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.
can be reached by air, but only from Ho Chi Minh City. However
the drive from the south is quite satisfying, especially as
you climb up through rubber, mulberry, coffee and tea plantations.
The road from Dalat to Highway 1 and Nha Trang is also gratifying
with plenty to see on way.
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
by Dr. Alexandre Yersin at the end of the
19th century, Dalat grew into a large hill station attracting
French civil servants, administrators and military personnel
seeking a refuge from the heat and humidity of the Mekong
and the coastal plain.
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.
‘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 union 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!
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.
Approached in a different way, Dalat has a lot to offer. Here’s
a few examples, not in any particular order.
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!
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!
Emperor without an Empire
One of the ‘must-see’ places is Emperor Bao Dai’s
Summer Palace, a fascinating insight into 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.
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!
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
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 from 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.
are some normal things to see as well.
Dalat has several interesting pagodas, a well-regarded golf
course, and a small museum.
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 into
the local cuisine, which is remarkably uninspiring, considering
Dalat’s reputation as a major tourist centre.