KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We were pleased that the McColls were willing to make the long bus journey to Dalat, a city in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The weather is cooler and less humid than the areas along the coast and we were ready for a refreshing change of pace. Each time we've made the journey by road, we find the trip takes longer and longer. There is so much more traffic now; motorbikes, heavy trucks and people crossing the road, that we were lucky to cover more that 20 km per hour.
The change in the region, in one short year, was incredible. Vietnam has become a major coffee exporter and thousands of hectares of forest have been cut down and planted as coffee. All along the road we saw recently harvested coffee beans laid out to dry on tarpaulins, on concrete pads or just in the dirt in front of homes. The Vietnamese got into the coffee growing business around the time of the IMF crisis in 1997 and no one predicted how successful they would be as coffee farmers. Unfortunately, the coffee prices plummeted once they introduced this extra supply to the world markets and coffee growers all over the world suffered. The sad thing is that coffee is purely a cash crop; it can't be eaten to feed a family if there is no market for abundant crops when it comes time to harvest.
We were delighted to find a three-bedroom villa for a reasonable price in Dalat. This meant that we could all stay together and also have some common space to hang out together in the mornings and evenings. It's located on the edge of a ridge overlooking a deep valley that is partly terraced with vegetable farms. It's a good distance into the city centre, but easily walkable in the cooler air. Right beside the villa is a small plot with a one-room shanty house, roofed in corrugated tin. The contrast between the two buildings was sobering. A young family lives next door and I could see the mother washing the floor and her baby calling out to her from inside. The garden was well tended with simple flower beds and neatly trimmed grass. It was obvious to us that this family was happy to have a small home away from the crowded streets of the city center.
It was a bonus to find the villa had a pool table and the guys spent a lot of time playing together or trying out the feathered hacky-sack that Anil brought from China. The McColl boys were so impressed with the game that we went looking for similar hacky-sacks in the market and were able to find some for them to take home to friends. There was a resident manager who looked after the villa and the brother of the man who lived next door came every day to do the cleaning and change the linens. The two Vietnamese men were thrilled to be included in the pool games and it was clear they spent a lot of their free time practicing their shots. The young man who came to clean often brought the one-year-old baby over to spend time with him at the villa and give her mother a break. I have to say, this contact with local people always makes our visits more enjoyable.
Our only disappointment with our stay in Dalat was the fact that the city was going through a period of power outages. There was no electricity during daylight hours for the four days we were there. It was tough the first day because we didn't expect the power to be off at 6:30 a.m. and no one was up early enough to take a hot shower. The second day, we turned the water heaters on early and had enough water to shower before the power was cut. It was a minor inconvenience for us, but a real problem for the businesses in town. The large hotels have generators but most small hotels, restaurants and shops do not. It did appear that half the town had power one day and then none the next, but there seemed to be no plan to the cuts and the citizens were frustrated.
Our first night in our room, I was started to find a medium sized frog clinging to the wall just above the curtain rod. I was not particularly keen on having him in the room when we were sleeping, so I called the manager to come and get rid of him. I went upstairs but Anil stayed to watch. Donna was delighted to hear Anil squealing like a small boy as the frog did its best to avoid capture. I guess she's never seen this side of Anil. At school he always had his principal's hat on and with family, he was always the quiet one observing our boisterous behavior from the edge of the room.
Tam managed to get the frog out of the room but the next day I found the same frog looking up at me from the toilet bowl, as I was just about to sit down. I have a habit of looking in the bowl first, ever since I once sat down to find something splashing under me when I lived in Africa. That time it was a lizard and I don't know who was more startled, the lizard or me. I yelped loudly and Anil and Tam came running to rescue me once again. Anil watched through the crack in the door as Tam first tried flushing the toilet only to find the frog looking up at him again when the flushing subsided. What incredible grip he had with those little suction cups on the ends of his toes. Eventually, Tam maneuvered the frog out of the toilet and out to the lawn. I have a photo of the frog on the wall, I wasn't about to go into the bathroom and snap a picture of him in the toilet. I am happy to report that we never saw him again.
The McColls had a day of adventure while I nursed the terrible cold that Donna brought with her and passed along to me. Fortunately, it never developed into an infection, as it did for her, and she also passed along some great cold medicines to help me through the worst bits. We did manage to walk a lot around Dalat and even hiked to the cable car for a high ride over the vegetable farms on the edge of town. At the terminus of the cable car ride, we visited a lovely Buddhist temple and had some great photo ops overlooking the lake below the temple.
Dalat has some fine restaurants and we tried three of the ones we had visited on earlier trips. One in particular was a great hit and we returned there for our last dinner before heading off to the beach resort in Mui Ne. We were so impressed with Hunter and Aidan for trying all sorts of local dishes. They have a reputation for being picky eaters, but it appeared they wanted to impress us with their new open-mindedness to foods. It looks like we've made two new world travellers out of them now.
We toured the Dalat market and took in all the sights and smells on offering there. There are a wide variety of fruits grown in the Central Highlands and the McColls bought several different kinds of dried fruits to take back to Canada for their friends and family to sample. While we were walking through the market, I spied something I had never seen before. In an area near where local people can purchase incense and items for their family shrines, I saw packages of paper clothing wrapped in clear cellophane. When I stopped to examine them more closely, I could see paper shirts, ties, shoes, and jewellery all packaged together. Some sets were obviously for men; others for women and some were designed for children. There was even a paper model of a motorcycle. A young man noticed my puzzlement and stopped to explain that these were items to be offered to ancestors or family members who had recently died. There has long been a custom of burning paper money as offerings to the deceased, but now it has grown into burning more personal offerings. This may be done on the death anniversary of on the deceased's birthday. I wondered if there was one day a year when these rites were performed but he indicated that it was done at the family shrines or the temples whenever the living relatives saw fit. Fascinating!
We were delighted to learn that we could leave the Dynasty villa in Dalat one day earlier and stay at the Dynasty Mui Ne Resort for two nights instead of one. This meant that we would be at the beach for New Year's Eve and be able to celebrate in style at the dinner the hotel would cater. It worked out well as the power outages continued and we were looking forward to some beach/pool time before the McColls had to leave for home.