When the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, visits the love of his life, Tuyet, at Thanksgiving, he brings her winter roses from Dalat.
Chuck’s choice of a gift came from my own experience. From early in my life, I cherished the idea of winter roses as being the rarest of flowers. And we Americans use the words “winter roses” to describe a variety of blooms including the exceedingly uncommon blue roses and others that actually bloom during the winter months.
The town of Dalat in Vietnam is in the southern reaches of the highlands and is remarkable for its cool weather, so unlike the rest of South Vietnam with its tropical heat. It is surrounded by pine forests, unknown in other parts of Vietnam. The name of the town (Đà Lạt in Vietnamese) has no meaning that I can discern, even though I’m told it means “city of thousands of pine trees”—a translation for which I can find no basis. My guess is that the name is not Vietnamese at all but is, rather, drawn from the Montagnard languages commonly spoke in the highlands.
I spent plenty of time in the highlands north of Dalat. The mountainous region in the provinces of Pleiku and Kontum, along the Laotian and Cambodian border, was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the war. I was involved in the battle of Dak To there in 1967. It’s barren country, remarkable for the sparseness of vegetation, and one of the few places in Vietnam where I was actually uncomfortably cold—due to the elevation.
Winter in Dalat is the coolest season, marked by low-lying mist. I have always doubted that the famous winter roses from Dalat actually bloom in the winter, particularly since one can buy them throughout the year in the open markets in Saigon. But it is true that roses grow in few places in South Vietnam because the weather is too hot for them. They do indeed thrive in Dalat and its environs.
During my years in Vietnam, winter roses were the rarest and most expensive and, to my eyes at least, the most beautiful flowers on sale. In my imagination, they were magical blooms from a magical place. They still are.