The main attraction for us in Đà Lạt was the hotel itself. Hằng Nga's Tree House was described variously as an art gallery and an Alice in Wonderland fantasy, and I couldn't figure out from the description how you would fit rooms into artificial tree trunks. We got to Đà Lạt in the evening, and went straight to the hotel. Up until this point, we had never stayed at a hotel that was on our itinerary. The listing was there only to boost our confidence, as we bargained for the place where we eventually stayed. My worry was that if the place was as original as it sounded, any other hotel would be a disappointment.
Disappointment was certainly looming. We saw some rooms and they were great. In fact, there was a couple, not guests but visitors, who were taking pictures. It really was original. Duyên kept saying mắc qúa, mắc qúa ("too expensive"), but one always says that sort of thing in the course of bargaining. Then the bad news. They wanted 50 dollars for a room. Anywhere in the West this would be a bargain, but in Vietnam it's outrageous, and one wouldn't accept that sort of deal on principle alone. But the place was original, and I started to toy around with the idea of paying the difference a one-time splurge, and who cares what anyone thinks. I suggested that to Duyên, which got him even more adamant that we would go somewhere else.
The best way to bargain for something is when you're convinced that you don't want it. In that sense, the outrageous price was its own undoing. They weren't serious, so how could you want it? We were getting ready to leave, and after some pointed discussion, we offered them 20 dollars take it or leave it ... and they said they'd take it! That was great news, and as an already accomplished haggler, Duyên had done his finest piece of haggling ever. Not only that, but Hùng the driver would get his own room for free. We moved in right away.
We got some contextual information later on. The owner was "unaccustomed" to the way things got done. As the daughter of the ex-president, the authorities let her build the hotel without the usual interference, so she didn't have to play by communist rules. As the owner of a unique place she refused to pay commissions to tour guides, so she didn't play by capitalist rules either. It's fine to write your own rules, but not, of course, if you have an empty hotel all to yourself. Getting a little something is better than getting nothing at all, so the owner relented, "just this once".
The business world aside, this place was a lot of fun. The owner, who was also the designer, had studied architecture in Moscow. This place was her masterpiece, and she had thought about every detail. My room was the Ant room, which looked like it was designed by Gaudí (La Pedrera came to mind), with a little Georgia O'Keefe thrown in for good measure. There was a papier-mâché tree embedded in the wall with a large ant, and it was delightfully surreal. Even the lamp looked like an ant. Duyên's room was the Honeymoon room, which was a two-story affair. The stairway was a set of tubes of varying length, and I thought this was incredibly cool. (Less incredibly cool was the fact that his plumbing didn't work, but we didn't know that at the time.) The "Honeymoon" part of it was that the room was incredibly small, but what's a little closeness on a honeymoon? Fortunately, it was a honeymoon of one, so no need for the heart-shaped tub. Hùng never told us what his room was like, but I think he was amused by the whole experience.
On the way out to dinner, we were asked if we wanted to meet the owner, and I have to say that I was curious. She was a woman in her mid-sixties. Through a bit of elective enhancement here and there, she looked like she was a woman in her early sixties. Communist country or not, she was a grande dame who believed very deeply in being fabulous. She came outside in a long dress and long gloves, and spoke to me in English. She asked where I was from, trying her best to look interested. "I hope you like my hotel. I understand you're only staying one night? Do think about staying longer. Ohhh, and if you're hun-gry," she said, " I have a little res-taurant. It's a nice a little place to have some dinner. Well, anyway, if you'll excuse me, I have to go to the club now. Good-bye." With that, she got into the back seat of a black car that drove away.
Wiser for the experience, we went out to dinner. Đà Lạt is in the highlands, so there are some interesting choices of food. The most exotic are the restaurants that serve the food of the local hill tribes, or montaignards as they're called. If you're interested, you can try bat. Again, I'll try anything, no matter how strange, as long as it's delicious, but it seemed hard to believe that a skinny little bat could ever fit that description. We went instead to a place that serves game, and had a nice meal of wild boar, venison and curried rabbit. The venison and the boar were do-it-yourself wraps in rice paper. The deer meat was wrapped with peanuts, banana and star fruit. It was really nice. The boar meat went with lettuce, cucumber and cilantro, and was then dipped in an extra-smelly shrimp paste. Hùng was amused that I ate the shrimp sauce. He said that he wouldn't touch the stuff and he's Vietnamese.
One thing I noticed was that even though our waiter was very nice, he wasn't much of a waiter. He was a big, shy kid with enormous hands. We talked to him at the end of the meal. He was 22, and not only was he not much of a waiter, he wasn't a waiter at all. He had just graduated from university, and this was the only job that he could find. It's not that he's not ambitious, simply that where Vietnam does have universities to educate people, there may not be anything for them to do when they get out. That's too bad. Our tour guide in Đà Lạt also went to university (though in Saigon). He's a smart, sensitive person. After some nerve-wracking military service in Cambodia, he's now working at a hotel.
The next morning we took copious photos of the hotel, and then went off on a tour of Đà Lạt. Many Vietnamese come here for their honeymoon, and there are Disneyland-style boats on the lake. Commercial stuff aside, it's a nice and elegant town. There's a lot of architecture that the French left, a famous university, and plenty of character. It's quiet, spacious and lush.
The second half of the day we went to visit one of the local tribes, the Ho people. Until recently they were off-limits, having had an altercation with the government. It wasn't that they were anti-communist so much as anti-government. The government of South Vietnam had left them alone, but the current one wasn't cutting them any slack. You won't find any Branch Davidians in Vietnam. This is one issue where the Vietnamese government has absolutely no sense of humor. In any case, you don't need a permit to see the Ho any more, and tensions have gone down.
We went to the head house, which was the meeting hall, and an elderly man explained the culture. He was pretty worldly, and could explain the culture in anthropological terms, in such a way that it would make sense to an outsider. Though he didn't speak much English, he spoke excellent French, and for once, I got to act as translator for Duyên, which pleased me no end. We tried a bit of their rice wine, which packs a wallop, and looked at the musical instruments. After a bit of the home-brewed hooch, they have dances with gongs and drums and a pipe contraption that looks like a bagpipe without the bag. It's just as difficult as a bagpipe to play, and as a first-timer, I kept running out of air. I'm sure there's a knack, but all we had was an afternoon.
We took a walk through the village, which now seems assimilated into mainstream Vietnamese culture. Young people go elsewhere when they can, and the new houses of the people who stay are starting to look Vietnamese. I asked whether the diet also resembles Vietnamese food, but the man showing us around said that they're too poor to eat like the Vietnamese. They seem to eat cassava and they grow coffee, but as for the rest, I couldn't get a straight answer out of him. (Perhaps they eat phở like everyone else, but he didn't deem that exotic enough to tell me.) In other conversation I found out that the Ho have their own unique surnames, and they speak a language that has two tones only.
Our Ho guide pointed to a mountain, again with a local legend of unrequited love. (Of course it's unrequited love mountains don't go on dates!) He suggested that it would be a great thing to climb up the mountain. You could do it in under two hours if you climb quickly. I told him we'd give it a miss. He looked a little hurt, so I said that on our next visit we'd make sure we had plenty of time.