Ó      Copyright 1998 Kevin J. Coughlin.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated without express written permission from the author.  kcoughlin911@earthlink.net



July 13/14/15

Part IX


   July 13, 1998  A funeral;  Scuba; Being smothered; more quixotic twists of history.  Da Lat, the home of the Dragon Lady, Madame Nhu. Tourist pricing structured to the size of your wallet.


   Today is pretty much of a down day.  (accidental pun) Did some more diving, met some more wonderful people. Ted and David are two NYU Business grads form Long Island here as part of their multi-country, twelve-week backpacking vacation.  (having a “most excellent adventure”??) Ted starts work for a consulting firm upon his return. David will go meditate in front of his salt-water fish tank and decide what he wants to do next.  They are the odd couple.  David is vivacious and loquacious and also speaks French, which comes in handy with a couple of our dive partners.  Ted is quiet, reflective, and studious.  David has been diving for years; this is Ted’s first Open Water dive. 

   David and I dive with Tun, while Ted is taking his lessons.  We are scared witless by an incredible BANG!!  Tun is nonplussed, and gives us the “OK” sign.  I have heard such explosions underwater before, but never so loud.  It is obviously not very close, or we would have felt the concussion.  Water does not compress, so the energy travels well.  At any rate, we saw the marks from drag net fishing, and also saw the results.  Devastation!  Coral and urchins were shattered everywhere.  Dead fish were in abundance.  It was unclear whether the dynamiting and the dragnets were related.


   Our exit path is temporarily blocked by a funeral procession.  A huge, elaborately ornate bier, heavily gilded in gold, vermilion and jade lacquer, and prominently displaying a picture of the deceased, is being carried to the hearse, accompanied by gongs, flags, and smoking torches.  The hearse is a flatbed truck decorated with zebra striped canopies and flying zebra striped streamers and pom-poms from the edges of the roof of the canopy.


   Tomorrow we head for the Central Highlands city of Da Lat.  Coincidentally, Da Lat was one of the sites targeted by the first agency with which I had previously signed up to come over here, ELIC.

   Tiep and I head for a restaurant highly recommended by Mark.  We were not disappointed.  Walking home we were observing a pedicab driver slouched in his vehicle, which was parked in a precarious perch over the curb.  As he slept, he slowly slid forward, which caused his contraption to tilt forward, and the front slammed into the street, thus spilling him onto the asphalt.  He rubbed his face, scratched his body, and slumped forward, evidently more in a drunken stupor than asleep.  As no one moved towards him, I asked Tiep if someone or we should help.  He just smiled and said, “later, someone will come”.  I asked if he meant the police, and he said yes.  They have a remarkable live-and-let-live, coupled with a sort of fatalism and a  “chup-nua” which is sorta like the Spanish “mañana”, but without the driving sense of urgency associated with “mañana”.


July 14, 1998


   It is 7 A.M. and I now understand the deal with our passengers of the other day.  Our driver is in love!  The folk that shared the van are relatives of his intended, who lives in Nha Trang.  We are now getting ready to leave Nha Trang, and they are outside in the van awaiting my readiness to depart.  I am seated, the laptop where its name implies, and the irrepressible four-year-old comes flying through the door smiling, and plants a kiss on my cheek.  I thank her, and ask if she is happy today.  She says she is, so I ask why.  She holds up her shirt pocket, and says it is because she has some bread in her pocket. 

   We set off, and almost immediately get stuck in traffic behind an odoriferous vehicle.  It is a ‘40s style flatbed truck belching huge quantities of black.  Its load is an incredible number of pigs, each individually trussed in a woven basket.  They cover the bed, and are stacked some ten feet high!


   I have been going a bit insane of late.  The solicitousness of my guide is stifling!  I cannot get up to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water without him bouncing into a flurry, wondering what I am up to and how he can do something about that.  He is almost perpetually inquiring as to the state of my health and happiness.  Also, for the sake of “helpfulness” he cheerfully and emphatically dispenses misinformation.  Things like how much more distance we have to travel, how much longer it will take etcetera.  The only time I can get a moments’ rest from his constant ministrations is to be writing, diving, fast walking (which is difficult in most areas other than Nha Trang) or sleeping.  When I announce that I need to stretch my legs, he panics.  He knows that he cannot keep up with my pace, and he is worried that I might get lost, or have my pocket picked, or who knows what all else. He wants to be certain that I am carrying a business card from the Hotel, so that in case I get lost or some disaster befalls, I can be returned safely.  I start praying for the patience not to bite his head off.  Have I accidentally been praying for patience and this is my exercise?  At any rate, my prayers are almost immediately answered!  He actually lets me go into the cooler and extract a bottle of water without leaping to my aid.  What relief!


  Here, as throughout the country, the poor people use the road as a curing station for their rice, coconut, and other crops.  Little patches 1’ to 2’ wide and 10’ to 50’ long decorate the road.  Vehicles do their best to respect them, but they are not always successful.  The owners rake their product after it has been in the sun for a while.  Those that have them use wooden rakes with wooden spokes.  The poorer ones use their feet.

   As we get closer to the foothills my eyes are captivated by a perfectly straight line in the distance.  At first I think maybe it is the highway, but there has yet to be any stretch of roadway thus far that has been that straight for that long!  It turns out to be an aqueduct!  A pair of 4’ diameter pipes brings water straight down the mountainside into a small hydroelectric facility.  We cross over the river created as the water exits the turbines, and it is turbulent brown.  It is not clear whether the water started that way, or is merely drilling into the nearby earth and thus picking up its coloration here.  For the sake of the life of the turbines, one hopes the water was a bit clearer as it entered them.  For the sake of the surrounding countryside, and for the sake of the later reuse of the water, one would hope that if the coloration were due to the disruption of the present site that some rock substrate would soon be hit and the water could be clear again.

   We cross under the pipes several times as the road wends its torturous way up the mountain.  We pass several old French-style concrete bunkers with their thick walls in octagonal shapes and oblong slits for armament.  Perched atop them are the more open-air variety favored by the American troops.  We then would fortify them with sandbags.


   When in Saigon, I had mentioned that every material known to man was used in the construction of the shops.  I had forgotten milled planks.  They were not there, and are here in abundance.  Perhaps because of the nearby forests.  Odd, I have not seen any sawmills here, but there plenty of planks, some in clapboard configuration.  In Saigon, I spotted several sawmills, (No, Mr. Wruck, I could not stand the idea of writing “saw several sawmills”) and saw plenty of product in the warehouses, but none in construction.  At any rate as we are climbing, I am willing to believe we are going to be in excess of 7,000 feet above sea level.  I ask the driver, and he says 3,000 meters, which is just a few feet shy of 10,000.  It is actually cool up here in the middle of the day.  Before my departure folks had warned that a light sweater might be appropriate for the evenings.  This is so odd when contrasted with Hue, which is less than a days travel from here.  The flowers that are missing in Saigon and Hue are here in profusion.


   My bouncy, bubbly, four-year-old friend arrives, babbling a mile per minute.  I cannot understand a thing she says, so I just make grandpa noises.  Eventually I catch her saying something about school.  I ask what she is studying, and she responds, “Ah”, “Oh”, and “ooo”.  I ask if she can teach me how to count in Vietnamese.  She is thrilled!  She starts coaching me, while holding up a constantly changing and never accurate number of fingers.  When we get to seven, (bai) she announces it with a triumphal shout, as though we were done.  I ask what is next, and she says “tam” (eight).  When I ask for what is next, she says “chin” (nine).  I then ask what is next, and she proclaims as though I were an idiot, “there is nothing else”.  I howled with glee, and she was quite amused by my reaction.

   Incidentally, I forgot to mention that if you ask a Vietnamese how old they are, they would give a year more than what we would.  They believe that life begins at conception.  That really makes Ngai, my little friend, 3 years old by our counting.


   We are here after a mere 4.5 hours of travel.  More than double Tiep’s estimate.  And, after we passed the pigs, we flew.  There was simply nothing else holding us back.  Ah well.


     The town itself is quite pretty.  It has wide streets, which are not jam-packed with vehicles, as is Saigon, The market is much more attractive and clean.  This is the home of the French Territorial Governors, The Emperor Bao Dai, emperor (1926–45) of Annam. He was emperor under French colonial rule and cooperated with the Japanese in World War II. He abdicated (1945) but returned (1949) as chief of state of Vietnam and then (1954) South Vietnam. Bao Dai was ousted (1955) by Ngo Dinh Diem, who became president. This was also the home of Diem, his brother, Nhu, who is referred to more often as his advisor than by his name, and his famous (or infamous) sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, who, according to many reports, was the real power in the government. The price of admission to the palace is blatantly advertised as 4,000 dong for citizens, 10,000 dong for foreigners.  I go to pay for Tiep and myself, and they only charge 10,000 (less than a dollar).


   The mountainous terrain has cross-plowed and terraced farms.  The cabbages and bok choy coming from them are gigantic!


   In addition to the delightful respite from heat, the area’s claim to fame seems to include the aforementioned flowers, several huge lakes, which have been drained for deepening and lining with cement, and a huge garden in the shape of a rosary.  There is also a romance spot, called “Vallee d’Amour”, which is a favorite place for lovers to plight their betrothal, and to get married. 

   We go there because we have the aforementioned lovers in tow.  Or maybe I should say they have us in tow.  At any rate, we are there for just under an hour when it starts to rain.  I notice it first, and mention it to Tiep, who hastens to assure me that it is not raining, and I will not get wet.  Grrrrrr!  It then comes down in earnest, and much to my amazed surprise, a shopkeeper puts John Fogarty, and Creedence Clearwater Revival on his boom-box full blast, “Who’ll stop the rain?”  I burst out laughing, and am the only one to get the joke.  It turns out the shopkeeper was not even aware.  He had just been told that English-speaking tourists like the song when it rains.  I translate the lyrics for those in the immediate vicinity, many of whom break up laughing, and then turn around and discuss it with their neighbors who then start laughing.  It has a wonderful pond-ripple effect.


July 15, 1998


   Up at 0500, out the door at 6. 


   Tiep has snored like a freight train all night long.  Now he complains that he did not sleep well.  I give him a lot of grief about that, telling him that I was the one that did not sleep well, and it is because he obviously did.


   Our destination is breathtaking!  It is a stunning panorama from a huge pagoda on the top of the mountain down into the valley, which contains a huge lake.  This one is easily 3 miles across and hard to guess how long  -- possible 10 miles.  I have seen many a lavish pagoda in my travels to the Orient, and this one takes the cake.  It is massive and ornate.  It occupies more space than several dozen of the shanties in Saigon.  It sits on many hundreds of terraced acres, all lavishly planted with a diverse mixture of flora, or inlaid with concrete paths.  The monks are all very well fed; a state that is in stark contrast with the surrounding populace. Part of me wonders if the Buddhists are not approaching the state of sin of the Medieval Roman Catholic Church, which built gigantic and lavish edifices to God at the grossly disproportional cost to the peasants.  Their original motives may have been pure, but then you get back to that human nature thing again.   

   Then there is the question of “to whom is the edifice erected”.  The Catholics erected theirs to God.  The Buddhists to a man who lived some 300-400 years B.C., who claimed to have achieved “supreme enlightenment” at the age of 35, but never made claims to God-hood, and taught that  “…suffering is inseparable from existence but that inward extinction of the self and of worldly desire culminates in a state of spiritual enlightenment beyond both suffering and existence.[1]”,  which is practiced in many varied forms, rituals and manifestations throughout the world.  At its core it is self-centered, in that even though it espouses the banishment of self, the mechanism used to do so is through self!  Kinda like my favorite statement about why self-help is oxymoronic.  It is using something that is broken to fix itself.


   The entire area is terraced.  Flowers bloom in controlled abandon.  I have rarely seen such variety.  The amazing thing is, when I stoop to sniff, I can detect no fragrance!  None of them!  The lake is doing a boom business in tour-boats.  We decline.  The gardens and surrounding forests are treat enough.  There is a gigantic spillway off the lake down to the lower levels. 

   The question of yesterdays’ river also appears to have been answered.  The soil here is very red, and the river was brown.  Ergo, I am going to assume the water entering the pipes was relatively clear.


    Tiep once again teases Hiep about his pending marriage.  In order to get the heat off, Hiep starts asking about my marital state.  I inform him that I have ruined two marriages already.  He asks if I would do it again, and I reply “God Willing”.  Tiep then asks “If you get married again, will you write us about it?”  As a response, I reiterate “If”, and then translate a story of the Laconians, from whom we get the word “laconic”.  My thanks to my good buddy Dennis for that story.  As I have already decried the current state of education, allow me to elaborate, and maybe contribute.

   Word History: As the study of the classics has disappeared from the curriculum, so has the ready understanding that terms such as laconic once possessed. Laconic, which comes to us via Latin from Greek Lakonikos, is first recorded in 1583 with the sense “of or relating to Laconia or its inhabitants.” Lakonikos is derived from Lakon, “a Laconian, a person from Lakedaimon,” the name for the region of Greece of which Sparta was the capital. The Spartans, noted for being warlike and disciplined, were also known for the brevity of their speech, and it is this quality that English writers still denote by the use of the adjective laconic, which is first found in this sense in 1589.[2]


  In one such saga, the one I translated for Tiep and Hiep, the Laconians were under attack from the sea.  Their backs were to a cliff.  The commander of the squadron sent in a message.  “Surrender now and we will spare your lives, and only take you as slaves.  If we take you by force, we will kill your men and ravage your women and children”.  The Laconians responded with, “If”.


   Returning from the wonderful morning, our driver lets Tiep and I off at the market.  The Da Lat market is huge.  The produce section alone is 10 times bigger than the biggest I’ve ever seen in the U.S.  Like products are not necessarily collocated.  There are stalls where one vendor may offer tomatoes, avocado, coconut, while the one next door may offer tomatoes, coconut, and four different kinds of rice.  I do pass four apple vendors side-by-side.  They are offering identical product, from New Zealand.  If I was amazed by the inventory in Saigon, I am astounded by the quantity here.  It grossly outdistances the number of buyers.  Once again there are more flowers than can be imagined.  The variety is quite beautiful.  Meanwhile, there is open water running through the market in various places, and one must watch one’s step.


   We depart, catching a beautiful waterfall on the way.  Again the weird behavior where they charge me the posted price and allow the Vietnamese free entry, regardless of the posting.  We actually get to walk under this waterfall.  Kinda fun.  The trip back down into the flatlands is fairly uneventful.  Entering one village, it appears that there is nothing but TV antennae, but as I look closer, it appears they are about one per every 5-6 houses. 


  I am welcomed back to the Hoang Ky Hotel like a long-lost relative!  They all want to know if I have enjoyed my trip, enjoyed good health, feel well now, etc.  I take a stroll to stretch the legs after all that sitting.  I pick up a few goodies for supper, and head back to the hotel.



[1]The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from InfoSoft International, Inc. All rights reserved.


[2]The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from InfoSoft International, Inc. All rights reserved.