Tuesday, August 21, 2007

If you come from Dalat, are you “Dalatian”?

I felt a bit like Duncan MacLeod from Highlander as we descended to Lien Khang Airport, minus Queen’s epic “Princes of the Universe”, Christopher Lambert’s cheesy haircut and killer sword (so I guess I felt very little like Duncan MacLeod in fact). The only thing in common was actually the aspect of “highlands”, the term with which one could describe Dalat’s surroundings.

View of the countryside

See, Sarah and I flew up to Dalat in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region, about 300 km from HCM City (and only 45 minutes by plane), to celebrate her birthday last weekend. The first thing we noticed was the cool weather, a distinct difference from the sweltering humidity of Saigon. Even while cruising mountain passes in search of the next waterfall, the temperature was never uncomfortably cold – just nippy enough to put a spring in your step.

Sarah at the Datanla Falls about 7 km outside Dalat

The second thing you notice is the change of scenery. It’s green, as in Jolly Green Giant green, everywhere. As you take the 25 km journey from the airport to the city, or should I say town as its population is less than 200 000, the scenery changes from rural, ramshackle abodes with pale green, checkered patches of various vegetables in the yard (you know the kind – with the scrawny chickens scratching in the dust), to imposing and fragrant dark green pine forests bold enough to impose themselves right up to the edge of the windy road as you ascend up to Dalat.

A view of the city from the cable car building

The town itself felt like a Vietnamese version of a Mediterranean coastal town, with the same cliff-built houses and coffee-shops, with locals lazing around on street corners and sporting the same narrow, winding road effect. Dalat's also the home of the beret-wearing, goatee-sporting "bohemian" types. We never did forget where we are though, as the omnipresent, neon-lit “Eiffel Tower” made us feel right at home.

View of the town square with Cho Dalat (Dalat Market on the left)

That damn "Eiffel Tower" is like a "Where's Waldo?" - it pops up everywhere!

The communications tower wasn’t the only Vietnamese kitch, which we’ve all grown to love, on offer: You can rent swan-shaped paddle boats for a spin on the lake, there are neon-lit clubs and coffee-shops, including the Ngoc Lan Eyesore Hotel which mysteriously dominates in the background of all photos, no matter which angle you take them from! Horse-and-carriage rides around the lake, walks in the wilting flower garden (maybe it was just the wrong season), jostling and elbowing other tourists for a spot to pose in front of one of the numerous waterfalls dotting the region – or even taking the “coasterbob” rollercoaster down the hill to the Datanla Falls. You name it, Dalat’s got it in abundance, except we didn’t see any pink, ceramic flamingoes…

A view from a swan

I'm not ashamed to say I loved it immensely, kitsch and all, and not just cause I got to spend it with my kickass girlfriend. The people are damn hospitable. Check out the Dreams Hotel on Pham Dinh Phung Street to see what I mean. The owner, Mrs Dung, has received rave reviews and they’re all justified. The rooms aren’t much to look at, but the accommodating and forthcoming nature of the staff (as well as the killer breakfast with Marmite and Vegemite – a rarity in Vietnam) more than made up for it.

At the Tiger Falls

The people, the weather, the beautiful scenery, (and all the other little weird things like the ghost restaurant we ate at on the Sunday) added up to a pretty damn good weekend and I think Sarah loved her birthday as much as I did.

The cable car that takes you over a 2.3 km expanse of green foliage to a reservoir and Buddhist monastry

A view of Xuan Huong Lake by night

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The junglist massive

Some pics from Jungle Beach

Thursday, August 02, 2007

A new beginning, part 2: Old news

Troi Oi, Mr President!
25 May 2007

HCM CITY, VIETNAM – President of South Africa, Mr Thabo Mbeki, made a brief and disappointing visit to the southern city on Friday to speak at a business forum of expatriate South Africans and Vietnamese business delegates regarding improved trade between the two former-colonial nations.

Held at the Caravelle Hotel, the business delegation from South Africa consisted of a number of bored government officials, including the always-eloquent Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Deputy Minister of the Department of Trade and Industry Rob Davies and Minister of Education Naledi Pandor. A number of CEOs and directors from big South African companies, such as SAB Miller, Absa and Standard Bank, were also present.

Following an enthusiastic welcoming speech by the vice-chairman of the HCMC People’s Committee, Mr Nguyen Trung Tin, Davies led an informative presentation regarding South Africa’s increased trade role in Vietnam. Davies concluded that SA could supply mining technology, pharmaceuticals and chemical and agricultural products to Vietnam and that South Africa did not need the country's cheap labour because “we have our own, thank you” (okay, I made up that last part - journalistic freedom). In 2006, exports to the socialist republic were only $48 million – SA’s 68th biggest trade partner compared with Japan at $6000 million – and imports only $100 million.

The audience, which included two South African expatriates currently residing in the city and working in the education sector, waited anxiously for the promised speech by the president. The business forum was clearly treated as a stopover lacking in diplomatic clout, after official meetings in the capital Hanoi earlier the week, however, and it was evident that the president had no intention of preparing a speech of omniscient proportions for the event, much to the disappointment of the Vietnamese (and the expatriate) businesspeople present. In fact, he had no plan to prepare a speech at all and instead President Mbeki said he would just answer questions, of which most were from his own delegation.

The lack of communication, cooperation and clear goals between the two countries’ business sectors baffled Mbeki, who said “We have to look at the weakness of our organised business structures.” He was clearly surprised by his own delegation member, Mr Rob Davies’, statistics regarding trade between the two developing countries.

Perhaps the most emphatic point Mbeki made was concerning a question set by a Mr Lai Huu Phuong, of Ben Thanh Tourist, inquiring whether any South African tourism company had any plans to invest in Vietnam. Mbeki replied that one has to look at the [lack of cooperation in the tourism industry] from “a holistic point of view”.

“I have my doubts whether South African Airlines have any plans to fly to Vietnam,” he said.

Cam on, Mr President, xin cam on.