Da Lat

 

Dalat is quite different from anywhere else you'll visit in Vietnam. You would almost be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into the French Alps in springtime. This was certainly how the former colonists treated it - escaping to their chalets to enjoy the cooler climate. The French feel is compounded by a radio mast shaped like the Eiffel Tower and the local bohemian artists' predilection for swanning around in berets. Dalat is small enough to remain charming, and die surrounding countryside is blessed with lakes, waterfalls, evergreen forests and gardens. Local products include silk, garden vegetables and flowers (especially beautiful hydrangeas), which are sold all over southern Vietnam. But the biggest contribution to the economy is tourism: more than 800,000 domestic tourists and another 80,000 foreigners visit here every year. It's the country's favourite honeymoon spot and still retains the final word in Vietnamese kitsch. The Dalat area was once famous for hunting and a 1950s brochure boasted that "a two-hour drive from the town leads to several game-rich areas abounding in deer, roe, peacocks, pheasants, wild boar, black bear. wild caws, panthers, tigers, gaurs and elephants'. So successful were the hunters that all of the big game is now extinct. The closest you'll get to the formerly diverse fauna are the taxidermied specimens about town. The city's population includes about 5000 members of hill tribes, which make up 33 distinct communities in Lam Dong province. Traditional dress can occasionally be spotted in the market places. Hill-tribe women of this area carry their infants on their backs in a long piece of cloth worn over one shoulder and tied in the front. The City of Eternal Spring, Dalat's temperature hovers between a pleasant 15°C (average daily minimum) to 24°C (average daily maximum). Effectively Dalat has two seasons - dry (December to March) and wet (April to November). Despite the mild temperatures, by the end of the dry season the lush green surrounds turn to brown. Even in the wet season, mornings normally remain dry - allowing time for sightseeing before the deluge begins.
Da Lat Vietnam
This area has been home to various Montagnard (hill tribe) groups for centuries. In the local Lat language, 'Da Lat’ means 'River of the Lat Tribe'. The first European to 'discover' Dalat was Dr Alexandre Yersin in 1893. The city was established in 1912 and quickly became fashionable with Europeans. At one point during the French colonial period, some 20% of Dalat's population was foreign, as evidenced by the 2500-odd chateau-style villas scattered around the city. During the American War, Dalat was spared by the tacit agreement of all parties concerned. Indeed, it seems that while South Vietnamese soldiers were being trained at the city's military academy and affluent officials of the Saigon regime were relaxing in their villas, Viet Cong cadres were doing the same thing not far away in their villas. Dalat fell to North Vietnamese forces without a fight on 3 April 1975. There is no problem with leftover mines and ordnance in the area.

Dalat's sights are spread out and the terrain in and around the city is hilly. Still, trekking or cycling is made easier by the cool temperatures, The Central Market, set in a hollow, marks the middle of the town. To the south-east the 'Eiffel Tower' of the main post office is a useful landmark, rising above the southern shore of Xuan Huong Lake.


Sights

XUAN HUONG LAKE
Created by a dam in 1919, banana-shaped Xuan Huong Lake was named after a 17th-century Vietnamese poet known for her daring attacks on the hypocrisy of social conventions and the foibles of scholars, monks, mandarins and kings. The lake can be circumnavigated along a 7km sealed path that leads past several of Dalat's main sights, including the flower gardens, golf club and the majestic hilltop Hotel Sofitel Dalat Palace.

HANG NGA CRAZY HOUSE
A perfect combination of Dalat's bohemian tradition and its taste for kitsch. Hang Nga Crazy House is a guesthouse in the form of a giant surreal artwork. The architecture is Gaudi-meets-Alice in Wonderland and cannot easily be described: there are caves, giant spider webs made of wire, concrete tree trunks and scary-looking animals with glowing red eyes. Yes it's tacky, and exceedingly commercialised, but many are astounded to find such a countercultural construction in Vietnam. The owner of Hang Nga Crazy House, Mrs Dang Viet Nga, gained a PhD in architecture in Moscow, where she lived for 14 years. Hang Nga, as she's known locally, has designed a number of other buildings that dot the landscape around Dalat, including the Children's Cultural Palace and the Catholic church in Lien Khuong. The Dalat People’s Committee has not always appreciated such innovative designs. An earlier Dalat architectural masterpiece, the 'House with 100 Roofs', was torn down as a fire hazard because the People's Commit-tee thought it looked antisocialist. However, there is little chance that Hang Nga will have such trouble with the authorities. Her father Truong Chinh, was Ho Chi Minh's successor, serving as Vietnam's second president from 1981 until his death in 1988. There's a fascinating display on his history and achievements in the main hall. Probably the strangest thing about this construction is that people can actually stay here (rooms range from US$19 to US$84), although the constant stream of tourists and the glowing red eyes of the giant kangaroo would surely take some getting used to.

CREMAILLERE RAILWAY STATION
Dalat's pretty station is now largely decorative. Railway enthusiasts will be interested in the old locomotives on display, including a Japanese steam train. From 1928 to 1964, when it was closed because of VC attacks, the cog-railway linked Dalat and Thap Cham. It's unfortunate that the line has never been fully replaced, as it would provide a great tourist link to the main north-south lines. A section of track has been re-opened, allowing you to ride in an historic carriage 8km to Trai Mat village (30 minutes) and back again. Although there are scheduled six trains per day, in reality this varies according to demand - they won't leave unless there's a minimum of two passengers. Once in Trai Mat, most travellers make a requisite stroll over to visit the ornate linh Phuoc Pagoda. This colourful pagoda was built between 1949 and 1952, and recent renovations included the installation of an 81/2-tonne bell in a seven-tiered tower. Remove your shoes when entering the main temple building, where an amusement-park dragon guards the gate. Once inside, visitors are greeted by a 5m-high Buddha sporting a five-ringed neon halo. From the ground floor, take the left-hand .staircase up to the 2nd-level balcony area for great views.

BAO DAI'S SUMMER PALACE
This Art Deco-influenced villa was constructed in 1933 and was one of three palaces Bao Dai kept in Dalat. The decor has not changed in decades, except for the addition of Ho Chi Minh's portrait over the fireplace, but the palace is filled with artefacts from decades and governments past and is extremely interesting. In Bao Dai's office, the life-sized white bust above the bookcase is of the man himself; the smaller gold and brown busts are of his father. Emperor Khai Dinh. Note the heavy brass royal seal (on the right) and military seal (on the left). The photographs over the fireplace are of Bao Dai, his eldest son Bao Long (in uniform), and his wife Empress Nam Phuong. Upstairs are the living quarters. The room of Bao Long, who now lives in France, is decorated in yellow, the royal colour. The huge semicircular couch was used by the emperor and empress for family meetings, during which their three daughters were seated in the yellow chairs and their two sons in the pink chairs. Check out the ancient tan Rouathermique infrared sauna machine near the top of the stairs. Bao Dai's Summer Palace is set in a pine grove, 2km southwest of the city centre. Shoes must be removed at the door. There's an extra charge for cameras and videos.

DALAT FLOWER GARDENS
An unusual sight in Vietnam, these gardens were established in 1966. Flowers here include hydran geas, fuchsias and orchids. Most of the latter are in special shaded buildings to the right of the entrance. All in all it's a very nice and well-kept cross section of Dalat foliage, along with some crazy kitsch topiary. The Dalat Flower Gardens front Xuan Huong Lake, on the road that leads from the lake to Dalat University.

DOMAINE DE MARIE CONVENT
The pink tile-roofed structures of this hill-top convent, constructed between 1940 and 1942, were once home to 300 nuns. Today the remaining nuns support themselves by making ginger candies and selling the fruit grown in the orchard out the back. The French-speaking nuns are pleased to show visitors around and explain the work they do for orphans, the homeless and children with disabilities. The shop sells handicrafts made by the children and nuns. Mass is celebrated in the targe chapel, Sunday to Friday.

LINH SON PAGODA
Built in 1938, this pagoda (Chua Linh Son; 120 Đ Nguyen Van Troi) is a lovely ochre-coloured building that fuses French and Chinese architecture. The giant bell is said to be made of bronze mixed with gold, its great weight making it too heavy for thieves to carry off.

DALAT CATHEDRAL
This gingerbread-style cathedral ( Đ Tran Phu) was built between 1931 and 1942 for use by French residents and holiday-makers. The cross on the spire is topped by a weathercock, 47m above the ground. The church itself is rarely open outside of mass times.

DELECTABLE DALAT
For French colonists craving a taste of home, Dalat's climate was perfectly suited for growing fresh garden vegetables. Peas, carrots, radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados, capsicums, lettuce, beets, green beans, potatoes, garlic, spinach, squash and yams are all grown here, making for meals unavailable elsewhere in the country. The Dalat area is justly famous for its strawberry jam, dried blackcurrants and candied plums, persimmons and peaches. Apricots are popular, and often served in a heavily salted hot drink. Other local delicacies include avocado ice cream, sweet beans (mut dao) and strawberry, blackberry and artichoke extracts (for making drinks). The strawberry extract is great in tea. Artichoke tea, another local speciality, is said to lower blood pressure and benefit the liver and kidneys. Dalat wine is served all over Vietnam and some of it's quite good. Don't go stressing over grape varietals - your choice is white or red. The reds are pleasantly light in style, while the whites tend to be heavy on the oak. Dau hu, a type of pudding made from soy milk, sugar and a slice of ginger, is one of Dalat's specialities, as is hot soy milk (sua dau nanh). Both are sold by itinerant female vendors, who walk around carrying a large bowl of the stuff and a small stand suspended from either end of a bamboo pole. Most vendors in the Central Market will let you sample a bit of something before you buy
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AROUND DALAT

Valley of Love

Named the Valley of Peace by Emperor Bao Dai in a wonderful lack of prescience, this valley had its name changed in 1972 by romantically minded students from Dalat University. Today this ever-tacky place has taken on a surreal atmosphere and cynical locals call it the Valley of Shops. Tourist buses line up to regurgitate visitors and boats line up to accommodate them. Get into the spirit with some aquatic activities: paddle boats, 15-person canons and obnoxious noise-making motorboats can be hired to tour the lake. This is a good place to sec the 'Dalat cowboys': Vietnamese guides dressed as American cowboys. We've also seen locals dressed as bears. The cowboys rent horses to tourists for a guided tour around the lake. The cowboys and bears expect cash if you take their picture. Refreshments and local delicacies (such as jams and candied fruits) are on sale at the lookout near where the buses disgorge tourists. The Valley of Love is 5km north of Xuan Huong Lake.
Lake of Sighs
The Lake of Sighs (Ho Than Tho; admission 5000d) is a natural lake enlarged by a French-built dam. The forests are not Dalat's finest. The cheery name comes from the story of Mai Nuong and Hoang Tung, who met here in 1788 while he was hunting and she was picking mushrooms. They fell in love and sought their parents' permission to marry. At that time Vietnam was threatened by a Chinese invasion and Hoang Tung, like a macho fool, joined the army without telling Mai Nuong. Mai Nuong sent word for him to meet her at the lake, and when he didn't come she was overcome with sorrow and drowned herself. She clearly wasn't used to being stood up. There are several small restaurants up the hill from the dam- Horses can be hired for 80,000d an hour, while a ride in a horse-drawn carriage costs 140.000d per hour. The Lake of Sighs is 6km northeast of the centre of Dalat via Đ Phan Chu Trinh.
Quang Trung Reservoir
Quang Trung Reservoir (Tuyen Lam Lake) is an artificial lake created by a dam in 1980. Paddle boats, rowboats and canoes can be hired nearby. The hills around the reservoir are covered with pine trees, and there s a path up the hill southwest of the water-intake tower. Ethnic-minority farmers live and raise crops in the vicinity.
The fun way to get here is by cable car. If heights aren't your thing, head out of Dalat on Hwy 20 and turn right at the signpost 5km from town and continue for 2km.
Lat Village
The nine hamlets of Lat village (pronounced 'lak') are 12km north of Dalat at the base of Lang Bian Mountain. Only five of the hamlets are actually Lat; the residents of the other four are members of the Chill, Ma and Koho tribes, each of which speaks a different dialect. Traditionally, Lat houses are built on piles with rough plank walls and a thatched roof. The people here eke out a living on 300 hec-tares of land, growing rice, coffee, black beans and sweet potatoes. Economics have forced many villagers into producing charcoal, a lowly task often performed by Montagnards. Before 1975 many men from Lat worked with the Americans, as did many Montagnards elsewhere. Classes in the village's schools are conducted in Vietnamese rather than tribal languages. Lat has one Catholic and one Protestant church. A Koho-language Bible (Sra Goh) was published by Protestants in 1971; a Lat-Ianguage Bible, prepared by Catholics, appeared a year later. Both dialects are quite similar and are written in a Latin-based script. To get to Lat from Dalat, head north on Đ Xo Viet Nghe Tinh. At Trung Lam Hamlet there's a fork in the road marked by a street sign. Continue straight on (northwest) rather than to the left. By bicycle the 12km trip from Dalat to Lat takes about 40 minutes. On foot it's a two-hour walk.
Lang Bian Mountain
Also called Lam Vien Mountain, it has five volcanic peaks ranging in altitude from 2100m to 2400m. Of the two highest peaks, the eastern one is known by the woman's name K'Lang while the western one bears a i man's name, K'Biang. Only the upper reaches of the mountain remain forested. Only half a I century ago the foothills had lush foliage thai sheltered wild oxen, deer, boars, elephants, rhinoceroses and tigers. The hike up to the top's spectacular views takes three to four hours from Lat village. The path begins due north of Lat and is recognisa-ble as a red gash in the green mountainside.
Lang Dinh An (Chicken Village)

Famous for its giant concrete chicken caught mid-strut in the village centre. Lang Dinh An has become very popular with travellers because it's conveniently situated on the highway, 17km from Dalat. The village is home to about 600 people of the Koho minority, who were enticed down from the hills and have, to a certain extent, been Vietnamised. Most no longer live in stilt houses and they wear Vietnamese-style clothing. The chicken was an elaborate decorative device for a long-dysfunctional water system, which used to crow as the water was pumped. The symbolism of the chicken probably relates to yet another local legend involving i doomed romance ending in a dead heroine. Though the residents of Chicken village are extremely poor. we'd suggest that you don't give sweets or money to the children. If you want to help the villagers, there are a couple of shops where you can buy simple things like drinks and biscuits. There are also beautiful weavings for sale near the highway.
Waterfalls
DATANLA FALLS
The nice thing about Datanla Falls is the short but pleasant walk to get there. The cascade is 350m from Hwy 20 on a path that first passes through a pine forest and then continues steeply down into a rainforest. The other good thing is the wildlife - lots of squirrels, birds and butterflies. To get to Datanla Falls, turn right off Hwy 20 about 200m past the turn- off to Quang Trung Reservoir. It's well signposted.

Source: lonely planet

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