An added perk of staying at the glorious Dreams Hotel – aside from the minibar, TV, soft sheets and mattresses and firm pillows, toilet paper, hot shower that didn’t drain onto the floor, plush balcony chairs, and attentive staff – was the free breakfast. Even though we were taking a rest from the road, we still set alarms to make it to the dining room during the allotted window of time for breakfast. In the middle of the room, a long table supported a cornucopia of early morning eats: bacon, ham, baguettes, fresh fruit, Dalat strawberry preserves, sliced cheeses, avocados, tomatoes, peanut butter, a pitcher of fresh-squeezed juice, and carafes of coffee; and eggs were made to order. And if a sip of coffee didn’t wake me up, groggily mistaking Vegemite for Nutella and smearing it on my banana knocked any lingering sleepiness right out of me in just one bite.
I purged my salt-soaked tongue with a napkin and dug into the free-for-all feast. Between mouthfuls, we chatted with the other patrons: an English couple, an American father and daughter, a pair of Dutch friends. All had arrived by bus and all were leaving in the same manner, hopping next on a guided trip to the more touristy cities near the coast and Hải Vân Pass. I felt thankful that we’d chosen the freedom of the bikes for our journey and, as I drained a fourth cup of rich coffee, even more thankful that we’d decided to take a day off.
Unable to eat another bite, I returned to the room, where James soon joined me, and we took advantage of the television and its few dozen channels. Apparently Vietnamese children can’t get enough of what I’ll call the run-for-your-life-from-a-predator genre of cartoons, because Cartoon Network’s broadcasting line-up for the country was a seemingly endless marathon of Tom and Jerry and Oggy and the Cockroaches, all slapsticking their way through painful shenanigans. We watched other things, and I idly journaled, making an “inventory of broken things”:
- Bike electronics fried in the wipeout
- Front fender bent in the wipeout
- Right mirror shattered in the wipeout
- Ratting in the dash area, probably caused by:
- Left turn indicator dangling loose from the wipeout
- Biking jeans and jacket ripped in the wipeout
- One side of helmet wind-guard visor lost in the wipeout but held down by a rusted bolt I found on the road to Kon Tum
- Gloves in tatters due to poor quality but held together with rubber bands acquired from the Kon Tum bahn mis
- Hand slightly fractured in the wipeout?
Fortunately, my spirits were intact, and I wouldn’t have to worry about anything else breaking today when we hit the streets for an early afternoon walk about town.
I didn’t even break a sweat, which I’d thought nigh impossible in Vietnam, but Dalat is famed throughout the country for its year-round temperateness. The capital of Lâm Đồng province, it certainly seemed to earn its monikers of “Village of Many Pines” and “Village of Eternal Spring,” and with its beautiful greenery and pervasive, intact French colonial architecture, I could see why the place was a honeymoon destination for Vietnamese newlyweds. In decades past, Dalat was a playground for the country’s French occupiers, who built resorts, golf courses, parks, and houses as vacation homes away from the tropical heat of the country but left little room for the development of any industries. But, in two shakes of a Lâm Đồng, the locals had capitalized on the fertile soil and conducive clime and installed massive vegetable and flower gardens, and the region was renowned for its strawberries and other fruits and veg that can be found only in the area. Its tiered and terraced streets and alleyway are thus jelly- and jam-packed with greenhouses in which to grow some of the more sensitive agricultural exports.
Although the city also boasts impressive building specimens in others of its numbered districts and is but a day trip away from several waterfalls and hikes, we decided to take it easy and stick to the streets around the hotel, crossing a lazy river, a tall and ornate old pagoda, and a building devoted to Pokémon.
Get off your ass and do something, river.
Hitting the streets with Pokémon before it was cool.
Numerous vendors claimed slabs of sidewalk to sell their produce and many hotel proprietors had established copy-cat businesses to lure the unwary away from the genuine articles, and we passed a phony Dreams Hotel that we luckily had not seen the day before and, thus, couldn’t fall for.
Strawberry sales forever.
Desirous of more of the region’s coffee, we opted out of the Hello Kitty Café and instead got caffeinated in a quieter, less Hello Kitty-y place a little further down the road.
A local spotted James practicing card tricks over coffee and joined us, matching each of James’ slights with one of his own. Other patrons played games of chance, and their handling of the decks, slapping them down forcefully on the table as if the cards had killed their favorite pet and then abandoning the decks once the games were concluded, provided a hint as to why decks lie littered along roadways and towns all over Vietnam.
With newfound energy, we continued out into the streets. Like those of Hội An, Dalat’s avenues are relatively quiet and calm for Vietnam, but school crossing signs still advise not walking across the street but hauling ass across.
In Vietnam, the school cross-walk is the school cross-sprint.
And we even unfortunately witnessed a spill rather than being part of one, as a Vietnamese couple took an easy turn too fast and toppled over to the side. Amid the screams and shattered glass, the two emerged with minor scrapes and bruises, a little bloodier than they had been but able to walk away just fine. We’d heard rumors that passersby or other motorists won’t help out if you fall or get into an accident, especially if another motorist is to blame, because most don’t have insurance, and it may even be cheaper to kill an injured person than to be saddled with their medical bills. But from the concerned crowd gathered around the couple, I could neither confirm nor deny this – maybe simply because it was the driver’s own fault that they tumbled.
We rambled around, burning off the breakfast feast, and had a late lunch. Although we both have a taste for Vietnamese cuisine and both would have been more than content with a big, steaming bowl of noodles and broth and chunks of beef or pork or dog, we’re products of our upbringing and each ordered pizzas. We did wash them down with a semi-regional beer, Biere Larue.
A lone local girl sitting on the other side of the restaurant asked if she could join us at our table, and we pulled up a chair. I don’t recall her name, so, in the spirit of Hội Anna, we’ll rechristen her Dalatitia. Her English was decent, and she was hankering to practice it; so we got beyond the usual surface inquiries and mono- or few-syllabic answers. She was on holiday from university and back in her hometown, and because she was open and amiable, we returned her confidences and admitted our true nationality; and she was absolutely thrilled to be meeting us Americans over break. As she told us, she and all her friends adored American culture, our fashion, cinema, music, and general style; and she implied that this sentiment was pretty consensual among Vietnamese youth across the nation.
As Dalatitia hinted, whatever had happened between members of the previous generation was their own business and had nothing to do with the up-and-coming young people of either country or their character. And, anyway, America was defeated, the eagle sent home with its tail feather between its legs; the attitude of many Vietnamese was thus something like, “Welcome back, losers. Enjoy our beautiful country instead of blowing it up this time.”
So, having no plans of blowing up a thing, we embraced our true nationality. From now on, we’d travel Vietnam, the land that dwells in the imagination of every one of our countrymen thanks to movies and music and history and hippies, as proud Americans.
Somewhere, a bald eagle got his wings.
Or, at least, we’d no longer pretend to be Canadians. We wouldn’t exactly be waving the stars and stripes around or anything.
As the sun sank down behind the mountains and colonial rooftops, we prodigal Yanks took our leave of Dalatitia, posing for a requested picture with her before going our separate ways. Not ready to turn in just yet, we followed a wave of pedestrians to the center of town, down a series of steps, and into the city square, the site of a bustling night market. Hundreds of tourists, mostly Vietnamese, wandered in and among the rows of stalls selling clothes, farm-fresh products, cheap toys and gifts, street food, and a myriad of other trinkets and curio. Still a little hungry and not wanting to miss out on new street eats, we each tried some sort of eggy tortilla stuffed with seafood, a cheesy toast, and bahn mis. Actually, we must have still been pretty damn hungry.
Full of food, we stocked up on cheap socks and ducked around the masses of people as, more than once, children walking behind James tried to jump high enough to get their hand level with his head. The night market raged on, but we had to be up and on the road early again in the morning, so we headed back to the hotel under a canopy of light-up gyro toys soaring and plummeting through the cool, eternally temperate evening air.