Dalat – A special place in my heart
I am a sucker for romance and Dalat is a romantic, if kitschy, city. It’s main lake, Ho Xuan Huong, is named after Vietnam’s most famous erotic poet, a lady scholar. It’s next most famous attractions are the Valley of Love, popular with honeymooners, and the Lake of Sorrow, named fot two lovers, one of whom committed suicide because the other was called to war. There are the coffee shops for cuddling up in when the mists turn to rain, my favourite being the Café D’Artiste with it’s banana cake and fireplace. Above it all, there’s Lang Biang Mountain, and its Romeo and Juliet story of a couple from warring Coho tribes.
At over 2000 meters, Lang Biang’s peak is the highest point on the Dalat Plateau and the views from there on a clear day never fail to move me. These are not the majestic snowcapped massifs of Central Europe. They’re mountains closer to my tropical South East Asian soul, jungle covered slopes running down into the yellow-gold Dankia Lake and Golden Valley. Compared to the below freezing temperatures of more temperate mountains, the air here hardly goes below 15 degrees centigrade, even on rainy nights. Its altitude I can manage, at a suitably hospitable latitude. It’s my comfort-food mountain.
There’s a restaurant 200 meters from the peak where you can dress up in tribal clothes and stand in front of a grass hut to get your picture taken. There are American jeeps, complete with missile launchers for North American tourists who want to re-enact their wartime youth. Then there are the handbag peddlers, dozens of tribal women sitting on grass mats, all selling look-alike handbags embroidered with elephant designs; the more enterprising of them recruiting their thin ragged children as assistants.
It’s not the most pristine tourist destination, another reason why I’m so fond of it. The semi-squalor anchors me in reality. I may be on holiday, but the world is still with me. As it should be.
Then there are the villages at the foot of the mountains
At the foot of the mountain is a community of Lat, the ethnic minority which Da Lat was named after. Once hunter-gather masters of the jungles, they’ve failed to thrive in Dalat’s post-Socialist private agricultural economy. The majority of Lat now work as casual farm laborers, earning an average of USD 7-10 per day when there’s work available. It’s a marginalized community, centered around a stone, wood and corrugated church, a church Heart Guy and I feel inexplicably bound to.
When we first came upon the church, it was a falling down corrugated roof and wood structure. Now there’s a stone, wood and corrugated roofed building with a lively youth group there, a tribal choir and dance troupe, a religious study program for over two hundred children. Behind the church, there’s a convent … Well a cottage where 3 nuns live. The nuns run a clinic and acupuncture center, an after-school center where the poorest children can go for a meal, and also give tuition, music lessons and general counselling. The downstairs living room is given over to a kitchen and a common room for the children. The nuns live in the attic. The clinic is a lean-to with 3 big beds laid side-to-side. The beds are shaded by a big piece of tarpaulin. “It leaks when it rains,” one of the sisters says, matter of fact. None of the sisters have time to worry about small inconveniences like leaks, or the lack of their own bedrooms. It’s the alcoholism in the community, the alcohol fetal syndrome children, the unstable family structures, the stomach problems caused by poor diet, the children who drop out of school too early, that concerns them.
There’s another village at the bottom of the last mountain pass from the lowlands into Da Lat, a Coho village. That village sits on a hill, overlooking jade green rice paddies. The villagers there have more land. But they’re indifferent farmers, the nuns who work in that community tell us. And unlike the Lat village at the foot of Lang Biang, there isn’t enough water here to make agriculture a going proposition. Subsistence farming is all they can hope for.
Nonetheless, I notice that the stir-fried cucumbers the sister’s made for lunch are wonderfully firm, with almost no seeds. And the soup made from the free-range chicken killed just for us, is incredibly tasty. So tasty, Youngest son has slurped up two bowls of it. The nun smiles. “We try our best,” she says. For her, the best is making sure that the children of this community get to school, to technical college or university if they can. “It’s their only hope,” she says.
It’s the nuns, their lives given over to these tribal communities, that touch Heart Guy and me.
And most important of all, there are our children
It was through the nuns that the children came. Some from the Lat village, some from even further up the mountains in Da Tong, and then those from below the pass. They are orphans, children of alcoholics, of single mothers, all living in incredibly difficult circumstances…
But look at them? Not one looks hopeless or defeated. How amazing is that!