the national and Communist flags. Another, modern-looking phallic structure. Some kids are kicking a football, while others rattle on their skateboards.
Thirty mid-age Vietnamese ladies execute the precise steps of a dance, spreading their red fans simultaneously, graciously evasive as they swivel to the other side, only to stamp their foot ruthlessly on the next step, one part fitness routine, one part indoctrination, to the melodic air sprung forth by invisible speakers. No matter how hard I try, I can’t see where the enchanting music comes from. Maybe the City Hall itself.
Their song rises into the cool, wispy air.
I remember being a bit worried as the bus smokes up the smoky hills. For no reason: our driver’s as considerate a champion as they come, the road spreads open, brand-new and wide.
The only remaining sense of uncertainy comes from the recurring motifs of the walled rocks.
And the sprawled orchards snaking through the mountainside. We’re headed to Dalat, the summer town of yore, hidden inland.
The French tried their best to breed good coffee and wine in these hills, before they were routed out.
Snap Snap, says the camera.
Before leaving, in Nha Trang, we slurped breakfast (noodles? Chicken? Fried dough?) seated on the low stools of a local joint. I enjoy this style of eating, the proximity to other people slurping away in unison, the simple and matter-of-fact assessment of our sameness when it comes to basic needs. I regret not engaging in more conversation, or at least not being the unknown recipient of theirs, burdened by the language barrier. I wonder if they do openly engage with strangers, as in a bar. However I can’t get used to the knee-height of the stools.
The bus chugs and springs. I’ve been dreaming. There’s a lake, and rows of apartment buildings, their windows shaded by colored awnings.
“Where are we?”
“We’re in Dalat.”
We step through a market, green vegetables lined on thin cloths onto the ground, through the odors of red meat and ravenous flies, up flights of steps onto a chilly avenue into the hills. The walk feels pleasant, Dalat homey, thanks to the fresh mountain air – a welcome respite to the tormenting heat experienced since our arrival in Vietnam, baked into the streets of Hanoi.
I recall eyeing the stalls full of mopeds, aching to rent one. Then reminding myself of the several accidents we’ve witnessed so far, of the famed impetuousness of Vietnamese traffic, of the sinuous roads branching in and out of the summer capital.
And I remind myself of the fact that I’ve never tried riding a moped on my own. I resolve to do so. But not here, not now, not in the mountains, not where death and serious injury lurk around, spider-like, patiently waiting for that juicy chance at a quick meal. Not with the person I’ve vowed to protect, hanging for dear life as she clutches to my waist. The propitious time will come, sooner than later.
With only another half-day to spare in Dalat, and many of its outdoor activities miles away from the city, and the further consideration of Coco’s vertiginous fear at the mere mention of hiking the Elephant Falls, which comforting reviews promise to be utterly “steep and slippery,” we thus settle on a softer pair of activities, first riding the cable car above the quietly swaying treetops, before paying a curious visit to the yet curiouser Crazy House.
Later that afternoon, step into the cable car, hold lovers’ hands as the cabin hovers above the pines, chestnut trees and mangroves (creative license engaged), watch the afternoon sun slowly sinks atop the hills and scintillating rooftops that oversee the dance of the orchards in the breeze.
A temple at the foot of the hill, Vietnamese families hobble along the winding paths up and down the hilly countryside, through thickets and dried up basins…
A taxi. The Hằng Nga guesthouse, more popularly known as Crazy House, awaits. Unassuming and grey. From the outside, its vaguely troglodytic appearance does a good job masking its unique eccentricities. For a second, I’m hesitant as to whether this is worth it.
Fortunately though, we do step inside, and immediately fall prey to the artistic drama that materializes before us; uprooted concrete vines spiral mid-air, treehouse doors that lead to dungeons, hanging staircases soar through the skies, steep as rollercoaster rides… Praise to Vietnamese architect Đặng Việt Nga and to her better known and no less divine source of inspiration, Gaudi.
I settle down to work in the evening. When we’re hungry, Coco tramps out in quest of adequately cheap and delicious food.
She asks the Vietnamese lady if she can order food to go. A mesmerizing request which confounds her to the utmost.
“You don’t have bowl?”
“No, sorry. I don’t have a bowl.”
She gives Coco two ceramic bowls, chopsticks, and a heap of food.
“We’ll bring back the bowl.”
In the morning, after having duly returned the bowl, I meet Rene, who’s smoking a cigarette and drinking local coffee. As are the fellow men seated all around this typical café.
Rene has become a tour guide, thanks to his knowledge of French and some English.
We speak for a little while. He breathes at the tip of his cigarette slowly, talking all the while with a dash of benign self-promotion, should I by chance be able to publicize his activity when I return to the great Abroad. I thank him for his time.
Another life passes by.
We are moving, moving to avoid catching the moss, to avoid the moss latching onto us, a rolling stone and rolling coconut tumbling down the Dalat Hills, down the slopes of time, down the rabbit holes of life, till we come to a lulling stop onto the sandy beaches of Mui Ne.