American James Reelick, 54, loves Da Lat so much that he settled there, started to help out in the tourism sector and even ended up marrying a local woman. He spoke with Ha Nguyen about his impressions of the lush, mountainous area.
When and why did you settle in Da Lat?
In 2007, I was visiting Da Lat, trying to conquer Lang Biang Mountain. The fresh climate and beautiful landscape of the place left a lasting effect on me. The good economic potential of the place did not go unnoticed either.
What did your parents (family) say when you decided to settle in Lang Biang?
My parents were very supportive of my decision to move. My father was an immigrant from the Netherlands. He migrated to the US in 1956. He met my mother in Connecticut. My parents first introduced me to travelling when I was 7 years old. Along with my younger sister and brother, we returned to my father’s home country, the Netherlands, for vacation. I had the first taste of foreign foods and smells and different cultures on that trip. I have been travelling ever since. My mother and sister have come to visit me in Viet Nam, and they truly enjoyed their experiences here. I have two daughters who live in the US: Elizabeth Grace Reelick, 26, and Lauren Jennifer Reelick, 25. Elizabeth has visited me and I am hoping that Lauren will also be able to come in the near future.
Have you travelled around Da Lat and Lang Biang?
Yes, I have travelled extensively in this area, on foot and on motorbikes. I am an avid hiker, so Lang Biang is the perfect place for me to live. I live and work/own a K’BE wood fired pizza and BBQ at the foot of Lang Biang. Most weeks we go hiking on Lang Biang or Bi Doup – Nui Ba Mountain and surrounding areas. The landscape here is breathtaking; pine forests, streams, rivers, mountains, vegetable gardens, birds, horses, and wild buffalo. There are many mountain roads that are very rarely travelled, so it is possible that you will not see many people, if that is what you like. I live amongst the K’Ho Lach people who are very familiar with forests. It has been my pleasure to camp and hike with village leader Krajan Plin and eco-tourism mountain guide Vang Mull.
Have you met any difficulties while staying in Lang Biang?
No, I have not met any difficulties living in Lang Biang. The Vietnamese and K’Ho people are very generous with their time and knowledge and are very accepting of me living amongst them.
How does your wife, Nguyen Thi Lien, help you? Does she help with cooking and processing food?
We married in March 2013 and soon after our baby was born. We applied for a marriage licence with the government in November 2012. Yes, she supports me very much. She is a partner in my business. She does much of the cooking and food preparations. Without her I would not be successful.
Inner Sanctum: We’ve heard that you supply pizza and other foods to serve travellers. Could you tell us how you make pizza and other foods? Where do you buy the material for making pizzas?
Yes, we serve both domestic as well as foreign travellers. Pizza is very easy to make and most people can make pizza at home. It is a combination of flour, yeast, water, and salt. It takes about a day to prepare the dough. We also prepare BBQ pork ribs and roasted chicken. My wife Lien also makes very fine salads using local ingredients. We try to source all ingredients locally. This area is famous for its fresh vegetables. However, we are very concerned about the use of chemicals in vegetable cultivation, so we look to farmers who grow them with minimum or no chemicals. Consuming organically grown vegetables is the path to good health. Many of the vegetables we use come from our own gardens.
How is your pizza different from others?
The main difference is that we use a wood-fired oven, meaning we use wood for fuel instead of gas or electricity. We use coffee wood as our fuel. Coffee wood is very hard and burns very hot. Our oven needs to maintain a temperature of 250oC. We use coffee wood for another reason: we do not want to cut trees in forests. We are very concerned about the environment and do not want to destroy forests. The coffee trees must be cut every 10 years to rejuvenate the tree, so it makes sense to use this wood instead of cutting trees in forests. We also only make one type of pizza, a traditional variety that originated in Naples, Italy. It has tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, oven-roasted tomatoes (to bring out the real flavour of the fruit), basil (we grow in our garden), and herb Provence (a special spice from France). I built the oven myself, in traditional Italian fashion.
How much does your pizza cost?
Our pizza costs VND125,000 (US$6). Although we sell more of it during peak tourism seasons, we make them available throughout the year.
How well do travellers enjoy your pizza and other foods?
Some of our guests have said that our pizza is the best they have ever eaten. Our BBQ ribs are a favourite item because of their true wood-fire flavour and the tenderness of the meat. We only select pork ribs with high fat content, so our meat is always juicy. Roasted chicken is also “finger licking good”, our guests have said. We slow roast our chicken for 1 hour and 20 minutes. We buy our chicken from local poultry farmers who only kill the “walking chicken” after we place our order and then deliver them within 10 minutes. Lien then cleans the meat and seasons it with honey and spices and wraps it in aluminium foil and transfers it to the oven.
I cannot quote most of our guests because I do not speak Vietnamese so well, but we have many repeat customers and they come from as far away as HCM City. We had one guest who left HCM City at 4 in the morning so they could eat our ribs at 11am and then return home. Another guest was brought here by her son who lives in Da Lat. She liked our ribs so much that she took 2 kilos of ribs for her other son who lives in HCM City that afternoon on an airplane.
What other things have you done to attract tourists and travellers?
I have rented three properties here in Lang Biang. One we run as K’BE wood fired pizza and BBQ. I allow my friend Robert Moorehead, an Australian photographer, to run another one as a photo gallery that displays the pictures of ethnic people. The third place is the future home of a Viet Nam Base Camp; here we have built two ethnic bamboo houses and an ethnic long house. Here, tourists can get a glimpse of traditional ethnic homes. We will conduct hikes in the surrounding countryside. I also work with a K’Ho coffee producer who grows Arabica coffee. The site is 2km from our location, so tourists can go and sample coffee and see how it is roasted. I also work with the famous village leader, Krajan Plin, who also plays the cong chieng (gongs), so people can also watch traditional shows.
How do you plan to promote sales and tourism this year and the next?
I’ll continue working with local vendors to enhance the experience of travellers coming to Da Lat, especially the Lang Biang area.