In 1981, on my first trip back after the war, Vietnam was deeply mired in poverty and on the verge of collapse, partly as a result of the devastation left by the conflict and also because of the regime’s Marxist economic policies, which forbade any hint of capitalism. Peasants were compelled to deliver their crops to the state; agricultural output fell drastically. Merchants were subjected to onerous regulations; they defiantly closed their stores, and trade declined. But a coalition of moderate politicians, alarmed by deteriorating economic conditions, has promoted a measure of free enterprise: today, Da Lat’s thriving outdoor market reflects a new prosperity.
A maze of arcades spills into adjacent alleys, thronged with gamblers, beggars, pickpockets, hustlers and peddlers. Elderly women and young girls clad in conic rattan hats and traditional ao dais—billowing pantaloons and long loose tunics slit to the waist—squat behind baskets, offering azaleas, chrysanthemums, geraniums, gladiolas and peonies brought in from suburban flower farms. Huge crates overflow with a dazzling array of fruit and vegetables: avocados, bananas, coconuts, durians, litchis, melons, asparagus, chilies, mustard greens, yams, tomatoes and water chestnuts.
Apothecaries carefully weigh out traditional remedies and elixirs by the ounce—powdered stag antlers, rhinoceros horns, ginseng. Sidling through the packed aisles, I observed scores of spices and herbs, ranging from basil, cardamom, cloves and coriander to sage, sesame, star anise and saffron. Fishmongers hover over bins of fresh-caught shrimp, squid, clams, oysters, crabs, tortoises, bass, perch and tuna. Cages of squawking chickens, geese and pigeons dangle from crampons above counters piled with slabs of pork, beef and veal. Other stands, catering to the superstitious, are heaped with mysterious amulets, talismans, fetishes and astrological charts. The clothing section bulges with a jumble of knockoff Levi jeans, ensembles bearing Bill Blass logos, Adidas athletic shoes and denim jackets emblazoned with Harvard, Princeton or Stanford insignia—all manufactured in Vietnam or smuggled in from China, Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea. I had expected to see native handicrafts, but cubicles are crammed with cheap plastic toys, New York Yankees baseball caps, Mickey Mouse wristwatches, Madonna mugs, fake Zippo cigarette lighters engraved with the emblems of U.S. Army regiments, and souvenir banners inscribed with mawkish mottoes in English—“Regards to my Mother from Dalat.”
Guidebooks publicize the mansion where the country’s last emperor, Bao Dai, dallied with his favorite concubine until he was exiled to the Côte d’Azur in 1955 after the South Vietnamese republic, with help from the CIA, deposed him in a blatantly rigged election. I anticipated regal magnificence, knowing that the French had spared no extravagance to gratify his whims. But except for the lush gardens abounding in orchids, bougainvillea, dahlias and magnolias, I found the residence prosaic. The furniture resembles conventional Sears. Shelves cluttered with gifts from foreign dignitaries display a routine collection of gold plates, jewel-hilted sabers and commemorative medals.
Not far from the royal mansion lies a mildewed cottage concealed in a bamboo grove; here, at the quirkily named Stop and Go Café, writers and artists gather to swap ideas and discuss works in progress. The proprietor, Duy Viet, cordially introduced me to his comrades who, presumably emulating Montparnasse boulevardiers, sport berets and scarves and wear their hair down to the shoulders. Sprawled across a sofa or seated on benches, they smoked Marlboros and sipped goblets of scalding artichoke tea, which reputedly calms the nerves. While Duy Viet strummed a guitar and crooned folk songs in a nasal twang, a poet recited in French an elegy dedicated to a deceased friend:
He reposes as he lived,
Alone, absolutely alone.
By contrast, another nearby studio seemed to thrive not on tranquillity but bedlam. Located on a dusty lane behind a tumbledown pagoda, it belongs to Vien Thuc, a Zen Buddhist priest. Attired in a coarse brown robe and cowl, he revels in his perhaps self-imposed sobriquet, “the mad monk.” No sooner did I step over his threshold than he grabbed a brush, dipped it into an ink pot and dashed off a haiku in ancient Vietnamese calligraphy on a paper scroll. “My inspiration is Van Gogh,” he proclaimed, charging around frantically and muttering, as he pointed to the dozens of sketches portraying his muse, full face and profile, with and without the ear.
The Han Nga Guesthouse and ArtGallery, named for its proprietress, Dang Viet Nga, is also called the “Crazy House.” It embodies a fusion of Surrealism and Dada gone berserk. The gate is guarded by two mammoth concrete giraffe sculptures, their necks interlocked to form an arch; the stomach of one constitutes a snack bar that dispenses cold Coke and Pepsi. Soaring above the patio is a giant concrete banyan tree, its twisted roots extended like slithering tentacles. An almost invisible filigree of wire spider webs is suspended from the branches. Tape-recorded calls of frogs croaking, monkeys chattering and birds twittering are piped through a loudspeaker, devised to foster the illusion of a bucolic setting.
The bizarre spectacle seemed amusingly zany until Madame Nga proposed that I inspect some of her ten rooms, supposedly representing various fauna and flora. Climbing a spiral staircase, we squeezed through narrow ramps to an aerie whose centerpiece is a gargantuan sculpted eagle, wings spread, talons bared, beak open. I also peered into the Kangaroo, Termite and Tiger rooms. In the subterranean Ant Room, swarms of slimy Bakelite insects infest a tree stump.
A petite woman in her 60s, Nga invited me into her parlor, offering cups of the inevitable artichoke tea. After studying architecture in Moscow during the 1960s, she rejected Soviet design orthodoxy and moved to Da Lat in hopes of establishing an experimental installation. “What I have achieved here,” she told me, “encapsulates the intimate relationship between humankind and nature.” I was astounded that the Communist Party, which rigorously insists on “socialist realism,” had authorized her weird project. But I understood why the minute I saw that the portraits on her walls depicted her father, Truong Chinh, who followed Ho Chi Minh as Vietnam’s president. Until his death in 1988, he had been one of the most sectarian Communist bosses. Clearly he had obtained the approval she needed—proof that in Vietnam, as elsewhere, kinship transcends ideology.