Friday, 19 December 2008

les delices de dalat

I walk all day in perfect anticyclone weather around this lovely town. A French doctor, Alexandre Yersin, proposed it as a site for a sanatorium in 1893, and this week it celebrates its 115th birthday!
I am at first confused by the plethora of furniture stores spilling their sofas and fauteuils, and tables, out onto the pavements, until I see that some at least are cafes still waiting for their morning custom. I pass a coffin shop with its ornate, rococo wares piled high, and wrapped in cellophane.

I wander up to the French Cathedral on a hill, and watch a Vietnamese boy giving a face-lift to a statue of the Virgin Mary, in white gloss paint. Nearby is a convincing simulacrum of the Eiffel Tower, now hung with all manner of device for modern telecommunication. At its foot is the old Post Office - now the Cafe de la Poste - once linked by leagues of telegraph wire to the Quai D'Orsay in Paris, and to cities and settlements all over French Indochina. An imposing gubernatorial hulk of a building is now Novotel, Dalat.

By the big lake I see some kind of fair going on. Its part of the anniversary celebrations; trade stalls of drinks and eatables ; children everywhere arriving by the bus load. They besiege me with hellos and goodbyes, and giggles and handshakes. I'm an involuntary star. Somewhere I carry an irrational guilt for the Vietnam War. Why are they all so friendly to me?
I enter a cavernous concrete hall where there is a marvellous exhibition of the history of the town. Photographs of bemused, half-naked citizens of the original mountain village soon to disappear in imperial improvements. Pictures of empty streets and splendid villas. There is the station, built in the 20's - I resolve to search that out later. A whole display of Alexandre Yersin, a handsome fellow with a good beard, and an imposing-looking lycee named after him. The market building constructed just after the Second World war. How splendid it all looked, and how little the French could enjoy it, before being booted out. They never got to see the trees they planted in such abundance, around the lake, and in the new parks and spanking golf-courses, come to maturity.

I walk to the outskirts of town to find the station. There it is at last, surrounded by bougainvillea and a lovely garden of potted trees. Now alas only toy trains run from it, for the tourists. Nevertheless it is a haunting place. I imagine the comings and goings. The administrators coming up from the cities to visit their dutiful wives, who have escaped the heat and turmoil below for the season. Honeymoon couples arriving to boat on the lake, and have croissants in the cafes, and do whatever else it is that honeymoon couples do. I am reluctant to leave, I have such a strong sense of the place, and its whispers.

I walk to the grand Lycee Yersin, built to educate future colonial administrators for a thousand years. The French have gone, and the Americans have gone and the country begins to sing its own song.

Back in the hotel I wonder who this Yersin was. Some cool colonial administrator? Adventurer? Exploitative scoundrel? I Google him. What a surprise! Amongst many other things, he was co-discoverer of the bacillus which causes bubonic plague, and is named after him, Yersinia pestis. He set up Pasteur Institutes in Saigon, and in Nha Trang. I passed by the latter yesterday! He set up Hanoi's first medical school. On his tomb is written : "Benefactor and humanist, venerated by the Vietnamese people." His name remains, where many other colonial names have been execrated and erased.

peter fonda, dennis hopper, here we come

At the breakfast table I regale my Dutch and Estonian companions with tales of our upcoming motor-bike safari. They ooh and aah, to my great satisfaction, I who was too lily-livered to contemplate motorbikes a couple of days ago.

We met up last night with Mr.Nguyen - 'call me Wing'- , Nam and Khan, who constitute 'Easy Riders Inc, Dalat', and around a hotel table we plot our route, and discuss terms. We peruse their book of hand-written testimonials from happy customers (one from Pat of LLandudno, whom we met in Hoi An, who turns out to have been 70!) and clinch the deal. Tomorrow we set off at dawn for a four day trip which will take us further into the Central Highlands, and then all the way to Saigon for Christmas. I can hardly believe how heroic I am about to be.

Back in about 1967 I acquired a Honda scooter. That year I was a medical student in town, but living, still marooned, in a South London suburb, which seemed ever more remote from modern life as the 60's fizzed and buzzed out of its epicentre in Chelsea. A scooter I hoped would put me in touch with the pulse of the city, and its flower-themed Zeitgeist . It was my first ever private means of motor locomotion, and the world perhaps would be my oyster.

I soon learnt to hate the Honda. It had a meagre 49cc engine, and had been previously owned by a gargantuan baker who had flattened its suspension. It never achieved a running speed above 15mph, and in a headwind you might as well have been going backwards. I bought it in October, at the beginning of a harsh and endless winter, came perilously close to frostbite, and sold it in the spring to the next sucker down the line.

Later that year I bought my first Mini, second-hand, KMX 201B (the only registration number of all the cars I have driven that I have been able to remember, and still remember after 40 years), grey exterior with tan upholstery. It was love at first sight, at the seedy car-merchant's on Brixton Hill, in the shadow of the Prison.
The Mini had the original sliding windows, and a pull-cord to open the doors, and in the middle of what you could not call a dashboard, so devoid was it of any features, stared the Cyclop's eye of the speedometer. It was a joy to drive, and of course was the epitome of 60's cool. I had arrived.

Today I explore Dalat, a hill station built by the French. We are far above the damp and fog, and cloying humidity, of the coast, and the air sparkles at 1500 metres.