Thursday, August 04, 2005

A day in Da Lat

Well, today was my first full day in Da Lat. We'd met the Easy Riders, a group of independent guides who offer motorbike tours around the region, the day before and made an appointment to take a tour today. So we met up with them early in the morning and headed off for a day of fun in the off-and-on rain. The first stop was at the aptly-named Crazy House. It's a Gaudi-esque construction built by the daughter of a former Premier of Vietnam. The whole building seems to be organic and alive. It's actually designed as a hotel, with about 10 rooms now, and more under construction. It should be completed in another five years. Each room has a different name, which pertains to the fireplace in the room. My favorite was the Kangaroo Room with a giant, kangaroo-shaped fireplace and the opening for wood below where the pouch would be. The glowing red eyes kind of freaked me out, though. The garden around the hotel is straight out of Alice in Wonderland, with iron rebar spiderwebs and giant toadstools. All in all, it was a spectacular departure from the square, unimaginative buildings around Saigon. About this point, I realized that my camera wouldn't work, so I wasn't able to take any pictures today. I learned after the tour that it was the cheap knockoff batteries I'd purchsed that made it not work. Fortunately, the Spaniards I was with, Ricardo and Laura, and Inyaki and Pilar, took plenty of photos. I just hope they send them to me.

Afterwards, we headed out of town to get an idea of the economy of the region. The Da Lat area was populated by the Lat people, a hilltribe not related to the Vietnamese. In the 19th century the French discovered the area and found that not only was it a pleasant temperature year-round and a welcome respite from the mosquitos and heat of Saigon, but it was also ideal for growing flowers and coffee. So the major crops grown here are various flowers and coffee plantations, with each rural house having a small garden to grow squash, corn, cabbage and various other temperate vegetables they sell at market to supplement their income.

Really, the people around here have several small enterprises they run out of their homes, and they're all intertwined. The major industries here are silk, mushrooms, and bamboo. Some people weave bamboo baskets and lattices. They sell these to various locals who feed silkworms mulberry leaves in the bamboo baskets. When they're ready to spin their coccoons, the worms are put on the bamboo lattice. Once they've spun the coccoons, they're put back in the baskets and taken to the factory where they're processed to make silk, and the worms are boiled and taken to market to be sold as food.

Other people grow coffee on their land. They also tend to grow mushrooms, which use as a growth medium quite a bit of rubber tree sawdust. This sawdust is recycled after growing mushrooms as a fertilizer for the coffee plants. This ties with the silk in that the dried coffee bean skins are used as tinder for everything from the boilers in silk factories to the the small one-man rice wine distilleries.

I guess it's normal that everything has a purpose and a use, and poor rural folks won't waste anything, but I'm amazed by the complexity of the economy here that seems so simple on the surface, but seems to involve a very complex balance.

We also visited the Koho (sp?) hilltribe, one of the 50-odd ethnic tribes that populate the mountains of Vietnam. They have a fairly modernized way of life, in that they no londer wear their own style of clothes, live in their own style of houses, and are currently learning to speak Vietnamese more. We also visited a rather impressive waterfall, the Elephant Falls, which since we're in the rainy season was very strong and large. I'm thinking of doing a longer trip later that will see the 3 largest falls in the region.

Tomorrow we're off again on another trip, but minus Inyaki and Pilar who I think are ready to move on. So the younger couple, Ricardo and Laura, and I will head out with the same guides on motorbike to see some of the sights around town. We were thinking of doing an elephant ride, but that may have to wait. I have to say that at first I didn't want to see the hilltribes and the Mekong Delta tour wore out my patience for visiting various types of factories and such, but today I was fascinated by everything. We also got to view a bit of the Ho Chi Min Trail that was bombed heavily with napalm, and is just starting to regrow trees now. Incidentally, because of the use of Agent Orange around here, a Danish NGO has built of the first water treatment plants in the country here in Da Lat. So I suppose the water should be safe to drink, but I don't really want to risk it.

I found out there's also a university here with some American professors who teach English. I can't imagine what it would be like to live here and work in a university in this country. It seems rather crazy. Anyway, I'm off to sleep so I can be alert tomorrow on the tour. Hopefully I can post again tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff Jeremy. You should consider becoming a travel writer. I've read a LOT of travel adventure books and your descriptions are right with the best of them. I look forward to getting up in Indianapolis and checking out Trotamundos to see what is happening in your world. Safe adventures,
Ana's Mom,

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeremy. How's your tummy holding up? Did you ever get your passport? Molly and I are in suspense!