Other than 4000 places in Japan, my favourite surreal place in the World is Dalat. It’s one of the few places in Asia where you can be lead around a field, on a horse, by a Vietnamese man dressed as a cowboy.
I went there with an American friend, L, who has lived in both the Ecuadorian rain forest and a mid-western trailer park. She’s an overwhelming force for fun, with a laugh that translates into any language as this: I just thought of something dirty.
To the Crazy House, a Gaudi-esque oddity, both tourist attraction and hotel, full of maze like corridors, stairways to nothing and bizarrely rendered animal statues.
Next the former residence of Vietnam’s last King, to sit in traditional Vietnamese gowns on a thrown.
Having posed most regally, we entered the Valley of Love. If we’d had a Seismographer specially rendered to measure kitsch, it probably would have orgasmed.
Hundreds of gaudy statues in acres of parkland, couple swings and cowboys, and everything imaginable twisted into the shape of a heart.
It’s a top destination for newlywed Vietnamese. L and I are not a couple, and so we diluted the sugary lovliness of it all by posing for pictures as corpses.
At dinner – shellfish on the street – we got through 4 bottles of Dalat red wine and, stumbling home, came across the bright shiny lights of a nightclub entrance. Like two dazzlingly bedraggled turtles, we headed straight for the sparkling lights…
At 8.45am I trudged downstairs to tell the motorbike guys we’d hired that we wouldn’t be ready at 8.30am after all. However, all would be well at 9.30am, and at 10.45am on the dot we set off for the countryside!
Motorbiking through spectacular scenery is an excellent cure for hangovers. We hiked down under a waterfall, in true Last of the Mohicans style, took a cable car ride, and, over a lunch of chicken, beef, wild boar, tofu, fish, vegetables and silk work larvae, regained memories of the previous evening. Which for L was mostly spent swinging around a pole.
To a silk factory we trekked, the endless drone, drone, drone of the machines deafening. How odd it must be to work in a dreary factory every. single. day, and have privileged Western tourists snoop all around you.
Next, a presumably little known fact: Vietnamese weasels love coffee beans.
They eat them, and when they excreate them, the coffee beans have become gorgeously delicious. How inventive and darkly humoured nature can be.
In pretentious and snooty and quite possibly, trendy parts of New York, a cup can set you back $200. We paid two.
Thick and chocolatey.
I can’t afford $200 coffee, and never will. But I don’t have to work in a humdrum and glum factory. All round, I have reasons to feel pleased.
“We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognising and appreciating what we do have.”
I’d never been on a motorcycle until a friend bought herself one. At any one moment, a number equivalent to the population of Belgium can be found on the roads of Saigon, adhering to a highway code straight out of Mad Max.
I got on the back with some trepidation, not entirely alleviated by her assurance that “I kinda don’t know how to ride this but we’ll be fine”.
We set off in a line which, had it appeared on a lie detecting device, would have been swiftly followed by a lengthy custodial sentence. We weaved and rolled like a half dazed wasp, eventually inadvertently mounting the pavement (sidewalk) and, in something I’ve seen in movies but never expected to live through, startled some stray chickens.
It become fun when death seemed less of a 50/50, and I will be eternally grateful to several Vietnamese pedestrians for their speed and dexterity in throwing themselves out of our path.
The City is exciting, but getting out for a while is required. If Vietnam had an illicit encounter with one of the prettier Greek islands, the product would be Hoi An. To a prettier place I may never have been.
Stone buildings of sunflower yellows and aquamarine blues sit in narrow little 19th century streets. During the day almost every shop is fronted by a hanging cage so that the only sound heard is the chirping of little lovebirds.
At night the little lanes are criss-crossed with coloured lanterns. A river runs through the middle, with restaurants and cafes either side, their clientele spilling out onto the street-side tables and chairs.
It’s the kind of place to wander for days, bathing yourself in serenity. A short walk away, past paddy fields and trees is a beautiful tranquil beach, waves breaking in whispers.
On the way there I found the cream of all cafes, sat on stilts over the palm tree fringed river. In the distance rolling paddy fields, a dhow lazily lolling on the river, butterflies floating haphazard shapes among the reeds beneath me, and a camera whose battery knew the exact wrong moment to give up the ghost and die.
In Hoi An, I’m sure it died happy.
“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'”