y aunt shows me a photograph in a popular Da Lat travel book called “Old Langbiang…Da Lat”, a nostalgic black and white compilation of old homes built by the French during colonial era Vietnam. Most of these homes were taken down or has been altered beyond recognition after war’s conclusion.
“This was our home.” she says. “And there, standing at the front door, that’s your grandfather.”
I follow her finger, and can pick out a dim figure leaning against the shadow of the house. He’s in a western suit, with baggy trousers, and he is standing with his left hand in his pocket. I can’t make out his face, and I suppose I wouldn’t have recognized the face of my grandfather anyway, from my brief, limited childhood interactions with him. The figure is slight but the house is grand, its roof a lengthy sloping side descending from a tall third floor to cover the top of one side of a ground floor. Sturdily built of stone, with vines on its walls and a chimney jutting through the sideroof, the home feels remarkably like a Swiss house in the Alps; I could have been looking at an old photograph taken from the European countryside.
After pointing out the bedroom where my mother lived as a child, and where she herself lived, right next door, my aunt said to me: “I’m trying to find the photographer and get the negative for the picture. If I can get this photo’s negative, I can ask him to develop it again, but larger. Maybe I can see my father more clearly.”
The house is gone now, thoroughly razed to the ground. After the war, all these colonial homes in Da Lat, these stone constructions of Swiss houses built to last in the inclement weather of the mountainside, were turned into communal spaces for work, or housing for large numbers of people. Eventually, many of them were simply razed for new constructions. This is what finally happened to our particular home.
When I asked my aunt if she would take me to come see the site, she said that there’s currently construction all around it, and we wouldn’t see behind the construction posters to glimpse what was being built anyway. Even before construction started, the house was battered to its foundation, flattened completely to make way for something larger. As it was raining heavily during my visit, I thought it best not to insist, and just not to come back to see what’s happened to our home.
I can’t imagine a Vietnamese city more conducive to nostalgia making, to dreaming and the cultivation of interiority than Da Lat. Keats’ lines describing autumn seems most fitting for this highlands region, “Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness/close-bosom friend of the maturing sun”. And Nabokov’s curt description of Ithaca, New York, in his novel Pnin, could just as easily refer to the lush vegetation of Da Lat and its temperamental weather: “It was a fair fall night, velvet below, steel above.” Perhaps these childhood trips to Da Lat were what made me love the autumns in New England so much. They were the precursor to my time in the cool northeast of America, even before my family had moved. It was in Da Lat that I wore woollen sweaters for the first time, that I clambered up and down hillside marketplaces for the first time, watching the women selling stuffs on the street. The hill tribes and their colorful clothes too, thrilled me and remained firmly in my memory.
My own earliest memory of this city starts with a faint impression of my father powering us up the switchbacks of the roads leading up to the town, mist enshrouded mountains around us, the rumbling motorbike a singular sound in the wilderness. Other memories pile on – family trips there with cousins, my first time on a horse, its muscles thrillingly jostling my tiny limbs forward on uneven plodding steps, a trip to a waterfall where I sat on my mother’s lap in the water, cold water coursing around us. Cold air, swaddled infants. Happiness.
It’s always lovely to revisit Da Lat, but coming back is also always off-putting. This place that houses so much of my family’s collective memory, is, just like Ho Chi Minh City, rapidly constructing its way out of its colonial past. Rapidly built, cookie-cutter guest houses and hotels line the narrow streets of the city. Neon signs advertising massages and karaoke abut one another in three or four stories with little space for light, jutting out in ungainly angles into the streets. Every once in a while, a hotel whose builder had some money attempts to capture Da Lat’s colonial past with red brick walls and tiled rooftops, but the attempt is gratingly obvious, undeniably kitschy. Da Lat is beginning to have the feel of so many other populated mountain cities in Asia that caters wantonly to the worst of tourists’ inclinations, and every return makes me realize more definitively how one can never relive one’s childhood, and any attempts to do so is Gatsbyesque in its futility.
There is a new part of Da Lat’s growing tourism that I do appreciate, however, and that is the burgeoning scene of low impact, outdoor tours on offer that had never been there before. Local wilderness guides take tourists, usually western backpackers, on hikes up Langbiang moutain and the surrounding areas. On offer are canyoning, white water rafting, hiking, mountain biking. The trips are cheap, they create employment for the young people of the region, and preserve the bountiful, still relatively pristine wilderness of the area surrounding Da Lat.
I signed up for a hike with a local tour guide and two tall Danes. We walked through coffee plantations in the highlands, across some preserved forests, and clambered across rickety old bridges in the region. We even came across an old bridge that was created by the southern mechanics of the war, used then to transport troops and small vehicles across gaps in the valley and still in use by the farmers of the region today, old bolts holding in place reminders for travellers of the tumultuous past of the country.
*this post is part of a longer essay I’m writing on Da Lat. It’ll have to end here for now.