From Dalat north we took the Ho Chi Min Highway, the road that, roughly, follows the Ho Chi Min Trails that formed the complex, and even to massive American air power indestructible, supply network for North Vietnamese troops infiltrating and undermining the South (we are talking second Indochina war here).
All the way to Buan Ma Thuot, the next sizeable town, some 200 km north of Dalat, this is coffee country, much of it planted in larger plots, often on steep slopes that resemble plantations. But a significant amount is also grown very small scale, in people’s back garden, where they have five or ten plants, or so. It makes for a fairly chaotic pattern, but not at all unattractive. Many of the plants were in bloom, with a dense array of white flowers at the top of the branches, providing not only a beautiful sight but also a lovely smell, jasmine-like. Of course, wherever coffee had been harvested and was being roasted, the smell was equally pleasant, and inviting. The Vietnamese drink their coffee strong, either hot or – very nice in this climate – on ice.
(1) Coffee plantation, and (2) Flowers of the coffee plant.
Coffee was introduced by the French, and only relatively recently has it become a major export earner, Vietnam now being the second largest producer after Brazil, thanks to production being restored again after the war again, but more importantly, boosted after economic liberation in the 1980s. If I am not mistaken, an enormous Vietnamese production increase flooded the market some 10-15 years ago, and triggered a massive price collapse.
Whilst the coffee dominates the lower slopes, and jungle higher up the mountains, rice paddies dominate the valley floors, both small scale on the banks of little streams, or on a much larger scale covering a broad area, the bright green extending as far as one can see. As unappealing a sight as the dry empty fields are, outside the season, so attractive are the wet paddies, very photogenic.
(3, 4) Rice paddies
We still hadn’t given up on the minority tribes. Closer to Buan Ma Thuot the villages got smaller, also more authentic perhaps. The wooden houses came back, often on stilts again. Norman Lewis traveled this part of the country in 1950, and describes in great detail the customs of the local hill tribes, who essentially lived in a perpetual state of drunkenness due to the need to throw parties in order to appease the spirits. Big jars of home brew were mobilized, no matter what part of the day, and by sucking the fluid through a thin straw, a glass was filled which subsequently had to be drunk in one go. Just having read this story (in a bit more detail) two days earlier, you can imagine how surprised I was to be invited into one of the houses of a village I was wandering through, only to see one of the older ladies – these are matriarchic societies – lurking on a straw, and filling plastic cup after plastic cup, and emptying them in between! Two older men had had their share already, and were happily lying on one of the mats, and the guy who had invited me in was not yet entirely drunk, but was well on the way. But what was most striking was the similarity with what Lewis experienced 60 years ago! By the way, he also didn’t like the stuff much.
(5) The site of the local drinking party, in one of the minority villages, (6) my host, already quite a happy man, (7) the jar, and plastic cups being filled, and (8) the matriarch of the family, still remarkably sober.
(9) Minority women, having shed their traditional cloths long ago, have not shed their traditional activities, gathering fire wood (and plastic bottles, for which they get paid).
Not wanting to overstay my welcome, and more importantly, not wanting to drink more of the revolting alcohol, we moved on, past more traditional villages, rich in wooden long houses, some totally unaffected by tourism and some having incorporated tourist services within the wider economic structure of the place. Jun village, on the shores of Lak Lake, organizes elephant rides and has several shops selling weavings and other souvenirs, yet, many people in the village went about their regular, farming or fishing, business. The same is true for the minority villages around Buon Ma Thuot - in the outskirts of town, really -, like Aka Dhong, where the long houses, looking quite modern, are neatly lined up; well maintained and often elaborately decorated with flowers and plants, even though modern, concrete houses have been constructed in the back. Obviously the people are proud of the culture here. Who knows how long before that changes.
(10) Long house in Jun village, and (11) some of the animals that have been a traditional part of the village, whilst (12) others are a more recent addition, used in the tourist industry, but (13) life continues, tourists or no tourists, life continues on the lake, fishing traps.
(14) I never associated large herds of water buffalo with mountain regions, but we did meet quite a lot of those on the way. On the Ho Chi Min Highway.
(15) As we did cows, who - invariably - were on their way home (pretty safe, actually, they wouldn't attack anybody).