We tend to hang onto our preconceptions of people and places – and will then be amazed when we discover after a long while that this place or that person has completely changed.
Well, ‘place’ anyway. The kid who was an evil bully in high school may be driving a Bentley and wearing a ten thousand dollar watch when you meet him after forty years – but even as a successful bankster he is still an asshole, at heart.
Locations have a way of surprising you. This writer became a political exile from the U.S.A. during the late 1960s, as it was waging a ‘proxy war’ on poor, primitive Vietnam, a nation that had only recently succeeded in getting rid of their French colonial oppressors. While I never actually went to Vietnam (and actually refused a punitive drafting to force me to go) my own connection was close because I was teaching a group of Vietnamese students who US/AID had brought to North America and given scholarships to. What is ironic is that it was these students, only a couple of years younger than me, who had radicalized me against the US aggression on that country. The reason I labeled this a ‘proxy’ conflict was that it was intended to contain communism against the feared ‘domino effect’. China, North Korea and Laos had kicked out the warlords and crooks and established socialist states (only to find, alas, that in addition to also being crooks their new masters were mass murderers and dreamy incompetents as well: chubby Mao Tse-Tung managed to exterminate forty million of his own countrymen).
Russia and the U.S.A. had nearly engaged in thermonuclear exchange over Cuba, and nobody wanted that to happen: your lovely real estate loses value quickly when it is incinerated in a nuclear fireball and your sweet children are dying of radiation poisoning. So what to do? The American war machine was still running at full blast. ‘Well it’s too dangerous to attack Russia because they can retaliate. No fair. So what if we go punch out one of their “client states”?’ This was the thinking.
Vietnam was napalmed, bombed (including charming cluster bombs, which tear through flesh) and mostly reduced to rubble. But the Vietnamese did not give up and Uncle Sam eventually got tired of wasting his money to kill ungrateful gooks.
BOOM jump forward forty years, China is a mighty economy and military power (thanks to American trade, by and large) and Vietnam has emerged as a fresh, dynamic nation.
This writer decided he would like to see for himself what had become of the country he had campaigned to stop destroying. Had a friend (pictured above) who said ‘Let’s go see Da Lat’ so I zoomed into Nha Trang.
Roulette? Baccarat? Casinos? So where’s the socialism?
What an ironic experience. This pleasant seaside city has become a very popular destination – but when you read the menus in restaurants and check out the billboards many are in Russian! And then you see them: hordes of unsmiling Russian tourists, escaping Father Winter in Vladivostok or Novosibirsk, come to get warm in the Asian sunshine and lose some hard-earned money in the casinos.
‘Casinos?’ I asked my Vietnamese friend. ‘So where’s the socialism you fought so hard to impose?’ He got the irony and laughed along with me. ‘Business is Business’, after all.
Only spent half a day in Nha Trang but apart from the gambling its great draw is the sunny beaches, stretching miles and miles. We were there about six p.m. and the sun had already gone home, having lost all its money at the Black Jack table. Some folks never learn: the house always wins.
That’s a cable car ride on the horizon, out to one of the small islands. But we did not make it as my pal said ‘Let’s go up to Da Lat.’
I’d never heard of the mountain retreat in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, about a five-hour drive up from Nha Trang. But the colonials sure knew about it: the cool temperatures, lakes, mountains and abundant flowers meant it was a favorite vacation spot for the French, the Americans and now the wealthy Vietnamese.
Man, this city is loaded: Mercedes, 4WD Jeeps, BMWs, fancy restaurants and elegant shops. Many luxurious villas here and there. And thousands of greenhouses: Vietnam brings in fresh flowers from Da Lat, whose nickname is ‘city of flowers’ or as I prefer to call it ‘Flowertown’, and they are even exported by the industrious Vietnamese.
And so amazingly clean! The roads, parks and lakes are not infested with garbage as you see in Indonesia or Thailand. Everything is spic and span.
The drive up through the mountains from Nha Trang was also an eye-opener: the mountains are completely scalped. Between the colonialists and the [home-grown] socialist/capitalists they have cut down every last hardwood tree on every last mountain to the horizon. Most have been replanted with cheap, fast-growing pine, acacia and other foreign varieties.
Stripping the mountains of foliage is not only a concern for tree-huggers and nature-lovers. Along the modern highway leading up to Da Lat there is evidence of massive landslides, and the government’s valiant efforts to contain them with sheer retaining walls. Boulders the size of ships have crashed down from the mountainside in years past; their rubble is strewn across both sides of the highway.
Arriving in Da Lat – what a beautiful little city, clean as a whistle and evidently quite prosperous. Waterbirds ply the vast lake (no motorboats allowed evidently); it is a shining welcome to the cool mountain climes.
Faint reminders of French colonial days are evident in the architecture – such as steep shingled roofs designed to shed a load of snow (Da Lat is not that cold). Practically no traces of the French era can be observed. It’s as like they were never here.
WHAT ABOUT… THE UNMENTIONABLE?
But if you’re a curious soul like this writer you’ll be wondering ‘What about the ravages of war? B-52s dumping tons of bombs, napalm, Agent Orange?’
(Remembrance of Europe, where some war damage was left untouched for decades, as a grim memorial…)
Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Gone and (apparently) forgotten, which is pretty astounding considering the damage wreaked by the American aggressors in their ‘proxy war’ to show their military teeth to China and the USSR (without actually attacking them – both are nuclear armed and can fight back. No fair.)
You can undoubtedly imagine my shock when I saw this very pretty girl (and Vietnam has more than a few gorgeous women, of all ages) sitting by the lake, minding her own business.
She was doing something truly extraordinary but I simply could not figure out what it was. She had this thing in her hand, made from wood pulp, or paper perhaps. Each of its leaves was stuck together on one side and she seemed to be looking for something as she studied them, one by one. She would turn over one leaf (I believe they call it a ‘page’) and then study the next. It was amazing, and I naturally wondered where her smartphone, tablet and laptop were hiding. We thought about reporting this amazing sight to the mental hospital but concluded it must have been an exotic local custom that we did not know anything about, this ‘book’ that captured her attention. Peculiar.
I was informed that many rich people (yes, in Vietnam already) have villas up in Da Lat, where they go to escape the heat of the coastal plains. The architects delight in designing European-style houses for the nouveau riche Vietnamese.
And the flowers and flowers and flowers!
So pleasing to be surrounded by floral wealth wherever you look, even if the forests have been decimated.
Imagine the mountains covered in these magnificent monsters. Then get in your time machine and head back to 1600 or so…
And, irony of ironies, a Boeing 787 Screamliner I mean Dreamliner commercial for their neat jetliner, featuring the colors of – you guessed it – Vietnam Airlines. Yes we did send our high-tech products over to your poor agricultural land to bomb the shit out of your villages and napalm your babies and spread chemical warfare poisoning over your rice fields so forty years later babies are still being born deformed BUT HEY no hard feelings, right?
‘Business is business’, after all.
(Just don’t ask me what they are called. I guessed ‘poinsettias’ and Google just laughed in my face.)
There is a lively night scene in Da Lat, with street vendors selling mysterious gastronomic delights:
Just point and smile (in spite of hordes of tourists streaming through the level of English among the locals was never more than me-tarzan-you-jane, alas). (Nor did they know French, in spite of the colonial era educational efforts. C’est la vie.)
Anything made of animals one should take great care in chewing on unless your belly is made of stainless steel enclosed in cast lead. The sweets are great, though, and there was plenty of vegetarian food for the likes of this author.
Now when you visit Yaudah Bistro, in Jogjakarta or Jakarta, there is no mystery whatsoever about the grub & grog. Delicious, fresh, hygienic fare, priced ‘painfully but not fatally’, in European, Chinese or Indonesian styles. Great fare and fun for the family, and if you fill out our Questionnaire there are prizes to be won.
I liked to tease my pal about the enormous changes in Vietnam.
What the hell was BoBaPoP planning to sell?
I pointed and laughed ‘…the “THREE ISMS” of modern Vietnam displayed…’
He looked confused.
‘Capitalism, Communism & Tourism!’