Where memories gather

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While Da Lat continues to grow as a tourist hotspot, its changing landscape makes sites of nostalgia much more precious.

Located in the Central Highlands town for the last 55 years, Tung Café hasn't changed and remains a favorite stop for visitors and locals who meet and recall memories of the charming town in old times.

The café opened when Da Lat was still a pristinely green, quiet area covered with dense fog where colts followed their mothers along the hills and sloping streets.

Tung stands on the same spot near the Hoa Binh Square, but it is now surrounded by a slew of shopping centers and hotels and the atmosphere bustles with commerce.

The café has a balcony about 1.5 meters wide emerging out of the first floor. Inside the balcony, there are old-style glass windows with wooden bars with a timeworn sign plate.

Tung café is divided into two parts: One deep inside the house with a few tables, the other right at the front door with tables standing close to each other as if they were placed to make visitors feel warm in Da Lat's cold weather.

The café has some uniquely old features. The small tables are made of wood, while the chairs are covered in brown artificial leather. On the wall there are copies of Picasso's The Old Guitarist and Leonard de Vinci's La Joconde (Mona Lisa).

Customers, mainly middle-aged men, sip coffee in the cold weather while listening to classical and instrumental music. The songs are typically old French or Trinh Cong Son compositions. Some visitors look outside at the town's busy life.

The first hostess of the café is Le Thi Giac, now 86. She said a lot of artists used to be regular patrons of the café including late composer Trinh Cong Son, who was dubbed the "Vietnamese Bob Dylan" for his antiwar songs.

Giac said she and her late husband used to make the coffee by themselves: They bought "robusta" and "moca" coffee, then mixed and roasted them.

As the quality of coffee at Tung has been acclaimed for years, we asked her how it was done, but she just smiled.

The café is now managed by her second son's spouse, Giac said.

Leaving Tung, we were off to the old railway station where an old locomotive has been restored for tourism purposes.

The old train has four cars. Each car, 6.5 meters long, can carry 20 passengers. The windows are made of glass so that passengers can view the scenery in both sides. The floors and ceilings are made of wood, while the frame is made of steel.

When the cars are all full of passengers, the train toots its horn and starts the journey. On the way, we see a complex of "net houses" used for growing vegetables. We also see outdoor fields of kohlrabi, sweet potato and cabbage. And of course there are colorful flower fields with bright yellow daisies or green artichokes... Beyond banana groves are red basaltic hill slopes on which stand terraced fields.

Ten minutes after leaving Da Lat, the train finishes its journey at the Trai Mat station, a place that has several attractions for visitors.

About 200 meters away from the station is the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, built with the debris of glass, pottery bowls and porcelain between 1949 and 1952. The pagoda was renovated by Monk Thich Tam Vi in 1990.

We recognized the two famous hexagonal turrets from a distance. On each of the six tops is a carved dragon whose head is directed inward.

The pagoda has dragons everywhere. One, made from pieces of stoneware, is on the gate. Two others are on the roof. On the wall is a dragon head. In the presbytery, there are two rows of pillars with six in each row. A dragon is twined around each pillar.

Visitors can also contemplate a 49-meter glaze dragon near the pagoda's pond.

We reached the Da Bao Tower, a seven-tiered-27-meter-tall-tower made with pieces of broken bowls. This is an ideal place for visitors to learn more about Buddhism as each floor of the tower is used to worship different gods and goddesses.

The second floor of the tower holds the largest bell in central Vietnam, named Dai Hong Chung. The bell, 4.38 meters in height and 8,500 kilograms in weight, features the Buddha and scenes from the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, the Mot Cot (One Pillar) Pagoda in Hanoi and the Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue.

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