Tucked into the mountainous folds of the Lang Bian Plateau at an altitude of around 1500m, the former hill station of Da Lat has exploded in popularity of late and is now a lofty chill-out spot for the country’s burgeoning number of domestic tourists, especially those on honeymoon. This small city is famed among the Vietnamese for its flowers, and the surrounding area is also a major source of their fruit and vegetables – some things simply grow better at this altitude. Consequently, the country’s best-selling brand of wine bears the Da Lat name.
Da Lat isn’t just a favourite among locals – it’s long been a stop on the banana pancake trail thanks to its cool air, winding streets and picturesque churches, and the number of waterfalls and minority villages on its periphery. If you’re in the mood for action, you could also try mountain biking, rock climbing and more, while the restaurants and bars here are by far the best in the central highlands.
Central Da Lat forms a rough crescent around the western side of Lake Xuan Huong, which was created in 1919 when the Cam Ly River was dammed by the French, who named it the “Grand Lac”. The French influence is still evident in the city centre and seen clearly between the streets of Bui Thi Xuan and Phan Dinh Phung, where you’ll find twistings streets and stone buildings topped with red-tiled roofs.
Glassy Lake Xuan Huong is the focus of the city; its 7km circumference is perfect for a bike ride, and parts of the promenade are great for walkers. Head eastwards around the north side of the lake along Nguyen Thai Hoc, and you’ll soon leave the bustle of the city behind as you pass by the extensive grounds of Da Lat’s golf club. After this, you’ll soon reach Da Lat’s flower gardens. Continue along Ba Huyen Thanh Quan and trace its broad arc around the lake. As you double back, you’ll see the slate belfry of the Grand Lycée Yersin peeping out from the trees above and to your left; the city’s pretty train station and the Lam Dong Museum are just to the east. Near Lake Xuan Huong’s northern end are Da Lat’s flower gardens, where paths lead you past hydrangeas, roses, orchids, poinsettia, topiary and a nursery.
East of Lake Xuan Huong, Ga Da Lat, the city’s train station, dates to 1938 and is a real time capsule. Below its gently contoured red-tiled roof and the multicoloured Art Deco windows striping its front facade, its ticket booths are reminiscent of a provincial French station. Outside, the rail yard is in a charming state of dilapidation, with cattle grazing on the grass and flowers growing amid its tracks and ancient locomotives; one of the trains has been turned into a neat little café of sorts.
Trains ran on the railway linking Da Lat to Thap Cham and beyond from 1933 until the mid-Sixties, when Viet Cong attacks became too persistent a threat for them to continue. Nowadays, the only services are those heading 7km across horticultural land and market gardens to the village of Trai Mat, a few kilometres away.
Set on a hill beyond the eastern end of Tran Hung Dao, the Lam Dong Museum is the best of its kind in the central highlands. Displays here are thoughtfully laid out, and provide a tantalizing taste of the region’s rich history. Exhibits include Cham artefacts from recent archaeological digs, a collection of rice jars, ceramics and jewellery found in tombs, and some vicious-looking spears. The museum also gives a thorough introduction to the lifestyles of the local minority groups such as the Ma, Koho and Churu, along with a map showing their distribution in the province and many of their handicrafts and household implements. Also look out for the display covering the French and American Wars, though it is little different to similar ones found across the rest of the country.
Across the road from the Dalat Palace Hotel and a few steps west along Tran Phu, Da Lat’s dusty pink cathedral was consecrated in 1931 and completed eleven years later. It’s dedicated to St Nicholas, protector of the poor, and you’ll see a statue of him standing at the opposite end of the nave to the simple altar, with three tiny children loitering at his feet. The light streaming in from the cathedral’s seventy stained-glass windows, mostly crafted in Grenoble, teases a warm, sunny glow from the mellow pink of the interior walls. A tiny metal cockerel perched almost invisibly at the top of the steeple has earned the cathedral its rather unglamorous moniker, “Chicken Church”.
Gaudier than Gaudí, the Crazy House is easily combined with a visit to Bao Dai’s Summer Palace. Shaped to resemble the knotted trunks of huge trees, it’s a place that visitors – not to mention the citizens of Da Lat – either love or hate. While most merely pop by for a visit, this place also functions as a guesthouse; day-visitors are still welcome to look around any unoccupied rooms, most of which have entertaining Alice in Wonderland-style interiors with mirrors and mushrooms in abundance. A selection of photographs on the walls inside the entrance provides clues as to how such a bizarre construction got planning permission – its owner, Hang Nga, is the daughter of former president Truong Chinh, and was therefore above the usual planning constraints.
Also known as Dinh III, the erstwhile summer palace of Emperor Bao Dai is a suitably splendid place to visit. Built between 1933 and 1938, it provided Bao Dai with a bolthole between elephant-hunting sessions. The building is palatial, though not in a traditional style – Art Deco would be a better description. Etched with stark white grouting, its mustard-coloured bulk is set amid rose and pine gardens. Nautical portholes punched into its walls give it the distinct look of a ship’s bridge, as does the mast-like pole sprouting from its roof. The place has all the usual attractions – pony rides and the chance to dress up in costumes – and the exit forces you to pass through a gauntlet of souvenir stalls.
There is some spectacular scenery in the vicinity of Da Lat, which lends itself to challenging treks, bike rides and other adventure activities.
There are a number of excellent day- and half-day bike routes around Da Lat. Many head north to Lat Village or south into the countryside, but it’s also possible to organize trips to further-flung locations such as Buon Ma Thuot, Nha Trang or even Hoi An.
There’s a beautiful canyon fifteen minutes from Da Lat by car, though the adventurous climbing course requires ropes and a bit of bravery. Groovy Gecko run full-day ones to the Dasara Falls, whose four cascades range in height from 8–65m.
The eighteen-hole Da Lat Palace course just north of the lake boasts inspiring views from some tees.
Most local tour operators will be able to organize guided hikes, with everything from half-day to week-long walks and treks. Again, Lat Village and the surrounding area is a popular destination, though the operators here will be able to take you into more far-flung territory.
Both the Dalat Palace and Dalat Du Parc have tennis courts, available to guests for free and non-guests for a small fee.
The operators here run rafting and kayaking trips on routes including rapids of class 2, 3 and 4.
A number of local tour operators can help to organize most of the activities here. Hotel pick-up usually comes as part of the package.
Enduringly popular with both Western and domestic tourists, Da Lat has a wide range of places to stay, from cheap, windowless rooms to luxury, international-standard hotels. However, if your visit coincides with a public holiday, especially Tet, be warned that prices increase by up to fifty percent, and you’ll need either to arrive early or book ahead. The densest concentration of budget hotels lies on Phan Dinh Phung; ask for a room at the back, as the main road can be noisy. Several upmarket hotels operate downtown, but there are many more out in the open spaces south and west of the city centre. Check that prices include hot water – a luxury in much of southern Vietnam, but a necessity in Da Lat. Air-conditioning is neither necessary nor usually provided.
Da Lat has abundant food stalls and a broad range of restaurants serving Vietnamese and international cuisines. Head to the market for pho, com and the like, as well as for com chay from the one or two vegetarian stalls. You can even buy picnic provisions of bread, cheese and cake at the market, complemented by fresh local berries. Note that you’ll also see a fair few places serving bun bo and other types of Hue cuisine – apparently, sixty percent of Da Lat’s current population can trace their origins back to Hue.
The city of Da Lat itself has more than enough to fill up a few days, but you could extend this to almost a week by visiting the best of its surrounding sights, which include vintage train rides, former palaces, waterfalls and minority villages.
The wide area to the east of Da Lat conceals some appealing sights, including Dinh I, one of several Bao Dai palaces in the area, and Trai Mat, a super little village connected to Da Lat by vintage trains. These run both infrequently and irregularly; if you’d like to see both sights, take the train out to Trai Mat first, then return by xe om or taxi and pop by the palace on the way.
There are a few great sights in the area just south of Da Lat, all concentrated around the modest rise of Robin Hill. Near the summit you’ll find a lake and temple, with the Datanla Falls thundering (or trickling in drier months) off its eastern flank.
The sights clustered to the north of Da Lat are rather more far-flung than those to the east and south, though it’s still quite possible to tackle them all in a half-day – or a full one if you choose to ascend Lang Bian Mountain. This rises just beyond Lat Village, an appealing place in which to experience a little Montagnard culture. Taking a different road north out of Da Lat will soon bring you to the Valley of Love, a beautiful, if somewhat schmaltzy, place popular with local tourists.
Top image: The Linh Phuoc Pagoda in mosaic style from shards of glass, pottery and porcelain in Da Lat city, Vietnam © Efired/Shutterstock