By Gilles Malaisé
Dalat, still affectionately referred as "Le Petit Paris", sprung up as a regenerating respite for the French from the hustle and bustle of Saigon. A seven-hour direct trip, by luxury Futa sleeper bus, makes the suffocating tropical heat of Saigon a bad souvenir; giving place to the fresh air from the hills. The countryside is filled with waterfalls and lakes, fragrant pine and oak evergreen forests, with fern along picturesque, sinuous roads.
The fauna and flora of the 1,500-meter above sea level Central Highlands are surprisingly reminiscent of the French Riviera and Basque Country. The Dalat Plateau is home to unique species. Acclaimed for its biodiversity, this is one of the five extensive bird areas in Vietnam. Out of the fourty species established in Dalat, Collared Laughingthrush, Grey-crowned Crocias, and Vietnamese Greenfinch, are only to be found within the area. The Dalat Plateau also has distinct subspecies of Spot-breasted Laughingthrush, Cutia, Rufous-Backed, and Black-headed Sibias, Blue-winged Minla, Grey-headed Parrotbill and Black-Throated Sunbird. Bird-watching tour is a good pretext to refresh your lungs, and please your eyes: trekking through coniferous, montane evergreen and secondary forest. Usually very dense in nature, they are also home to the large mammals. A leading hunting ground during the colonial era, it still has quite a lot of wild boars, approximately 100 elephants, tigers, and leopards. Smaller animals, like monkeys and squirrels, can also be found in Dalat, but in lesser numbers. Members of the reptile family, such as crocodiles, snakes, and lizards, can also be found to prosper in these conditions.
With 24° maximum / 15° minimum daily temperature, the land supplies the same temperate agriculture products like in France or Italy! Featuring cabbage and cauliflower for the national market, and strawberry and mulberry for the high-end local market and export to ASEAN, altogether with the best coffee (with a chocolate aroma), grown and roasted locally. Tea from the Cau Dat Tea Factory is recognized as one of the best providers in Vietnam. The local wine would taste mediocre to the connoisseur. Drink it cool, like a Bourgogne, and you might finally be positively surprised; the climate actually interferes on the palate in favor of the local products. The best-known brand, “Vang Dalat” is far better than the yucky wine from Thailand or China... Don't compare it with a “Château Lafite 1er Cru”, of course!
Dalat flower industry produces hydrangea and golden everlasting, typical to Dalat, and rose. Dalat has a popular winter Flower Festival, and a vibrant Flower Park considered as one of the richest in Southeast Asia.
The waterfalls are the highlight of the unspoiled natural life. Out of the five leading waterfalls, Datanla (Thác Datanla) is our favorite: a “Cultural Historical Site” since 1998, it is located in one of the nicest forests. It is mostly visited by locals, it looks particularly bucolic and offers a breathtaking panorama. Pongour Waterfalls (Thác Pongour) is nice also. Located on the Da Nhim River, this is the place for typical festivals: such as Gong performance, or Buffalo stabbing.... The area is so romantic that young boys and girls made it their dating place.
The urban city of Dalat has nothing to do with the rest of Vietnam. That's simply incredible! We walked along the Ho Xuan Huong Lake and its deliciously kitsch duck boats, with a Pernod-pause at “Le Cosy” bar at the Dalat Palace Hotel, on our way to the picturesque Central Market: both landmarks had been erected by well inspired colonial architects. The revigorating morning breeze gave us the impression to be in Chamonix; not in Vietnam? We could see on the right the local radio mast, a replica of the Eiffel Tower...
On the left, the tower of St Nicholas Cathedral (Nhà thờ chính tòa Đà Lạt, ). Dating back from 1931, it is much frequented by the local Catholics. With five masses every Sunday, this eclectic-Romanesque landmark attracts more believers than during the French protectorate!
If you want to make it 100% French, visit Bao Dai's summer palace. A great friend of France, where he died in 1997 after a long exile, the last emperor of Annam (1926 – 1945) built his favorite summer palace in this scenic location, due to the presence of tigers and elephants in the jungle, close to this Bauhaus villa. It has a small museum and interesting, avant-garde furniture.
Don't miss Dalat Railway Station. Freely inspired by Deauville Railway Station (Normandy, France), designed in 1935 by architect Moncet, this is the most visited monument in Dalat. More than 40,000 tourists, mostly locals, are attracted not only by this very unique “Art Deco” monument, but also by the excursion on the “Dalat Plateau Rail Road”, in a nicely restored nostalgia train. The feel is impressive, and the landscape of jungle and forests, between Dalat and Trai Mat, is worth the trip. A serious project consists in rebuilding the entire Dalat – Thap Cham line, constructed under the rule of President Paul Doumer, and destroyed by the North Vietnamese communists.
Not far from the railway station, the scenic Tran Hung Dao Road serves the “French Quarter”. A dozen of villas dating back from the French Protectorate, right and left of the road, have been transformed into something like a resort. For less than USD 100, you can sleep in one of those mansions, chalets or pavilions; some in the Art Deco, Basque or Normand eclectic style. We visited some of them: feeling astonished to see how well kept they are! The gardens, reminiscent of the “Côte d'Azur”, are planted with mimosa, old rose, and further European essences. Pine, oak, and green lawns participate to the illusion. Some villas, with a view lake, made us feel transported to the Lake Leman, in Switzerland. The interiors of the inspected villas looked paused on the 1930s! We felt like the former French owners would knock at our door and say "-Bonjour!". Stairs, rooms, windows, fireplaces (Dalat is surely the unique city in Southeast Asia providing that kind of equipment!), and even some bathrooms, are guaranteed original. The furniture is globally kitsch; but Dalat always prided itself on this particularity. Isn't it referred as “the Vietnamese capital of kitsch”?
More classical lodging is available in Dalat. On the high-end side, the best accommodation can be found in the new TTC Premium Hotel Ngoc Lan. A real four-star luxury hotel, both in term of service and quality of rooms, it has the absolute best location in the city center. We booked in a spacious “Superior Lake-View Room”: it has the best panorama on the whole downtown, lake, and green hills all around. That was a pleasure to enjoy the breeze, sitting on our large balcony with a good book in hand. We liked the smooth and comfy king size bed, immaculate modern bathroom, discreet “Art Deco” design with a modern fireplace, giving the impression that we are living in a colonial style hotel. The cream on the crop of luxury hospitality in the region, it has dedicated staff working with much enthusiasm, serving any request in a minute. We experienced the hotel during a busy weekend; but the receptionists remained so anticipating. Assisting us in a university-level English, confirming our bus to Saigon, and helping us with good tips to discover a city they know perfectly well for being native from Dalat. The cheerful general manager was often in the lobby to welcome the guests. We felt at home in this fantastic hotel indeed!
Opposite the TTC Premium Hotel Ngoc Lan, its sister hotel, the recently re-branded TTC Premium Dalat (still referred by the taxi drivers as the Golf Hotel), is very affordable four-star modern property, with attractive rate (approximately USD 40 for a 27sq.m Superior City View double room, including buffet breakfast, during our stay in Spring 2017). We had a beautiful panorama of the cathedral and hills, and we liked to visit each evening the picturesque night-market. The Junior Deluxe and TTC Suite offer a high level of comfort at a very fair price. The hotel has three restaurants, including the renown “Premium BBQ & Beer” brasserie, serving a rare Kobe Beef produced in Vietnam using the same cattle and process like in Japan. It gives the Western traveler the opportunity to experience this delicacy at a portion of the price charged anywhere else in Asia and even Japan. This restaurant is the hotel signature, attracting lots of guests from Saigon and the region of Dalat. The staff is as naturally kind and anticipating as in TTC Premium Hotel Ngoc Lan. This is also one of the preferred hotels in town; make sure you book at least a couple of weeks in advance. Particularly on weekends, when the elite from Saigon visits both hotels.
After dark, the night market opposite the Ngoc Lan is so atmospheric. The friendly and smiling sellers are specializing in hosiery and winter clothes... You won't find another place like this in Southeast Asia. The food is delicious, with small restaurants and pubs all around, well worth the try for only a few dollars. We never spent more than 10 dollars in Dalat for a generous, 3-course dinner in restaurant; 3 or 4 dollars are enough for a tasty street-food experience. We recommend the local fish or meat curries (quite hot on the Vietnamese standard), the BBQ wild boar, and of course fresh local vegetables. Banh Trang is a unique speciality to this region: we would describe it like a barbecued rice paper pizza, with egg, dried baby prawns, sweet and spicy sauce, and chopped spring onions. This is simply delicious. You can purchase it for one dollar -or less- at the night-market, or at lake shore all day long. The Banh Trang sellers don't like photos; this is certainly why it has never been copied elsewhere in the world! There are plenty of small coffee shops, and really Dalat coffee is a must. Just be prudent: it is very strong, indeed. Nothing to do with American coffee...
Plenty of sports can be practiced in Dalat. Chic and with a colonial twist, the 18-hole course Dalat Palace Golf Club is one of the oldest courses in Vietnam, since 1933. It carves its way around the central lake. More recently, several newer golf courses have opened on the outskirts of Dalat, including the "Asian Tour"-sanctioned, quite bling Dalat at 1200 Country Club, and the 18-hole Sacom Tuyen Lam Golf Course. It has an awesome, internationaly managed resort: the Swiss-Belresort Tuyen Lam. This is, with Dalat Palace, the highest-end hotel in Dalat. Though totally different from its concept and location. The change of scenery, compared with the relatively crowdy and modern city center of Dalat, comes after the first minutes of a relatively short (¼ hour) taxi ride on a sinuous, picturesque road crossing fragrant hilly fern and pine forests. Letting our imagination carrying us away in Southern France. A dream comes true for many Vietnamese, visiting the highlands for the first time. A bucolic valley with a lake appeared... We reached the 270 hectares Sacom Tuyen Lam complex, including the largest golf course in the region, 400 exclusive villas in a neo-French style, the well priced three star superior Club House (almost always fully booked with groups of players), and the lavish, surprisingly alpine Swiss-Belresort.
Impressive, lavish and relaxing, this five-star hotel made us feel like in Aspen, Gstaad, Marienbad or Evian... Everywhere but in Vietnam! We actually found a real grand hotel in the City of Flowers! It has some kitsch, but we like it (don't forget that we are in the capital of the most charming kitsch ever!). The palatial lobby gives an idea of the Swiss-Belresort grandeur. The chandelier would fit Versailles, the marble would build a mansion, and once better tuned the Yamaha grand piano could entertain the jet-set with Cole Porter or Burt Bacharach's melodies... Yet, this luxury sanatorium still needs to be discovered by the foreign traveler. Its guests are 90% local. We were astonished that it didn't fill up easily and fast with golf players. The green fee is so cheap! The golf is so beautiful! Spreading its 74 hectares slopes almost till the nearby Tuyen Lam Lake. Lots of the 151 large and amazingly pleasant rooms, among the comfiest experienced during our Vietnam tour, open to its immensity. We could hear the birds singing, see the rabbits running, each morning, each evening, with such a delectation. We fell in love at first sight, and forever, with Dalat opening the window of our Grand Deluxe Room. We spent hours reading, or just contemplating the mountains all around. Almost forgetting to dine in the surprisingly affordable restaurant, with a cool terrace making the air-conditioning superfluous. Great F&B indeed, since the new general manager -who used to be a chef- totally upgraded the restaurants and bars. The breakfast is now the best in Dalat, with bakery, pastry and fresh fruit juices to die for. No one can compete. And much still has to come. The outdoor pool is extremely pleasant: so refreshing that it is only used by westerners, Korean and Japanese. The Southeast Asian guests prefer the large heated indoor swimming pool, near the ritzy Fitness Center & SPA. There is, of course, a large tennis court, meeting rooms and palatial ballrooms, and a kids' corner. Ideal for a retreat, honeymoon or just sport, his hotel has all for all tastes. No doubt that, in less than five years, when well internationally marketed, the indecently cheap rate and packages will rocket.
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