At the southern extremity of the Central Highlands is the city of Dalat. Originally built by the French colonists, Dalat still bears a passing resemblance to a French town, an impression that is diminishing as Vietnamese-style buildings proliferate.
Dalat can be reached by air, but only Ho Chi Minh City. However the drive the south is quite satisfying, especially as you climb up through rubber, mulberry, coffee and tea plantations. The road Dalat to Highway 1 and Nha Trang is also gratifying with plenty to see on way.
There are some good hotels, the crown going to the excellent Sofitel Dalat Palace, arguably one of Vietnam’s best, but there are very few restaurants serving anything other than Vietnamese food.
‘Discovered’ by Dr. Alexandre Yersin at the end of the 19th century, Dalat grew a large hill station attracting French civil servants, administrators and military personnel seeking a refuge the heat and humidity of the Mekong and the coastal plain.
Located high in the mountains nearly 1500m above sea level, Dalat is now popular with Vietnamese visitors because it has a cool and equable climate usually remaining between 10º C and 20º C throughout the year. This ‘eternal spring’ is responsible for its increasing importance as a fruit and flower growing area. First class blooms, soft fruits and vegetables are grown for export and airlifted all over Asia.
The ‘Romantic City’ or a Mecca for eccentrics?
You’ll come across the first label quite frequently, but don’t be misled. It’s equable temperatures make Dalat a popular choice for Vietnamese summer newly-weds who don’t want to consummate their in a pool of sweat. If you are hoping to find peaceful seclusion with tucked-away bijou restaurants, the gentle refrains of violins or classic guitar, and secluded strolls by the light of the moon – forget it!
In reality, the most accurate description of Dalat’s ‘romantic’ features is ‘off the wall’. Forget about the much-touted, and mostly tacky and over-commercialised, attractions and look upon Dalat as an expedition in to the bizarre.
Dalat’s real attractions
Approached in a different way, Dalat has a lot to offer. Here’s a few examples, not in any particular order.
The Ugly Duckling
Most cities would yearn for a large water area with plenty of space as a central feature. Dalat has Xuan Huong, a splendid artificial lake with a seven kilometre perimeter. However, the local tourism authority has ‘enhanced’ it by the addition of a fleet of two person plastic ‘pedaloes’ shaped as huge swans. It’s an introduction the kitsch that is to come!
Welcome to wonderland.
The quintessence of counter-culture, Hang Nga’s ‘Crazy House’ is a truly memorable guest house if you don’t mind being uncomfortable. It defies description – seeing is believing!
The Emperor without an Empire
One of the ‘must-see’ places is Emperor Bao Dai’s Summer Palace, a fascinating insight the last days of empire under a puppet ruler living in a ‘palace’ akin to a large suburban house. His little visited hunting lodge is also worth a look.
The railway station without a railway
Well, almost! Once the terminus of a superb crémaillère track connecting Dalat with Saigon and the rest of the country, it now serves a seven kilometre length of ordinary track with a single USSR-built diesel locomotive and a couple of carriages. Nevertheless, and this being Dalat, it is fully maintained with polished floors, timetables, flowerbeds of geraniums, and a fully staffed ticket office regardless of the fact that the staff usually outnumber the passengers. You’ll have to buy a platform ticket to look at the train!
Welcome to the Wild East!
A walk around the central lake is good exercise. En-route, you’ll pass the botanical garden: it doesn’t live up to the hype, but it’s your first opportunity to experience a bizarre phenomenon – the Dalat cowboys. The horses are pony-sized to match their riders and the guns are plastic, but otherwise, they look the real McCoy: stetsons, lariats, silver buckles, high-heeled boots and ornate saddles. However, there being a shortage of cows, they don’t do much. The idea is that you hand over some money to have your picture taken with the would-be gaucho.
The world’s most prolific artist.
Vien Thuc, the sole occupant of the Lam Thi Nhi pagoda, is known locally as the ‘mad monk’. This soubriquet stems his enormous output of artworks – over 100,000 and rising – a rough average of eight pieces per day, every day, during his thirty-odd years of residency. Depending on his mood, you might get an effusive welcome or be met by abuse, but don’t be misled. Mr. Thuc knows what he’s doing – he’s selling plenty of his ‘masterpieces’ for up to $50 a time.
There are some normal things to see as well.
Dalat has several interesting pagodas, a well-regarded golf course, and a small museum.
The market is a grim-looking building softened by arrays of flowers and baskets of produce around its walls. Dalat is famous for its market gardening and horticulture: unfortunately, its fresh fruit and vegetables don’t seem to find their way the local cuisine, which is remarkably uninspiring, considering Dalat’s reputation as a major tourist centre.