by Theodore L Clemens
Da Lat was my first stop after Saigon. And it couldn’t have been more different. Sure, I was still in Vietnam and the people were still Vietnamese, but geographically, municipally, even meteorologically, the two cities were diametrically opposed. In Saigon (which almost no one south of the old demilitarized-zone calls Ho Chi Minh City) you were a mere 60 feet above sea level. Da Lat was 4,500 feet above sea level. In other words, Saigon was practically on the water, an industrial valley rung by distant mountains; yet, Da Lat was in the mountains. And, while its population of 400,000 was more than U.S. cities like New Orleans, Orlando, Honolulu, it was nothing compared to the nearly 9,000,000 people living in Saigon. Nor did it possess the chaotic splendor of Saigon’s city life: It couldn’t even boast, like those smaller U.S. cities, a Bourbon Street or a gimmicky attraction such as Disney.
Then there was the weather. It rained occasionally in Saigon, but most days were a mix of excruciating heat and unbearable stickiness. Of all twelve months, January had the lowest recorded minimum temperature: It was a shade below 70 degrees Fahrenheit; the highest was close to 95 degrees and that was without taking into account the heat index. In Da Lat, it was a different story. The minimum and maximum temperatures were practically the same every month, which meant the weather was rather predictable: somewhere between 72 and 90 degrees. That might not seem like much of a difference, but I assure you: When you’re constantly exposed to temperatures at (or above) 100 degrees, a day in the 70s feels cold. Especially when it rains. And in Da Lat it is always raining. In fact, in December and January, when Saigon was getting its least amount of rain, its mountainous counterpart was receiving its most.
So there I was, high above the sea, seven miles from the Langbiang Mountains, in the comparatively calm torrent of rain that was the city of Da Lat.
What was I to do? I checked into a hostel in the city center. There was no one else there, but the place offered free breakfast and served a family dinner every Thursday. Plus, I had an entire dorm to myself.
Putting away my backpack, I went down to the patio and helped myself to a breakfast of coffee, dragon fruit, and eggs over toast. Eating, I scrolled my phone, searching for some way to spend my day. It wasn’t yet noon, and the sky was still relatively clear.
I decided I’d take it easy. Riding a bus all day was stiffening work. A walk would be good for me. So off into the streets I went, touring my newest temporary home. After a few hundred feet, I came to a lake. It was an ordinary lake, some shade of blue that was neither pleasing nor repulsive. But people were gathered there, mostly young couples. I learned later it was called the “Lake of Sighs,” apparently over the numerous Romeo-and-Juliettes who failed to come together over the years. Despite my utter aloneness, I decided to join the romance and rented one of those swan peddle-boats. It had terrible acceleration and minimal top speeds; in fact, the little boat required a good deal of effort to operate, and was more physically taxing than it was relaxing. But the sights were satisfying. How could I complain—me on this lake, a tiny blip in this expanse of water, surrounded by trees and life and green.
It was around two in the afternoon when I set off from the Lake of Sighs in search of food. The expedition didn’t last long. The only condition a restaurant needed to meet was serving pho. (My first two weeks in Vietnam, I ate very little besides pho.) Just down the street from my hostel, there was a shop with a patio. I stopped inside and ended up there until well past four drinking Tiger and people watching.
I went back to my hostel assuming I was in for an early night. But, when I got to my room, there was someone else there. A man: a muscular man, with a shaved head and a full beard. He spoke English like a bloody Mancunian, but his name was Maris and he was Latvian.
“Like the deejay from Limp Bizkit?” I asked him.
Exactly, he told me before asking where I was from.
“The States,” I answered generically.
“Yeah, yeah, but where?”
Were our accents really that easy to pick out, I wondered. But I said:
“Upstate New York. Well, Western New York. A place called Buffalo.”
“I know it,” he said.
Strange, I wondered. No one knows Buffalo. But what I said was:
And then it clicked.
“Oh yeah,” I put in before he could answer. “Ice hockey probably isn’t uncommon there. And Girgensons plays on the Sabres. I mean Zemgus, what a name. Why’d your parents go with Maris when they could have something like Zemgus?”
“In Latvia, Zemgus isn’t such a curious name. So I guess I would’ve just been another one in the crowd. Anyways, if we’re talking Latvian athletes, my choice is Arons Bogulubovs.”
“I have no idea who that is,” I answered honestly.
“He’s was an Olympian judoka and a medalist.”
“So he practices judo?” I asked, unfamiliar with the term judoka.
“Same as me,” he said, smiling proudly.
“You know,” I began, “isn’t Porzingis Latvian?”
“He is indeed,” he told me.
“My brother teaches his son,” I said.
“Dude, he’s like twenty-three.”
“Oh yeah, I guess I lied then. Well, sports: bringing the world together.”
Such riveting conversation could take you only one place: the bar. We found an establishment not far from the hostel and ordered two beers. We drank and talked about why he had an accent like an Englishman. (He studied in Manchester, he told me.) I made a joke about those damned open borders. And then suddenly it happened: We turned off the main road and down a side street into p.c. territory. I couldn’t tell you how it happened, but the next thing I remember Maris saying was this:
“No one’s gonna tell me what to say, mate,” he started. (He must’ve been a Jordan Peterson fan.) “Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against anybody, so long as they’re a good person,” he went on. “But take this for instance, right: I’m a judoka; I’m part of a gym, a league. I’m in competitions. Okay, and there’s this transwoman in the women’s division. She kicks the bloody shit out of these other girls. Tell me how that’s fair.”
“Well,” I said. Then, sipping my beer slowly, I continued: “Maybe it’s really a simple thing. Maybe she just trains harder.”
Maris scoffed. “Mate, she used to have a bloody cock, no offense to her. But it’s the truth. And with that cock came a set of balls pumping testosterone. She wasn’t always a she. And mate, you’re delusional if you think women can build muscle mass as efficiently or easily as men. Don’t get me wrong, women are as capable of men in a lot of ways, but physiologically there’re a few undeniable differences. Mate, no matter how hard we try, we won’t ever push crying children out of our cocks. So, of course, it’s not fair. But no one’s going to say anything because it’s politically incorrect.”
“Well, I guess that all depends on when she affirmed her gender,” I said, deliberately using (arguably) over-the-top correctness. “If she transitioned, say, at the age of eleven, then she probably wouldn’t have started male puberty. Hormone blockers and estrogen would do the rest. And she’d be on a pretty level playing field with other women. You see? And, even if it’s later, and the person was more muscular, well, what do you suggest? You can’t discriminate; you can’t tell them they can’t compete. And what about the inverse, what about transmen? Should they be allowed to compete, or does the fact that estrogen was once their primary sex hormone mean they’re still too physically weak? It’s a slippery slope and most people aren’t smart enough to discern the difference between what you’re saying and bigotry. Even if you’re not a bigot, your very point lends itself to existing bigots’ own bias.”
“See, but that’s the bloody issue. Why am I—someone who cares nothing about what you do or who you are, skin tone, religion, any of that—why is it my responsibility to monitor my opinions because they might offend somebody, because they might deepen bigotry? I shouldn’t have to be responsible for hateful people. I’m only saying this woman—who I acknowledge and accept is a woman—has an advantage against the other women. That’s it.”
“So what do you propose?” I asked again.
“I don’t know, separate competitions maybe.”
“Isn’t that segregation? Or, at the least, a denial of trans-people’s right to exist as men and women and not as some third-party hybrid?”
“Mate, you’re missing the point.”
“Have you ever thought about asking her? I mean, it’s unfair for us to deliberate on these things without the opinion of someone within the community. Well, I mean we can deliberate on anything, but formally, should competition rules be altered, it’d be best to get the opinion of the trans community.”
“What are you on about? I’d be kicked out if I asked a thing like that. That’s the way it is nowadays.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “As long as you’re sincere and level-headed, she’d probably be more than willing to listen. Look, you said it yourself: You’re not a hateful person. I have a lot of friends like you back home—new-age libertarians, with friends who are gay and lesbian and black and transgender, who still wouldn’t support affirmative action legislation. It’s clear you don’t think she’s some abomination. It’s not like you’re some religious dogmatist. You know, you could very well disagree on the issue and still be friends. So, honestly, why not approach her. No one wants to make an enemy of an ally (or anyone neutral). I’m sure she’d rather take the time to explain and answer whatever, then file some complaint about hate speech or whatever.”
“Maybe, but you never met her mate. Could be she kicks my ass for even asking.”
I laughed. It was good to debate. Especially with men like Maris: They were the kind of soft allies who would support, maybe not everything, but enough.
“Okay, so, more beers and some tamer conversation?”
“Fair by me,” he said, and the night went on.
The next day I left Maris to his own devices. Instead, after breakfast, I went abseiling as part of a tour. It was pricey, around 45 USD, but unlike the Cu Chi Tunnels or Angkor Wat, I wouldn’t second guess my decision. The day included, well, abseiling, for one. We were in the jungle. (Fun fact, whereas a forest is full of tall trees and navigable by humans, a jungle is more of an overgrown mass of vegetation found in tropical or humid climates and full of creatures: from eye-popping butterflies to noisy cicadas, from orchids and bamboo and palm to lyrical birds, from monkeys and elephants to tigers and gorillas and leopards.) After learning how to control the ropes and practicing our jumping, we trekked to our first launch point. It was the highest of the three cliffs we’d be descending; but, still, it was only a little more than a hundred feet. It wasn’t quite as exhilarating as promised, but it was still fun; and, when a Dutch girl’s hair caught in the ropes, everyone fell victim to a bout of uncontrollable laughter. We did hope she would be okay, but the anxiety of hoping only pushed more laughter out. Following the second descent, we ventured off path to a picnic area. We had a lunch of fried rice, pineapple, bread, pork on a stick (for the non-vegetarians), and mangosteen. We digested, trekked further, and wound up at the edge of a fifty-foot cliff. Over the precipice, water lapped gently in a wide pool. Along with some of the more adventurous, I flung myself from the edge, past the jagged rocks, and down into the blue. If cliff diving is any indication, skydiving must be incredible with its extended free fall, the sensations sweeping your body as you plummet. Another jump complete, we packed up and headed for the “natural waterslides.” These were slabs of downward-sloping rock, cracked, lumpy, and rarely smooth; a current rushed over them. With our helmets and lifejackets on, we went headfirst, feet-first; someone even went sideways. If you managed to find the right path, you got pretty good speed and limited bumpiness. We gathered our things and moved on. At some point, it rained. We hiked to the final launching point. This one didn’t involve much scaling: The goal was to get your feet on the edge of the cliff and propel yourself backwards so that you were suspended freely; from there, you were to lower yourself down into the narrow stream below, letting the little waterfall’s rill push you to safety. I misheard the instructions, of course, and in my panic tried to abseil down and across the cliff face, grabbing hold of rocks here and there as I forced my way toward the pool of people. Eventually, after a lot of screaming from the guide and the others, I realized what to do and, thwomped by the waterfall, I let myself float into the brook. We trekked an hour and a half back through the jungle, took some of those mandatory tour photos, and boarded the bus home.
On my third day in Da Lat, Maris and I rented motorbikes.
Our first stop was a Buddhist monastery that boasted a 79-foot statue of Siddhartha. The golden Buddha was in lotus pose, or what Americans call sitting “Indian style,” and there was a sculpted pagoda in front of him. This was my first giant Buddha statue, so it was pretty impressive. Even as you come to see more and more of them, you can never really shake their size. It’s quite a massive work of iconography. And really, it’s only fathomable because even more behemoth pieces exist like the Washington Monument or the Pyramids.
Besides the statue, the monastery grounds were lovely: vibrant, in bloom, with a good view of the city below. After about an hour, we hopped back on the bikes and went exploring. During a torrential downpour, we stopped off in some village for lunch. Businesses and houses lined the street and cattle lay on the side of the road; chickens clucked and dogs hid from the wet. Inside the restaurant, a man in an army uniform approached us. He asked us where we were from, and to me he said:
“Ah, I fought with your soldiers against the communists.”
Evidently, he was proud. If ever there were anything more exemplary of life’s nuance, I’ll be damned. Think about it. There was a museum in Saigon, really the economic heart of Vietnam, denouncing the “American War of Aggression.” And rightfully so: chemical warfare, torture, indiscriminate bombing, civilian massacres like My Lai, the reduction of Laos and Cambodia too, the draft, the protesters self-immolating, the deformities and subsequent normalization of abnormalities, everything. It was horrible. And yet, you could always find a Southern Vietnamese, a refugee or an elder, ready to harangue the people on the evils of communism, of the brutality of re-education. And, really, you couldn’t deny their point. All they had to do was reference the Viet Cong or recall the massacre at Hue. Even ideologically, it was nuanced. Surely, neither South nor North much wanted French colonization, but rather than unite against imperialism, the regions split politically (and religiously)—the South embracing the free-market and the North communism.
So it goes.
The rain calmed and we rode on.
As luck would have it, we wound up at the Langbiang Mountains. Trusting in providence, we paid the two dollar parking fee, and began hiking.
We never made it to the top. Time was against us. Almost two hours had passed and the elevation still had 1,000 feet before its peak. We would have to turn back or be left overnight in the dark. God (and some locals) only knows what animals and insects call those mountains home. Before we left, though, we retrieved from the backpack a bottle of vodka and an off-brand soft drink. We mixed the two and enjoyed the view: the sky, the mountains, the puzzle pieces of city and sea fitted tightly together.
Contentedly buzzed, we trekked back down the trail. Maybe our BAC was too high; maybe that’s why so many foreigners fuck themselves up on motorbikes. The Saigon kiss.
That evening, we got dinner from some restaurant a block away from our hostel. It was on Duong Yersin or something like that.
We ordered a goat curry, chicken legs, and a bottle of wine. The waiter insisted on making certain we wanted the chicken legs. Assuming the English was wrong (the same menu offered pho with “pourc”), and what they meant was “wings,” we said yes. When they brought them out, we recognized our ignorance: On a plate before us were two chicken legs, from the knee to the foot. You couldn’t find any meat on the thing: just gristle and a mild flavor similar to chicken broth. It wasn’t so much unpleasant as it was pointless. If you didn’t grow up eating them, you probably wouldn’t find much joy there. The curry was good, but the goat was rife with cartilage. It’s a rare experience, I’ve found, to come across goat that isn’t bone-in and lined in fat. And the wine: The wine was the epitome of rookie mistakes. It was rice wine that came in a plastic water bottle; (who knows where the bottle came from). The way to drink it was in shots: one tiny shot of shit after another. And it was something akin to shit, all right. It wasn’t like sake or grape wine; it was practically whiskey, and it was strong. Every shot burned and gagged, but somehow we finished the bottle.
And then something happened.
Two laughing Vietnamese men caught my eye. As Maris was walking to the bathroom, they waved to me. They too were drinking this dangerous concoction. They signaled for me to come over.
I stood up, walked over to their table and sat down. They asked the waiter for two more of those plastic shot glasses that they have at dive bars that are too cheap to get real glasses. Then they poured me some rice wine. I smiled; my stomach curdled; and all together we said “Moh hai bat, yo!” Slightly confused, Maris sat down next to us. They poured another round of shots and we made another toast. They offered us some of their spread: pork and rice and vegetables. We finished their bottle and they ordered a second. The shots continued; my stomach surrendered; and a buzz crept in.
Finally, one of the men spoke up. He had parted hair, bronze skin, a wispy black moustache and a wide smile. “Yersin,” he said, and he grabbed my beard. “Yersin,” he repeated.
He poured another round of shots.
“What?” I said while I flailed my incomprehension.
“Yersin,” he said again, and pointed to the doorway.
The other man, who was bigger, and bald (he had the look of a monk-turned-rebel) held up his hand. He pulled out his phone and started typing. Turning the screen to me, I was face-to-face with a hundred depictions of a man named Alexandre Yersin. (As I would learn later, he was a Swiss-French physician who co-discovered the bacteria behind the bubonic plague. He also, apparently, was known as the founder of Da Lat and an early pioneer of rubber trees [that bastard!] in Indochina.) I didn’t really see the resemblance, but the bald man gave my beard a quick yank, and understanding dawned: My beard had a doppelganger.
We took more shots, finished a second bottle, and, against all better judgment, ordered a third. Eventually, we managed to start some sort of conversation. It turned out both men had cousins in New York. They snapped a few selfies; drunkenly, we sloshed the shots down. When the third bottle was finished, Maris and I stood up to go. We called the waiter over to pay our bill, but the man with the parted hair, shook his head. I tried to tell him no, but he wouldn’t hear it and insisted on paying. I shrugged my shoulders.
Nice things happen in all sorts of places. My beard had a doppelganger, and that had meant free drinks and free dinner. We would just need to pay it forward, my beard and me.
Morning came with a headache and a hangover. It was a Thursday. That night I would be eating dinner with the owner and his family. But just about then all I could think about was Alexandre Yersin and the nauseous rumblings in my stomach. I lay in my bed, stroked my beard. “Thanks doc,” I groaned. “Thanks a lot.”
Theodore L. Clemens strives to be like his initials: tender, loving, caring. A graduate of the University at Buffalo, he’s an emerging writer and amateur sociologist. A world traveler, he’s been to ten countries over three continents (so far).