Dalat was an entirely French creation, a small colonial-era town complete with its own railway station, cathedral, lycée, shops, cafes, and villas—all plunked down in a remote valley in the Vietnamese highlands. With its pine forests, rolling hills, and tranquil lakes, the area could have passed for anyplace in France and provided a pleasant escape for homesick French administrators from the high summer heat of Saigon.
Dalat's Central Xuan Huong Lake
At 1,475 meters in elevation, Dalat provides a cool respire from the heat. In 1897 the first explorer of the area, Alexandre Yersin, recommended this French settlement as a retreat for those suffering from the tropical climate of the lowlands. Governor Paul Doumer established a research center for agriculture and meteorology. Within 15 years, the town was established; in 1933 it was linked by rail to the coast. Land grants were made to French, Chinese, and Vietnamese to develop the area. Tea, coffee, and rubber plantations flourished, along with intense vegetable cultivation.
By the 1940s the hill station of Dalat was slated to become the administrative nerve center for the whole of French Indochina, and was called Le Petit Paris. Building in Dalat continued during World War II after Vichy-appointed Governor-general Jean Decoux concluded an agreement accepting the presence of Japanese troops in Vietnam. In March 1945 the Japanese learned of Decoux's tardy plans to rebel and overthrew him, imprisoning his administrators and troops. At the conclusion of the war, Indochina fell into turmoil.
Dalat is now a resort town, a favorite with honeymooners and droves of tourists tramping through the former French villas. The Vietnamese wax poetic about Dalat and rave on in awestruck detail about every waterfall and valley, but in fact the scenery is nothing special. The deforestation around Dalat doesn't say much for wilderness conservation, and neither do the stuffed animals parked at various scenic spots. If you're looking for a place to exercise your lungs, however, the hills around Dalat are great for hiking, biking, or breathing in that pine-scented air. Or shoot a few rounds of golf. Dalat market has excellent and varied fresh produce, which means dining out in Dalat is great. A good spot to rest up for a few days and stretch those muscles atrophied from minibus rides. Dalat is not known for clement weather. It's in the mountains, so rain could put a damper on your visit.
Getting Your Bearings
Dalat centers on Xuan Huong Lake, with the downtown area at the northwest side and exclusive villas on the south side. The heart of downtown Dalat is Hoa Binh Square, adjacent to the cinema; steps lead down from here to the Central Market. Motels, taxis, and lambros cluster round the top or bottom of the steps. With its narrow alleys and hilly streets, downtown Dalat is best negotiated on foot. However, if going around the south side of the lake, a bicycle or moto is desirable. A classic navigation landmark on the south side is the mini-Eiffel-the telecommunications tower near the post office. Dalat features some long-winded street names. There's Duong 3 Thang 4, or Duong 3/4, which runs south of Dalat and turns into Highway 20. The figure 3/4 refers to April 3, 1975, the date of the Liberation of Dalat by NVA forces. The cinema is called Rap Chieu Bong 3/4. Leading off the cinema is a street called Duong 3 Thang 2, referring to the February anniversary of the 1930 founding of the Communist Party.
To really get into Dalat, you have to get out of it-get above it all into the pine forests, with great views and classic villas. The two tours outlined in the accompanying Special Topics are best done by bicycle, motorcycle, or moto with some walking involved. You can complete both tours in one long day, back-to-back, but they're better attempted on separate days. Actual cycling and walking time for each tour is around 1.5 hours, so allow at least three hours with stops to complete each tour.
Highlights of Dalat
Bao Dai Summer Villa
Past the Pasteur Institute lies Dinh III, or Bao Dai Summer Villa. The 1930s villa is set in beautiful grounds, with gardens and views. The 25-room villa was the private residence of Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam, who abdicated in 1945. Inside were rooms reserved for Empress Nam Phuong, Prince Bao Long, and Princess Phuong Mai. You can see photos of them on the walls, plus remaining pieces of family furniture. Upstairs, in the royal living quarters decorated with bright yellow, is a large couch used by the emperor and empress for consultations with their three daughters and two sons. Bao Dai was born in 1913 and was crowned in 1925 after the death of his father, Emperor Khai Dinh. Groomed by the French as the puppet emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai was dispatched to Paris for an education, where he acquired a fondness for French girls and tennis. Back in Vietnam in 1935, the playboy emperor spent his time in leisure pursuits-chiefly chasing women and hunting-oblivious to the intrigues of the Vietminh. His main palace was in Hue, but he kept villas in various parts of the country. He came to Dalat to hunt, play tennis, fish, and ride horses. Bao Dai abdicated in 1945 at the request of the Vietminh, allowing Ho Chi Minh to be crowned new "emperor." In 1946, Bao Dai fled to Hong Kong. When the French attempted to regain control of Vietnam after the war, they required Bao Dai to resume his imperial duties, but he fled instead to Europe, shifting from city to city, hiding in cinemas by day and cabarets by night. Comically, Bao Dai was eventually found and returned to Vietnam in 1948, but he quickly slipped back to Europe, claiming he would not wear the crown until true unity and independence prevailed in Vietnam.
In 1952 it was said Bao Dai received an official stipend of four million dollars a year, much of it squirreled away in Swiss bank accounts as insurance against hard times ahead. By the time of the 1954 Geneva Conference, Bao Dai lived in permanent exile in a luxurious Cannes chateau with his wife and five children. He kept a Vietnamese mistress in Paris and maintained a steady diet of French courtesans. Much of his time was spent at casinos in Monte Carlo, where he squandered extravagant sums of money. He never returned to Vietnam: he died in Paris in 1997. After a lengthy rash of anti-Bao Dai propaganda, there's now a documentary video on sale in Dalat about the life of the emperor, titled Riding You to the Palace. It was produced by Saigon Films for Dalat's centennial. In the communist era, it's odd that this video should be subtitled, A Sketch of an Unforgettable Epoch of our History. The villa is open 0700-1200 and 1330-1700. The villa has art deco features, but the interior is now quite modest considering the extravagant tastes of its former occupant. It's likely that many personal effects of the emperor have been removed.
As a resort town, Dalat has become an ideal base for hikers and bicyclists, as well as rafting trips on the Da Nhim River. At present, sporting amenities are few. You can ride ponies at a few locations around town-the Valley of Love, Lake of Sighs-but they're mainly for photo purposes, with ponies led by a noose. Dalat Palace Golf Club offers 18 holes on 55 acres designed and landscaped by a Thai company; an international championship was held there in 1993. Visitors and walk-in players are accepted: you must pay greens fees and use a caddie. The original golf course on the site is Vietnam's oldest, established in the 1930s. Off the northeast tip of the golf course you'll find Dalat Flower Gardens-with a modest showing of roses, camellias, lilies, and orchids. Dalat's temperate climate supports many species of flowers, including a large array of orchids. Buy cut flowers at the central market. For train buffs, there's a 1.5-hour run from Dalat station to the village of Trai Met, about 10 kilometers from town.
DALAT ZEN TOUR
A part from a surfeit of French villas, the Vietnamese also inherited a taste for French bread-and poetry and art. As one Vietnamese source phrased it, "The Americans left us Coke, but the French left us poetry." Hanoi and Saigon dominate the art market in Vietnam, but it's towns like Dalat and Hue that are said to inspire the best poetry. So put on your beret, hop on your bike, tuck a baguette under your arm, and set off in search of inspiration. Starting point for this tour is the Eiffel Tower-the telecommunications tower on the south side of the lake. The mini-Eiffel was completed in 1995 and flies the red flag.
Proceed past a traffic island with a statue of Jesus holding a lamb. If the door's open, it's worth looking inside Dalat Cathedral at the stained glass windows imported from Grenoble and wooden carvings of the crucifixion. The cathedral was completed in 1942. Services are held at 0530 and 1700 daily, and at 0530, 0700, and 1600 on Sunday. This neck of the woods is Catholic Corner, what with the cathedral, Jesus statue, and the former St. Paul of Nazareth School. Dalat at one time was 1 home to three churches, a seminary, two convents, 1 and Catholic schools. An unusual educational facility was the Eau de Vie, a religious order of reformed French prostitutes who set out to reform other prostitutes around the world. Apart from the French influence, Catholicism was bolstered I here by an influx of North Vietnamese Catholics after the 1954 partition.
Continue past an elementary school and thu vien (library) housed in a yellow building. You pass a Bauhaus-like villa, and a three-story pink guest-house villa (not for foreigners). Further west is Dalat 1 Children Cultural Palace. Catering to children from ages five to 15, it organizes movies, music performances, and camping trips. The Children's Palace was designed by Hang Nga, a Vietnamese architect and sculptor with a flair for the bizarre. Trained in Moscow, Hang Nga first came to Dalat in 1983, fell in love with the architecture and mountain air, and decided to settle here. She lives just up the hill from the palace at Spiderweb Mansion on Huynh Thuc Khang Street. It's easy to spot to look for a towering giraffe. Hang Nga has had trouble convincing the Vietnamese authorities to accept her ideas, but being the daughter of a former prime minister helps.
When you visit Spiderweb Mansion you can see why she needed special permits this place actually displays imagination. The garden features wrought-iron spiderwebs, huge stone mushrooms, and a stack of futuristic-looking tree houses, go see this wild and wacky place. The Last Emperor Past the Pasteur Institute lies Dinh 111, or Bao Dai Summer Villa. The 1930s villa is set in beautiful grounds, with gardens and views. The 25-room villa was the private residence of Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam, who abdicated in 1945. For more information, see "Sights" under "Dalat" in the Central Vietnam chapter.
Poets and Eccentrics
Head downhill for the next stop-Lam Ty Ni Pagoda. The sole monk here, Thuc Vien, looks after the pagoda. When he joined the temple in 1968, there were two other resident monks, but since 1975 Vien has lived alone, with a dog to keep him company. Not that he's short on visitors-he receives at least a dozen a day. The brown-robed monk welcomes you to visit his amazing Divine Calmness Bamboo Garden on the wonderful way toward drifting rosy clouds. He created the garden himself, and just about everything around it, as he will explain exuberantly. Thuc Vien has not only mastered half a dozen languages but also developed his own elliptical variations of them-he can run you round in circles in English, French, Vietnamese, Thai, or Khmer, with a good dose of surrealism and Zen mixed in. Thuc Vien is a published poet and an accomplished calligrapher of Vietnamese and Chinese script. He will sell you a copy of one of his own hooks for $6. A profusion of papers, painting, wood creations, and calligraphy till his workspace. The "business monk" has made sales internationally, with paintings ranging $50 and up. He will run you off a piece of calligraphy or art for a "donation"-in cash U.S. dollars. However, be wary of a monk with a cell phone. Less Zen, more money these days.
For a chance to see the interior of one of Dalat's fine villas visit the mansion converted into a karaoke cafe along Tran Phu Street. Continue eastward, past the Dalat Children's Cultural Palace, take a left, and go down the hill. Just after you cross a small bridge, take a narrow alley to the right; this cobblestone alley runs through a section of town that looks like it was lifted straight our of China. It ends near the town fountain.
For a finale, drop in on one of Dalat's leading poets. Carry on around to Ly Tu Truong Street-a fair way in, on the right, is Duy Viet's house. He lives here, has his art gallery here, and runs the Stop'n Go Cafe. Apart from being a Dalat poet and calligrapher, Duy Viet's career has included stints as Dalat's town deputy and as a journalist in Saigon. Duy Viet looks like a bohemian-dressed in beret and scarf, chain-smoking. He welcomes travelers to the kitsch and clutter of his gallery and cafe. He keeps log hooks for travelers, which are filled with poetry and calligraphy in 20 languages, plus sketches and photos of famous Vietnamese painters, singers, and poets who've passed through.
If you haven't had your fill of pagodas and churches in Vietnam by Dow, Dalat can provide healthy doses of both. Truc Lam Pagoda, a short distance south of Dalat, is an active monastery built in 1993-1994. About 50 monks and 50 nuns reside here. Visitors are allowed to attend meditation sessions but are not allowed to stay overnight. The monastery is situated on top of a hill with imposing lake views-well worth motoring out here.
Linh Son Pagoda, at 120 Nguyen Van Troi, is an active pagoda run by a dozen monks. Built in 1942, it's the center of Buddhism in Dalat. Vietnamese tourists flock to Thien Vuong Pagoda, about four kilometers from town to the southeast. The pagoda, constructed in 1958, is pretty dull, but one building houses three massive standing Buddhas made of gilded sandalwood; the figure in the center is the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni. Reached by a path opposite is Minh Nguyet Cu Sy Lam Pagoda, dedicated to the bodhisattva Quart Am. Churches are the landmarks of Dalat.
On the south side of town is the towering spire of Dalat Cathedral; on the north side is the pink facade of Domaine de Marie Convent. In 1942, 300 nuns occupied the convent, and a handful of Vietnamese nuns still reside there. Up on a ridge above Mimosa Hotel is a Protestant church built in 1940. Near Cam Ly Falls stands a church with a twist-a small Montagnard church, constructed in 1968, that incorporates elements of animist worship. Another large former convent in this area, Covent des Oiseaux, southwest of Dalat is now a school for ethnic minorities. Past Couvent des Oiseaux, along Huyen Tran Cong Chua Street, is Du Sinh, a small church built in 1955 in Sino-Vietnamese style.
For many years, Dalat was a favorite destination for the Palace Hotel a fabulously-restored colonial gem overlooking the lake. Although the Sofitel gave up management of the property in recent years, with a noticable declne in service, the hotel is nonetheless one of the most remarkable in Indochina.
DALAT VILLA TOUR
In 1930 there were an estimated 400 villas in Dalat and by 1953 over a thousand becoming a favorite place for richer French fleeing the simmering heat of Saigon summers. By 1944, Dalat had nearly 5,600 French inhabitants out of a total population of 25,000. Interestingly, like Hoi An, Dalat was spared the ravages of the Vietnam War and was not bombed or mined leaving the villas largely intact, with the French plumbing still in place. The villas are scattered, with the most exclusive ones near the former Governor-general's Residence, on the south side of the lake. Colonial Dalat can be explored pleasantly by bicycle (some uphill walking required), moto, motorcycle, or car. If on a bicycle, allow at least three hours to cover the sights. We begin our cycling tour at the Palace Hotel.
From here we bike all the way up to the Governor-general's Residence, at the top of a hill-look for the Dinh II Hotel sign. The residence was built between 1933 and 1937. Vichy appointed Governor-general Jean Decoux used the residence as a summer workplace from May to October each year. If the building is closed we won't be missing much. The interior is uninspiring, with bland furniture, a Chinese lacquer screen, random souvenir cases, and a stuffed bear-presumably one bagged in a big game hunt around Dalat when the area was still home to big game. The residence has 25 rooms, but the upstairs section is a hotel and official guesthouse, so no touring is permitted. The gardens, with wattle trees, weeping willows, roses, cacti, and bougainvillea, are more interesting, and free. Dinh II offers excellent views over Dalat. Exclusive Villas Proceeding cast from Dinh 11, you wheel along through pine forests and on to a strip of Dalat's more exclusive villas-over a dozen of them. These 1940s villas were renovated in 1992 and are rented to tour groups from France and Hong Kong. French have even returned on nostalgic vacations to villas they once occupied. The area was developed by DRI, U.S. managed but fronted by a Hong Kong company; the staff received Swiss training. The restaurant in the area is Villa 27; you can stop by and look at the interior.
Farther along Hung Vuong Street, high on a hill, is Nam Phuong White Villa, a white three story French villa with gray shutters and beautiful grounds with rose gardens and palms. You might be able to gain access to the grounds. Empress Nam Phuong, wife of Bao Dai, died in 1963. Farther east, past Khach San Lam Vien, is Dinh I, the former workplace of Emperor Bao Dai. Continue through villa land, go down' Iran Quy Cap Street, and turn left onto Quang rung Street to view more quaint villas, some converted for use by official bodies. Toward the railway station is a double villa. This double-turreted stone castle is reminiscent of a building style found in Provence, in the south of France. Painted Cambodian apsaras are emblazoned outside on the stone wall. It's close to Dalat's old railway station.
Ghost Station Gare de Dalat (corrupted to "Ga Dalat" in Vietnamese) is a classic, semi-restored state with a stopped clock out front. The russet-roofed station is an imaginative piece of French architecture completed in 1938. The Swedish-built cremaillere, or cog railway, ran 1933-1964 down to I'hap Chain junction outside Phan Rang. It was put out of commission by Vietcong attacks. A small part of the line has been revived for tourism, and a diesel locomotive runs 10 kilometers out to the village of Trai Met once a day. Tea is served in a kiosk inside Dalat station, where the halls once echoed with departure announcements. A Swiss company is considering repair of the line. Push on to the Cartographic Institute. The building with the distinctive sloping roof, was originally the French Geographic Institute established in the 1940s to produce maps for military purposes. The Cartographic Institute today produces maps of Vietnam, including some excellent topo maps (one of Dalat itself), but few of these top secret works seem to find their way onto the general market.
Past the Institute is Grand Lycee Yersin named in honor of Alexandre Yersin, the French medical researcher who recommended Dalat be set up as a hill station. The curved brick building with the tower was completed in 1935. Formerly a French secondary school, today it's a Vietnamese school for teacher trainees who are only too pleased to practice their foreign language skills. From the lycee, make your way down Yersin Street to the Trade Union Guesthouse. This French structure is rather dull: it used to serve as offices for the French colonial administration. Out the back are some chalets designed by Hang Nga, Dalat's foremost architect.
Further on, we'll reach Xuan Huong Lake, which is named after an 18th-century poetess whose works ridicule pompous officials and praise free love. The lake, created by the French in 1919 with the construction of a small dam at the west end, used to be called Grand Lac. We can stop for a drink at Thuy Ta Cafe, or continue riding around the lake to the north side to one of the lakeside cafes from where there are sweeping views of Xuan Huong Lake from the landscaped grounds.
Street and Market Food The Central Market (Cho Dalat) features stalls for fresh produce, fruit and flowers, processed food, consumer goods, and clothing. There are a few juice bars down this way. A dazzling array of fruit grows in the temperate zone around Dalat, including strawberries, plums, cherries, apples, and avocados. Candied fruit and jam are made in Dalat. Upstairs at the back of the markets is a large food stall area, an excellent place to dine. Dalat provides excellent fresh vegetables-the French introduced European varieties. At the food stalls you'll find an abundance of vegetables-yams, squash, spinach, beans, peppers. There are half a dozen vegetarian stalls here; look for Com Chay signs. The vendors fashion tofu to resemble prawns or pork chops, though it's dubious whether this simulation appeals to a true vegetarian. For a change from the usual restaurant fare, try the delicious carrots in the produce market. Buy the carrots, take them over to a restaurant, and order them sauteed or however. Wash down your meal with a glass of Dalat mulberry wine; other liqueurs are also produced locally.
At the foot of the steps leading down to the market is another makeshift food stall area: at night women preside over cauldrons of hard boiled quail eggs and snails, cooking for customers at narrow tables. Noodle houses Tang Bat Ho, an alley that runs off the Phu Hoa Hotel, is hardly used by street traffic. At night, it's Soup Alley; inside and outside eateries serve Hue soup and other regional specialties. Restaurants Along Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, leading down from the Central Market to Xuan Huong Lake, a string of small restaurants serve cheap, hearty fare. These include Nhu Ngoc Restaurant, opposite the Haison Hotel; farther south are Mimosa Restaurant and Huynh Lien Restaurant. Up the top of the steps near the cinema is Thanh Thanh Restaurant, at 4 Tang Bat Ho St., tel. 821836, which has an elegant interior. It's small, cozy, clean, and offers good dining at reasonable prices. Particularly tasty are the soups: mustard vegetable, cauliflower, crab, and asparagus.
Around the corner, the family run Long Hoa Restaurant is an old favorite, hosting us for dinners since the early 1990s. Anh Vo, 15 Truong Cong Dinh, tel. 823175, is a good restaurant in the center, with lots of vegetarian dishes; staff is fluent in French and passable in English. Other restaurants in this central area may disappoint-Shanghai is mediocre, and Do Yen Restaurant is overpriced. Phan Dinh Phung Street is the "Chinatown" of Dalat, with naturally more Chinese influence in the cooking. At 98 Phan Dinh Phung is Dong A Restaurant, tel. 821033, with good food but mediocre service. Farther north is Hoan Lan Resto on the ground floor of the Thanh The I Hotel at 118 Phan Dinh Phung.
Toward Mimosa Hotel is Dieu Thao Restaurant, a small, cheap vegetarian place next to 142 Phan Dinh Phung. For French food in classic French surroundings, try Le Cafe de la Poste, which is near the post office, of course. The cafe used to be affiliated with the luxury Hotel Sofitel Dalat Palace across the way. Farther to the east is Villa 27 Restaurant and Bar at 27 Tran Hung Dao Street, tel. 822743. It's on the south side of the lake, past the former Governor-general's Residence. At night there's a fireplace and a piano bar. Villa 27 is also open for breakfast-you can get French bread, juice, tea, and eggs.
Cafés have a lot of character in Dalat. They're the social hub of the town, functioning as rendezvous points, gossip and rumor mills, and nightclubs. To savor the taste of local tea and coffee, try Le Ky Cafe, at 249 Phan Dinh Phung, near the Mimosa Hotel; a small wholesale outlet with a few tables. For tea freaks, Ban Loc tea, produced close to Dalat, is considered one of the finest in Vietnam. Artichoke tea, made from the root of the plant, reputedly restores liver and diuretic functions. Just what you need after one of those long bus rides. On the south side of the lake, near the post office tower, is Le Cafe de la Poste, which is run by the Dalat Palace and is a finer place to have a drink and a comfortable place if you have a lot of postcards to write.
In town, near the back of the cinema, is Cafe Tung. Old men gather here to shoot the breeze; the place was famed as a hangout for intellectuals in the 1950s. Cafe Tung serves only drinks, but if you need a snack, grab one at Pho Tung Cakeshop, at 1 Nguyen Van Troi. Pho Tung sells delicious coconut and marzipan cakes and other pastries; you'll find small sidewalk cake stalls a few blocks west on Truong Cong Dinh Street. Perched on a ridge along Nguyen Chi Thanh Street is a string of cafes with views-Lang Van Cafe, Cafe Artista, Viet Hung Cafe, and Huong Thuy Cafe. These places serve ice cream, iced coffee, and filter coffee, and provide dark corners for Vietnamese couples to meet.
When to (or should you) go?
As the French did nearly a century ago, Dalat provides a welcome respite during the hotter months of summer in Vietnam. But the main question to ask, is should you go? We organized some of the first trips into Dalat in the early 1990s, but feel the past charms of the town are diminishing as unchecked development of concrete block buildings, logging and strip mining are ever degrading Dalat's urban and rural beauty. Moreover, the interesting and unique enclave of bohemian artists were moved out of downtown as their cafes were razed and have been replaced by places catering to domestic tourists, such as neon-lit karaoke bars. Another past reason to visit, the enchanting Palace Hotel, in recent years was passed on by the Sofitel with a noticable decrease in quality at the property.