Blog 25 Jan 18
TRAVELS: In the beginning…
When life hands you a ticket, take it.
The first overseas posting my father received after completing his training as a foreign service officer in the U.S. was Vietnam, part of French Indochina. He had already become familiar with foreign travel and foreigners as a soldier in the American army during World War 2. My older sister and I accompanied my mother as my father was already in Dalat ahead of us. Dalat is located 306/145 miles northeast of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in the central highlands.
Dalat was hill and mountain country with forests, lakes, flowers and very few people. This is where my father developed his interest in orchids that continued for decades. Our next posting to Nepal was ideal for that reason. It, too, is a place where orchids abound.
My own memory of our home in Dalat is of worn-out looking, dusty trees at the front of the property, fog obscuring the nearby hills, a broad expanse of unpaved approach to the house fronted by a large, cracked fountain that never spouted any water. The house was long and low with a wide, deep porch and no shelter from the sun. The steps leading up to the porch ran the entire width of the porch. My memory of the interior is nil, but I do remember the back yard. It was huge with fragrant, flowering trees at the back and a tennis court in the center. My parents played tennis in their whites with colleagues from the various overseas missions. As far as I remember, there were no other houses near our own and no friends to play with. Any other recollections were learned from my parents and friends. They had opportunities to travel and really see the region.
When the back yard was bombed, it was apparently time for us to leave! When we departed, there was a new member of the family.
From the slides my father took of all the areas where he worked, we children learned so much more about Dalat and Vietnam. What I learned later is that Dalat was developed by the French as a resort locale perfect for getting away from the tropical climate that characterizes so much of the rest of the country. It is located on a plateau 4,900 feet above sea level and has a temperate rather than a tropical climate growing crops that differ from those of the lowlands. There were no rice paddies like the many surrounding Saigon.
All of us enjoyed Vietnamese food, the country, the people and the landscape. It was an ideal first introduction to a foreign country. Saigon was so different from Dalat. The capital of South Vietnam was noisy, bustling, fragrant with all sorts of scents in addition to food. There was a wonderful park where my father took my sister and me. He insisted that we learn to ride. That was one of his most brilliant ideas. It was a turning point for my family. We became horse people. Both parents insisted that we learn to swim. It was the perfect place because we had access to a lovely swimming pool and gorgeous beaches. One of our favourite was Cam Ranh Bay. My sister, one of our girlfriends and I took ballet lessons. My little brother loved the tutus. Well, who didn’t? We were fortunate in our exposure to many exciting opportunities. What wonderful parents. Of course, the propaganda flyers and bombing were repeated in Saigon and region. The bombing just wasn’t as close to us.
I spent five and half marvellous years in South Vietnam. Aside from the war with the French, propaganda flyers raining down in pink, blue, green and yellow several times a week and bombs exploding in the distance, there was so much to see and learn. I do remember these things. The vegetation, the wide open, unpaved, non-built-up countryside, my first exposure to lush farm fields; the plants and fragrant flowers, were a surfeit of stimulation.
By the time we left Saigon, there was yet another member of the family. It occurred to me decades later that Vietnam, at the time, was a very odd and dangerous posting for a government employee with two toddlers. What were they thinking sending the family to a battle ground? We had to be evacuated! Then, their solution was to send us to another region with the same problem: war. The entire time we were in Vietnam, the French were fighting the Viet Cong.
Our Vietnam tour was the first tour to what was termed a “hardship” post. Every post thereafter was a hardship post for our family. Did my father actually volunteer for these? It is true that the salary was slightly higher when you risked your life (and that of your family). I never did find out. After a career of 25 years or more, my father was assigned a “luxury” post. He served at this same post for 13 years.
The next stop after Vietnam was another country in Asia—Nepal. Then we travelled to Africa. These postings and being able to travel around the world enrich my life to this day. I feel such gratitude for the circumstances that permitted me to learn so much and see so much in terms of cultures, foods, archaeology, architecture, religion, language and the list goes on. Everyone in my family learned to cook. It helped having an excellent cook in the house. My mother was a brilliant cook. Her breads, cakes and pies are unsurpassed. Each one of us developed specialties, however all of us are interested and will attempt new recipes and invent our own at the drop of a hat.
Hats off to discovering new countries and their delicious food!