Sunday, October 6, 2013

Days in Dalat: Dancing, Prancing, Elephant Riding and General Good Times.

      Last week was a memorable experience as we traveled to Da Lat a Vietnamese City in the Central Highlands northeast of HCMC. We left HCMC by bus at 11pm on Thursday night. [The highlands are at about 12 degrees north and HCMC is about 10 degrees north. A degree is equal to about 68 miles so go figure. Dalat is also about 2 degrees east of HCMH at 108 degrees east. That should help you calculate where we were.] Dalat is at about 1550 meters in altitude, or close to a mile high. The highest mountain in the province, Mt Liangbian, located very close to the city, is 2100 meters in altitude over 6500 foot. In other words these are not the Sierras or the Himalayas but they are some beautiful, rugged mountains forested with the gamut from pine trees to banana trees and all sorts of jungle plants. Every where you look is shades of green and the colors of the rainbow because of the multitudes of flowers and flowering plants.

Dalat is known for its floral gardens and it exports beautiful flowers as well as vegetables, milk, and other agricultural and forest products: lumber and wood products such as carved furniture and bamboo. This year Dalat is celebrating its 120th Anniversary but the civilization of the area is older going back several thousands of years. There are various ethnic groups in the area with their unique farming techniques, music, arts, dance and languages. One of our thrills was going to a cultural presentation by a singing and dance troupe that performed Saturday night at the resort where we had our rooms. The group did not just sing and dance though that would have been enough but spoke to us about their history and their love of their Vietnam home. But more about that later.

     We arrived in Dalat on Friday morning of September 29th at 5:30am and a van from the bus company transported us to our resort where we stowed our luggage and took a nap until about 9am when it was time to "get up and go."  We had a delicious breakfast at the dining room of the resort --- Soup for me and bun for the others. Then we toured the grounds of the resort which includes two performance pavilions, various museums highlighting the culture of the area from weaving to wine making, farming, flower production (we bought an exquisite orchid as a gift for our Dean), and lots of statues to do with the astrological signs.
PhotoYear of the Dragon catcher.

Here is a beautiful picture of two local ladies, Vinh and Leanna.  The women asked to have a picture with Leanna because they were all grandmothers!

     When we got to the big pavilion we found that the troupe was practicing their songs and performance materials so we watched and talked with them. They invited us to take a few licks on their instruments and we did. 

PhotoWhen the rain increased we went back to our rooms for a rest before heading for downtown Dalat which was about 6K away. As it turned out after we got up about 2pm we walked downtown passing all sorts of small businesses, a garment factory where we noticed the canteen run by the union for the workers, both new and old houses some with an art deco architecture from the last part of the French colonial period. As we approached Dalat University we came upon a family running their business on the street – they were preparing deep fried bananas, corn and sweet potatoes so we sat down and got a big platter of all three and enjoyed out lunch – delicious! After we finished our sidewalk lunch we continued our walk toward downtown passing Dalat University, some road construction, dormitories and a fancy golf course.

     Then we proceeded down a long hill and arrived at a large flower garden and across the street was a lovely little lake. As it turned out, the large flower garden was closed for the day, boo hoo. So we changed destinations and decided to head for the central market and do some shopping. To reach it we had to travel alongside the lake and to do that we rented a horse drawn quite fancy carriage that carried us to the south end of the Lake. The carriages are often rented by lovers or newly weds who come to Dalat and visit the Valley of Love. At the south end of the lake we had to start our walk again, another half mile or so to the Dalat Market where we enjoyed shopping and stopped and had atiso tea and coffee at a little coffee bar featuring a locally grown highland coffee. FYI Atiso tea is tea from dried artichoke and is reportedly a good natural medicine for your GI track, blood pressure, cholesterol, gall and other things. Then it was dark out and time to head home to our rooms to get some sleep.  

     Saturday morning we were up early and took breakfast a little after 7am again at the dining room of the resort looking out over a beautiful farming and wooded valley. On the other side of the valley low clouds covered the hills swirling about the peaks. A very peaceful way to enjoy a breakfast soup. And by a little after 8am we were picked up by our tour bus for our day of exploring several sites around Delat. Thankfully, it was not raining and we got through most of the day without getting rained on although in the later afternoon the daily rain came along for a while. 

Photo The first stop on the tour was the Summer Palace of the last King of Vietnam, King Bao Dai who was the monarch in the 30s and 40s until the end of WW2 ended French colonial rule. The King soon took his family to France where he lived for many years. The palace was a fine specimen of French colonial architect built in the 30s with many art deco aspects. The King's first wife lived in this Summer Palace with her children and the other 7 wives had their own palaces --- he did not mix and match with his wives and children.

     After finishing at the Palace our tour guide and driver took us to a Buddhist Meditation Center designed by the same architect who designed the Unification Palace, the fortress built with US money for the right wing dictators installed after the partition of the nation in 1956 by the perfidy of the US and the Catholic Church and that stands now as a symbol of the liberation of the nation and the reunification after the defeat of the US military. The Meditation Center and gardens are a peaceful place even with hundreds of tourists there at the same time. One room contained a giant jade Buddha that is magnificent. 

 When we finished touring the Meditation Center we walked down to the edge of a lake where we boarded boat #19 to go out to an Island a few kilometers across lake. The lake waters were clean, fish jumped and birds and frogs were in evidence.

      The tour guide had said that on the Island that we were going to we could ride an elephant if we wanted to and like sure, why not ride an elephant? It had to be much like riding a horse or a merry-go -round, right. Well it was and it wasn't. You don't put your foot in a stirrup and swing yourself up on to your ride --- rather you climb a tower, the handler brings his elephant to the side of the tower and you climb into the box and you are ready to go. Now elephants can run quite fast but our handler, Pham, only let our elephant, Roc, walk while we were on board. When elephants walk slowly they rock and roll a lot but when I asked if Rock has fallen down the handler said that elephants don't fall down.

The view from an elephant is different than a horse, too. First you are close to higher limbs on trees and small trees and bushes are below you. Roc occasionally stopped to grab some plants he wanted to eat and the handler would have to tell him to get going. Incidentally, the handler who rode on the elephants neck did not hit or act abusive toward his friend. Whenever a trip would finish Roc got a reward of three stocks of sugar cane --- to get the cane he ran from the tower to the cane storage. When he ran he moved at a very smooth quick pace and as far as I could see the rock and roll pretty much disappeared. Rock carried his cane around in his trunk and with some in his mouth as he chomped away. When he finished one piece then he would deftly move another piece into his jaws and eat while walking along.
Photo I don't believe that Leanna or I ever expected to ride an elephant but there you go. If you get a chance, don't pass it up! We boated back across the lake where we met our van and driver and went off to another temple to view the tallest Buddha in Dalat and the province at 22 meters. After this visit to the temple we had lunch at a cafe downtown by the central market and then visited the National Heritage Railroad Station. Our food included a nice pork and noodle preparation, atiso soup, cafe, and rice. Delicious. The picture above right is of one of the train engines from the period before the US destroyed the railroad with bombing during the American War.  Dalat still does not have rail service.

Then it was off to visit a flower shop at the site of a large flower grower. The flowers for sale were spread over several rooms and included paintings/tapestries made of dry flowers as well as the live flowers for sale. The dry flower art works were said to last for five or ten years but we decided not to try to carry such things in our luggage – we would get home with flower crumbs. When we finished at the flower shop we had one more stop on our tour but we had the guide drop us off at our near by resort since it was raining fairly hard and steady by this time.

It seemed like a wonderful time to catch some sleep and the three of us took a nap. After maybe an hour we were awoken by a booming drum and decided the concert by the dance and song troupe must be on even with the rain. Before 7pm we trooped down to the theatre and since we were early had our choice of seats and sat back for others to arrive and for the show to start.

Photo The program opened after a short speech with two people being called out of the audience to light a bonfire, this is a pantheistic culture and fire is one of the gods, in the middle of the stage. To my astonishment I was called out and I looked around at first to make sure that this was true even after Leanna and Vinh said that I should go out on the stage. After we were standing on the stage for some time with the moderator or production director by the stacked wood that was seasoned with kerosene or some other burning fluid, two women brought out burning torches and shared them with the volunteers. The women held the torches with us and we stepped to the wood pile and lit it up. As the fire burned a dance started around it and people came down out of the audience to join us as we circled the blaze. There were more dances as the evening progressed and in almost every instance the audience was drawn into the performance --- a brand new caring community growing before our eyes and through our feet. Another dance that was wild and enjoyable was a dance of water buffalo. The picture below shows the performance area but was shot in the day time.  Unfortunately the night time pics didn't take well, it was dark and I didn't want to use flash.

Dancing as a buffalo I miscued a few times but the beauty of the dance was that no one called you to task, you just kept going. There were also dances centered around hunting, fishing, and getting water. I had a few swigs of wine from one of the traditional jugs you will notice in the pictures and it was a bit hard to keep up with all that was going on when the wine took effect. The program lasted a couple of hours by which time the audience as well as the troupe were happy, tired, and ready to call it an evening. Next morning we got packed, stored our bags at the resort office and went shopping, again. At 10am we boarded our bus and headed back to HCMC where we arrived at 5:30pm, caught a taxi to the University and collapsed about 9pm to get some sleep and be up at the classroom teaching at 6:50am.

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