Some sensitive souls struggle in hot, heaving places. India, for instance, is incredibly overwhelming. Stunning but stifling.
Vietnam is a soothing surprise.
Amid the tooting mopeds, giant sleeper buses, dusty roads and heaving street stalls, there is a sense of solace. Peace in the pace.
Anxiety melts away. Smiles as wide as the soft sunset. Quiet enterprise. A low, comforting hum swirling through the vast valleys and twisting alleys.
A surprising start
Even her heaving metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City, is a delightful discovery. Stepping onto a local bus without proper change, the locals rushed to pay my way. An introduction to the warmth and kindness of these sweet people.
A must-see is the war museum in HCMC. It’s a tough attraction. The cold hard truths of the American War are documented in death toll notices, reports of ambushes on innocent villagers, and heartbreaking images of deformed babies – caused by chemical warfare. I had to leave that room, feeling ill and incredibly sad. As I did, I noticed a bright shiny Coca-Cola fridge, filled with bottles of the ice-cold brown beverage. Another kind of chemical warfare…
Despite its horrific history, Vietnam is vibrant. Keen to crack on. Welcoming to camera-touting tourists. Proud and positive.
Discovering Da Lat
I took the top bunk on a comfortably cool and cosy sleeper bus. Lulled by the local love songs played on an endless loop, I looked outside and recorded these thoughts:
Mountains meet valleys. Little limbs, scarved necks cycle out of dusty school yards. A giant giraffe statue beside a shop with grimy glass windows, where weary wedding dresses and forgotten frocks hung.
Masked smiles on scooters, faded mint and butter yellow hued homes for miles. Abandoned building pipes, half-built blocks…what horrors were stamped on these streets mere decades ago?
French windows, French impressions, almost out of place in these quaint villages. Crumbling abodes like dollhouses, their fronts blown open, abandoned rooms on show.
Sun sets behind temples, bus teeters over twisting turns, head-ons avoided by mere millimetres.
Freshly bathed babes play in pyjamas. A sea of fluttering trousers spills out of a pristine church, a magenta sky illuminating its steeple.
Seven hours later, a panel of colourful disco lights flood the cabin. Not to be outdone, Da Lat puts on its own Vegas-style light show, with kitschy flashing signs and LEDs in the shape of animals and roses. Gigantic plush hotels with manicured lawns meet manicured streets.
In a dark alley, the Pink Hotel awaits. The effervescent Mr Rot beams – “Miss Kat! Come in! You have the honeymoon suite – big balcony! Most excellent view!”
Most excellent it is. My $10 retreat. With an endless vista stretching out to the edges of the highlands.
Secret tour, humble hosts
Jump on the back of a bike – a geared, clutchless motorbike – and zigzag through steep coffee plantations, vibrant green rice paddies, past immaculate school children screaming ‘HELLOOOO!’
See silk spun from tiny cocoons onto spinning wheels. Taste the freshest fruits – milk apple, custard apple, dragon fruit, jack fruit, tomato apple – and savour the sweet treats offered by generous stall owners in remote markets. Curious eyes peer out under helmets.
Ushered out of the heat and into a hut – the humble home of a local lady with thick tanned skin and a crinkly smile. She and her friends speak one of the 50+ dialects that span the land, and so we connect with smiles, nodding, showing, pointing. A fermented ginger treat turns out to be a concoction mixed with rat. Local man with broken English explains the local culture – girls are married at 10, her family must buy her husband, and their prosperity depends entirely on coffee.
Join a vigorous volleyball game on a pitch marked with wire and with a net strung between two tree trunks. Locals cycle off the road to watch, bikes are abandoned in the sand, babies propped up on scooter seats.
Darkness creeps across the field. Back on bike, spluttering in the dark.
Back to Da Lat. Back to the quaint, quirky town. Back to a feast of what looks like chicken but turns out to be dog, cat and frog. Back to a karaoke bar, where proud locals sing slow songs and couples puff up their chests and slow dance gracefully across the polished floor. Where we sing Summer of 69 and ABBA hits, as men present us with glittery fake flowers.
I love this land. Her fresh pho. Her fragrant herbs. Her delightful delicacies and proud, positive people. Her open arms. Her gentle yawning highlands. Her kindness and her curiosity.
I am transfixed.
This is Vietnam.