To say there was a stark contrast between my local lifestyle in the city center in Da Lat, located in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, and the suburban expat villa discussed in my last update would be the understatement of the year. I stumbled and bumbled through the transition, suddenly acutely aware of ‘reverse culture shock.’
The villa era came to an end when the lease expired, so some of us headed back toward the city center into a new neighbourhood, local in look and feel.
It was a homecoming of sorts, an abrupt cultural about-face from the villa.
No amount of advance research done prior to moving house can uncover how dogs and karaoke aficionados will behave, not to mention chickens, geese, frogs, and other varmints that usually only come out at night.
Ergo, top priority was to cross fingers and gauge the night-time noise level, but all concerns were quelled when the karaoke stopped at 10:00 pm right on the snout.
The neighbourhood pets and assorted wildlife slept at night, and so did we.
With that settled, the next order of business was to find a café to fill the role of local headquarters, and there was no shortage of options in the area.
Indeed, I counted 19 of them within about 300 meters, so although spoiled for choice, finding the ideal café is significant, and the search cannot be hurried.
After a couple of close calls, I found one that struck just the right note, and it was christened with an exquisite first coffee. HQ is important, it’s where we seek solace, relaxation, listen to some traditional homesick and broken heart tunes, and exchange banter with the locals.
Oh, how that first sip of fine robusta is always a delight!
Nice and muddy, black as the dead of night, no milk, sugar, nor ice, just slowly dripped into an espresso cup through that magical filter! HQ serves a brilliant version featuring a slight cocoa aftertaste — rich, soothing, taking the edge off those peppy beans.
The staff gave me a regular’s discount after a few visits, a gesture of welcome, demonstrating how they already valued me as a regular guest. Either that or they huddled and collectively decided to stop overcharging me VND1,000 (4 U.S. cents), unlikely but remotely possible.
I still make periodic visits to my former HQ in the center of the city. They continue to give me their regular’s discount so between the two places, the more coffee I drink, the more I save — and the less I sleep at night.
Next task was to wander around and scope out the commercial offerings in the neighbourhood. I always start with the vendors who sport the classical Vietnamese ‘non la’ conical hats, crouched over their wares, so refreshing to see instead of rows of perfectly stocked shelves in the big supermarket monitored by expressionless, uniformed employees with name tags, wearing cute French-style berets.
Those wearing a ‘non la’ are usually salty veterans who know their trade well, have the best goods at fair prices, and usually have an intuitive trick or two up their sleeves, thus delivering a slight edge in service.
The ‘banh mi’ (Vietnamese-style sandwich) lady is a shining example of such a professional. Despite her deceptively humble demeanour, she’s clearly a skilled up-seller, asking me to take four loaves instead of the two I asked for on my first visit.
I ceded, thinking she could sell out more quickly and head home, so for an investment of an additional VND5,000 ($0.22 give or take) I contributed in shortening her work day. A win-win, plus someone in my entourage will always take the extra loaves off my hands.
There are precious few foreigners around here, which suits me right down to the ground. Admittedly, I enjoy the attention and excellent service that go with being practically the only foreign shopper. The vendors fuss and carry on, take my money, and return the change with grace and deference. They then consolidate purchases made elsewhere (while eyeing the competitors’ goods with disdain) into a large bag or two so nothing will go astray.
At the local wet market, eagle-eyed women customers cluck over my substandard selections of chicken drumsticks and hunks of pork and beef, shake their heads, then replace them with those that make the grade. They roll their eyes looking at the stale produce I’ve chosen, swapping it for better under the discerning gaze of the main counter lady — a quality-conscious, old school, middle-aged woman.
I learned quickly to pay at her space on the counter because she gives everything another once-over, adds in some coriander leaves, spring onions, and chili peppers, and, wonder of all wonders, understands every word I butcher in her language.
Tossing in the freebies is largely a token gesture, but for a foreigner it’s an honour akin to getting the keys to the whole damn city, at least for me it is.
I nearly always forget something, returning to her spot a short while later with goodies in hand triumphantly announcing “quen!” (meaning “forget”), which always gets a laugh.
That market also features live fish and chickens for sale, pretty much sealing the deal that it’s the best place in the ‘hood.
There’s an efficient chicken executioner who dips the live birds in hot water (presumably to open the pores, thus loosening the feathers), wrings their necks, then lobs them into a machine that strips every last feather off the birds in less than a minute.
That machine is imposing, resembling a washing machine in the spin cycle or a potato peeler in which potatoes whiz around and get peeled in no time flat. Same concept here — the executioner tosses the icky, wet, strangled corpse into the swirling contraption, then sprays it with water so the guts and gory parts are drained and every feather removed.
He finally clips their toenails and chops off their feet, shifting the feet over to the meat stand where they go on display for sale. I assume the toenails are tossed, but you never know — in this part of the world every part of each animal is used, nothing squandered.
The tour continues to a cluster of portable stalls on the corner of the main street hosting multiple vendors, to which I refer as the ‘Shopping Center.’
The focal point is a cart overflowing with fresh fruit and a ‘banh can’ (muffinesque rice cakes baked in cute little clay pots with lids) stall with several teeny-weeny plastic chairs and a couple of kindergarten-sized tables. Those miniature tables and chairs are a pain in the neck for us oversized foreigners, but the proximity of fellow diners lends an aura of intimacy and camaraderie to the whole experience.
There are also a few plastic sheets spread out on the ground adorned with the most heavenly vegetables around. That vendor has exquisite potatoes adorned with genuine, official local Da Lat red dirt — a seal of quality and a must-have around here. The absence of red dirt signifies potatoes of sketchy origin, and that definitely won’t do.
She grins smugly at me every time I pass by, knowing I will succumb to temptation, it’s only a matter of when.
Several other tarpaulins serve as a makeshift roof, there’s a bench for weary shoppers, a pharmacy adjacent, a hair salon next to that, plus a shop that ostensibly sells shoes but is in fact a well-disguised café.
I know that shoe shop is mostly a formality — a facade in fact — because the racks of shoes for sale are shunted to the side while plastic tables, chairs, cups, and glasses occupy center stage at the entrance where the ‘staff’ are camped out most of the time. I’d wager that not one of the shoe guys would know a good pair of shoes if it hit him in the head.
As humble and unrefined as the Shopping Center may be, practically everything is available on that corner. If all that wasn’t enough, other teams appear at shift change in the afternoon boasting fresh seafood, ‘chao long’ (porridge featuring pork guts, gizzards, and everything but the kitchen sink), and roast duck.
No two forays into the main street are the same, every day is different, our senses stay honed and sharp, looking out for that new vendor or product we spotted previously and now wish to purchase, or for a vendor who had suddenly vanished for reasons unknown only to reappear later.
It’s all so real back in the ‘hood, it’s where it’s happening each and every day, rain or shine.
I’m stoked to be back, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
By Rick Ellis. This story was first posted here