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January 23, 2015

Da Lat City

Yêu Tiếng Anh - The church bells are first to greet the dawn as it seeps into the darkness of a wet and chilly morning in the Central Highlands. Hundreds of people respond to the call at a 5:15 mass in Dalat Cathedral and at smaller churches or the chapels of crumbling monasteries in the surrounding hills.

To the light of kerosene lamps and candles, Roman Catholic worshipers bundled against the damp mountain air in an assortment of old coats and scarves chant and pray their way through a once-foreign ritual they have made Vietnamese. There are no missals or hymnals, and no organ on weekdays.

In its churches, its flower gardens and its villas set among pine trees, the old hill station of Dalat, more than any other place accessible to a foreigner in Vietnam, seems untouched by half a century of occupation and war.

At the Dalat Palace hotel, the manager, Thai Vien, is smoothly formal in mended suit and vintage tie as he moves among his clientele at table, shaking hands in the manner of a French host. Memory Books of 3 Regimes

Mr. Vien, like Dalat, has known three regimes: French colonialism (with its Japanese interregnum), the brief experiment known as South Vietnam and then Hanoi's conquering socialist republic.

Mr. Vien keeps memory books -one of them an old, tan leather-bound volume and two newer models with appropriately red plastic covers -that record half a century of enthusiasms:

''Nous quittons Dalat avec regret,'' a Frenchman wrote - ''We leave Dalat with regret.''

''An outstanding spot in a shrinking universe!'' said the American of the next epoch.

''I have been told there is only one Dalat,'' a Malaysian Ambassador added in 1982. ''This is indeed true. There will never be another.'' No Battles Fought Here A city of immutable pleasure is not a description with which all the leaders of Dalat's 100,000 people feel comfortable.

They tell a visitor that they have always shared the country's struggles. But they acknowledge that there were no battles here, and no crowds of American troops on rest-and-recreation sprees who might have attracted saboteurs.

Would-be revolutionaries who joined the Communist-backed student underground at Dalat University in the 1960's mostly finished their studies and took their degrees. After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, they - along with their peers who had spent the war years training in Cuba or elsewhere in the Soviet bloc -found jobs in the new order.

Dalat is a young city, especially by the measure of Vietnamese history. It was built in the 1920's and 30's as a French colonial summer capital that Vietnamese could enter only with permission. It was a refuge of imperial France in the same way Simla and other hill stations in India, Sri Lanka or Malaya were to the British in those malarial, pre-air-conditioning days when empires could be beastly places.

Blind to the impending end of their Southeast Asian world, homesick French administrators and settlers built leisure homes in Dalat in the styles of their provincial origins.

''They had architects who worked in the Savoie, Norman, Alsace, Basque and sometimes Belgian styles'' said Le Kim Ngu, a former French-language teacher who is now deputy director of tourism.

The group-travel business is a new venture for Dalat, which has known pleasure-seekers - Communist Party leaders now use its imperial palaces - but is unaccustomed to hordes.

''We want to restore the villas, but need to do research on their differing architectural origins,'' he said.

While a young city chronologically, Dalat is not a youthful place. There is little entertainment and limited employment for the young, residents say. Retired people seem most attracted by the tranquillity and the healthy atmosphere of the town, once used as a French sanitorium.

Duong Quang Tin is an exception. Mr. Tin, who is 26 years old, cultivates a propsperous market garden on a rural hillside near the Valley of Love, with its lake created by the former Saigon regime as part of a water project. His vegetable, fruit and flower farm is a sideline; Mr. Tin is a long-distance truck driver by vocation.

The few acres of land belonged to his parents, Mr. Tin said, as he offered visitors generous tumblers of his own strawberry wine. Like many people in Dalat, Mr. Tin says he found that private ownership and entrepreneurship have continued unabated in the new Vietnam.

In fact, recent economic changes encourage more ''family economies'' like his. Mr. Tin, who once planned to emigrate to France under the Orderly Departure Program, thinks he might change his mind and remain on his beautiful hillside here if present trends continue. 

Strawberries - but in jam, not wine - are also a mainstay of the Buddhist nuns at the Linh Phong Pagoda, on a hilltop in Dalat town.

There, peace has also reigned unbroken since the mid 1940's for their nuns' order which, uncharacteristically for Vietnam, is part of in a religious minority in Dalat, where by official figures about 70 percent of the people are Roman Catholic.

At the pagoda, surrounded by fruitful orchards, gardens and groves of the mimosa trees that are a hallmark of Dalat, Hue Thanh, a nun who is nearing 70, said that in any case, people in religious orders are not the best sources of worldly information.

''We live by our own energies, making our cakes and jam,'' she said. ''A nun's life everywhere is always the same.''

Photo of A bicycle and a horse cart, still the main means of transportation (Times/Barbara Crossette); Map of Vietnam.
Center of Dalat city

Thuy Ta Restauran - by Xuan Huong Lake

Pine Forest under Sunshine in the Morning

The Cathedral Basillica of Dalat, also known as Cock Church 

A small street

Pedagogical College of Da Lat
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Tommy Bảo - Yêu Tiếng Anh

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