Discovering Dalat

When just about everything you see, hear, taste, and smell in a day is new, you miss a lot. Sensory overload happens when your brain is trying to take in more than it can process. Any traveler can experience this, and when you travel outside of your own culture, in a place where you don’t know the language or even what foods to eat, sensory overload can come on fast.

Welcome to Dalat! This city in the central highlands is known for it’s enormous variety of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Strawberries are in season in January, and you can’t walk around town without tripping on a strawberry vendor. Or motorbike (they are always in season).

I have a pretty good idea of when I’m overload. It comes up on me as a sudden fatigue, and a desire to go lay down. I could be walking down a street, a 45-minute walk from my hotel, with many other things on my to-do list, and I will have to make a change of plans. Too much to take in. When I was younger, I would race on to the next new thing, really not taking anything in too deeply. But I’m in a place and at a stage of my life when I want to take in things much more deeply.

The central traffic circle in Dalat, near the famed ‘night market’, in a relatively calm, orderly moment.

And so, my first week in Dalat (written as Đà Lạt in Vietnamese) was overwhelming and slow at the same time. I walk down a street for the first time (or the second or third time), and all I can see are the motorcycles and bumps in the sidewalks. But, at some point, I’ll walk down that same street and see a really swanky cafe, a restaurant I want to try, a boutique craft shop, some amazing fruit for sale. I just had to get past the roar of the traffic and the tangle of motorbikes crowding the sidewalk.

Everyone had given me such high expectations of the city of Dalat, and I have not been disappointed. The winding road into town is lined with pines, and it immediately reminded me of driving up Big Thompson Canyon toward Estes Park in Colorado. The pines that grow here, Pinus dalatensis, also known a ‘Vietnamese White Pine’, or simply, ‘Dalat Pine’, are endemic to mainland Southeast Asia. The trees have long needles, and long slender cones. And because it never snows here, but rains a lot, the trees look tall and healthy.

Pine trees are everywhere in the city and cover the mountainsides.

Someone mentioned to me that Dalat was like the Lake Tahoe of Vietnam. It’s a major destination for Vietnamese tourists and honeymooners. In the center of the city is Xuan Huong Lake – dammed in the 1930’s, and named after a 19th century female Vietnamese poet. Of course, the lake is not anywhere near as big as Tahoe, and you could walk around it in about an hour and a half. But there are chalet-type lodgings, quaint cafes, fancy restaurants, and loads of hotels – large and small – not unlike any mountain destination in the States.

The paddle ducks wait patiently along Xuan Huong Lake for the Tết holiday-makers to arrive.

During my first couple of weeks in Dalat I’ve started scoping out cafes for potential favorites that I can return to again and again until the staff know what I want to order before I sit down. Places where I can feel at home, and sit and think and do some work. I can already see this is going to be a challenge in Dalat, as there is no shortage of really unique and beautiful cafes. There is one cafe situated on a small island near the lake shore with a well-maintained garden networked by winding paths. I rested there one afternoon with one of my now-favorite cafe drinks, tra dào (peach tea – although, I’m not sure how much tea is actually in it. There is a lot of sweet peachy syrup, ice, and slices of canned peaches).

Peach tea at a lakeside cafe. Green tea comes with any order – it’s offered in the same way that a cafe would give you a glass of water back home.

I discovered another cafe in the city center, An Cafe, that is essentially built into a forested hillside in the very heart of the city bustle. There are small terraces with wood tables and winding roots of ficus trees. As the cafe sits near an intersection on a busy road, there is a steady hum of scooters below you, but walking through this cafe feels like winding your way through a huge treehouse – or greenhouse.

One of the highlights of my first week in Dalat was visiting the campus of the University of Dalat to meet with my colleagues in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science. We met on a very quiet campus, just as everyone was about to depart for the holidays, and just as the cherry trees were beginning to flower. It was a great opportunity for photo shoots.

I was so happy to meet my new colleagues at the University of Dalat who led me on a tour of the cherry-blossom filled campus.

They made me feel so welcome, and I really look forward to working with everyone as soon as the new semester begins. The campus sits on a hill and overlooks part of the city. Pathways wind through tall pines, and moss covered stairs take you up to buildings that house classrooms and offices. In this space between semesters, it feels a bit lonely, but I have no doubt it will be buzzing with scooters next week.

The Chùa Tâm Ấn Buddhist temple in central Dalat is colorfully decked out for Tết celebrations.

Since I arrived in Dalat on January 13th, the city has been bustling with activity in preparation for, and in celebration of, Tết, the Lunar New Year. Every storefront has red and yellow decorations. There were vendors selling red envelops and decorations (one of the traditions is to give ‘lucky money’ in red envelopes to children and elderly on the first day of the new year.) There are also fake trees with yellow apricot blossoms covered in red envelopes. It’s the Tết-version of a Christmas tree.

There is a street corner in Dalat lined with these trees, near a festival pavilion. Over New Year’s weekend (January 21-22), Dalat became silent, as store owners and restaurants closed up shop, and people retreated to their homes for celebrations with family. But on Monday the 23rd, everything began ramping up again, and the lake was full of tourists circling around in their rented paddle-ducks. Evenings brought a crush of people and traffic to Dalat’s central market. (And I am not really using the word crush figuratively!)

I realize that in adjusting to a new culture, there is a lot of seeking out of familiarity. I am aware that I’m doing this – especially as I sit down to share my experiences with you all. I find myself looking for parallels – comparing Xuan Huong Lake to Tahoe, for example. It’s also hard not to compare the forested, hilly campus of the University of Dalat with my alma mater, UC Santa Cruz. While a lot of college campuses around the world enjoy bragging about how many trees they have (even the University of Northern Colorado has self-guided ‘tree tours’), I think very few campuses have both topography and natural forest.

When faced with something new, we understand it by putting it in the context of what we already know. This is the basis of cognitive constructivism in learning theory, for those of you who like the lingo (and I know some of you reading this do!). But it’s not entirely fair to make so many comparisons in sharing my impressions of Dalat. This place is really unique. Living here for several months gives me an opportunity to really dive into that uniqueness.

There is so much more to share. For now, I’ll end with a glimpse of Tuyền Lâm Lake, just outside of the city, at sunset. The story behind the photo will come another day.

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