(No.11, Vol.3, Dec 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

I may now be in Dalat, yet I often still miss her very much. I can no longer be impassioned by the unique urban parts of Dalat, which are replete with halcyon days never too distant from any other amid the remote bejeweled streets, for suddenly those streets in these frigid part have taken to perverted imitation and temerity. When I was engrossed in wandering on the central coast, there were days sitting in Nha Trang, leaning my back against the tomb of Mr Yersin atop Suoi Dau Hill and looking back towards the distant, recondite mountainous streets; a disparate picture of Dalat emerges, compelling me to return.

Xuan Tho, Dalat.
Photo: Nguyen Hang Tinh.

This is the edge on which, every morning, peasants wearing rubber boots ascend to the hilltop gardens to plant flowers and legumes. The edge is resourceful. It’s the environs in which Vietnamese immigrant farmers make a living. Rich with reddish mud, it is the environs in which its inhabitants have the mind to sit to await the rains and sun and truly live by the drops of their sweat. The edge does not know to lure tourists or await festivals and ceremonies. The place retains the spirit of the native homeland, the ‘genes’ of the hills and mountains, the never-fading character of ‘Dalat people’ (not everyone now living in Dalat bears the city’s disposition), and a pace of life that is peaceful, idyllic, slow-moving, and at ease. In this homeland are two rainy and dry seasons of ploughing and hoeing, but the people are extremely elegant: they do not go hurriedly, eat hastily, speak loudly, or shout out of anger. With names of meek farming hamlets like Thai Phien, Nam Ho, Trai Mat, Da Qui, Da Tho Phuoc Thanh, Da Thanh, Sam Son, Van Thanh, Da Thien, Dong Tinh, Thanh Mau, Cau Dat, Trai Ham and So Lang… they are always nice and cool with fruits and flowers and teeming with vegetation. In each and every stretch of vegetable garden, the peasants plant all sorts of different vegetables for a unique charm that is evocative, profuse with sentiments of the chilly countryside, and regales the eyes without immediately calling the stomach to bear.
On the edge, simple houses hang about here and there like scattered musical notes on the mountainsides, down in the valleys, and thread through the hilltops. The roads into the hamlets are tiny, but as for the length of their meandering, who knows to where they lead atop the secluded hills and mountains, as one layer rolls over to another. There, the terraced vegetable gardens resemble an immense accordion belonging to an artist of nature who, impassioned by music, stretches it all over the region and plays it like a madman unendingly as he wanders on forever, having forgotten the way back. One household can go over to the next and ask for a couple of chayotes to bring home and boil, a handful of green peas to stir-fry, artichokes to stew, a bunch of sea lavender to offer the ancestors, or a rose branch to put on display. For death anniversaries, weddings, betrothal ceremonies, and festivals, people can still do little, meek things as of old, such as bringing a neighbouring house a plate of sticky-rice, a few bunches of bananas, or early season persimmons. The itinerant people possess a character that is industrious, hardship-enduring, restive, and detached from the world, wealth-depreciating, gallant, honest, generous, and intrepid before power. They still abide profusely in clusters. Anything small-minded is inappropriate for Dalat; conniving and caginess cannot survive here for long, nor ‘trifle’ with so pure a ‘Dalat.’ The inhabitants are a benefaction. They have dwelt here for a long time, yet still to this day, in one place I can hear the reverberations of northern and Nghe An accents, in another the Quang Nam/Quang Ngai/Quang Tri/Quang Binh accents, in the next, the Hue accent while, a bit further on, I can hear the language and accents of the native Cill and Lach people, who are the segment of the inhabitants who best understand Dalat, are magnanimous, and endure solitude and harsh poverty more ably than the Vietnamese itinerants, for they are the deep-rooted masters of this homeland. Over three-fourths of Dalat’s area is entrusted to beneficent agriculture. That is the place where Dalat is truly Dalat, as opposed to the finickiness of the Hoa Binh area, Roundabout 3/2, Cam Do Market, Phan Chu Trinh intersection, Nga Nam Dai Hoc crossroad, or even Love Valley, Cam Ly Fall, Than Tho Lake, King Bao Dai’s Palace, Mong Mo Hill, the Dalat Historical Office, or the 700 voluptuous hotels that have sprung up.
In the outlying areas that remain immaculate with respects to tourism and real estate securities, when the knell of Buddhist pagodas and churches reverberate, they make the mountains and hills ever more vast and expansive, as if crawling up each stretch of legume garden and creeping into the verdancy of the fruits and flowers, lavishly and mystifyingly. Who could say that that is not a specialty of Dalat along with the green pines, legumes, mist, wide-openness, sadness, and cold? Just quiet your heart and you shall notice in Dalat the toll of church bells propagating far and wide with the gospels or the knell of Buddhist bells bellowing with prajna (Zen wisdom) that bears a figure quite distinct from those of other lands. I imagine that someone with an inkling to take his or her own life would find it difficult to carry out such a thing once he or she brushes up against these sounds at dusk. 

Cau Dat, Dalat. Photo: Ha Huu Net

The edge is the yin portion of the city; the effeminate part in contrast to the masculine, yang portion of the bustling, obstreperous, multifarious, and garrulous streets that are set at a distance. They call to mind the wilderness origins of the highland city and ensure that the city eschews impudence, baseness, waywardness, and loss of character.
In the gentle agricultural valleys and hills, when mist appears, it actually seems as if the heavens are presenting a banquet. The mist is cast, hovers, and floats, sometimes with a sensation of waves of velvet or silk due to some idle fellow who stretches divine silk strands out on a gambol, forgetting all about the lean harvest. The degree of diaphanousness and lushness, height and lowness, proximity and remoteness of the countryside mist frequently incites me to fantasize about those aspects of a virgin maiden’s figure.
In the pine forests of Dalat, the mist is beautiful in a different, circumscribed manner. However, in the garden areas, the mist blankets truly freely and ardently. When viewing the pine forest mist, we are afraid of losing ourselves in the immense depths beyond our purview. As for viewing the mist in the garden areas, we are afraid of drifting away and being absorbed in infinite boundlessness. The ‘work of art’ that is the mist manifests without laws dictating the crafting of its figure. Every day, season, morning, evening, hill, valley, cliff, garden, and forest varies with each and every moment.
The ‘killer beauty’ of the mist has yet to slay anyone, but it causes people to reminisce about it; that is the mist of these outlying areas. The mist is at once savage and expansive—freely given to untrammelled wandering in the wilderness, melancholy dreams, and ethereality— yet it is pure and adorns the arduousness, the gardens, the vegetation, and the hills and mountains. The mist, too, is indeed a tourist ‘product’ of Dalat.
I remember quite well a friend from Hue who was, at the time, relegated to cold destitution but lived by his dreams. Many times, at one or two in the morning, we would kick open the door and go off together, racing our motorbikes out to see the mist, the mist of the outlying areas. I also swore that I would never forget the times I enjoyed drinking in the middle of the night with my errant, knightly friends, who uphold righteousness and roam untrammelled, contemptuous even towards women’s graces. And only those who are dear, honest, and respectful to me do I ‘carry’ off to introduce to Dalat’s mist and treat them to the open-air wine of wind and dew in these sparing outskirts. That is a wine infused with dew— the former element created by man, while the latter is God’s doing. Both are luscious and bold. When we imbibe wine amid the mist, we feel that all maidens become goddesses.
So mentioning Dalat’s mist, might anyone thirst for it?
A couple of my friends crooned about renouncing their career lives to go back and work the gardens, to return to the town edge; and they said, ‘Planting flowers and growing legumes, too, are ‘works of arts.’ They regarded each crop of flowers as clearly a composition that is ongoing and wrapped up along with an abundance of heart-throbbing, pleased, discomfited, pensive, joyous, and despondent emotions. My friends say that the mist is familiar, yet there are mornings on which they go to work the gardens and even they are taken aback when they behold a fresh figure or state of the mist.
I could not do what my friends did, but I do often pilgrimage back to the mist, to the readily fathomed outlying areas of the mountainous streets in order to fanaticize, to let myself go, to see that life is truly lovely, and to behold the vastness of heaven and earth right beneath my feet and before my very eyes.
The back valleys, flowery cliffs, and vegetable gardens — the leftover, cast-aside aspects of Dalat tourism — are always just surprising.
I am fond of taking pictures of the solitary edge, because this is where joys and sorrows are truly joys and sorrows.

By Nguyen Hang Tinh