Contemplating the navel of Dalat

(No.11, Vol.3, Dec 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)


Xuan Huong Lake in its early days.
Photo provided by Nguyen Hang Tinh

In this city that has stepped out from the wild highlands, history, as well as all other things, has reflected upon Xuan Huong Lake ever since it took shape early in the previous century.
Who among the people of Dalat could get through each day without encountering Xuan Huong Lake? Whenever they hit the streets, they must pass by, go around, or face the famous splendid lake, which has been ranked as a national heritage site.
I consider the lake the yin of Dalat, in comparison to the yang of the hills and mountains. At the lake transpire days so sunny and beautiful that they seem to take place out in the wilds, even though the lake is right in the middle of the city. I often direct my thoughts at it in order to purify myself in a natural space. One day, I realized that the lake wasn’t an inanimate object, but rather it was a piece of the human world.
As for the highland city, many times I’ve visualized it lying neatly within the palm of my hand, with Xuan Huong Lake as the navel. With this city, there’s a fortuitous coincidence that corresponds with people; the navel is the point of reproductive inception. Only with premeditation was action taken during the founding of Dalat City. The first thing that they did was to deliberately set up a lake. The sudden fantastic inspiration of civil engineer Labbé and the envoy Cunhac to hold back the flow of Lach Spring in 1919 is a feat that is still unmatched anywhere else in Vietnam. Lach Spring became Grand Lac and then Xuan Huong Lake, as it is called today. The business of creating a lake was so important that it was granted focused attention and conducted through planning, organization, and solicitous design. It was done before constructing houses and roads, and prior to bringing people there to live. In Vietnam, there are two lakes that are the heart of the city and the eyes through which the ecology is balanced and the world is viewed. Whereas Guom Lake (a.k.a. Hoan Kiem Lake) in Hanoi was created by nature, Xuan Huong Lake is the creation of mankind.
One hundred twenty years have passed since Dalat was born and everything in Dalat has changed, from the city’s layout to its denizens’ hearts - with the exception of Xuan Huong Lake. Many governments have passed through the body of Dalat, but unfathomably, no power has dared to touch it. Regardless of abundant truculence, none ever managed to succeed. For instance, as a preponderance of people from all over planned to stake out and occupy the surface of the water in order to create business premises, Thanh Thuy Restaurant was constructed as a multi-storey building, and a café was built as an extension to the outside of Thuy Ta Restaurant’s architecture. Whoever messed with Xuan Huong Lake was disdained by the people. It may be just a lake, but it is deferentially revered.


Xuan Huong Lake, 2007.
Photo: Minh Loc

Residents here reserve a corner of their hearts for Xuan Huong Lake. It seems that the people of Dalat adore Xuan Huong Lake as much as they treasure Cu Hill - despite the fact that this stretch of hills has been ‘married off’ to foreigners in order to make a golf course such that the people no longer have a chance to disport there. Xuan Huong Lake continues to placidly follow the months and years, gliding along with the happy and sad destinies of mankind. As it is the navel of the highland city, it beats in rhythm with the human world and assumes all things to which it is exposed such as the wastewater of hotels, carwashes, escort pubs, massage parlours, karaoke bars, dance clubs, and the system of houses that pile up on the old hills and mountains, which see off the pine forest on its separate way. While algae may propagate day by day and pile up over the sunny spaces, Xuan Huong Lake still determines spots that glisten. While valley creeks upstream have allowed the people of this world to demarcate plots of land and fill them in, Xuan Huong Lake continues to extend its breast to take in all wayward things. Xuan Huong Lake tolerates all sins. Condoms may be tossed by certain people down into the lake, yet it still appears hallowed, meting out in plenty the remembrances of the people of the world.
The lake has clear and murky seasons that follow the two rainy and dry seasons. However, for the 95-year-old hunched-back immigrant from Hue, who always bears an antiquated rickety camera in front of his chest, it is precisely this lake that has countenanced his family for three generations. And the lake brooks not just the old peripatetic photographer, but also to the cigarette stalls, the shoulder poles bearing soy milk, and the corn and sweet potato grills that are withdrawn beneath the leaves of withering Samu trees on gelid nights; it belongs to young female townsfolk, as well as the furtive steps of anonymous errant lasses, who continue to quietly assume a single hue of industriousness, physical exertion, and meek probity. These latter are industrious but possess radiant self-respect; they would not commit evil, dishonest or craven deeds. To be human and ‘sell one’s body so as to feed one’s mouth’ entails a certain integrity that rests a distant step from that of ‘speaking one’s mouth to nourish the body.’ The two posh restaurants, Thuy Ta and Thanh Thuy, have sat on the lake for almost one hundred years, yet many of the gardeners there have lived out nearly their entire lives without once setting foot inside, since one meal in that place is usually equivalent to half a tonne of cabbage.


Xuan Huong Lake - a favourite place for bikers
Photo: Nguyen Hang Tinh

The people of Dalat are mostly good citizens, who lead slow-paced lives. Whether well-off or rich, they are natural, easy going, and relaxed. Naturally, they dream of becoming gentle individuals, are rarely given to vice, and seldom avaricious. The city is not large, but the people of Dalat have long lived ‘the street life’ more than those in other places. They don’t follow ‘the flock’ and seldom pay attention to sharing a common native origin or belonging to the same clique. Those nouveaux riche with a preponderance of assets are new immigrants who, over a few decades, had the clout, muscle, and/or awareness of the times to arrive in order to seek immediate profits, not to open their breasts in adoration of Dalat. The Dalat people, having ‘originated from the pines,’ aren’t fond of competing over superiority and inferiority. It is remarkable that throughout the past history of the mountainous streets, no native of Dalat has ever led political sway over the place. It’s not that Dalat people aren’t intelligent enough to possibly accomplish that, but rather because they have no such predilection and designs, and opportunities to do so were also uncertain. They may live in the mountains, but as for the people of Dalat, no one would rate them as country men.
Regardless of how lavish the scale of the houses on Xuan Huong Lake may be on the inside, outside, at the edge of the grass at the side of the road, are good-natured (or too-lazy-to-work) city lads who still elegantly cast fishing hooks for foreign tourists to gaze at, wide-eyed with pleasure.
Couples still tightly embrace one another so as to take their minds off the cold and enjoy the redolence of the most beautiful of times in human life. This place remains an unmanufactured area, as in the very beginning when Erhest Hébrard, the French architect, set up the development trajectory of Dalat in 1924. Xuan Huong Lake, in the eyes of Hébrard and Lagisquet, was the eye of Dalat, a pearl amid the scenic city. If it were not so, then Xuan Huong Lake would not have become an urban work of art, and Dalat would not have become such a renowned city so rapidly and enduringly.
The pleasure of beholding the silhouette of the pine forest reflected on the lake’s surface or the protruding bridges sparsely sprawled over the face of the water - indeed, those are the product of Dalat alone. If it were not so, then the foremost poet Han Mac Tu, in the winter of 1941, would not have had sufficient material with which to encapsulate the spirit of Dalat to the degree that it could enduringly rival the world’s talents by writing:
‘Stay silent! Don’t speak so much
So as to hear the soughing from the bottom
of the lake
So as to listen to the rustling of willow wisps
in the wind
And so as to watch the sky expound the
meaning of love…’
It would be difficult to untangle this world of emotion, such as why someone who, after half a century returned home, still like to stand beside the protruding bridge at Xuan Huong Lake with a horse so as to ‘model’ for a souvenir picture, as people have done for fifty years.
Anyone, after a journey in which their vehicle climbs up Prenn Pass and they catch sight of Xuan Huong Lake replete with mist, would be at last satisfied to their heart’s delight [and exclaim], ‘This is to have returned to Dalat, to the place where ‘the pace is not fast, speech is not clamorous, meals are not rushed, life is not radiant, and work is not about getting really rich.’ Thus, those with truly deep affection for Dalat often concern themselves with Xuan Huong Lake, such as when they cry out at the sight of the appearance of algae or when meritorious fellows are so devoted to Xuan Huong Lake that they are infatuated and audaciously transform its rockery, transporting stones and aged trees from down in the torrid Dai Ninh River of the Duc Trong tropics back to plant all around the lakeside.
The people retort, ‘Up in the mountains, what’s the point of making artificial mountains!?’ The leaders of Lam Dong Province, of which Dalat is a part, unfathomably gave the okay to real estate investors from Saigon to come and clear out 15ha on the southern bank of Xuan Huong Lake along Ba Huyen Thanh Quan Street in order to set up a string of hotels, villas, and nightclubs. This aesthetically unsound idea compelled the people of Dalat to respond, and the successive government had to extend its hand in ‘rectification’ when it repealed the decision of the preceding officials so as to return the space to the proper use of rendering the dreaminess of the flowers, verdant trees, and couples in love. It is questionable whether the stretch of landscape below the visage of the pen-tower of the Dalat Pedagogical College of Dalat actually becomes a ‘Garden of Extraordinary Flowers and Outstanding Plants,’ yet over the last three years, it has laid out there motionless, looking piteous. A number of people arbitrarily, without clarifying its veracity, upon hearing rumours that the pine forest in front of the Palace Hotel might be set aside for hotels and urgently brought cameras to take pictures of the original space as a keepsake.
I still prefer sitting on the edge of the grass along the banks of Xuan Huong Lake to using transportation and spinning around it. Like everyone else, I too readily sense the birth of the effeminate city’s boisterousness. There are two existential images that constitute the interest value of the highland city: the pen-tower of the Yersin Lyceé School, which incites soaring aspirations into the azure sky in the east, and the bell tower of ‘Chicken Cathedral’ (a.k.a. Dalat Cathedral) in the south. The elegant and particularly magnificent weathercock, along with the old pen-tower, is drowned out before so many other mediocre structures that sprout up grandiosely.
I’ve had the occasion of sitting, watching, and quietly listening to the trot of horses bearing paddy in Tuy Hoa, Phu Yen, and crossing Da Rang Bridge, and horses carrying grapes and garlic through the ancient Hoa Lai Cham Temples in Phan Rang, Ninh Thuan, but somehow I still find the patter of trotting horses along Xuan Huong Lake more musical. The horses’ trot in the Tuy Hoa and Phan Rang regions is ponderous with suffering, dirt and toil, while in Dalat, it conveys an errant sojourning quality that is noble and refined. Thus, at times when they forbid horse carriages from running along its banks, Xuan Huong Lake suddenly seemed to perish, despite the fact that high-voltage streetlights still blanketed it with illumination - that’s how it is!
Also in this location at Xuan Huong Lake, people find that the hotels and new houses have, over just the last ten years, suddenly swallowed up the hills and mountains, and even the curved, indistinct, and gentle mountain roads. All the remaining sparse forests in the central area are suddenly being cleared away, with cement replacing the pines. The undeveloped areas are now also turning into streets and districts. The view out towards Langbian Mountain is gradually closing in. The characteristic tall and short mansions that hover around the sides of these roads seem as though houses have closed the curtains around them and they are no longer visible. Just sitting there, one recognizes that the ‘motorcycle civilization’ is overrunning the highlands and growing denser by the day, stifling the fine scenery and predominating over modes of transportation that are benign towards the environment.
Waves of ‘face masks’ daily carry away the smiles that are inherently inscribed on the lips and cheeks of the highland city’s svelte lasses, who are famed for their peach-rose cheeks. Of course, even at present, Dalat continues to be regarded as the solitary rare and pleasantly cool city still left in Vietnam. The six kilometre perimeter of the famous poetic lake will continue to refract the many colours of life along with the affairs of the world and it will witness more of the mountainous streets’ permutations. Various changes that are sound, earnest, and befit nature will bring peace of mind to the city. However, if they bear a wayward, imitative, and grasping character, then they will surely make the city disingenuous, fluster the masses, and, in the idiom of today’s youths, tempt fate.