Egret over the rain-enlivened Ho Xuan Huong 

Vietnam Heritage, February 2011 — By accident, the birds had returned to the Dalat lake, in much greater numbers than had been seen for many a long year. As the lake had been drained, and especially after it had rained heavily, and the brown water was up to half-a-metre deep, the birds swooped and fed joyfully. This was how bird life was meant to be lived, while in the days of the almost blue, dead elegance of the lake, most of the birds had been swan-shaped and actually pedal boats. We were warned, by signs standing in the water, that we should not fish, though these signs, I am told, were there only because someone had a prior right to the fish. A taxi-driver, this time, several of them, confirmed that the city, this second half of October, 2010, was heavily involved with the concept that the lake was being drained and reconstructed, and industries moved away from upstream, so as it would not be polluted. Curiously, on dry, cracked mud and grass where the water did not reach, before it had rained so heavily, no one used a metal detector to collect the hundreds of wedding rings that must have been flung in despair, from behind the fluffy feathers of a swan on such a swan lake of a theatre. In this the ‘City of Love in the Southern Highlands’, a taxi-driver confirmed that no one hankered over such booty, or gold bars hidden there by fleeing French colonials or deposed mandarins.

It is very rare to get a picture of Vietnam’s white egret (and one has to be careful not to assume there is only one kind, or that this bird is exclusively Vietnamese, even though the con cò, Vietnamese for white egret, is, as a bird, one of Vietnam’s most famous and revered, or even that an ornithologist or birdwatcher will call it an egret), such a white egret as I have photographed, almost by chance. White egrets usually get a red halo around them (and spiders, butterflies and lizards are hard to get into focus) on one’s black hunk of worn, battered and grimy digitations, lacking in pixel power, hanging round the neck. It has to be a rather dull day, in the light sense, and you have to get down wind of white egrets, so they don’t sense you and fly away. And they have got to be feeding on rarely revealed delicacies of the lake-bed and having an exceptionally good time. Unfortunately, one white egret otherwise captured pretty well, on the handrail of a bridge, upstream, appeared to have a scarecrow with a conical hat hanging from its beak, as such a thing was in the background. One should be careful not to fall down the bank of the drained lake (called Hồ Xuân HÆ°Æ¡ng, or Lake of Fragrant Spring, as should be said much earlier), but there were seats beside the bank facing the vast, drained fields where the birds played where one could contemplate just how good civic administration would have to be to arrange something more pleasing than wild grass and birds on an unplanned plain after rain. Just don’t do anything and you will be amazed at what can be constructed by nature without an ‘expensive’ permit, development plan, contract or progam.

The water coming out of the taps was sometimes tinged with the same fresh, golden brown of the water in the lake under reconstruction. A taxi-driver said this was clean dirt and we didn’t have to worry about it, though if we washed a white towel in the hotel we found it might appear to be dirtier than when we started, and in patches, where the fabric had filtered out the most particles of the municipal mud, which no doubt has already been commercialized at hot-mud springs with take-away plastic bags for facials. The water, despite its dirty-clean status, could impart an awful, sickly smell to the bathroom, which it had done, it seemed, at the bathroom of the venerable Long Hoa restaurant (which restaurant was a topic one had to come to eventually in any serious coverage of Dalat, because of the outstanding style and cuisine).

The grass smelled like grass when it is cut. This was no doubt the temperate-climate grass the famous Dalat golf course (it would have a trade-mark name), by the lake, rejoiced in, while in the lowlands there had to be a tropical grass that did not smell like cut grass as we normally knew it, as no one had yet cloned in for down there the special smell that exhilarated in the aftermath. Dalat is showing itself good at gardens in the twee, irritating sense of fetishised domains with paths laid down according to a pattern designed to please an obsessive-compulsive swift on high but not someone who wants to walk naturally or in a straight line instead of a semi-circle. The hedges are like the plastic chairs in Saigon footpath eateries, miniaturised. A mouse could get stuck in one but not a rabbit, which is in a way the inverse of what happens in the Saigon café, where the smaller the mammal you are the less likely to get stuck. Dr Alexandre Yersin, immunologist, celebrated pioneer of Nha Trang, down on the coast, and lover of Dalat, a hill station of the French colonial era, has his statue in such a park, and his is a sternly impressive face, chiseled, austere, and there would be a question as to whether he would have tolerated what he saw around him if he had came to life. ‘Elves,’ he would probably have said. Round the corner from Yersin is a lane where wedding carriages are parked and a few of the Dalat nags lounge. The horses do seem to be better bred than in the past, no longer in their conformation tumbled down so much toward their haunches. Yersin and the carts and nags are in and by a park that is pretty large and has some pleasant smells of flowers, though it would be truly something if allowed to grow a little wilder for a few years.

If you followed the main canal – in which the water was the same colour of dissolved wedding rings and which allowed for fishing, in one case, with the use of a light-blue mosquito net – down below the dam you came after a few kilometres to a classic recreation park with a grossly unfortunate horse that had to stand between the shafts of a tiny romance chariot like a statue, its feet on pads, waiting. The horse nodded off in a series of half-a-dozen jolts of the head, affected by gravity, like a student in a lecture, then, at a certain low angle, woke up and lifted its head back to an attentive position, such as would be assumed by a painted, lead horse between the shafts of a cart in a nursery in which there were also lead soldiers. There was in this park also a concrete Asian bear on its hind legs and attached, as if in a circus, to a chain, which turned out on closer inspection to be the chain of a fence on a bridge. This was the kind of park that has hump bridges and toadstools made of concrete in the style of artificial cake-decorating cream and painted in a lot of colours. Good for children, no doubt, but rather bright, otherwise. A peaceful, gloomier spot to sit could be found along a path to a very adequate toilet block, as long as you did not look on the other side of it, where rubbish cascaded the slope to the water flowing down from the park and its falls, called the Cam Ly Falls. This sight could give one of those feelings or realisations one sometimes has that are probably well enough described as ‘Robinson Crusoe moments’, in which you wonder what other people get out of life if nature is not inhabited as if it mattered in the least.

Five or six kilometres upstream of the famous, renovating Ho Xuan Huong was a winery (or some of the works of a wine company, with the sign Công Ty Thực Phẩm Lâm Đồng Phân Xưởng Rượu, Dalat Food Company Wine Division), a taxi destination that could be used as an excuse to go somewhere more rural in a city expected by at least one Vietnamese visitor, from Hanoi, to become only more urban, with traffic jams and hanging pollution, as in the country’s other cities. The works was among those said by a taxi-driver to have been moved from the close watershed of the lake in order to save the lake from pollution. The spectacle of clouds fleeting low over the high tableland remains intact for now, however, and one should seek a room with view, in Dalat, as it will invariably include the clouds. Strangely, given the enormous hectarage given to horticulture in so many parts of the city, the prevailing winds bring no whiff of agricultural chemicals, even if you can smell them at some gardens if you get up close. When we alighted from the taxi at the winery, on a drizzly afternoon, more immediately exciting was a vacant, abandoned-as-a-habitation, French colonial building, which appeared to have been a villa, of two storeys. It is the villas and the pine trees, which deposit an eiderdown of needles on the hills, that make a large part of the mysterious, haunted atmosphere of Dalat. The houses are often Gothic in style, sometimes with a slightly risen, biscuity, Gingerbread Man look about the facades and chimneys, and the young layout man for Vietnam Heritage, looking at a photograph of one of the houses, remarked, ‘Ghost house’. For most of the 20th century Dalat was a French-colonial hill station and now the officials and their good times have all returned to France or other departments or territories beyond the sea. Out of Africa, in the case of Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, and out of Vietnam, for the French, but seemingly little word of the delicious sigh of the film, ‘Oh, I had a farm in Africa,’ beyond the novels of Marguerite Duras, perhaps. The architectural brilliance and wealth of the old buildings – valued in their run-down state, even, at half-a-million or a million US dollars apiece, according to a vegetable-grower we visited – and the circumstances of the departure may have left quite different feelings. The conservation and uses of the buildings – vast in number – is now a hot topic.

The Dalat People’s Committee House Management Centre, 11 Tran Hung Dao Street, with a sign prominent at the front, with plenty of telephone numbers, probably has a lot to do with Cadasa, an organization, a ‘company’, in charge of ‘The revival of ancient villas’ in Dalat, as it was put in a placard about a photographic exhibition on Cadasa in Le Loi Street, Ho Chi Minh City, in November. ‘After a very long time, a cluster of ancient villas . . . in ruins and abandoned’ had been ‘restored by Cadasa’, the placard said. The villas were at ’16 Tran Hung Dao Street’. There is now such a thing as ‘Dalat Cadasa Resort’, though it would appear to anyone who went to the area that a major limitation on return from the rooms in the ‘resort’ would be the usually heavy traffic in Tran Hung Dao Street, which includes a very high proportion of large trucks, which do not stop for anyone who wants to cross the road. I don’t know whether the Dalat People’s Committee House Management Centre has a say about all the French villas of Dalat, beyond Tran Hung Dao Street, in which, in many cases, it appears poor citizens live. These houses are often run down and installed with a ramp to get motorbikes in the front door, several TV aerials and washing hanging out the front. These suburban houses are kept up to some degree by the said residents, no doubt. Some of the old villas, for example in Hoang Dieu Street, are well kept up. What is happening to the three former palaces of the last emperor, Bao Dai, is more mysterious and is dealt with by my colleague Vu Huyen in a separate article. These buildings appeared to be in some kind of architectural/administrative limbo.

There has been a tendency since mid-2009 in enterprises where direct Vietnamese control can be exercised for roles previously played by foreign experts, food-and-beverage managers, for example, to be handed over to Vietnamese employees. One could theorise that ‘knowledge-transfer’ had worked, but in Dalat as elsewhere in the country, former foreign experts have been alarmed, as the standards originally sought by the Vietnamese from foreign experts have dropped, to return over time, perhaps, optimistically speaking. The Sofitel Dalat Palace Hotel was recently taken over, and I received a press statement about this in which the English was well below five-star, when the hotel used to be top-class. We were told the rooms were to be renovated, though we had imagined the hotel to be the last word in style. I had stayed there. Were they going to straighten the fire dogs, or do something horrifying like install heating other than wood fires? Cadasa could be seen as part of a Vietnamising policy. We found the food and beverage of the restaurant, at No 22, Tran Hung Dao, I think, to be good but the service requiring of an extraordinary tolerance.

Dalat is the vegetable-growing capital of Vietnam and ‘Dalat vegetables’, because of the altitude, above 1,500 m, has become a byword. A year or two ago you could go high on the plateau in the city and visit a flower- or vegetable-growing area where there was a vile chemical smell that buyers in the city would not have associated with the carnations they prized the freshness of, as if the pollution had been brushed away by the brisk truck trip down the mountain in fog. The blithely made reputation for salubriousness of Dalat horticulture was in jeopardy. This autumn a lot of importance was put on enormous nylon tents, which could be 50 m across, that composed the greenhouses. Dalat was involved not only with the notion that the lake was being cleansed but that the nylons tents would keep insects out (certainly the material seemed fine enough), obviating the need for pesticides. There was hope that now a ‘Dalat green salad’ might have something of substance – natural, not artificial – to it. You could walk straight in the door of the greenhouse of the grower we visited – just as you can walk into the yard of any salt-of-the-earth Vietnamese house – and sniff about. It was hard to see why insects also could not just walk or fly in the door of the greenhouse, as it was kept open, but the farmer woman assured us the ruffled sea of lettuces was coming up this even green and saleable in the market at $US2 a kilo, a price especially strong because of floods in Central Vietnam, purely under the influence of recycled material as fertilizer, maybe composted. The serious gastronome has a lot to think about and to investigate if he or she is to reach a useful conclusion. And then, just as hope arises, there may be the usual backsliding, deception and resting on laurels that come with the sense you get in Vietnam of two steps forward and one step back.

A quite hill in Dalat

On a pine-clad hill behind the works a man on a motorbike was taking strawberries to market and a road on the other side had a covered drain beside it highlighted in bright-green moss. A dark rectangle of a hole replaced one or a few of the slabs of concrete covering. One reason for mentioning this is that Dalat could alternatively be called the ‘City of Roadside Drains Missing their Lids’. Perhaps this is to let the fresh air in, but you need to watch out your leg or whole self does not go in. We were in the vicinity of a small lake called Ho Than Tho. The popularity of science and chemical analysis has pushed back the use of the human nose in areas other than wine-tasting, and sniffer dogs and sniffer rats are trained up, but in fact the polluted can be distinguished from the unpolluted by the use of the nose. One can tell whether a canal is dead or alive this way, however much stuff has been dumped in it. A kilometre back toward the centre of Dalat from the above-mentioned, pleasant lettuce garden there were smaller vegetable gardens in the same ‘nylon’-tent manner, but with drains in front of them stinking of agricultural chemicals. Even closer to Dalat there were fields of cabbages the leaves of which were almost weighed down by the amount of white powder on them. Of course one can imagine the force with which caterpillars might attack a completely natural Dalat green, if you have tried a ‘salad trá»™n’, mixed salad, at the Long Hoa restaurant or the Dã Qùy, in the next street. There is an unmistakable scrumptiousness to the green you don’t get in Saigon, notwithstanding that one would have to consider that appetite might have something to do with it, since a Dalat day with a decent walk needs three times as much victualling as a day at the office in downtown Saigon, where going for a walk is now as fanciful as a limestone beast posted at the door of a pagoda.

You can still walk around Dalat’s suburbs in reasonable safety from traffic and its exhaust pollution, and it is worthwhile to head for the two white Buddhas on the skyline to the north of the centre, in the general direction of the spectacular horizon that is Mt Lang Biang. Walk down the steep westerner street, Truong Cong Dinh, and descend from it to the left and cross to the other side of Phan Dinh Phung Street. Not far along to the north-west you come to the Pho Viet restaurant for something very apt to walking around Dalat, some of the most professional pho in the country. So much did they want to get what they did right that they concentrated on beef pho and eschewed chicken pho. There was no MSG. The chilli sauce and the bean sauce were in plastic squeeze bottles on the table. There were also small jars of homemade yoghurt and plastic containers of homemade crème caramel. There were testimonials from round the world on plates attached to the wall. If you couldn’t find this place on foot, a taxi was VND25,000 to VND30,000 from Dalat’s central market. Not far past Pho Viet, on the other side of the road, was a temple up steep steps and paths, with the name Lien Hoa Bao Thap. As usual at Vietnamese temples, the cleanliness and care taken with the enormous amount of space was a reminder of decency and rightness. The temple had a huge, new bell, in its own house at ground-level, with a knocker like a polished, slightly cigar-shaped battering ram suspended from the roof on a wire cable. The Sakyamuni Buddha also was huge, a standing supplicant reaching only to the statue’s knee-height. A blue-green lizard, perhaps made of cement, clung to a cement rock big enough for a disciple of the same proportions as the Buddha to have sat on. Beware a man cutting the beautiful-smelling grass with a whipping cutter and a tumble on to a concrete path from a level not bounded with a fence. You could push on on this path beyond the temple in the direction of the mountain and the white, sitting Buddhas.

A sign saying ‘House and land for sale’ on another piece of French architecture, though a fairly plain one, tickled the question of whether foreigners can own land in Vietnam, for, as I understand it, they can own the house but not the land. A lot of foreigners would be interested in buying and restoring a run-down French villa, like the one near the winery, and, according to my theory, the government might want the land back and the owner of the bricks and stone and timber might have to ship them out on a truck and barge, or give them up, as the original French did, though no doubt this time it would be with compensation. An alternative might be to rifle the French archives, here or in France, for the old designs of the inspired architects. It is hard to imagine France or any other French department or territory overseas ever had better villas. Vegetable plots mingled into the suburbs and beside the road we came to a shop similar to a chemist’s with as many little bottles but containing what looked like powerful agricultural chemicals on shelves at the back wall and sun-faded (to the common pale blue colour of fading in Vietnam) boxes of no doubt similar preparations behind the glass of the counter. To get to the Buddha we could cross a valley for several hundred metres, between vegetable fields. The smell of the fields was not especially vile, but it was not pleasing, not like cut grass or a live stream.

We by-passed the closer of the two white, sitting Buddhas in favour of much bigger one a kilometre on, on the way stopping for something to eat at a somewhat civilised-looking cafe. There was a young white man for a customer, who said he rarely saw a white person in the area. There was a student residence attached to Dalat University, where the young man taught. Having eaten a very salt-of-the-earth dish that I recognised and had avoided in the past, and salad, it was not long before I was swooning under the sun and I moved inside, opening a little plastic bottle of yellow, sugar-coated Berberal pills (which must be Vietnam’s most useful minor medicine for foreigners) and knocking back the maximum eight. I was right again in five minutes. The other diners included a pair of brassy tarts who must have worked in a hairdresser’s. Perhaps feeling too much beneficent well-being after avoiding big stomach trouble and having drunk a very reviving, oozy cup of Vietnamese coffee, one could have been a sitting, or slowly wandering, duck for an up-market souvenir shop selling Dalat and otherwise Vietnamese specialities on a corner close to a road that led from the rear to the very large white, sitting Buddha. Because you have not yet seen the Buddha, you may think the shop is an ordinary, salt-of-the-earth one with decent prices. The shop, Quynh Nhu, at 126 Phu Dong Thien Vuong, welcomed customers with the view of two life-size foreigner dummies wearing garments in traditional Vietnamese style, with buttons made of knots. The man dummy was he who is probably known to many as ‘The Man’, from a mould the location of which I do not know, but which must have produced many thousands of copies, in the style of a very serious business person who may have smoked Peter Stuyvesant when he went off the rails for a few minutes at a garden party in his youth. Shopping in Dalat is a separate story, which also you have to come to.

Buddha and dragons amid the Lien Hoa Bao Thap

We approached the great Buddha of the Thiền Viện Vạn Hạnh monastery from the road, which led toward the back of the 28.5-m-high statue, from which angle it seemed the Buddha had a large electric fan at his back, which was in fact the halo that would light up at night. Near the entrance to the road we bought boiled corn cobs from an itinerant vendor but immediately spat out the first bite when we found they had been cooked in water containing an additive and hurled the cobs into a dirt gutter. In a few minutes we reached the front of the north-facing Buddha, who inspired joy, especially by the way he held a lotus up in front of him and gleamed white, the white set off magnificently by bushy, healthy, thickly needled, dark-green, brushy pine branches that seemed, viewed from the ground, almost to touch his face. A less athletic, supremely jovial version of the Buddha sat beside a path, the head level with a passer-by’s head, which invoked a sense of dialogue. Guarding the temple were two identical flesh-and-blood dogs, which, instead of standing to attention, were sleeping in identical poses, as if practising synchronised sleeping. In the Buddha’s large, treed domain was an enormous dragon with outstanding clawed feet lashing the air among the foliage. You could sit on the apron of the temple and listen to chanting coming from inside. We were in Dalat in the low season, and we met almost no one doing what we were doing, at this temple or anywhere else.

Wandering not far from the centre of Dalat, but always taking the road or lane pointing higher, we came to a vacant block of land, with several low, bushy pine trees on it and wildflowers among long grass. We could lie on our backs on our ponchos, with backpacks for pillows, and look at the clouds and pine branches. Loads of rubbish were brought up the small lane we had left, and building materials taken down, on a gigantic truck. It turned out we had lain on a faint path through the grass and a young man tramped through, missing us by inches, representing a different state of mind, probably of broken masonry and not vapour or chlorophyll. We would have appeared hippies reverting to type, thinking back 30 years to John Lennon, such people as are only seen in Vietnam in the form of student layabouts in Hanoi with a heightened sense of entitlement. We were not subject to a plan or policy. Here is the place to note that I do not think that the ‘conservation’ of heritage, for example, the Dalat villas and palaces, is automatically a good thing. It depends on how well it is done. The ravages of rain and gravity are natural, after all, and hence hard to beat as things humans like.

Text and pictures by James Gordon