Dalat is considered the alps of Vietnam, and I am not sure if this was a desperate marketing thing or just some Colonials desire for home so much that they felt they needed reminders. But having been to the Alps, there is nothing even remotely similar. It is a very busy city surrounded by some low mountains. The city itself is set on the side of one of those mountains so it’s necessary to do quite a lot of climbing. Like most city’s in South East Asia, big plans for modern skyscrapers and malls are in the works, so large sections are closed off for these grandiose plans, but not much actual work is getting done.
We were excited when our hotel had two cinemas marked on their business card map. A movie in this rainy weather would definitely hit the spot. So we wandered up the hill in search of the cinema and possible food options. We walked past the construction, through a market, and around a very Cold War looking building with a tower in front and little shops around the sides. Cinema was marked on the map somewhere around here, but when we walked around there was no sign of a cinema. Asking people only brought blank stares, even when I pantomimed some star wars scenes, which evoked giggles, but no real information. The old building had a tower with Vietnam’s flag on it, and it felt really like a communist meeting hall. We wandered in and through sign language we were able to ascertain that it was indeed a cinema, there was one movie playing at 8 p.m. Here was the worst bit though, it was one of those Twilight monstrosities. Even as desperate as I was for a movie, I have my limits, and this was one. I took a step back from the theater and it dawned on me that at some point this had been an old movie palace, probably from the thirties. It was hard to tell at first with the Cold War make over, but it’s location at the top of the hill, in the center of everything, with a large tower had a French modernist feel to it. At one time this theater was the heart of the city. Closing my eyes I could imagine long lines of people on a Sunday all dressed in gowns and top hats going to see the latest French film. It was a theater of a bygone age, one where it was an actual event to see a film.
This theater made me think of home, and a very special project that I had been working on for over a decade now, which was to save Philadelphia’s last premiere movie palace, The Boyd Theater. Built in 1928, the Boyd was among many massive theaters built in the Twenties. Going to the theater back then was such an event that people would drive an hour to see a show there. They were one of the first to have air conditioning. I had the privilege of seeing Mission Impossible in this theater, and could not believe my eyes when I got inside the lobby. The auditorium was massive, with space for 2,400 seats, a huge balcony, and a massive screen. I had never been in a theater like it. The Sam Eric as it was called then closed down a few years later, due to the difficulty of filling so many seats. It was instantly put up for demolition, for there is nothing Philly loves more than destroying its historic buildings. I saw a flyer up on the front of the theater asking for volunteers to stop the demolition. I was unemployed then so had some spare time on my hands. I went to a meeting filled with many active community members led by Howard Haas, a preservationist who has dedicated a large part of his life to preserving these theaters. That was many years go, and the Boyd is still not saved yet. There were many near saves, renovation even started with a paint study being done by Clear Channel. But big projects can be fickle, especially during a recession, and it fell through. During the renovation process we discovered murals dedicated to woman, the original seat upholstery pattern, and the original old fire curtain. These old theaters are one of a kind, with architectural details that will never be replicated, and have to be saved. In my home town Detroit we have saved numerous theaters, and they are a strong part of the revitalization process in the city. I think it’s important for every city to have at least one movie palace restored. The two illustrations of the Boyd Theater I did for the Philadelphia Inquirer. If you are interested in learning more about the Boyd Theater stop by http://www.friendsoftheboyd.org/ and “like” the Friends of the Boyd page at Facebook.
Back in Dalat, seeing how a Twilight movie would make me nauseous, the cinema was out of the option, but dinner was next. We found a lovely French restaurant, that had pictures of Dalat at the turn of the century. There was a lovely one of the Theater with a horse-drawn carriage in front with people in top hats. Proof that it was once the heart of the community. I hope that Dalat restores this cinema and makes it the heart of the community again. It’s in the perfect spot to do it. The food here was exceptionally good, and we discovered another treasure of Vietnam, Dalat Wine.
It had been a long time since we had wine. In Indonesia and Malaysia it was too expensive, close to forty bucks for an eight dollar bottle. The last wine we drank was at Yvonne’s sisters’ Wedding in Thailand back in early December. Wine is just not normally served in these countries, and we were craving it. Dalat wine is no Malbec, that is for sure, but it’s still a good wine. It has a sweet edge to it but not over powering, and goes great with dinner. This is what really makes Dalat famous in Vietnam. It’s the only place to produce wine in the country, with a red and a white.
After dinner we saw a welcoming glow down the hill, and the sound of the band The Doors echoing up the streets. Hmm, maybe a beer would be nice. Part way down the ridge was a bar with a pool table, fish tanks, and a big Christmas tree. In it was a young Vietnamese woman tending bar and chatting up some customers. Her son was about three, and when she wasn’t looking he would grab customers a beer from the fridge. It was hilarious, he was a budding bartender. The atmosphere really brought us in, but it was Phi and Hung that kept us there. Hung was a science student who would volunteer here to improve his English. Yvonne and Hung would play pool and he would tell us all about Vietnam and other entertaining stories. We had found our Cheers in Dalat. We would end every night having a few drinks here and chatting at the bar.
The bar was always filled with interesting people too. Yvonne was talking to a Russian guy who wanted to bring the old Soviet System back in play. She thought he was a good guy for an American to chat with, so she introduced me to him, than made an excuse to play pool with Hung. Nice, now I really got to defend capitalism and democracy. This guy was borderline fanatic. The only thing more important to him than restoring the old system was meeting girls. To get his outdated system off my back I simple had to introduce him to some French girls in the corner. I’m no stranger to being wing man, and was thrilled to have deposited my new Soviet with these lovely ladies. I’m not sure how happy they were about it, but those are the breaks. One final note, where else could you have lined up in a row at a bar a Vietnamese man, Israel girl, American man, Irish girl, a Russian man, and to top it off an old Australian guy with a white beard split in two long braids to his belly. I’m sure there is a joke some where in there. Only the Hang Out Bar in Dalat, don’t miss this spot.
One morning I thought a jog was in order, after all, the Philly Marathon was coming up in November, and if you are going to run 26 miles, you have to start somewhere. So why not in Dalat. The rain was just a bit of a mist, not too bad, so I ran down the hill to the lake. It’s a really nice sized lake with islands and botanical gardens around it. People seemed to stare at me strange when jogging, I guess it’s not that normal. On the other side of the lake I ran into the old Australian with huge beard, power walking around the lake. It figures only westerners would be so crazy to exercise in the rain. I also learned a new lesson that day, it’s best not to run with the runs, just saying.
We spent four days in Dalat, relaxing, hanging out, and repairing old technology. I decided it was my mission to get Yvonne’s phone fixed, but after hunting down the best repair shop in the city, they decided it was too far gone. We had stupidly plugged it in after it got wet and fried the circuits. They were able to sell us an older used model at an outrageous price, and use her old SIM card. The new/old phone never works as good as the original, but at least she is connected again. We also bought our first Vietnamese phone here, so that we could contact Mr Chau. Nothing is more exciting than communicating plans on a bad line. Hung at the Hang Out helped us talk to Mr Chau and negotiate our next motorcycle journey. Why get back on the bikes you say, well, because it’s the only way to travel in Vietnam, and it was time for us to hit the Ho Chi Minh Trail.