Today we're climbing the three peaks of the Lang Biang mountain. Lang and Biang are the star-crossed lovers of Da Lat, the small, cool mountain town we're currently in. They died a long time ago and their bodies formed this mountain range, which we have paid Groovy Gecko $20 each to help us up.
Not a mountain range; instead, a brightly lit market. Bet you couldn't have told the difference.
As we climb through tall, thin pine trees, we start to talk. We ask Sinh why he came to Da Lat from outside Saigon, two years ago.
"Da Lat very beautiful, scenery very beautiful, women very beautiful," he says, and laughs. "Here women very...how you say the word? You tell you love them and they say they not interested. Very hard."
"Unrequited?" Nancy suggests, and he likes that, repeating "unrequited" several times. "Unrequited, is when you love girl but she don't love you, very sad," he says.
You know what's not sad? Making a fun. In the beat.
Then, he tells us about a police lady he has his eye on. He saw her on the street a few weeks ago and thought she was beautiful, but then it turned out she's a friend of his coworker. "Maybe we will go for coffee, then to dinner," he says, "then maybe she will want to be girlfriend with me. On third date I will tell her I love her."
His first love was a girl in high school, younger than him but very smart, working very hard in school, and very beautiful -- the perfect woman, he calls her. His family sent him away to seminary school and when he came out, she had moved to Sydney. "But we talk on Facebook," he says.
There's a silence as the road continues to tilt up, and then he says, "If your boyfriend have sex with another girl, would you be angry at him?" Nancy and I burst out laughing, and he finally reveals that he's a bit of a lothario: one girl in most towns, and he's still claiming to be in love with the girl in Sydney. "I will tell her, you have all my love, but sex means nothing, you don't need all that," he says, hopefully. "No," we tell him.
After a brisk climb up two peaks, we are heading into the valley between the second and third; soon, we'll stop for lunch. But before lunch, on a break, Sinh mentions that sometimes the army comes up in these mountains for training. We ask him more about the army, and he gets agitated, says, "I don't like the government, the army. I think is very bad."
We aren't sure what to expect, but he loves to talk, so we urge him on.
"Sometimes, people very poor, have nothing. Government tells them to join the army, they get food. But maybe then they only get a bowl of rice, and then they have to stay for two years. The Party here [he meant the Communist Party], same as Party in China -- they don't care about the people. In northern Vietnam, there is an island that China says belongs to China and Vietnamese say belongs to Vietnam. But the Vietnamese people who protest, hold up signs, say "The island is ours!", the Vietnamese government have them put in prison, have them-" and here he makes quick motions with his hands, mimicking someone being
Communism helps everyone! Or else! Posters from Saigon.
"There was a man, who hold up a sign, and the army beat him. Then he write a song, asking "Who are you? Why do you beat me? Who am I? I love my country." The Party put him in prison." He looks off down the mountain for a minute.
"My father, he from South Vietnam. When I younger, I think "Viet Cong very good! I want to be Viet Cong like my father!" [the Viet Cong were also in Southern Vietnam, during the insurgency] But my father say no. He can't talk to me about history, because anybody who talk about history, who say bad things about the Party, they in big trouble, get arrested. But he say if I go think about it myself, he will maybe talk a little bit. So I learn and talk to people, and remember: the Party, they kill my grandfather, in South Vietnam. They put my father in prison, because he say bad things about Party. They put everyone in prison for talking, writing, singing, anything. Not allowed to talk. I love my country, but I don't want to join the army any more."
Nancy and I are staring at him, this 24-year old tour guide with a hint of a moustache, telling us something everyone in Vietnam knows: if you speak out against Communism, you will be arrested, or possible killed. The writer of songs? He has not been heard from. Nobody knows if he's actually in jail, or just...gone.
Later, climbing through yet more pine trees, he says, "The police lady, her father member of the Party. She have very big villa, new car. Maybe I will be boyfriend with her, marry her, I will get nice things too. Maybe I will end up joining the Party!" The turnaround, after he spent nearly an hour telling us the atrocities the Party commits, seems drastic. But he's also told us his family is very poor, his father, a war veteran, unable to work. "He have dreams at night, screaming and hitting out," Sinh says. "My mother crying, I am very scary." Probably the easy money of the Community regime seems like the only way out. But he is not allowed to join directly; he is from South Vietnam.
The American War is over. The North Vietnamese told everyone the GIs were here to starve their children, kill people, overturn every part of society that they valued. But now, Sinh tells us, many people are starving, and the Party members get the best jobs. Between watching your children go hungry and joining an oppressive regime, the choice seems obvious when half a pineapple at 45 cents is still too much for most people to pay.
Nancy and I smelled very bad when we made it to the top.
After a disgusting, clammy hike, we reach the summit -- 2167m, with a view of the green valleys below us. Towards Da Lat, we can see the roofs of vegetable greenhouses, and the women wearing long sleevs and traditional conical hats, hacking at the dirt with wooden hoes. On the other side, hills undulate to the distance, green with foliage. When we ask Sinh how to get back down, he shrugs and points.
"Only one way to go," he says.