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Da Lat highlights and travel guide

Dalat Overview

Dalat is somewhat of an anomaly in the hot, humid, jungle landscapes of Vietnam. Visitors could almost mistake the region for a European town thousands of miles away. Often nicknamed "The City of Eternal Spring," Dalat has a temperate climate making it an ideal escape from the heat and humidity of other areas. This climate means that the area is ripe for growing plant species that would not survive in the rest of Vietnam such as strawberries plants, pine trees and artichokes.

 Highlights of Dalat, Vietnam
Highlights of Dalat, Vietnam

The cool, comfortable climate is also the reason that the French first developed the area in the 1890s. Seeking an escape from the all-consuming heat and humidity of the south, French bacteriologist, Alexandre Dan Kia, originally proposed to establish the retreat in nearby Dan Kia. However, Etienne Tardiff suggested Dalat and building began in the early 1900s. Ernest Hebrard set out developing a real home away from home, the city was based largely on the French design and featured French style villas, hotels and boulevards, many of which still remain.  
Dalat was fortunate enough to remain relatively untouched by the ravages of war. Its main involvement was in the Tet Offensive during which the Southern Vietnamese Military Police Units clashed with Viet Cong Troops resulting in the death of many soldiers. Thanks to its limited involvement in the war, Dalat has kept much of the French influence and architecture which gives it its European charm. Over time, this has been added to and developed by Vietnamese culture and now the European charm is paired with a distinctive Vietnamese Kitsch.
This unique combination is a big draw for domestic tourists and especially newlyweds with Dalat being known as the honeymoon capital of Vietnam. The city centre itself feels very urban and has undergone a lot of development, but the surrounding areas are still full of European charm with quaint cafes and small shops. The scenery outside of the main city is equally captivating with pine forests, hilly peaks, and still lakes. The more rural areas feature fabulous flower gardens, renowned coffee farms and patchworks of agricultural land. The cool climate and vast countryside make Dalat a great place to have a go at some outdoor sports and there are plenty of options to choose from.

See and Do

The Cremaillere Railway Station is a fantastic relic of the colonial era and great tribute to the art deco movement. The roof features three peaks and is painted a rich yellow and with small, square, stained glass windows. There is also Japanese steam train on display at the station. Located near the centre of Dalat this is a great spot to view the architecture or even take a ride. The original route, from Dalat to Thap Cham, was closed after damage caused by Viet Cong attacks and now the station only runs a tourist route to the nearby Trai Mat. The route takes visitors through the green, picturesque landscape of Dalat and is a pleasant way to take in the scenery. Once in Trai Mat, visitors can view Linh Phuoc Pagoda with its elaborate designs and majestic mosaic dragon.

Cremaillere Railway Station, Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Bao Dai’s Summer Palace. Dalat, Lam Dong
Cremaillere Railway Station, Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Bao Dai’s Summer Palace. Dalat, Lam Dong

Bao Dai’s Summer Palace is another remainder of the art deco legacy left over from the colonial era. Inside the rather stark exterior is the immaculately preserved summer retreat of Vietnam's last emperor. The palace was built near a cool pine forest as a getaway for Bao Dai and his family in the hot summer months. The palace was built between 1933 to 1937 and used by the family until 1950. It was designed in the art deco style which had been the style du jour in France at the time which was a reflection of Bao Dai's own Francophilia.  He had been educated in some of France's most prestigious institutes and would later die there after living for many years in exile. Inside the house, visitors can walk through the rooms, all furnished with antique furniture and take a peek into the life of Vietnamese royalty. Some of the most telling items are the collection of family photographs which hang on the wall.

Just 3km from the city centre, Lam Dong Museum documents the history of Dalat and the surrounding areas with some artefacts dating back over 3000 years. The nine rooms showcase photos, traditional attire, instruments, religious items from different ethnic minorities including the K'ho, Ma and Churu. There are also some examples of the stilt houses used by the different ethnic minority communities. It a good place to gain some knowledge of the local traditions and cultures of the area.

Dalat is also renowned for its stunning flower gardens which burst into bloom each year. In the main city, Dalat Flower Park boasts the most extensive ion of flowers in Dalat. The 7000 square meter park showcases more than 3000 different species which create a carpet of colour across the grounds with one of the main draws being the orchids. As well as the sea of beautiful flowers, the park has added some playful flower displays and sculptures to amuse visitors.

Further out of town are the flower villages, each specialising in the cultivation of many different species. Van Thanh Village is one of the biggest flower villages in Dalat and specialises in growing many varieties of rose. The large greenhouses are packed full with row upon row of delicate flowers, each lovingly cared for by the farmers. Ha Dong Flower Market is regarded as being the first flower market of Dalat and grows mainly native Vietnamese species. Over the years, the technology available to the farmers has increased in complexity and now allows them to grow many more variations than before. It is amazing to see the work that goes into the cultivation of these flowers and the journey the take from growing in the greenhouses, to be piled high on the backs of rickety motorbikes and off the busy markets. There is also something hypnotic and poetic that comes with viewing such beautiful flowers en masse.

The Dalat Valley of Love epitomises the kitschy, romantic vibe that defines the area. The park is set in a beautiful valley studded with majestic pine trees and colourful beds of flowers. The grounds now accommodate a whole population of quirky animal sculptures and heart photo frames that call out for romantic photo shoots, of which there are plenty. The extravagant and flamboyant decorations can seem to overwhelm the understated beauty of the surroundings, but it does have a uniquely Vietnamese charm to it. It is a fantastic spot for a bit of people watching, you may even be lucky enough to witness a proposal, it is, after all, the Valley of Love!

Also further out of the city, in the vast green countryside, is Truc Lam Temple. Access to the monastery and temple is via a two and a half kilometre cable car which sweeps visitors up over the pine-covered hills. The ariel view highlights the unique flora of Dalat. At the top of the cable car is Truc Lam Temple, the rich gold of the architecture like a beacon in the sea of green. The temple is dedicated to reviving Zen Buddhism and is home to approximately one hundred Buddhist monks and nuns. Zen Buddhism emphasises the importance of meditation and the fresh mountain air, tranquil gardens and serene ambience defintely make the ideal setting for quiet reflection.

As well as magical pine forests and captivating carpets of flowers, Dalat also has a number of waterfalls dotted throughout the countryside. Datanla Falls is closer to Dalat city, just 6km away, and has a small but beautiful waterfall along with some more fun tourist activities. Visitors can choose to follow the falls down to the river either on foot or by the manually operated bobsled. The falls tumble down over the rocks in between  the rich green forests. The local folklore of the K'ho ethnic minority community also speculates that fairies used to bathe in the waters.

A larger, less developed waterfall sits a little further out of the city at the bottom of a mountain pass. Elephant Falls is by far the most dramatic in the region and is set against a magnificent back. The gushing wall of water spills over the curved cliff, down onto the moss covered rocks, and into the river below. A haphazard set of steps fashioned into the rock face follow the waterfall to bottom where it's true power can be appreciated. At the bottom, visitors can appreciate nature's power and beauty whilst sipping on a coffee made from locally grown arabica beans. The more adventurous can slip through the refreshing spray of the waterfall and into the cave behind.

Dalat Flower Park, Bidoup Nui Ba National Park, Dalat Valley of Love. Dalat, Lam Dong
Dalat Flower Park, Bidoup Nui Ba National Park, Dalat Valley of Love. Dalat, Lam Dong

32 km north of Dalat is the densely forested Bidoup Nui Ba National Park. The park is spread over 70,038 ha of land on a plateau in the stunning Langbiang mountains. It is covered with thick forests of evergreen and coniferous trees and tall, echoing bamboo groves. The high altitude and cool climate offer a unique ecosystem which supports many different species of flora and fauna. It provides the habitat for some rare and fascinating species including the yellow cheek gibbons, black bears and vampire flying frogs. The park also boasts 62 rare plant species and upwards of 250 species of orchids. The rambling park is crisscrossed with trails, all venturing deep into the wild. There are many different trails to suit all timeframes and abilities, ranging from a gentle afternoon stroll to more vigorous trek over multiple days. There is a large focus on eco-tourism and conservation in the park and the visitor centre is a great resource of information. As well as providing trekking routes, there is a wealth of knowledge about the K'ho hill tribe culture and their traditions.

Dalat also offers some fantastic outdoor adventure activities which are much more enjoyable in the temperate weather. Moutain biking is a very popular activity with tracks running through the thick pine forests and along single track roads. This high octane adventure is a great way travel, speeding through the morphing countryside through the stretching acres of farms, to the dense forests and splashing rivers. It is also a great opportunity to meet some of the people from the local ethnic minirity communities, slowing down to discover the traditional villages dotted throughout the land.

Another adrenalined fuel sport that has garnered popularity in recent years is canyoning. It combines trekking, abseiling and swimming in the stunning canyons and waterfalls of Dalat. Although not for the faint-hearted, it is a great way to take in the beauty of the natural surroundings.

Culture and Arts

Dalat has a distinctive artistic style with a love of all things kitsch and quirky. One of the most unusual pieces of art in Dalat has to be Hang Nga Guesthouse. Also known as Crazy House, this enchanting building is the brainchild of Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga. The building is designed in the form of a twisting banyan tree, with spider webs, mysterious caves and curious animals nestled in its branches. The house seems as if it has jumped straight from a child's imagination. The style is reminiscent of  Dali's surrealist art or the unique architecture of Gaudi all mixed with a thorough helping of fairytale magic.  The interior of the house is equally as eccentric with each room focussing on a different animal ranging from ants to tigers.

 Hang Nga Guesthouse, Langbiang Mountain, Lat Village. Datlat, Lam Dong
Hang Nga Guesthouse, Langbiang Mountain, Lat Village. Datlat, Lam Dong

Lat Village is an area in the north of Dalat which is home to the Lat hill-tribes from which Dalat takes its name. The collection of hamlets sits at the foot of Langbiang Mountain are made up of traditional stilt houses. The villages are full of life with women weaving on their looms and children running between the wooden stilts. As well as the Lat ethnic minority community, Lat Village is also home to the Chill, Ma and K'ho tribes. After discovering the rich culture of the local communities visitors can take a trip to the peak of Langbiang Mountain. From the summit, there are amazing panoramic views of the distinctive, pine covered countryside below.

Lanh Dinh An, a hamlet in Lat Village, combines local culture and bizarre art. Known as Chicken Village, the main attraction is the towering concrete chicken that perches atop a concrete block. Caught in motion, the chicken appears to be suspended mid-crow, calling out to the villagers. Lanh Dinh An is also a great place to meet the local people and discover their culture. The women of the village spend their time sat at their great looms weaving reams of intricate fabrics which are sold as scarves and bags in the souvenir stalls.

Food and Drink

Dalat's unusually cool temperatures make for unique farming opportunities growing fruits and vegetables that would not survive in other regions. Here artichokes, strawberries and avocados all thrive and are used in a number of delicious local specialities. One sweet treat that takes advantage of the fruit grown here is the ice cream made using the fresh avocados and strawberries.

Coffee farming is another thriving food industry in Dalat with plantations dotted throughout the land. The many farms growing rich arabica beans offer a great insight into the lengthy process from seed to bean to mug. The rich, aromatic coffee made from these fresh beans is served in the many charming coffee shops and is the perfect pick me up in the cooler weather.

Banh Trang Dalat, fruits and vegetables. Dalat, Lam Dong
Banh Trang Dalat, fruits and vegetables. Dalat, Lam Dong

A more unusual product of Dalat is the locally produced wine, known as Vang Dalat. Unlike the rest of the alcohol made in Vietnam, this wine is distinctly European in style. Made using a mixture of grapes from nearby Phan Rang, mulberries and strawberries, the company produces a range of different varieties that are sold domestically and internationally. The techniques used to make wine aim to produced an affordable yet delicious, European-style wine.

As well as all of the amazing local produce, Dalat has some signature dishes that can't be missed. Banh Trang Dalat is a delicious snack available hot from tiny coal fires all along the roadside. Thin round sheets of rice paper are heated up on the grill and topped with a mixture of spring onions, egg and prawns. Once the egg mixture has cooked into a soft, fluffy omelette, it is all rolled up and served with a spicy, sweet sauce. This hot, comforting snack is a great way to warm up in the cooler months.

Banh Can is another delicious street food, which can be found either in the many stalls or at the hole-in-the-wall eateries. These light and fluffy rice flour cakes are filled with delicate quails eggs and sprinkled with freshly chopped spring onions. Aside from the fantastic taste, it is fascinating to watch the vendors cook the banh can in the small circular pods. Dollops of cake mixture and egg are poured into the moulds and topped with a small lid until they puff into delicious bite-sized treats. 

Festivals and Events

Dalat has a range of traditional and modern festivals which celebrate the area's unique culture and traditions. There are two festivals which showcase some of Dalat's main crops. The Flower Festival is a biennial explosion of colour which sees Dalat bathed in a sea of beautiful flowers and skillfully created displays. This festival not only celebrates the pride the people have in their successful flower industry but also the beauty of the area.  The timing of the festival changes slightly from year to year but usually occurs at the end of December or beginning of January. Each year the festival has a different theme which the artists must base their display on. As well as the beautiful displays, there are also competitions, trade fairs and other cultural events.

Flower Festival, Tea Festival, Gong Festival. Dalat, Lam Dong
Flower Festival, Tea Festival, Gong Festival. Dalat, Lam Dong

Another celebration of local produce is the biennial Tea Festival which is held on alternate years to the Flower Festival. Dalat's tea industry is known both domestically and internationally, with tea plantations that sprawl across the countryside. The tea festival celebrates everything to do with the thriving industry and gives the tea companies a chance to showcase their finest produce. 

Danang also has many traditional festivals which have been passed down through many generations of ethnic minority communities. The Gong Festival is the second cultural legacy in Vietnam to be awarded the UNESCO title of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The festival belongs to five provinces of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, Kon Tum, Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong and Lam Dong. It celebrates the beliefs surrounding the musical instrument's connection to the gods. It is widely believed that the older a gong becomes, the more powerful the god. It also believed that owning more gongs is a symbol of prosperity. Because of their sacred stature, gong music is often played at the most important ceremonies. This festival is an opportunity for the many different ethnic minorities to share their traditions with each other. The festival is held in alternate years and, although the date is not set, the magnificent sound of gong music can be heard at many cultural events throughout the year.
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