Situated at an elevation of around 1,500 metres and often dubbed ‘the gateway to the Central Highlands’, Da Lat offers a refreshing change from all other destinations in Vietnam. Its proximity to both Mui Ne and Nha Trang on the coast makes it tempting to combine a beach and mountain holiday, especially now the connecting roads have been upgraded.
Da Lat was ‘discovered’ by Swiss-Frenchman Dr Alexander Yersin while on an exploratory mission in the hills in 1893. As a doctor, he instantly appreciated the beneficial aspects of the climate for Europeans and recommended the construction of a hill station here. A few years later building began in earnest and the French rubber and rice barons tried to outdo each other with their opulent villas.
Da Lat was one of few towns in Vietnam that was spared almost total destruction during the American War, but most of the town’s villas fell into disrepair until the turn of this century. Now many of them have been spruced up and Da Lat is regaining its former charm.
Though everyone agrees that the views are lovely, with pine-clad hills all around, Da Lat seems to be all things to all people. To the French colonials it was a centre for convalescence; to modern Vietnamese it is a romantic place where they get to wear woolly hats and gloves and have their picture taken in the flower gardens; and to Western travellers these days it is the country’s adventure capital, where they can go rock climbing, abseiling, kayaking and mountain biking.
Visiting the town’s sights can easily take a couple of days, as the town is spread over quite a wide area, and you’ll need to take a taxi or motorbike taxi to the more far-flung places. Still, it’s fun starting off in the town centre, where the winding streets seem to keep doubling back on themselves. The town’s market is the best place to appreciate what Da Lat is all about – huge mounds of healthy-looking fruit and vegetables grown in the hills around. One of the most interesting local products, which makes a good souvenir, is a bottle of strawberry wine.
The centrepiece of Da Lat is Lake Xuang Huong, which was created by the French when they dammed a local river. These days swan-shaped pedal boats bob on its surface, while ponies and carts trot around the perimeter offering tourist rides. The Vietnamese generally have kitsch taste, and it’s really evident in Da Lat, which is possibly the most popular destination in all the country for domestic tourists.
Kitsch or not, it’s well-worth taking a stroll round the seven-kilometre boundary of the lake, both for the fresh air and for the unusual sights. Along the way you’ll pass a golf course, a flower garden, and with a short diversion, Da Lat’s art deco railway station, from where a shuttle service runs to the nearby village of Trai Mat five times a day.
The town’s main attraction is Emperor Bao Dai’s Summer Palace, which was built in the 1930s and still retains period furnishings. It’s easy to imagine the emperor whiling away the days with his family here, but it can get crowded with tour groups at times, and all visitors are guided out through a gauntlet of souvenir stalls. A couple of blocks away from the palace, Hang Nga’s Crazy House looks like something from a Hollywood set, with winding passages leading between the oddly-designed rooms.
Other buildings in town worth a look are the towering pink cathedral, which looks as sturdy today as it did when first built in the 1930s, and the Dalat Palace Hotel, which features an art deco façade and hushed, airy rooms inside. For a sense of how the old colonials used to live, head west from the town centre along Tran Hung Dao, which is bordered by some huge villas, some abandoned and others lovingly restored. Keep going to the beginning of Hung Vuong to visit the Lam Dong Museum, one of the best organised museums in the country, where you can learn about the region’s history and the ethnic minority groups that live in the hills around.
It would be crazy to visit Da Lat without exploring the countryside around, and fortunately there are plenty of opportunities to do that. Several adventure tour operators in town offer a wide range of activities, from trekking to mountain peaks to rock climbing, kayaking and cycle rides down to the coast. If all this seems a bit strenuous, you could always hook up with Da Lat’s Easy Riders who can usually be found in front of the Hoa Binh (Peace) Hotel, and will devise a customized tour of the highlands or anywhere in the country for a reasonable daily fee.
Where to sleep in Da Lat
Dinh 2: It’s a bit of a way from the town centre, but this former governor’s residence is just the place to live out colonial dreams – ask for a room in the main house where the massive rooms are very comfortably furnished. Rooms from US$40; 12 Tran Hung Dao. tel: +84 63 382 3631.
Dreams: This really is a budget travellers’ dream, with smart, well-equipped rooms art competitive rates and a staff eager to please. Free breakfasts, internet and use of sauna/Jacuzzi for guests. Rooms from US$35; 151 & 164B Phan Dinh Phung, tel: +84 63 383 3748.
More on Da Lat hotels and guesthouses.
Where to eat in Da Lat
Long Hoa: Right in the town centre, this cozy restaurant serves up excellent Vietnamese fare along with local treats like strawberry wine and home-made yoghurt. There’s a room out back if it’s full in front. Open: 11:30-14:30, 17:30-21:30 (daily); 6 Ð 3 Thang 2, tel: +84 63 382 2934, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thuy Ta: Enjoying a prime location on a tiny island at the edge of Lake Xuan Huong, this intriguing place serves up filling breakfasts, a decent range of Vietnamese dishes and also features live jazz music on some evenings. Open: 06:30-22:00 (daily); 1 Yersin St., Dalat, tel: +84 63 382 2288.
Getting to Da Lat
There are really only two options for getting to Da Lat, both of which are from Saigon: bus or plane. Though the bus is clearly cheaper, the six hour journey can be bumpy and might leave you needing a day to recover, so it’s worth considering the quick hop by plane.