Upcountry Vietnam

Shrimp on sugar cane stalk


At 9 AM on a May morning, I boarded an “Open-Tour” bus in the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker area of downtown Saigon. From Saigon´s humid heat I was headed for the cool mountain air of Dalat, elevation 4,837 feet, in the Central Highlands. The orange-colored, double-decker bus which I entered was a “sleeper bus”, having berths, in two tiers, rather than seats. Outside, I first checked my bag and then was given a bottle of water and some face wipes.

“Open-Tour” refers to the passenger´s ability to choose any bus on any route where these buses operate, to suit his schedule. In addition to this easy hop-on, hop-off feature, these buses are cheap. I could have reached Hanoi, 1,000 miles to the north, for under $60 by this method. I found my berth, first taking off my shoes like everyone else, and I found a pillow and a blanket, which I needed against the fierce air-conditioning. I would have to use rest rooms when the bus stopped (every 2-3 hours) since the on-board rest room had a sign which read: “Not to use this toilet to keep its smelling away during your long trip. Thank you!”

It was dark when the bus arrived in Dalat, so I had to take a taxi. I told the driver “Dreams Hotel”, recommended in my guidebook. As we drove, I saw we were in a town of some size (actual population is 130,000), which had been a hill station for French colonial officials in earlier times. People in the street were wearing leather jackets, and there was a pleasant sharpness to the air.

At the Dreams Hotel, a refined, elderly Vietnamese lady, whom I took to be the owner, told me in British-accented English that they were full. However, she added, her brother had a similar hotel half a mile away which she knew had vacancies. When I asked which direction, she said she would call him and get him to pick me up.

A late model SUV soon turned up and took me the Thien An Hotel. In this spotlessly clean and almost empty hotel, I checked into a fine high-ceilinged room with views across town, and paid $15 including breakfast. The owner told me that he had bicycles for use by his guests. I first needed to eat, and he suggested a place nearby. I found the restaurant and went in to find out they were expecting me since the hotel owner had called them. The young waitress brought me dish of shrimp on a sugar cane stalk, a Vietnamese specialty she assured me.

I cycled around hilly Dalat the next day and in two hours got an impression of the place.

The French legacy was evident in the Catholic Cathedral, which was locked. However, the summer residence of Bao Dai, was open. I wandered around the large, 1950s modernist house, set in well-tended gardens overlooking Dalat, and  wondered how Bao Dai, the 13th and last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, enjoyed being a French .puppet. His picture (a well-fed face, in a well-cut western suit) stared down from the wall above a long conference table. His government was defeated in elections in 1955, and he retired to Paris where he died in 1997.

Still on my bike, I looked for a place for lunch. I entered an outdoor café, which had a few customers, who were drinking. With no menu to consult, and no language, I gestured if it was ok to go into the kitchen. The elderly owners nodded, and I pointed at some noodles in a wok, and then at my stomach. A dish of noodles and vegetables arrived a few minutes later, and I had what I wanted: a quick, cheap snack which tasted ok.

Leaving the next day for Danang, I had my first good look at Vietnam´s jungle-covered mountains as we switch-backed down towards the coast. It was in terrain like this that the heavily equipped grunts of the US Army, fought against their lighter-clad and nimble foes. I listened to two young Australian women discuss their English-teaching jobs in Dalat. Vietnam is a fertile field for English-language teachers.

Danang (population 1.1 million), frequently mentioned during the Vietnam War, showed no war scars when I got off the bus. Tree-lined boulevards led to a long clean beach front on the South China Sea. There were plenty of high-rise hotels, some still under construction. Signs in Cyrillic were common, for the many Russian visitors. The city had just opened a brand new airport. At lunch I talked with a young bearded American, an English teacher, who loved the place and the people: “I´m comfortable here and love my students. I have more Vietnamese friends than expats. I´m not going back to the Sates anytime soon,” he said.

One hour south of Danang I found a tourist resort much more to my liking, Hoi An Old Town (75,000). A World Heritage site, Hoi An (a trading post from the 17th century), reveals exquisite architecture along narrow lanes lined with shops and restaurants, and occasional temples. There is a museum of ceramic cultures, a Japanese covered bridge and other assorted historical sites. Nearby, half covered by the jungle, is the ancient Cham (city of My Son, a religious center from the 4th century. Back in town, I was the only customer in a fish restaurant, the tourist season being over.

In Hue, the intellectual and spiritual capital of Vietnam, the damage from ferocious fighting had long since been repaired. My hotel hired an older man, who spoke good English, and he took me on his motorbike to the restored Citadel, the imperial city of the Nguyen dynasty, and later the Thien Mu Pagoda downstream on the Perfume River.  As I walked and looked, I was treated to my driver/guide´s personal history.

Like anyone over 50 who speaks English in Vietnam today, he had learned the language when working for the Americans. When the war ended, he and hundreds of thousands of other political suspects, deemed needy of re-education, were sent forced labor camps, sometimes for years. I had heard this sort of story before and, while designed to increase the size of tip out of sympathy, it was probably true. So I gave him an extra twenty thousand dong ($1), and went off to look for a place to eat supper.

Jim Glendinning About Jim Glendinning

I am a Footloose Scot who has traveled to 136 countries. "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Robert Louis Stevenson
Read about Jim Glendinning and his book Footloose Scot: Travels In A Time Of Change


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