After a brief stop back in HCMC, long enough for some woman to steal Helen’s one-and-only necklace, we caught the bus to Da Lat. Although very close on the map (300km) the journey took eight-and-a-half hours. Da Lat is up in the mountains north of Saigon and the roads are somewhat poor. Accidents are common – we saw the aftermath of a double bus crash which must have happened shortly before our arrival. If we’d caught the earlier bus…
Da Lat isn’t especially pretty, despite many people saying it is! Its advantage for us is that it is cooler than most other parts of the country. Yesterday, as the locals shivered in their fur coats and anoraks, I almost had occasion to put on a jumper, but not quite. It’s called ‘The City of Eternal Spring’ and has a rather nice lake with some good bird-life. It is chock-full of hotels – apparently, it’s very popular with the Vietnamese as a place to cool down once in a while. It’s the rainy season now and it rains every afternoon without fail.
We checked out the schools here and found a place called The American Academy. I asked them how many native English teachers they had. ‘Three: two Dutch and an Australian lady’, the boss answered. ‘OK, barely one then!’ I jested. So, we realised that they badly needed some proper English teachers and decided to give it a go. Last week we had trial lessons being observed and they seemed to like us. This week we’re working 6 days, mainly in the evenings. If the students like us, then we get the jobs. Our rate of pay also seems to be determined by how much the students like us – we may be rewarded by the top rate of $12 an hour, we don’t know yet. We’ve decided to stay for a while, maybe a month or two, and we’ve done a deal with our current hotel for the month of October. We can’t rent accommodation as we don’t have work permits but hotels can be quite cheap. But we’re spoilt here, staying in a great hotel (‘Dreams’) with massive breakfast and a large room – all for $25 a night. Every morning we meet new guests at the big communal breakfast table and often stay for a couple of hours chatting to the many Germans, French, Aussies, Swiss, Chinese and Slovaks who are also travelling. All the above have much better English than our students whose pronunciation is the worst we’ve come across in the 11 years we’ve been TEFLing. Vietnamese have great difficulty pronouncing terminal consonants and sibilants; words like ‘rice’ come out as ‘rai’. We spend most of the lesson asking students to repeat everything they say – one reason why we probably won’t be staying too long.
Da Lat has a pretty railway station and has recently reopened a line a few kilometres to the town of Trai Mat with its extraordinary pagoda. The journey along the small, single-track rail is very slow but takes you beside all the farms where every inch of space is used to grow something. The area around here is renowned for its flowers and its vegetables and it’s very easy to get an ‘English curry’ in the local cafes and restaurants (with potatoes, broccoli, carrots and beans).
We’ve just experienced one of the bigger occasions in Vietnam: the mid-Autumn festival. It’s a time when kids parade the streets in their dragon/lion outfits, accompanied by drums and gongs, looking for cash from the shopkeepers. It’s a time when, traditionally, parents spoil the kids as reward for their tolerance of being ignored the past few months as the parents work hard in the fields.
There’s some interesting countryside around here with many ethnic minority villages, coffee plantations, silk and mushroom farms so last week we had a special treat and hired a guy to take us round all the nearby places. One such place was the ‘Elephant Falls’ which the Lonely Planet describes in classic understatement as ‘approached by an uneven and sometimes hazardous path’. Now, I quite like a challenge but I wouldn’t do that again. All I can say is that walking along jagged, slippery rocks, with nothing to hold on to, knowing that one slip would send you tumbling irretrievably into a deep, dark crevasse (clearly containing the detritus of previously-fallen holiday-makers) is something that would be instantly outlawed in Europe. Hurrah! for the nanny state!
Vietnam is becoming big in the world of coffee production and exporting. One unique brand of coffee called ‘Ca Phe Chon’ is made from beans that have first passed through the digestive system of a weasel. The beans plop out, marginally affected by an enzyme specific to weasels, and give a certain piquancy to the coffee. I bet it does! The brand is highly sought after and very expensive.
One final thing – if you like crazy architecture, you’ll love the ‘Crazy House’ in Da Lat. This place is almost beyond description – see the pictures. The well-known owner, Hang Nga, studied architecture in Moscow and clearly had too much time on her hands when she ‘designed’ this place. Her father was Ho Chi Minh’s successor as second president between 1981 and 1988 so she isn’t short of a bob or two. The house is still under construction but has guest bedrooms so offers accommodation for the somewhat unhinged traveller.
Andy, 3.10.12, Da Lat