by Steven K. Bailey, Dec 1, 1997 | Destinations: Vietnam / Da Lat

I made one bad move and one good move upon arriving in Dalat. My Sinh Tours bus dropped us-a motley assortment of Americans, Germans, Kiwis, Brits, Dutch and some wild-looking Israelis with multiple body-piercings-at the Sinh Hotel, which lay on the outskirts of Dalat. It annoyed me that Sinh was trying to get us to stay at their hotel-the bus driver refused to go on to the town center-but on the other hand I was bushed from the seven-hour bus ride from Saigon and didn't want to hunt around for a place to stay. For seven dollars a night the Sinh Hotel's rooms looked perfectly adequate to me, so I checked in. I did this without first conferring with the friends I'd made on the bus. This was my bad move. True budget travelers; they'd soldiered on into Dalat in search of cheaper accommodations.

After checking in, I wandered Dalat in steadily increasing rain, looking for a place to eat. I felt lonely and far from home. I couldn't face the thought of sitting at a table by myself in a restaurant full of family and friends eating together. In the end I bought a take-out meal of La Vache Qui Rit spreadable cheese, baguettes, chocolate-chip cookies, and Vikoda bottled water (good for "excitement of digestion and strengthening of body force," said the label). On impulse, I decided to have a beer at La Tulipe Rouge Restaurant by the steps leading down to the bustling Dalat Central Market. As I nursed my cold Bia Saigon, in walked a man in a leather jacket and baseball hat. He introduced himself as Mr. Thiet and offered to take me on a tour of Dalat the next day.

Many western tourists take these tours; they are a cheap, efficient and enjoyable way to see the widely scattered sites of Dalat. For eight dollars, said Thiet, he would take me all over the area. He produced a little black book full of glowing testimonials penned by satisfied customers from the USA, Canada, Germany, Holland, Australia and New Zealand.

"What do you say?" asked Thiet. This is where I made my good move: I said yes.

I almost said no. Would-be motorcycle guides had been hounding me from the moment I stepped off the bus. Many of them struck me as dubious characters and I resented their aggressive, in-your-face sales pitch. But in this crowd of motorcyclists something about Thiet caught my attention. For one thing, he was older than most of the guides, and his face was crinkled into a kindly and vaguely amused expression, as if life was something that could only be laughed at. Thiet pulled in a good salary as a guide that allowed him to comfortably support his family. He had made it in life, and unlike the younger guides, he had nothing to prove. As far as he was concerned, I could hire him or not; the decision remained mine to make. He left me to the sales pitches of the other guides, confident that in the end I'd choose to go with him. And I did.

At eight o'clock the next morning, Thiet began his tour by taking me into the old quartier francais, a hilly area overlooking central Dalat. Hundreds of colonial-era French villas dotted the hillsides beneath Emperor Bao Dai's old summer palace and in the distance rose a new white and red telecommunications tower modeled on the Eiffel Tower. This struck me as a fitting tribute to France's influence on Dalat. Indeed, for all practical purposes the French, wanting a cool highland escape from humid Saigon, created Dalat in the 1920s. The many examples of French architecture still give Dalat a distinctly European feel, as do the baguettes and strong filter coffee consumed everywhere in the city. Dalat reminded me of Nuwara Eliya, a hilltown I'd once visited in Sri Lanka that had served the same function for overheated British colonials in steamy Colombo.

The American presence in Dalat during the sixties and seventies did not leave any lasting imprint that I could detect. Under the bizarrely titled "Atoms for Peace" program, however, the US government bestowed upon Dalat its very own nuclear reactor, which is still ticking away today at a research center, but such a hot item, obviously, remains hidden from the public view. Aside from the occasional ex-US Army troop truck or jeep now soldiering on in civilian life, and the tail section of a destroyed helicopter propped up in the front garden of a home on Phu Dong Thien Vuong Street, the Americans left no visible reminders of their time in Vietnam. That honor goes to the French.

"Next we go to the Crazy House," said Thiet.

I somewhat trepiditiously envisioned a visit to the local lunatic asylum, but instead we pulled up at "Hang Nga's Guesthouse and Art Garden" (see the Nov./Dec. 1995 issue of Destination: Vietnam). Created by Ms. Dang Viet Nga, an architect from the north, the "Crazy House" has a design all its own that lies somewhere between Disneyland and the home of Frodo Baggins. It features a minizoo with monkeys and songbirds, a garden bar where the menu offers to "quench one's thirsty," and a giant sculptured giraffe with windows that Vietnamese tourists posed in for vacation photos. The entrance fee came to 3,000 dong, but in a typical example of Dalat's laid-back attitude, nobody bothered to collect it.

Avoiding entrance fees remained a hallmark of Thiet's tour. We went to the Truc Cam ("Bamboo Forest") Meditation Center next via rust-red forest backroads. Thiet dropped me at the open back gate and I wandered up to the temple without paying the 10,000 dong entrance fee. Crowds of Vietnamese tourists in their Sunday best worshipped in the temple and took yet more photos, while gardening monks puttered about in brown robes and conical non hats, Shindaiwa weedwhackers in hand. This monastery remains one of the most famous in Vietnam and is headed by an equally famous monk named Thich Thanh Tu, who oversees a contingent of well over one hundred monks.

Thiet and I headed down out of Dalat on Highway 20. Never a man to waste gasoline, Thiet shut the engine off and we coasted along in pleasant, cedar-scented silence. I could tell this wasn't just to conserve petrol, however. Thiet clearly liked to sail along in peaceful quiet. Above us rose 4000-foot evergreen hills and below stretched fertile valleys planted with rice, coffee and bananas. We glided along for kilometers in the company of other freewheeling motorbikes, the silence only broken by buses straining up the incline and cargo trucks careening downward, leaving us to eat their exhaust.

When the land flattened out Thiet kicked his green MZ motorcycle into life. His East German machine might have been seven years old, pushing an unknown but certainly massive number of kilometers and missing all of its dials and gauges, but it always started. In that sense it reminded me very much of the rattling but reliable Russian washing machine my wife and I had owned when we lived in Poland.

Above all else I appreciated Thiet's sane and patient driving style. Riding without helmets or leathers, an accident on Dalat's mountain roads would have been disastrous at best. At worst we would have ascended to heaven and nirvana, respectively. I'm a nervous passenger and have endured a series of crashes that involved an overturned car, the sight of a woman dying inside a mangled bus and a young boy blasted off his bicycle by a speeding cab driver. I'd told all this to Thiet before we started off; he had chuckled and said that he drove in a manner that reflected his age. He shook his head whenever a teenaged boy ripped past us on a motorbike; content to maintain his own civilized pace.

With a gentle squeal of squeaky brakes, we left the main road and motored down a rough track to the village of Darahoa. The community rested on a slight rise in a broad mountain valley; coffee, banana and jackfruit trees cloaked the village itself and over this island of green towered a giant concrete rooster. The scene resembled a freeze-frame from a monster movie in which a giant rampaging chicken pecks an innocent village to death. And who would be the film's hero, I wondered? Colonel Sanders? Frank Purdue?

In the shadow of this colossal concrete cock, Thiet explained that the villagers came from the Chill tribe and had been resettled from the highlands. In an attempt to cement them to their new surroundings, the government built the statue of the rooster with spurs. The fighting cock remains the most important animal to the Chill people. The elephant and horse rank second and third, although apparently they do not rate a statue.

Thiet spoke a bit of the local lingo and seemed to know everyone in Darahoa. He wandered about greeting villagers with a cheery "nim saw," then respectfully asked permission to enter their smoky homes of plankwood and thatch. Whether indifferently or cheerfully, permission was always granted and Thiet showed me the dark, soot-stained interiors with dirt floors and smoldering cook fires. I tried to imagine my reaction if a tour guide were to appear at my door in New York with a Vietnamese tourist and ask if he could show the foreigner around and have him take a few pictures. I doubted I would be so welcoming.

In one hut an old man puffed on a bamboo pipe and worked on the intricately woven rattan baskets that the Chill people use as backpacks. He could make two a week, he said, and sell them in the market for 60-80,000 dong ($5-7). Another hut belonged to a widow with three children and had been built by the other villagers for her; a third home held a troop of wild boar trappers who had a collection of toothy pig jaws dangling from their smoke-blackened ceiling. In addition to pig hunting, the Chill grow coffee, corn, beans, avocado, jackfruit, rice and bananas, raise pigs and chickens and weave silk items for tourists.

On the edge of the village stood a mustard-colored house that served as a tiny temple and monastery. Sheets of aluminum covered holes punched by M-79 grenade launchers more than two decades ago and smaller bullet holes peppered the stucco building like acne. A cheerful nun headed this battered Buddhist sanctuary, that subsisted by making incense sticks. Her young apprentice demonstrated the process of making the sticks with a paste of cloves, sawdust and water. He laid these on racks to dry in the sun and would later collect them into 3,000-dong bundles.

Thiet took me into silk-growing territory next. He showed me the entire process. He showed me the boxes of silkworms munching their way across a bed of mulberry leaves (picture yourself laying on a bed of the one food item you absolutely cannot resist and you get the idea), and the leafless fields of harvested mulberry bush. He showed me the racks of worms, energized by a belly full of mulberry leaves, busily spinning cocoons. He showed me the machines that boil the cocoons (Thiet told me that the boiled worms are actually quite tasty and a good source of protein) and unravel their silk threads. I can't say that I fully understood the whole process. Suffice to say that I find it mind-boggling that a basketful of copulating moths can somehow end up as a pair of fine silk pajamas. I mean, just how does a wriggly worm manage to produce 800-1000 meters of silk when it's at best two inches long? I can't figure it out.

After the silkworms, we motored down narrow dirt trails lined with coffee trees, hit Highway 20 and headed for Lien Khwong waterfall. Getting down to the falls involved a scramble down muddy jungle trails and cliffs equipped with rickety ladders. Then we had to billygoat our way across the rocks to the falls themselves, which required a number of tricky moves and a balancing act across a jury-rigged plank bridge. All in all it was hot, dirty work and not for the faint-hearted. The minivan loads of Vietnamese tourists were having none of it. They posed for perfunctory photos at the lookout point high above us and then got back into their buses without so much as a backward glance.

Thiet found his favorite spot by the falls and took a seat with a contented sigh. We had the cascades to ourselves, and Thiet, an environmentalist at heart, seemed pleased to just sit there and watch the water crash through the gorge. I told him about my life and he told me about his. He's married with a son and daughter, both of whom were learning English. He'd been a monk and later a soldier; he'd made a living as a vegetable farmer and a logger, though he'd since put those manual labor days behind him, as symbolized by his inch-long pinkie nails. Of all his jobs, he liked being a tour guide best. And why not? The average Vietnamese earns $250 a year. Thiet did not have to do many $8 tours before he started doing very well for himself.

We motored uphill toward Dalat to Prenn Falls, a location wildly popular with vacationing Vietnamese. In contrast to the wild grandeur of the Lien Khwong cascades, the more modest Prenn Falls had been manicured and landscaped as a theme park. The place boasted treehuts, rope bridges, thatched gazebos, a misty walk behind the falls, a minizoo, an art gallery, a cafe and a restaurant-in short, a Vietnamese amusement park. Everywhere newlyweds posed for honeymoon photos. Fittingly, perhaps, I had to pay my only entrance fee of the day: 10,000 dong. Even crafty Thiet couldn't figure out a way to avoid it.

At day's end Thiet returned me to my hotel and I added another glowing testimonial to his little black book. I took a bunch of Thiet's business cards and passed them out to southbound travelers as I journeyed north to Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hue. I was a satisfied customer and I guaranteed that anybody else taking a tour with Thiet would be one too. If you go to Dalat and want to do a motorcycle tour, I recommend Thiet. Just ask for him at your hotel and he'll soon find you. In no time you'll see a short, grinning fellow coming your way on a battered green motorcycle.