The bus driver in Hoi An politely explained that the air-conditioning had
“just broken” and that they hadn’t had time to fix it. This sounded like a pious lie to me: I couldn’t see how something that didn’t appear to have been installed in the first place could have broken.
The announcement about the air conditioning caused four British backpackers to get off, but their places were taken immediately by new arrivals. I stayed in my seat, my knees crushed against the back of the seat in front, and cooked and fidgeted for thirteen hours. The conditions were not conducive to sleep – the ‘headrest’ was level with the nape of my neck, the legroom less than non-existent – but sometimes I dozed off for a little while from time to time through sheer exhaustion. At Nha Trang, a dapper little man with a single, deformed hand got on the bus and apologized again. The bus, he said, should have been a much larger bus with fully-reclining seats. I suspected that his larger bus existed only in the same fantasy continuum as the air-conditioning, some space of imaginary potentialities known only to the creative minds behind the ‘open tour’ system. The ‘open tour’ buses, which cater primarily to tourists, are reliably reported to be at least an order of magnitude more comfortable, safer and more reliable than ordinary Vietnamese long-haul public buses. It’s something that doesn’t bear too much thinking about.
We reached Nha Trang about 7:30am and I sat in the company office for an hour, watching an Italian couple argue about their breakfast with the pregnant receptionist while a jovial and extremely drunk German youth tripped over his own luggage and lay sprawled on the cafe floor. He said he’d just arrived on the back of a motorcycle taxi and I didn’t want to think about that either.
I got a jump seat at the back of a smaller bus for the seven-hour ride to Da Lat, sandwiched between a friendly Vietnamese boy from Long Beach, CA and his pretty new bride, and a silent European of unknown origin. We also had a monk and two elderly gay German men, plus the usual collection of undifferentiated backpackers and a scattering of Vietnamese.
Somewhere after the turn-off onto Highway 20 I managed to sleep again, my head propped on the piled luggage in the rear. I don’t think I slept very long, but when I woke, the scenery had changed dramatically. The bus was now climbing up a narrow and much-patched asphalt road that ascended into the hills. The closest hills looked scarred and battered, naked rock jutting from bare red earth and coarse scrub; further away, they were still thickly furred with lush green vegetation. The Central Highlands were among the leading recipients of the defoliant agents Blue, White and Orange during the American War, so it seemed quite possible that some of the deforestation I was seeing was chemical in origin.
The road became steeper – but also, paradoxically, better – and we started a long series of climbing turns through sub-tropical forest that gradually gave way to pines. From time to time, gaps in the trees revealed a vista of forested hills and distant mountains, alternately dark-patched by cloud shadows and gilded by sunlight.
Da Lat greeted us with an instantaneous deluge that filled the streets with a fast-flowing river of yellow water. We sat in the bus with the rain drumming on the roof while the woman from the bus company tried to persuade everyone to stay at their preferred hotel - the ‘open tour’ system runs on commissions and kickbacks, a business model that appears more efficient at generating resentment and ill-feeling on both sides than actual sales.
I liked Da Lat almost at once. It is hardly a beautiful town – labels like “Le Petit Paris” notwithstanding – and I cannot say if it is prosperous, but it is certainly bustling, with a constant river of motorbikes filling the streets. The mild climate of the mountains seems atrociously cold to the Vietnamese, who go about bundled up in jackets and sweaters. It feels like a real city, with its own affairs and concerns, a refreshing change after pretty Hoi An with its historic center parasitized by an unbroken succession of boutiques, its own not-uninteresting history all but submerged by a tide of tourists. In Da Lat, the tourists are present but not overwhelming and the inhabitants seem more intent on getting on with their own business. There’s a lot less of the
“hello, motorcycle?” bullshit that plagues you everywhere else.
The first solicitation of that kind that I had actually came from the Da Lat Cowboys, a knot of hard-bitten-looking little middle-aged men who loiter with their motorcycles outside the tourist hotels. They are on their way to acquiring a legendary status of their own, their word-of-mouth reputation as motorcycle guides enhanced by their personal histories: reportedly, many were once more-or-less prominent figures stripped of everything when the Communists took power in 1975, including several university professors and an ARVN colonel. Their English is excellent and the admiration they enjoy in the guiding business seems to be well-deserved.
The climate in Da Lat is described optimistically as ‘eternal spring’; the phrase fails to give any hint as to the changeability and intensity of the weather. Today I hiked up Long Bian mountain (a narrow winding path through the cloudforest, slippery with yellow clay and wet tree roots) and watched dense fog give way in what seemed like moments to bright sunlight, followed with almost equal swiftness by a tremendous hailstorm that surged across the valley in the shape of a fast-moving raincloud tasselled with writhing threads of white mist. White cumulo-nimbus clouds jostle for space over the mountains.
In the late afternoon, I walked out around Xuan Huong Lake in the center of town, watching the reflections of the thunderclouds in the still water. To the south of the lake, hundreds of brilliantly-colored kites danced against the bruised black clouds of another incoming thunderstorm, borne up on the brisk mountain winds blowing down from the direction of Lang Bian.