In the highlands of southern central Vietnam, the air is cooler and the countryside strewn with convex greenhouses jammed side by side for growing all types of delicious edibles from fat red strawberries to possum digested coffee beans. At 1500 m above sea level, Da Lat has a temperate spring like climate ideal for agriculture and perfect for tourists wanting to escape the oppressive humidity and chaos of Vietnams big cities.
Wide boulevards converge on the towns main square (Hoa Bin) which is dominated by the central market, a colourful mess of stalls with ladies in conical hats perched roadside on tiny pink plastics stools gossiping with each other and selling their wares.
In the undercover section, pig, chicken and duck carcasses are hung for display amongst baskets of live fowl crammed a dozen to a pot, while the bloodstained butchers deftly dismantle their inventory with the distinct blow of a heavy blade.
A popular destination for travellers ever since the French established it as a resort town in the early 1900’s, Da Lat has a burgeoning reputation based around adventure tourism nowadays, but it still feels like a quintessentially Vietnamese town, albeit with some lovely colonial architecture.
There is a healthy expat community, a selection of which I found at ‘The Getaway Bar’, a venue with supposedly cool blues jam sessions most nights. We wandered into the smoky, dimly lit venue and took a seat at the bar to see a bunch of middle aged white guys jamming with a couple of local Vietnamese lads.
It’s a great pleasure to stroll into some random bar in South East Asia and find the highest quality of musicianship on display. Sometimes they’re so good you could close your eyes and imagine Bon Jovi was right there on stage or that you had been magically teleported to a 1950’s Parisian café. But not this night.
Bopping around centre stage, one particular stout westerner with his Fender guitar turned up way too loud for the rest of the band, was drunkenly leading his companions through a seriously improvised tune. At first I thought he must be just someone who had crashed the jam session and got a little too excited but it turns out our absurdly unrestrained friend here is in fact Albert Silver, the American proprietor of this groovy little establishment, apparently doing exactly what he does most nights.
In between songs he staggers around the room with his glass of Dalat red in one hand and a half full bottle in the other, attempting to interact with the clientele. At one point he goes behind the bar and someone orders a white Russian. He turns to one of the bar staff and in a rather condescending tone insists that
‘Yo, we need a white Russian over here’.
Half time entertainment for the evening consists of Albert taking control of the microphone and giving a rambling speech to the increasingly uncomfortable audience.
‘Does anyone want a Vietnamese wife? I can get you one. You can have mine. We are not really married anyway, it was just an arrangement. So you can have the business too if you want to buy it. I will throw her in with the deal.’
I don’t see anyone putting their hand up to take up Alberts generous offer and I’m wondering whether this is actually Alberts attempt at a comedy routine, a la Rodney Dangerfield, except its not funny and he continues on in the same vein.
‘Maybe you don’t want her anyway because she won’t cook for me and she’s abusive.’
At this point I think someone tries to politely tell Albert that he should tone it down a little bit.
‘What for? See this scar here ‘ he says whilst pointing to a small red line on his face – ‘she whacked me with a bottle in public!’
I have the urge to heckle him from the back of the room with
‘I’m not fuckin’ surprised’.
Standing at the bar in disbelief, I’m chatting to Mat, an expat Aussie who runs a local hotel in Dalat and moonlights as the keyboardist in the band occasionally. I say to Mat
‘Man that’s not cool, hanging your dirty washing out like that in public, I hope it doesn’t get back to his wife.’
‘Yeah someone needs to tell him its not cool’ says Mat as he turns and points to the lady behind the bar who is watching Alberts animated monologue, arms crossed and stone faced – ‘because that’s his wife right there’.
I relish the unpredictability of travel, situations you just couldn’t have invented and the characters that you sometimes wish you’d never met but are impossible to forget.
Want to see more cool pictures of Vietnam. Have a look at my Vietnam Photogallery.