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November 18, 2011

One of the things that I haven’t gotten to do a lot of, especially since I’ve gotten busy teaching, is touristy stuff. Sometimes I think that it’s a bit weird that I’ve been living in a foreign city for over two months (!) now and I still haven’t been able to see all of the sites. But that’s the difference between being a tourist and a foreigner living in another country: the tourist has time to travel.

I got my chance to travel around the city a bit when John, the head of our program, and Tom, another board member, visited Da Lat. They were only in town for two days because they had to travel to the other universities our program has teachers at, but while they were here, Theo and I were able to visit some of the local landmarks with them. On Sunday night, we ate at a restaurant downtown that catered to foreigners: I saw more non-Vietnamese people in one place then I had for the last two months. Today we went out into the city to try and see the artwork of the “Crazy Monk”, a monk who lives at a local monastery and produces a prolific amount of artwork. Sadly, the monastery was closed, so we went  to the Crazy House instead.

If I knew more about Vietnamese culture, I’d make a comment about artists being referred to as crazy. The Crazy House, officially named the Hang Nga guesthouse, is a personal art project by Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga. Nga wanted to explore the use of more natural forms of architecture and to combine nature and architecture together. Her work on the house has drawn comparisons to Dali and Gaudi, who she cited as an influence.

It’s telling that two bodies of art here in Da Lat, both the Monk’s work and the House, are called “crazy”. There was major opposition to Nga building the Crazy House, and even now it feels like the house is grudgingly accepted against the much more traditional backdrop of Da Lat because of the tourism it brings in. It’s definitely not what you think of when you think of Vietnamese. What the Crazy House reminded me most of was the City Museum in Saint Louis, which worked on making architecture out of the forms that you find in a city (especially out of the trash). Both the City Museum and the Crazy House feature ornate detailing, nontraditional forms, multiple passages, breathtaking views and the simple sense of zest that you get from the idea that a building can be an ongoing art project. There’s little more to say, so I’ll let the pictures (the full album is here) say thousands of more words.

Sometimes, it’s okay to just be a tourist.

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