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February 7, 2004

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Before stopping at beaches further south, we detour to Dalat, a city that locals call the jewel of the South. Most Vietnamese spend little time in the mountains, so Dalat carries special appeal. It nestles in a highland region where small mountains jut into Vietnam's backside. Over 300,000 domestic tourists come each year, the most popular place for a vacation, Vietnam's Disneyland. A cool climate, pine clad hills, a carnival atmosphere draw the people. They call Dalat, "The Valley of Love." And to entertain these tourists, cityfolk dress as cowboys, yes, the Dalat Cowboys (no relation to the Dallas Cowboys), and ride around a central lake on small ponies. Further out, a hill tribe calls itself Chicken Village; for emphasis, the villagers erected a huge chicken statue. In town we find a place called the "Crazy House." Who would want to miss Dalat?
The 'Crazy House,' built with imagination, not socialism. It's actually a guesthouse created by a female artist and architect with major ties to the Communist government (see picture below). The house could be in a scene from Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.
The Crazy House architect, Mrs Dang Viet Nga, also the daughter of Ho Chi Minh's successor, the second premier of Vietnam. Instead of running Vietnam she decided to pursue a quiet life as an architect in Dalat.
This monk, Vien Thuc, Vietnam's Picasso, may be the most prolific painter in history. He paints everyday and fills his pagoda to the rafters. Each painting sells for a dollar or two and in this way he plans to raise $30,000 to finance his own round-the-world trip.
Vien Thuc's work overflows the pagoda. He knows six languages, built the pagoda from step to spire, carved the furniture, and planted the garden. Something must be in this mountain air.