For the first time this year I escape the increasing humidity and island mentality of Vung Tau and get a bus north to the bustling yet relaxed holiday town of Da Lat in the mountains. Though the climate is cooler, the locals are warmer here and more receptive to foreigners. While sitting by the lake on my first evening, I’m approached by three young women who study in Da Lat and they happily chat away to me and take pictures. One of them, Sam, is an English student and budding tour guide. She agrees to take me on her motorbike to see the surrounding areas and so the next day I go with her and her friend Tao to take in some of the sights.
The Central Highlands are traditionally home to many ethnic minority groups and many still speak their own languages, although a large section of such groups have been ‘Vietnamised’ in the last few decades. We travel to one ‘ethnic’ village where the people look visibly different than their Vietnamese neighbours and meet some of the locals who run a Coffee cooperative composed of 50 families. This area grows a lot of coffee and other crops that don’t grow in the lowland plains and is an important source of produce for the rest of the country.
With only two full days to enjoy Da Lat, I wish I’d more time to relax here and explore more of this beautiful area – there’s so much to see but I have to return to Vung Tau to work. Before leaving I see a few more local attractions including ‘The Crazy House’, a Gaudi-esque structure designed by a Vietnamese architect, and the famous Da Lat Flower Gardens. I already miss the place and tell myself I’ll have to visit again before leaving the country.
Back in Vung Tau, life plods along but during my free time I manage a few mini-trips out of the city on my scooter with a couple of fellow-teachers, Marty and Adam. A compatriot, Marty has become a good friend since moving here; from Newcastle, Co.Down, he and his family (his wife Leah from Germany and their 2-year old son Caolan), have been living in Vung Tau for almost 2 years. Adam, a talented freelance photographer from Alabama in the USA, has also been here for a couple of years and has immersed himself in the Vietnamese culture. On one trip we wonder up the narrow tracks of a small forested mountain to come across an isolated temple. The folk there are pleasantly surprised to see us and welcome us by giving us a delicious vegetarian lunch and allow us to lounge around in hammocks afterwards. It feels like a world away from the world-weary city nearby.
On another trip we go 30km up the coast to Long Hai where the pace of life is also more laid back. The best thing about living in Vung Tau is that there are many such places within driving distance and it does the soul good to get away from what has unfortunately become an often mundane routine of work-home-work within the city. It’s places such as Long Hai that I look forward to visiting repeatedly during my time here.