Lessons Learned in Vietnam

Market in Da Lat
Market in Da Lat

This morning I am sitting in my hotel in Da Lat, Vietnam, waiting to go to the airport and on to my next two stops, Da Nang and Hue.  Experiencing Da Lat was really the main reason for my trip, as Vietnam’s Central Highlands are a critical setting for the book I am currently working on.  My research stateside gave all indications that the Central Highlands would work well, I but had to see for myself whether the events I envisioned could realistically take place in what I hoped would be a mountainous area in the former South Vietnam.  I am very happy to report that the area around Da Lat is both mountainous an beautiful – picture the Blue Ridge Mountains in a cool tropical location.  Now that I know my most crucial setting works well, I will be able to finish the book with confidence.

Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still refer to it, is also the perfect location for a suspense novel.  With thousands of unique shops, restaurants, hotels and bars jammed onto streets filled with bazillions of motorbikes flowing like the pulsating ebb and flow of the ocean’s current every time a traffic light changes (if there even is a traffic light), there is an atmosphere of intrigue, danger and suspense everywhere you look.

What I found most interesting, though, are the European and American travelers passing through Saigon.  Vietnam is such an unusual destination – a third world country where malaria, Dengue Fever, monsoons and typhoons are issues every traveler must consider – that no one from so far away wanders through Vietnam without a reason.  Every one has a story to tell – what brought them here, or maybe what they are running from.  It’s the closest thing to a Bohemian existence I will ever experience, meeting interesting people on a tour to an exotic place during the day, enjoying a beer or soda with them afterwards to hear their story, and then taking their story with me but leaving them behind by the time I go to dinner.  This is the unexpected jewel I have found in Vietnam, and something I intend to capture in book two of the series.  Steve Stilwell will be transported out of his comfort zone and into this very different, transient reality that is Vietnam.

Not all the lessons I’ve learned are deep and thought provoking.  For example, yesterday morning I discovered that the little pitcher that came with my cup of coffee was not more coffee, but soy sauce.  One quick sip and I learned that Vietnamese coffee and soy sauce do not go well together.  I also learned that it is important to take a hotel business card with you wherever you go.  Otherwise, if you get lost in a city (Da Lat) where few people speak English and even fewer recognize your hotel’s name when you say it in English, it can be very hard to get home. Perhaps some of the characters in book two will have to learn these same lessons, as well.