An American in Dalat

(Before Americans were allowed in Dalat.)

French colonial luxury (today, at least): the Dalat Palace.
  • French colonial luxury (today, at least): the Dalat Palace.

“Welcome to Dalat. Please give me your passports. You are American? How do you come here?”

Not an unusual greeting from the young female receptionist in a white ao dai local dress at the Dalat Palace Hotel, my traveling companion and I thought. But this was 1988, and there were still some leftover issues between the Vietnamese and Americans. Especially between the Vietnamese and some American war vets who had recently snuck into the area to arm a post-war insurgency.

Dalat and surrounding hills from the hotel.

Dalat and surrounding hills from the hotel.

Not realizing this political nuance and exhausted from the drive up from Saigon – and battling the revenge of half-cooked shrimp – we replied, “We came up by car. That’s our driver over there. He’s the skinny chain-smoking guy who looks really sad to be working over Tết.”

“No,” our receptionist persisted, “I do not ask how you arrive here. I ask how you are American and you are in Dalat? Dalat is forbidden for Americans. You must leave now. The police will come tonight to collect all foreign passports. They will see yours. You will be arrested. No one can help you.”

Then she asked for our (at that time, mandatory) travel permits that our driver’s travel agency prepared for us. "Saigon-Dalat-Nha Trang-Saigon," it said in English.

But, of course, as we learned from her, the official, Nothing-Else-Counts, Vietnamese version was slightly different…No Dalat.

At this point, she switched to Vietnamese and shouted at our cowering driver. We guessed she was questioning his morality and even his sanity for illegally bringing Americans to the forbidden place (even for cash dollars), and she was demanding that he take over the problem and solve it immediately.

It didn’t matter. We were cooked. Any more time in that car and at the roadside latrines would have surely killed us quicker than a Dalat jail, and we told her we could not leave. She was silent for a few moments. Then with a Gallic-Oriental shrug, and a final brief warning about the hopelessness of our fate, she registered us into the hotel.

So what do you do on your last night of Dalat freedom? You go to the Dalat Fair! Everyone in the town was there. The fair wasn’t very up-market. The Del Mar Fair had nothing to worry about. But it did have some special diversions for two – soon to be incarcerated – travelers.

First, there were lots of animals. The animals weren’t actually exhibits. They just wandered up from the countryside to see what all the lights and noise were about.

There were also rides. The few rides that were working seemed to have been cobbled together from spare parts abandoned by the advancing armies of Alexander the Great. To paraphrase a line from Apocalypse Now (and many such lines were flashing through my head that night): “If you will get on one of these rides, you will never have to prove your courage in any other way.” We left the rides alone.

But most important were the games of chance. My friend and I won a warm, dusty liter bottle of Dalat Beer by throwing a rubber ring over the bottle’s neck. An accommodating carnie ripped off the rusty bottle cap for us with an even rustier machete, and a few sour gulps confirmed that second prize was surely two liters of Dalat Beer.

The locals weren’t very interested in the beer game. But an excited crowd, surging around a large circular table, shouted, cursed and waved wads of grubby dong at each other. When we eventually elbowed our way close, we discovered that the table was surrounded by about 50 tiny numbered compartments that looked like miniature doghouses.

In the center of the table was an upside-down circular plastic container that looked like (and probably was) a cake cover. The cake cover was attached to a string. The string ran up through a pulley and down into the hand of a guy who was exchanging numbered tickets for dong. The ticket numbers corresponded to the numbers on the tiny doghouses.

When the String Holder sold all his tickets, he pulled down the string to raise the cake cover and release a really startled rat.

The rat stood motionless for an instant before he realized that there were dozens of screaming humans within grabbing distance of him. Then he bolted. He sprinted two quick laps around the table and dove for refuge into a numbered dog/rat house. The winning ticket was paid. The rat was retrieved and returned to the cake cover. The betting resumed.

Upon learning that each Rat Roulette ticket cost about four American cents, my friend and I bought all the tickets for the next round and handed them out to our new Dalat friends. You never know when you might need someone to bring you a dusty bottle of warm beer while you're sitting in the stir waiting for Henry Kissinger to negotiate your release at the next Paris Peace Conference.

The fair shut early. The generators pooped out. We returned to the Palace Hotel to await our forthcoming legal entanglements.

Nothing happened that night. We just grabbed another warm beer from our non-working fridge, sat on our balcony overlooking the dismantled remnants of the Dalat Fair and wondered how bad tomorrow would be when the police arrived.

Morning came with its furry-mouthed, alcohol-induced headache regrets. But despite that, we had to face our fate. We went down to the lobby expecting to be handcuffed and hauled away. But no police lurked in the lobby. Our receptionist from the previous night again commanded her desk.

When she saw us, she drew us aside and quietly said: “Do you remember the bus of French tourists who arrived yesterday? I put all of their passports on top of your passports before I gave them to the police. And the police, maybe they were a little tired, or maybe they were a little lazy, but they did not search every passport, and they did not find your illegal American passports.”

We were holding our breath when she said, “I should have told the police about you when they came here. I regret I did not tell them, because it was my duty. Tomorrow the police will come again. And tomorrow,” she paused, “you will not be so lucky.”

We didn’t need to be lucky tomorrow. We were lucky enough today. We rounded up our miserable driver, who cranked up the engine of our ancient Citroen, and lurched off toward Nha Trang.

Today, Dalat is a major Southeast Asia tourist destination. The Palace Hotel has returned to, and perhaps exceeded, its French colonial grandeur. It is now a true luxury hotel with air conditioning instead of languid overhead fans; with internet access instead of Bakelite telephones of purely decorative purpose; with fully stocked mini-bars instead of enameled storage boxes unconnected to electricity. Where the Dalat Fair once entertained local farmers, a football stadium is now under construction.

But, a quarter century ago, during Vietnam’s emergence from decades of calamitous war, Dalat was just a mountain way station with an agreeable climate and lots of flowers. Its people were poor enough to want to stake pennies on the whims of a frightened rodent. But they were also rich enough to pardon two hapless travelers through an unsolicited, if slightly reluctant, act of kindness.

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