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Day Trip to Da Lat

Day Trip to Da Lat

For my religious studies class in Vietnamese Religions, Fr. Julio invited Gabe and I on a day trip to Da Lat, a city nestled in the mountains of Vietnam’s central highlands, called Tay Nguyen in Vietnamese. For our trip we would go to Da Lat’s famous Zen monastery and pagoda to get more hands on experience with Vietnamese Buddhism by talking with some of the monks there. We would also be touring the city and meeting several nursing masters students attending Loyola’s new nursing campus opening up in Vietnam as part of Loyola’s web of projects in the region. This trip had been in the plan for weeks and had been nestled between our Taku and Northern excursions. A week or so before our trip Fr. Julio opened up the possibility for the rest of the students to join us, which they gladly did. So, shortly after Vietnamese class on Friday the five of us Loyola students met Mr. Ky, Fr. Julio, and our driver outside the university gates. We all greeted each other, hopped in the Mercedes sprinter van, and headed north on our way to Da Lat.
On the way we saw may cool things. One town was filled with giant boulders. There would be a stretch of houses and then a boulder, there was a factory buil around a boulder, and one bolder even had a giant Buddha statute fixed on top of it. That was interesting. Later on we saw miles and miles of thin trees lined up perfectly and extending as far as one could see in columns on both sides of the road. Fr. Julio commented that these were trees used for rubber, and that the French had planted these huge rubber plantations centuries ago. After a stop a gas station for a quick lunch, we continued on our way.
Crossing the vast plane of rice paddies we eventually came upon a river. This river was quite remarkable because there were house boats stretching along both banks of the winding river as far as we could see. The river emanated from the highlands, which we were about to enter.
Upon entering the foothills, Mr. Ky, a devote Roman Catholic, asked Fr. Julio if we could stop at a shrine of the Madonna to pray for protection during our upcoming journey in the mountains. Fr. Julio agreed, saying it was a good idea, and just as the road began to rise and twist we found ourselves at a little roadside shrine. We pulled over to pray and have a little refreshment before the real arduous part of the journey began. I climbed up several steps to a large stone statue of Mary in the center of a large brick platform overlooking the mountain pass. I silently offered a pray to the Virgin Mary as several Vietnamese children approached waving incense sticks and placing them in a large stone urn filled with sand at the feet of the statue. This practice looked almost identical to what I have seen with prayers done I front of statues to the Buddha or bodhisattvas. I remembered a professor I had freshman year, Kim Searcy, and his quote about the spread of Islam across the globe, “Islam is like a river. It runs through many countries and although the water, the teaching, is the same, it picks up the colors, the culture and practices, of whatever country it flows through.” I smiled and thought that for sure this same ideal was true for Catholicism. I continued my prayer and then began to notice the sound of rushing water that reminded me of a certain place in northern Michigan called Roaring Brook. I grew excited, and ending my prayer, I walked past the statue and up into the hills to look for the water.
I found it in a little stream rushing down the hills. I went down to the waters edge and put my hand in the cool water down into the soft sand and then rubbed my fingers over the smooth stones. I was instantly transported to the city of Harbor Springs in northern Michigan, a place where I spend my summers. The cool air, greenery all around, and this little stream were almost identical to what I live to experience every summer.
I was summoned out of this trance when Gabe approached behind and said everybody else was getting a snack at a little shack below the shrine. So, pulling my fingers out of the water and my mind out of my memory I crossed a little arched stone bridge and approached the canteen. All of us had a simple coffee or tea and then we were back on the road, heading up winding paths that would rock from side to side with our windows filled with the reflections of the awe inspiring mountains that loomed above us.
Hours passed as we rolled by giant mountains and little towns clinging to the edge of the road and straddling cliffs and sharp plummets. Tea plantations began to pop up and the simple rolling hills and steep mountains began to be terraced, offering structure to the wilderness we had been witnessing for so long. Terraced tea hills were dotted with dark green tea plants and packed with reddish brown dirt all the way down to the valleys which were covered in bright green rice paddies. Among all this, medium green palm trees dotted the entire scene. This array of vegetation and shades of green was very pleasing to the eye.
Sunset hit us a few minutes before we hit Da Lat on the final incline. The sun set among the mountains between the summits and the clouds. The effect was quite stunning. The sky remained light blue as the burnt orange setting sun hit the puffy clouds mixing white and orange as the greenery of the mountains grew darker. It was truly a unique sunset. Finally the sun disappeared below the mountains as we rose over the final hill into Da Lat.
Beautiful. That’s all I can say. When we crossed that last hill we entered into a little European enclave in Asia. I could have mistaken Da Lat for Alpine Switzerland. Pine trees were everywhere and French colonial villas surrounded a large central lake. Thousands of houses were nestled in the slopes comprising this large bowl at the top of the mountain and church steeples were prominent among the city skyline. I was in awe.
When we reached the hotel, we were greeted by several Vietnamese attendants in parkas. Yes, PARKAS! Even I had trouble believing it when I first saw it, but didn’t after a few moments outside the van. I was wearing gym shorts and my ‘Vote for Dave’ T-shirt that tightly hugged my upper body. I began to shiver. The air was temperate by American standards, but having lived in Saigon for the past few months, my body had not experienced this kind of ‘cold’ in so long I was not used to it. “Wow, I’m shivering in Viet Nam… this is odd”, I thought to myself.
We checked into our rooms and after a little half an hour break we met in the lobby for dinner, and were met by around twelve nursing students and two doctors from Loyola’s Vietnam medical school based in Da Lat. Fr. Julio introduced all of us and we were ushered into the hotels dining room to eat a large Vietnamese feast, including a hot pot of beef, squid, and shrimp. During our conversation, a woman named Tuyet, which means snow in Vietnamese, began to tear up. A woman sitting next to her asked what was wrong, and Tuyet said that I reminded her of her son, who was also twenty because I acted like him. I smiled and she smiled. We continued our dinner and Fr. Julio clinked his wine glass with a spoon and stood up, raising a toast for this to be the first of many dinners between Vietnamese students and Loyola students studying abroad and for increased friendship between those studying through Loyola in Vietnam, and those coming from Loyola to study in Vietnam. We all raised our glasses and drank the sweet pink wine produced locally from vineyards in Da Lat. We also enjoyed the distinctive Da Lat tea, which is based on artichokes. It was a very subtle, and yet sweet flavor.
When dinner was concluded we bid the Vietnamese nursing students goodnight, Betsy headed off for bed, and all us guys headed off into the city to wish Robb a happy birthday by hopping around bars. The first bar we came upon was called ‘Why not?’ All three of us looked at each other and said simultaneously, “Why not?” while shrugging out shoulders and laughing. Upon entering and climbing upstairs we found a white floor and multicolored walls with different colored orbs. Behind the bar Disney channel was playing on TV and the DJ was playing techno that reminded Robb of German clubs. Several young Vietnamese were drinking on the balcony and we sat down for a drink inside. After our drink we head out into the city center to find a lively night market of old folks frying things on charcoal stoves, little kids playing, and people eating little fritters on the classic Vietnamese ‘kindergarten table and chairs’ that are ubiquitous across the country, all wrapped in parkas and woolen caps mind you. Some of the old women stooped over cooking reminded me of my adopted Bhutanese refugee family I work with, and the grandma Bhagi, who is always wrapped up, not used to the Chicago cold. A little boy in a baseball cap ran out and quickly rubbed my belly before asking us to have a warm milk at his families stall. We opted not to and kept going. That was the first time I had my belly rubbed. I’ve had my stomach patted by a Buddhist monk, a old woman on the street, and one of the cleaning ladies at the dormitory I am living in. I have no idea why this keeps happening. I wonder if its good luck or something, but nobody has given me an answer yet. Anyway we found our next bar and had another birthday toast to Robb, who turned 21. Not too too late we arrived home and went to bed. We had a packed day a ahead of us, and needed some sleep.
I awoke promptly at 5:30 and lay in bed until around 6 when I got up to take a shower. I dressed in clothes appropriate for a pagoda, and woke up Robb because he is notorious for sleeping in. After that I descended from the stairs to an almost empty dining room and grabbed some fried eggs, dragonfruit, pineapple, and a soft baguette. Sitting down to eat and looking out the window to the little mountain get away, I began my breakfast very content. I was soon joined by Alex who returned from his morning walked and we ate together. I sipped the local artichoke tea until we were eventually joined by our other friends in succession. Julio informed us this was a big morning for the hotel because today it was being upgraded from the rank of a two star to a three star hotel. Pretty cool huh? There were a few banners, some communist party members, photographers, and bunches of flowers. Activity picked up farther into breakfast. Eventually we all finished and packed into the van, heading off to the Zen Pagoda.
We arrived at what looked like a Japanese castle with stone walls, gates, and little buildings with the iconic sloped roof separated from each other by gardens, stone walkways, and many saffron and orange clad monks scurrying around. We entered the monastery and followed Fr. Julio to the chambers of one of the monastery’s senior monks. I never really learned his name because all of us simply called him teacher. We all greeted him with pressed palms and Fr. Julio shook hands with him. The monk was older, very lean, had a shaved head, and had a very charismatic smile that lit up quite often. We were led into a small library around a large table and were served fresh tea grown right in the monastery by a novice monk. After settling in and sipping our tea, the elder monk began his talk with a great smile. The talk went on for quite some time and he emphasized clearing our mind of distractions, being mindful of what we do, and showing the greatest compassion to others. The monk said there were three levels of compassion: 1. Realizing that there is compassion. 2. Having compassion for ourselves. 3. Sharing and outpouring unlimited and boundless compassion with the world. I wonder what stage of compassion I am at? That is a good question to ask yourself too reader… At any rate, the monk concluded his talk by offering advice to us students saying, “The most important thing now is to stop learning so much, and to actually do something.” I’m sure many students at Loyola can relate who take a full slot of classes and continuously find themselves holed up in the IC day after day studying and studying. DOING something would be a breath of fresh air. I think that study abroad is actually doing something. So Loyola students reading this: Consider Vietnam, Rome, or Beijing next fall or really any semester at Loyola you think you are ready for. See the world while you are still in school. Do something!
Anyway after the monk’s talk we went on an exclusive private tour of the monastery beyond the gates baring tourists. We were able to see private libraries stacked with books, meditation halls with giant gold Buddhas and murals of bodhisattvas, stautes of Bodhidharma abounded, and beautiful flower gardens of lotus flowers, roses, and hydrangeas among many exotic plants and bonsai trees in rock gardens following the Zen tradition. It was very peaceful as we walked around quietly, the monk smiling and using his umbrella as a cane as we paced behind him every so often asking a question. After seeing the men’s meditation hall we walked to a railing overlooking a river flowing down from the mountain and observed what the monk called ‘personal retreat centers’ which were little one room cabins spread out along the river. The monk said that these little cabins would be used by a monk for personal retreat in silence for reflection, and would be separate from the rest of the community from a few weeks up to several months. The monk then told us he once spent over three months in personal retreat. I was impressed by this. I’m not sure I would mentally be able to handle isolation for that long. Besides silent retreat, all the monks gather together for meditation at 3:30 to 5:30 AM, 2:30 to 4:30 PM, and 7:30 to 9:30 PM. Can you imagine six hour spent meditating a day. I feel like I’m lucky to get in half an hour, let alone six. The monastery life sure is different from that of a busy Loyola student.
After our private tour, Teacher let us wander around the monastery while lunch was being prepared. So we all split up and independently explored the terraced gardens, a prayer room, and the little buildings holding large gongs and Asian drums. Russian tourists and Vietnamese pilgrims were among us as we checked out the different places. I removed my shoes at the prayer room and was offered a lit incense stick by a monk so I did a little prayer. I then proceeded to the garden and smelled red flowers when Robb called everyone to eat. The meal to follow was one of the most memorable of my life.
We gathered around a table. We students sat with novice monks at one table, and several other tables were filled with other monks. We said a little prayer and then sat. Then we pressed our hands together and said another prayer. Silence followed and a monk whispered to us, “Use the chopsticks only for picking food up in your bowl from the table, do not eat with them. For that, use your spoon.” Then the monks all picked up their bowls with their right hand and with their left put their fingers into a seemingly ‘rock on’ gesture with the thumb over the two middle fingers and said another prayer. Following this prayer a little bell was rung by teacher, who changed out of the standard saffron robes and was now wearing bright yellow robes. The meal had begun. The novice monks heaped chunks of rice into our metal bowls and we all proceeded to pick up tofu, spinach, and cucumbers for ourselves with our chopsticks. We also had the best squash soup I’ve ever had. It was very zesty and full of squash and a kind of lentil. By the end of two little bowls eaten mindfully and in silence, I was full. But there was still a tray of watermelon to eat! So I grabbed my chopsticks and plopped a cube of watermelon in my bowl. There was enough melon for each person to eat a cube, so it was expected we each ate a piece. While eating my watermelon most monks poured tea into their bowls and were finishing off their meals/cleaning their bowls with the tea. I picked up the pace of my mindful eating so we all wouldn’t have to wait in silence while only I ate. I hastily (but politely Mom, incase you are reading) ate my watermelon and a few seconds after I finished the monks said another prayer breaking the long silence of only clicking chopsticks, clinking spoons, and chewing food. After the solemn melodic prayer the little bell was rung again and the monks instantly got up and began to clean the tables. They were very surprised when we offered to help. We picked up dishes and took them back into the kitchen with the myriad of smiling monks. Loyola students stood apart from the average tourists once again.
After lunch the old teacher monk wished us farewell and gave us several books on Buddhism which will be a great read I’m sure. After shared smiles and pressed palms, we departed the monastery and headed back into Da Lat proper for one more attraction before hitting the road and ending our day trip. Fr. Julio and Mr. Ky had more business to attend to, so we split paths, but not before Fr. Julio gave us some money to cover dinner and snacks for the way home. It was very nice of him and good for me since I’ve been trying to keep my spending to a minimum.
Our last pit stop before the long journey home was Da Lat’s ‘Crazy House’. Formally known as Hang Nga guesthouse and built by Dang Viet Nga it is very crazy indeed. It is five stories tall, comprising a central core house and large constructed trees and mushrooms that wrap around and go through the house. It is very bizarre with strange animals like giraffes popping out of places, ladders everywhere, little bubbled cubbies in tiny hallways, and multiple staircases going up and down in every direction. There were lots of purple flowers all over the place, and the top provided a great view of the city. It was…interesting. Not really my cup of tea, but a cool experience nonetheless. After about 45 minutes of exploring that odd place, we regrouped in the central garden and ordered coffee from a smallish log cabin covered in moss. I then had probably the worst coffee of my life. It was basically brown water. Blech. Oh well. So ended our night and half day in Da Lat! It was a crazy little adventure. Even though we really didn’t spend a whole day there, I guess I’ll call it a Day Trip.
With that we hopped back on the private bus and sped of down the mountains on our seven hour journey home. I simply laid back and watch the mountains and clouds roll by. I find myself increasingly busy in Saigon with a flurry of papers popping up, Vietnamese getting harder, scholarship deadlines to deal with, and of course volunteering on top of that. So, before I threw myself back into the craziness I simply sat and enjoyed the ride. When else do you get hours of mountain trail to enjoy?



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