The Central Highlands: Five Days Between Dalat and Hoi An
StrictlyNormal Travel Department
2006 - Andria Thomas & Aaron Datesman Random Creative Pursuits. All rights reserved.
Dalat: After the Mekong Delta, we headed north to Dalat in desperate search of cooler (or at least less humid) temperatures. We found them, but only after enduring a 13-hour cramped ride in a minivan which fortunately didn't take too many risks in getting through the unexpected road flooding we encountered. Other drivers, including those on motorcycles, seemed to take the flooding in stride.
Dalat's architecture reflects French colonial influence, though perhaps it's just the effect of one of many fake Eiffel towers.
Touring Dalat drove Aaron crazy with his continued exposure to exotic plants (which he couldn't bring home), beautiful ceramic pots (too heavy to bring home) and the "Crazy House" which is basically an enormous house/hotel designed to look like an enormous tree. Built by the daughter of a former Vietnamese president who trained in Soviet architecture schools, the house's branches, towers, and cement-fashioned wildlife made Andria think "amusement park" while Aaron immediately said to himself, "This is the home I've always dreamed of!"
The highway view from Dalat and the Ho Chi Minh trail combines scenic views and wonderful sunsets with the sight of bare patches of deforestation which is the lingering remnant of the effects of Agent Orange. One pass of Agent Orange takes 30 years to clear from the soil, while multiple passes mean 100 years or more before the ground recovers and foliage can return.
Our excellent guide, Hoan, diligently tried to make us smarter by explaining, among other things, about the different types of rice and how they are grown. Exciting as that was, making faces at the children in minority villages was more fun. Even if they insited on making faces back.
There are 53 minority groups in Vietnam, and our guide Hoan took us to visit the villages of five or six of them. Thanks to his contacts, we met with village chiefs, saw how food was prepared, learned how the skulls of hunted animals were accumulated for snazzy hut decorations, and were offered rice wine by basically everybody. Andria's favorite tidbit of minority village trivia is that several of the minority groups are matriarchal. Among other distinctions, the girls are the ones who express interest in and "propose" to the boys, and upon marriage it is the boys who leave their families to live in the hut of the girl's family. However, Hoan didn't mention which member of the family was responsible for doing most of the housework.
Rice farmers working hard in a paddy off of the Ho Chi Minh trail. The land in the south and center of Vietnam is better suited for rice farming than land in the north, and yields more harvests per year.
Touring the Central Highlands left Aaron and Andria feeling that they led incredibly spoiled and easy lives where virtually everything lay at their fingertips and was taken for granted. This resulted from visits to workplace after workplace where friendly and industrious Vietnamese slaved for hours every day to create common goods neither of us had ever given thought to.
One such example was the small roadside granite quarry where two men wielded a sledgehammer and a small pick to expertly create rectangular blocks of granite from ginormous boulders. Andria's attempt to crack one piece with several shaky swings of the sledgehammer were met with quiet but stubborn resistance from the granite.
Who thinks about where rubber comes from? We do, now that we've seen the thousands of trees where small bowls of liquid rubber must be collected daily by people willing to inhale the toxic fumes for hours on end.
A visit to the former village chief of another minority village introduced us to village musical instruments, and the stunning realization that Aaron, despite his many other talents, is not a natural-born bong player. Or dancer.
A morning meeting of a local men's youth group consisted primarily of singing, drinking gallon jugs of rice wine for breakfast, and laughing with the hapless tourists who just wanted to peek into the traditional communal hut of the village.
Why buy rice paper in the store when you can make it in your hut by sitting over a steaming hot cauldron in the Vietnam heat all day long? This was yet another example of how Andria's noted impatience is not a part of her traditional Vietnamese heritage. At least the rice paper dries quickly in the roadside sun.
Our tour ended with yet another gourmet meal of seafood hotpot and fresh vegetables, at a roadside stand overlooking a rice paddy, with a soft breeze blowing just enough to keep us from going insane in the heat.