Monday, May 3, 2010
VIETNAM: FROM DICTATORS TO DALAT
So last post I said we'd be in Dalat today, the Niagara Falls of Vietnam -- minus the falls. But I thought I'd be remiss if I didn't show you ANY public buildings in Saigon. (Or Ho Chi Minh City as they say in the North, or if they work for the Vietnamese government.) So okay. This is the entrance to Vietnam's answer to Disneyworld. We didn't go inside, but I thought the dragon might catch your attention.
Below is the building everyone my age remembers -- Reunification Palace, known as the Presidential Palace during the American War In Vietnam. In Vietnam, you have to specify WHICH war, because the Vietnamese were ruled by the Chinese for a full millennium, then battled the Japanese, the Khmer, several doses of the French, then Uncle Sam, and more crap from Pol Pot and China. Which explains why in Vietnam most everything old and man-made that's worth looking at got blown up, or if it was a statue got its head chopped off -- which is kind of disconcerting coming from a civilization that was flourishing at a time when most of us WASPs were still running around in kilts, living in caves on some godforsaken bog and eating haggis.
And this is the view from upstairs -- what you'd see if you were the puppet despot General Thieu finishing your morning pho and wondering what fresh disasters were in store for the day. (Like the day one of his helicopter pilots bombed the palace and split to Cambodia; apparently the guy's now the head of Vietnamese Airlines.)
I won't bore you with the official rooms which all look more or less as stiff and uncomfortable the one below.
As in Argentina, Daniel and I traveled solo or with just us, a driver and guide. It saves being stuck on a bus for weeks with a group of forty souvenir hunters who can't wait to stop at the next rug and pottery outlet. Or having to wait till EVERYONE has had their time in the Happy Room -- which is what toilets are called here.
Our guide throughout the southern part of our trip was totally unlike the fantastic Pablo Sancho Perez in Argentina. (see posts in January/February.) I mean he was so totally useless I can't even be bothered to think up a good simile to describe his incompetence. Basically, he spent his whole time texting and talking on his cell, like we were a major drag on his way to a party. So I spent my time at the palace imagining what might be going through the mind of a nineteen-sixties/seventies despot.
Hmmm, I thought. If I was stuck wearing a bunch of heavy braid and military medals, and a hat three times the size of my head, what would I want on the buffet in my office? Why, a dead animal, of course. And sure enough --
And what self-respecting dictator in the sixties would be caught dead without a conversation nook?
And a little art.
If youth is wasted on the young, power is wasted on the powerful. I mean, honestly, the taste of tyrants is almost universally banal: see Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Attila the Hun. The powerful. That's who I blame those Renaissance cherubs on -- powerful popes and cardinals. I picture Michaelangelo focused on God touching Adam's finger, and il Papa bursting into the Sistine chapel to say, "Ciao y buen giorno. You don't suppose you could put a couple of chubby-legged cherubs in the corner, do you? It would mean so much to the priests."
Anyway, to prove the point about banal, lets head to General Thieu's bedroom. Not to be a snob, but check out the books by his night table.
Yup. Airport and Topaz. Oh sure, there's two volumes of Henry James, too -- but that was just to get to sleep.
So anyway, now we're off to Dalat. Note the lotus bauble on the driver's dashboard. and the suburban sprawl that cuts the view of the countryside from the road.
At last, however, we start passing rubber plantations, which as far as I can see is about the only lasting legacy of the French colonists. Our guide had no intention of stopping -- and we were his only tourists -- so we staged a revolt and said we had to do our Happy Business and it could either be behind a tree or in the back seat, his choice.
Anyway, here's Daniel amongst the rubber trees.
And here I am by a pan where the rubber sap's being drained. It's a bit like what happens when they make maple syrup, only don't put it on your pancakes.
Okay, next post we're in Dalat, a place I really liked.