Jonny Edbrooke sat down with a native of Cleveland, Ohio, USA, Curtis King, who is attempting to rebuild a beautiful time capsule in the form of a train line in Dalat.
Curtis, tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from,and what brought you to Asia?
Well, I have been out here in Asia for 26 years. I’m from Cleveland, Ohio. I spent ten years in China, a couple years in Singapore, and have been in Vietnam ever since.
What are your interests, besides the obvious trains?
I’m a musician. Harmonica, guitar, and I sing occasionally. The biggest reason why I’ve stayed in Asia for so long is that I’ve had all sorts of opportunities out here, that as a Cleveland boy I never could have imagined. I have met presidents and premiers and have had all sorts of great experiences with fantastic people. I have a great family, and I moved to Dalat ten years ago to pursue the idea of rebuilding this train line, that used to go from Dalat to Thap Cham.
Tell us more about this train rebuilding project.
I’ve been working on this for two-to-three years. I’m hopeful that it will happen, it’s not an easy project. I love trains. I’ve always loved trains. When I was a kid I used to live within hearing distance of a train line. We used to have a steam train that would go through our beautiful National Park. I’m a lucky Cleveland boy. I’ve had the opportunity to drive trains in the US, China, and Vietnam.
What is Dalat Train Villa and Cafe, and what’s the history of this concept?
So the train line from Thap Cham up to Dalat was finished I believe in 1935 or 1936, and the railroad company of Vietnam constructed ten or eleven of these villas for the employees and managers to enjoy their holidays. They were originally constructed colonial French-style. Some were demolished. We have been in charge of reconstructing and preserving some of these villas. We are operating this as a hotel. Right now, I’m sitting in a 1910 or so French freight train car. My wonderful wife refurbished it. We brought it by truck on the highway from Saigon to Dalat, and she rebuilt it and refurbished it to what it is now. We live here, and it’s sort of odd to live in what is essentially a tourist attraction. We meet people from all over the world and we have postage stamps from all over the world which helps to connect people from all over the globe to this space.
So, what really is this Dalat train villa. What is the significance of it for you?
Well, it is a place for Curtis King to drink wine (laughs). It’s a meeting place. Trains are wonderful places to meet people. When you sit next to someone on a train, by the end of the journey you usually become friends. Kids walk into this place and their eyes light up. I’m a big fan of trains and I’d like for children to be able to have the same opportunity that I did.
Tell us a little bit about the renovation project?
The train project is rebuilding what the French and Vietnamese, including many minority tribes, built before. They started in about 1902 with a French expedition team finding the most economical and beautiful route, and they did so in the most incredible way, considering the lack of technology they had at the time. We ended up with an 84 kilometre route with only five tunnels, which is amazing seeing as you’re going from sea level to about 1500 metres. It’s a special railway. It is a cog railway, or rack and pinion system, and some of the parts of this railway are so steep, the cogs help it climb, and if it is too steep, they stop it from descending too fast.
The trains look and feel so authentic. Like pieces of art ripped straight out of the past. Where did they come from?
They are original steam trains, I love steam trains, that were built in Switzerland from about 1915 to 1920. In 1990 they were brought back to Switzerland to run on the cog system on the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway line.
We visited that line last year, and also had the opportunity to go to the workshop where they are refurbishing a couple of these old steam trains to run on their train lines. If we rebuild this train line it will probably still have to be a cog system, and we are trying to locate steam or diesel locomotives that use the exact same system that was used in the past. Narrow gauge, one meter, with the ABT rack and pinion system. We located a company in India that actually builds steam trains that use this exact system.
It’s a lot of money. Part of this project is obviously financing it. It’s in the hundreds of millions of dollars. We need to find this money, and we’d like it to come from countries that have a history with Vietnam. France, Switzerland, USA, and Japan would be fantastic.
For some companies and some countries, hundreds of millions of dollars is nothing. It’s a drop in the bucket. That’s where I come in. I’m not an engineer. I love trains. I am the person that will put the deal together.
Dalat, what are your thoughts? You live up here. Haven’t left yet. Everyone’s always raving about Dalat.
The reason I came to Asia is I went to a wonderful business school in the US to do an MBA in international business. I ended up in Nanjing, China. I knew nothing of the country, and the cover photo of an article I was reading about the country featured a steam train. I said to my partner at the time, “Well it seems like this is meant to be.”
I got to drive the steam trains there. The mayor of Nanjing gave me my own personal steam train for the day. Back home as just some kid from Cleveland, Ohio, that would not have been possible. Eventually I moved into the music business in Singapore. I started coming to Vietnam as a tourist. I travelled all over and really enjoyed it. Then I came to Dalat and I saw the train station, the steam train. I took the train line seven kilometres or so, and got off and asked, “Well, where does this go?” They told me it used to go down to the coast. I thought that this would be an interesting thing for a “train guy” to get involved in, and I was looking for something new. So, I decided to move to Dalat with the intention to rebuild the train line.
I didn’t even know about the train villas at the time. Coming to Dalat and having this opportunity sealed the deal for me, and the villas have just been an added bonus to the years I have called this place my home.