Saturday, December 06, 2008

Dalat, Day 2: Down and Up

Today turned out to be a good one. We just planned to walk around the city and take in the sites that were central to the town. However, when I got up in the morning I wrote this:

Jetlag has not hit us with the classic lolling off to sleep in the middle of the day routine. We got up this morning at 5:30, after an uninterrupted night - our first. We have been dead tired by the end of the day though and we are still trying to sort ourselves out. Energy levels, feelings about our trip so far are not quite where we would like them to be.
Last night, we had a pizza at a restaurant that left me feeling that we were just taking advantage of a lower cost destination. A nearby table of Europeans was taking advantage of the smoking laws and kept their eyes focused on the Fashion TV programming that was the visual muzak to accompany the MIDIed Christmas carols that were piped in. It was the kind of thing that made me believe that it was quite easy for anyone to isolate themselves from the place they are in.
On top of that, or because of that we have not quite be grabbed or enchanted by Vietnam so far. Saigon was too noisy, dirty, humid and smoggy. Dalat has been a temperate reprieve but has been dull and cloudy - not a big issue in the grand scheme of things when all is said and done. Nadine wondered if we were 10 years too late coming here. At this point, it might also be a matter of spending too much time looking at it all from a bus window or, in my case, from over someone else's motorcycle helmet.
Perhaps there is a tinge of culture shock as well. Everything has appealed to the eye, but perhaps the shattered sidewalks, stench of open sewers or clots of garbage that ought to be plucked away from such potentially pristine places has been a come down. Vietnam has a way to go yet, despite all its promise and the question is which direction does it want to go? This is a communist country but education costs 50000VND a month (about $3.50), there is relatively little safety net for the unemployed and there are those shiny expensive cars trolling the streets.
Once again, I realize that a visit to another country is more and more about what that country is like at this given moment. Things are so much more fluid in a country that is trying to make something more of itself rather than furthering its comfort or adding to its wealth.
One split second is still burned into my mind from yesterday. A tarpaulin of drying coffee beans actually stretched out into the road. It was along that rural drive where the farms and lives lead right up to the asphalt and I found it intriguing. There was every possibility that it was an isolated crusade by some anti-car crank but there were so many similar situations where the community or the home came right to the road that I wondered if the road was tolerated and shared rather than a place of profane entitlements. The car and bike horns that blare so loudly have a "heads up" cheer to them rather than the "outta my f--king way" tone of home. Even in the city, the road is a space that is shared and used for many things. There is one little sign shop down the road that uses the road and the sidewalk for welding signs together.

About an hour after that uncertainty about how the trip was going, we headed down to the central market. Picture your favorite Farmer's Market on a Saturday morning on steroids. This would be a daily affair, however. The market was crammed with people selling all sorts of food. The sight of dog sent a visceral chill through me that weakened my legs, but I quickly let it slip away as I waded into the bustle of market and even got in the way of a housewife who saw fit to prod my along ahead of her, just like an old Japanese woman who found me between her and her seat on the train. NOW we are getting into it. There were no other tourists around and there weren't too many people trying to sell us stuff. We did buy a few things, some dried mulberries, strawberry candies, jackfruit chips and some cashews. That shopping expedition sent us and our vendor flipping through the phrasebook to sort out what everything was and what wasn't available. We had a chattier lunch too as we talked about the foods we had seen but could not name at the market and talked to our waiter about his education. An attempt to find a Catholic convent left us off track and wandering through a neighbourhood that was not on the beaten track, all the while pushing the kids to say a little more than "hello." We got up to "What's your name?" with one and "How are you?" with another. That's a bit more like it.
We arranged our trip out of Dalat - no small feat - and we will be heading for the coast tomorrow to catch an overnight train from Nha Trang to Hoi An.

CRAZY SIGHT OF THE DAY: There was a van touting something to the masses - not the tourists - and they riding around dangling a length of snake from the passenger side and had a macaque tied to the roof. The poor thing was next to the loudspeaker no less. Sometimes, being a dog isn't so bad.