Dalat, as Seen via Human Beings

Dalat Roadside

(Including this, which was one of my favorite shots in the city, for some reason)

I spent a couple of nights up in Dalat (returning a couple days ago to Saigon, where I am now) and really enjoyed it. The two nights might not have been enough for the average traveler, as there are countless activities and restaurants and cafes (oh, the cafes! My god!) to explore, but for me it was just enough. I stayed at ZEN Cafe, located about 1.5km from the city center, a small French villa built 70 years ago featuring hardwood floors and exquisite gardens. The German and Vietnamese-owned inn/hotel/thing kept me satisfied and rested throughout my entire stay. I loved it. The peace and quiet. The laid-back pace of life. The entire thing was a perfect experience for traveling alone.

So what did I do when in Dalat? I did a lot, actually. I explored the town. I followed up on recommendations and TA-highly-rated establishments. I walked around. A lot. My feet actually hurt for the first time since I can remember from general walking! That’s not a bad problem, by the way. I also took one of those Easy Rider tours (who knows how official this one was; I was approached at the bus station and Peter (Binh) gave me a ride to the guest house and then took me out for coffee and the next day we had a great customized tour together). I think the impetus to choose one of these tours to fill half a day in Dalat was important: I needed to get into the countryside, get on the road, and I wanted to take pictures of it all.

Unfortunately I don’t have enough free time to edit the lighting on these pictures, and as the days I was in Dalat (except for the last couple of hours there) were all overcast, the pictures might not look “beautiful,” but I’ve tried to include some below that focus on the risks I took in taking pictures of people. I find it hard to take pictures of people in Southeast Asia. It’s a stereotypical approach, one that many professional and art photographers take when they visit “developing countries” in general: capture the spirit of the place via portraits. But I’ve always been incredibly nervous of taking pictures of people. It’s not that I’ve ever been yelled at or frowned at for taking pictures of faces and bodies, but it feels slightly exploitative. I suppose it will get easier as I keep doing it, and I will always feel like I am exploiting just a bit, but perhaps the cost is worth it? More on that later, hopefully. Now, for the pictures!


Early morning. A girl stands and waits for this store to open.


Workers construct a new road.


A man carries goods to where? A market? A store?


Hand-carving the patterns of the sidewalk.


Path construction and repairs on the Lake of Sighs.


Sighing, perhaps? At the Lake of Sighs.


A lone fisherman. I did not see anyone fishing catch anything.


A man’s daughter practices her moto posing skills.


A tourist walks, head down, through the Dalat market.


More deliveries along the main road through Dalat.


The pensive stare back.


This man cooked a mean pork BBQ for breakfast.


While eating my pork BBQ for breakfast, the pork for tomorrow’s breakfast was dropped off.


Taking a break to make a call.


Working at a flower garden.


Chiseling the granite.


More plantation work.


A roadside Vietnamese wedding.


Immediately after I took this, the girl smiled and waved at me.


At the silkworm plantation.


It actually wasn’t that hot inside this silk factory.


The man behind me bringing in a load of silkworm cocoons.


Moto mirror selfie.


Produce delivery.


This machine takes the skin off coffee beans.


Coffee! For everyone!


The best Spongebob clothing I’ve ever seen.


Self portrait in Crazy House


A balloon vendor


Blistered and Cut-Up Feet and the New Hydration (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)


Ho Chi Minh City. The name has a pulse and brings to mind the an urban landscape with its own unique rhythm. The last time I was here in 2013, I didn’t know what to think, was fairly overwhelmed, and though not disappointed, I did find myself wanting more. Now I have returned, the first major international city to reunite with, and I am alone.

I spent the day doing things (and purposely not doing other things) to give me a taste of Saigon I had not encountered before. For one, I followed Jason Conger’s traveling lead by pacing myself. I have provide my trip with significant space to chill out, rest, relax, and not spend the time seeking out activities. So far, so good. I have managed to cover a lot of ground without being stressed about “seeing everything.” Again, it helps that I have been here once before.

My day trip had one destination: be at the British consulate by noon to meet Dede for lunch. Dede is my good friend from the old days in Cambodia. We met randomly nearly three times before we realized we worked near each other. Then we started hanging out. She’s from Ho Chi Minh City but has extensive travel experience. She’s also the only person in HCMC that I have stayed in touch with, and I had to catch up over some food.

I started the day walking away from my tiny guest house in the backpacker area (Bui Vien) and grabbed a coffee and a mini banh mi from Highlands Coffee. With the help of my GPS on my phone (even without a data plan, GPS works well here), I was able to find my way walking north/northeast. I cut through Công viên 23 tháng 9 and got up to the park located near the Reunification Palace, Tao Dan Park. It was still early enough to witness some great martial arts and aerobic exercise activity going on. I didn’t linger, but walked around at a steady pace, admiring people milling about in the relatively cool morning, and the magnificent power of nature Vietnam’s managed to sustain in such a bustling metro:


From the main park, I walked around the Palace (I didn’t really feel like going in, so I skipped it–another reason to come back, I suppose!) and kept going toward Công viên 30-4. It was around here I was approached by a shoe shining guy, a young man who spoke pretty good English. He really wanted to clean my shoes for a dollar, and I remember the desperation of some people in tourist areas throughout the region. I really did not want my shoes cleaned–mostly because they aren’t shoes, but Chaco sandals that can’t be shined. So I kept saying no, as you do, and went on my way.

Cutting up Phạm Ngọc Thạch, I encountered a lovely pool. It was a big pool. A strangely designed pool. An empty pool. There were school children walking around everywhere. A lot of recent graduates in their robes. People were getting photos taken. I took photos and walked on, smiling at random people, not really talking much. I looked up how to say “hello” in Vietnamese. I looked up “thank you” as well. I practiced even if silently mouthing was the most I could get out of me. The tonal qualities make it a bit awkward to get the subtleties down right without outright shouting the words, which is obviously awkward for me.


Trekking on, I continued and reached Công viên Lê Văn Tám, or Van Tam Park, which Dede would later tell me had nothing in it. I found some things: a beautiful white sculpture. A family playing badminton. Respite within the shade. These things were good to know, good to see. I’m glad I had had a chance to check it out, as most tourists probably won’t ever find it.


I was ultimately heading toward what is known as the Jade Pagoda. I kept focused on thinking about how I could take pictures and look at the “world of Vietnam” through a lens that was different than the first. I suppose the awe and crazed differences that are so distracting when you first encounter Asia die down a little bit with subsequent returns. They don’t disappear entirely, but they do dim a little. I used the opportunity to take risks in taking photos of more people up close, slow down and take videos of the traffic and the landscape, and analyze architecture, advertising, and daily life. Vietnam really is a fascinating place. It doesn’t have the elegance of scale that Bangkok has (the tall buildings are few and far between, as opposed to the prominent NYC-esque skyline of the latter), but it is sprawling, and ripe with life.

The Jade Pagoda was slightly disappointing. I had heard it was amazing from various TA reviews, and I put a lot of faith into that. Perhaps with a guide I would have found the experience more enjoyable, but alas, I did not have a guide, and I found the temple small and lacking in mind-boggling uniqueness. Well, almost lacking. The temple has what appears to be a gazillion turtles in one of its pools:


The smell of incense left behind, and my feet significantly blistered at this point, I realized that roughly an hour of walking had led to my need to rehydrate. They say, the anonymous they, that one traveling in a very hot and humid environment should avoid heatstroke by not over-consuming liquids. I think most balance that out by drinking lots of beer, which hydrates and dehydrates at the same time. Choosing not to drink in Vietnam, I instead chose to actually drink water but only once in a while. While my body wasn’t (and isn’t, as of this writing) ready to embrace Southeast Asia’s climate just yet, it has been logical in its intake of water.

I ended up stopping by this very small shop that advertised fresh honey juice (whatever that means) with pictures of what appeared to be oranges on large signs. I went inside and asked for orange juice and the reply was, as expected, in the negative. They didn’t understand my language. I didn’t know their language. I pointed at a random item on the menu, which looked like a green tea latte, and awaited my beverage. What was returned was a sickly sweet and medicine-like chalky iced drink that tastes like a combination of generic chemicals and something very vegetable, backed by lots and lots of sugar. At first I choked it down, but then, as it got diluted by the ice, it became very tolerable.

I would later ask Dede what it was I consumed, but she had no clue. Apparently there are just as many types of drinks in Vietnam as one thinks there are. Maybe you, dear reader, has an idea?


It was around this time I had to make a decision: walk around aimlessly through endless waves of traffic for another hour before getting lunch with Dede, or visit the zoo and botanical gardens. I stopped in a temple/museum adjacent to the zoo and looked at the zoo’s price: 50,000 dong, or $2.5. I wasn’t going to be losing much if I went in. I went in. The first thing I noticed was a panda. I took a selfie and sent that off to Natasha later on in the day.

Then I visited the bonsai garden, which was absolutely fantastic, but unfortunately lacking in its signage. If only they had put proper signs up to describe what are now the best bonsai trees I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few, actually). I would have loved to know the specific names of these bonsais, as well as the names of their growers. Is that the word for a caretaker of a bonsai?


Other highlights of the children-packed zoo and gardens? Elephants, a white tiger, orangutan (these scared me as much as I though they would, having read the horror stories about people getting mauled by them in the jungle; the ones in this cage looked like they could absolutely obliterate a human being at any point in time), scarlet ibises, and lemurs. The zoo had a significant lack of barriers which surprised me. Obviously it made sense to keep the exhibits open-air, since most of the species were most likely more accustomed to the humid air anyway, but knowing that Asiatic black bear, or that giraffe, was on the other side of a 1-meter-wide moat-like gap kept me a little startled. So different from USA.

Stumbling around had built my appetite. I walked to the destination of Dede’s work place and after a joyful reuniting, we both walked on to Pho 24, a chain that I remember enjoying multiple times in Cambodia. There’s a subtlety about pho that I haven’t quite been able to decipher yet. Dede swore that the pho at Pho 24 in Vietnam is better than Cambodia, but I honestly couldn’t tell he difference. It all tasted heavenly to me. After an hour of talking and catching up, I walked Dede back to her work and then ventured forward. I walked down the fancy Dong Khoi Street, “famous” for its shopping (at least on TA). I took a dip into the Vincom shopping center and, as I suspected, there wasn’t anything there for me. It appears that even the idea of the “shopping mall” in Asia has lost its exotic appeal. I wonder what else on this trip will be uninteresting.


Dong Khoi ends at the river front, and there is a park there, but you have to play Frogger and nearly be destroyed just to see it. Unfortunately there’s nothing much to see. The charm of the Mekong from Phnom Penh is not recaptured here. Tankers float by, and the water is flowing nicely, but everything about the Saigon River lacks charm. I could foresee a Saigon in the future that has created an amazing waterfront, but who knows if that will ever happen. Dodging sketchy offers for boat rides, I got myself over to the walking street (Nguyễn Huệ) and that’s when the dark storm came. Rainy season, finally!

Jumping from awning to awning, I slowly made my way back toward the guest house. I stopped in a couple of book stores (including one that I had been in with Jason two years ago). Everything about the experience was wonderful, though hot and wet, of course. I managed to take this selfie while waiting for the rain to stop:


It was pretty easy to take compelling videos of traffic in the rain, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to post some of that footage in a later post. For now, just imagine a lot of poncho-laden individuals and resulting puddles.

After all was said and done, I stopped and bought a strawberry cream crepe and a Vietnamese coffee at a Tous Les Jours, and went back to the hotel. I spent time emailing and passed out for about an hour before Dede arrived to pick me up. We ended up going to this fantastic place called The Secret Garden, where we enjoyed a lot of authentic Vietnamese food. We were joined by Dede’s boyfriend, Patrick (Padraig–he’s Swedish), and we talked about all manner of things movies, works, and even priviledge and the death of black people in America. All in all, it was a great time hanging out.


After dinner, Dede took me for a little night cruise around town and helped me get my ticket to Dalat. It was very soon after my return to my room that I passed out. Today I woke up early. I am going to stop and get some noodles for breakfast, and coffee, before it’s time to catch that bus.

Touching Down in Deep Humidity (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

street life bun vien ho chi minh city

After nearly 24 hours of continuous travel, I have reached Vietnam. The travels could not have been derailed any more than they were. My original itinerary: Seattle to San Francisco to Hong Kong to Saigon. My first flight was canceled due to mechanical issues (apparently it was the same plane that was canceled a day earlier, and apparently it was much to my benefit that I got to the airport so early so as to get rescheduled to the next plane). On board the next plan to SF, I would still make the connection to Hong Kong (but by a hair). I explained my situation to the United employee at the main desk, who bumped by seat up to an upgrade (not First Class, but approximately 15 rows closer to the front) so I’d get off the plane earlier and have a better chance at making that flight. All was lost, however, when the delayed plane, presumably the same exact aircraft that had the earlier canceled flight, was approximately 1.5 hours late in taking off. It was around 1 hour delayed when I woke up from the nap in my upgraded seat and the captain announced people could get off the plane to get food, or rebook. I decided to “deplane” and then get rebooked. This was a wise decision on my part: I talked with the amazing desk person, Mika, who got me the original upgrade, and after about fifteen minutes of her artistically figuring it out, I managed to get a transfer over to Asiana (the Korean airline) that would put me through Seoul/Incheon and then to Saigon. Glorious! And the cherry on top of the cake: I would get to Saigon 1.5 hours ahead of the previous route. When I got to the desk at the South Satellite terminal of SeaTac, the Asiana desk person, who was just as sweet and helpful as Mika, got me aisle seats for both planes. On top of all these delays? A couple meal vouchers that kept me running and in high hopes via coffee and baked goods.

Having been on Asiana, I was not surprised by the amazing quality of the entire flight experience. In fact, I enjoyed it so much this time around not via surprise but via contrast to a recent trip on Delta to NY. Though Delta is trying to pick up the slack of USA airlines with new technology and “experience”-based flying, they still fall short. Asiana’s seats are some of the most spacious. Their food is fantastic and free whiskey is actually a little more valuable than one thinks when the day is filled with stressful flying. All the free movies, music, and games built in to each of the seats is amazing as well. It’s hard to describe the “Asian” experience of Asiana, but I will say it’s similar to being on an Air Asia flight, and a China Air flight. Anyway, long story short: if you’re American and haven’t traveled East, then you haven’t traveled. You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s kind of existentially break-through.

I only had about fifteen minutes between getting off in South Korea and getting on the plane to Saigon, but I will comment that the entire process was smooth and enjoyable. Maybe because I’ve done it before? On the previous plane I watched such mediocre hollywood hits as Jupiter Rising, Monster University, and Seventh Son. I fell asleep to Exodus: Gods and Kings. I read bits and pieces of Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual which is delightful and makes great travel reading. It’s one of six books I brought on this trip. I listened to Billie Holiday. There was, needless to say, a lot of sleeping.

Getting through security, passport control, and customs at the airport in Saigon was also very easy, and I think it was so enjoyable because I didn’t have to wait in any huge lines. I do remember all of my previous times in Vietnam being counterpointed with Jason. This time around, I had myself to keep myself company. Me alone with my thoughts. The taxi ride was familiar but silent. Inevitably we got to Bizu Hotel District 1, located right in the heart of the backpacking district, the same general location Jason and I stayed in when we came here 2 years ago. Nothing has changed, though the young Vietnamese kids hanging out drinking and partying look even younger than I remember. I picked up some smokes and some water, and in the course of doing a short walk to stretch my legs, lasting 15 minutes, the familiar shouts and calls for massages, marijuana, moto drivers, and beer specials washed over me in numbness. It’s my goal to not do any drinking while in Vietnam. We’ll see if I can hold true to that desire. I look forward to taking it easy and having a slow pace that meets with the humidity and the long, frantic trails of the tiniest ants in all the world.

Tomorrow I’ll be going out with my real camera, taking pictures of parks, pagodas, and other sights that I missed the first time around. I’ll also be meeting my dear friend Dede, who I regularly spent time when we both worked in Cambodia last year. Hopefully I’ll still enjoy the coffee with condensed (sweet) milk, the baguettes, and the noodles all on the horizon. Hopefully I’ll continue to stay active and engaged with my friends in the USA via G-chat, Facebook, and Whatsapp. Vietnam, though blocking Twitter, offers free international texting via T-Mobile. It’s these small amenities I didn’t have the first time visited that are truly making this experience different in subtle though alarming ways.

Videos: Nha Trang, Vietnam

Nha Trang, Vietnam: Vinpearl Gondola Wheel

Nha Trang, Vietnam: Vinpearl Gondola

Nha Trang, Vietnam: Vinpearl Water Show 1

Nha Trang, Vietnam: Vinpearl Water Show 2

Nha Trang, Vietnam: Vinpearl Dead Concert

Nha Trang, Vietnam: Vinpearl Swing Ride

Nha Trang, Vietnam: Vinpearl and the Bull and Jason Conger

Nha Trang, Vietnam: Vinpearl Scream Arcade Game

Nha Trang, Vietnam: Vinpearl Alpine Ascent

Nha Trang, Vietnam: Vinpearl Carousel