Nov 15-17, 2014
Exploring Da Lat, Vietnam
GPS waypoint: 11°56'24.9"N 108°26'15.3"E
Location: Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Central Highlands, Vietnam
Is this Geneva?
When people described Da Lat to me as a remote mountain hamlet, the first thing that came to mind was Sagada, Philippines, where I lived for 2 years. Sagada is isolated, rural, remote and perched at 1500 meters above sea level with a cool climate. Upon arrival at Da Lat, except for the cool climate and the elevation, everything I thought of was way off the mark. The thing that crossed my mind was, 'Are we in Geneva?'. Da Lat was far more beautiful than I expected. Now I understand why tourists by-pass Bao Loc for Da Lat.
Walking About Town
The main city center is best explored on foot. Da Lat is hilly with a healthy sprinkling of good and cheap eating places along the streets. It's not hard to find a non-descript hawker-type stall away from the tourist area that is crowded-on by the locals - either for serving the best Da Lat pizza (rice paper with toppings and grilled to a crunchy finish) or serving the best Banh Mi baguette sandwich. A walk along the perimeter of the lake is contemplative but could be tiring - 5 kms. In the evening, it got too cold on a motorbike, it wasn't comfortable anymore to be out. Night market on the main drag was interesting for the bustling energy although a lot of the apparel being sold are cheap made-in-China fakes. Da Lat makes its own wines - try it out. Being a cold place, there were lots of cafes with dishes mostly served hot. They are particular about their noodle tradition - that different noodle soups require different vegetables to go with it. Me? It's all same-same. I never figured it out. All I know is that they all taste good.
Modern-Day Da Lat
Da Lat feels and looks new. It's urban planning includes a man-made 5km2 lake in the middle of the city, wide paved roads, new buildings adapting to the French Colonial theme of the city, picturesque Swiss chalets and charming chateau-styled French villas. Its surrounding landscape is full of lush greenery, waterfalls, mountains, misty lakes and gardens. Da Lat doesn't even look like a Southeast Asian city. You could be forgiven for singing "Sound of Music" ala Julie Andrews. It is easy to see why Da Lat is the honeymoon capital of Vietnam. As I roamed around Da Lat, the thought that kept bugging me was, "This is what Baguio could have been." (The Americans developed Baguio not unlike the French developed Da Lat as a R&R cool-climate resort getaway. Sadly, Baguio is now burdened by congestion and pollution.)
Brief Recent History
- 1890 - French explorers in the area suggested to the French governor-general to build a Rest and Recreation area in the Central Highlands as a cold-climate getaway from the tropical heat of Vietnam
- 1898-99 - road-building expedition assessed the area and proposed where to build the Hill Station
- 1907 - the first hotel was built and urban planning followed which saw the construction of Swiss-inspired chalets and boulevards, health complex, golf course, parks, schools, and homes. The place was primarily developed as an R&R complex for the French administrators of IndoChina
- 1954 - after suffering defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the French left Indochina, and Dalat began renewed development
- 1968 - the Vietnam War was raging and with the Tet Offensive, Da Lat became battle ground for intense fighting between the South Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces
- 1975 - the communist forces won the war and Da Lat was taken over without a fight
- Modern-Day - with tourism as its main source of revenue, Da Lat is on the fast track in becoming a charter city in the Central Highlands. There is a lot of construction going on specially around the lake. Like most of Vietnam, Da Lat is on a fast-forward mode.
Da Lat Railway Station
A good example of French colonial architecture in Da Lat is the Da Lat Railway Station. Designed by French architects Moncet and Reveron and built in 1938, the station is unmistakably Art Deco if not for the Nguyen Dynasty trademark of a pointed roof. The station still has a functional train that takes tourists for a 7km ride on a scenic route to Trai Mat. Plans are underway to restore the system and connect the rail lines to the main Thap Cham hub for full integration with the rest of the national railway lines.
Da Lat Su Quan Historical Village
At first, it wasn't clear what this place was all about. But after viewing a few 'paintings', I realized they were actually silk embroidery - so fine and meticulously detailed that it deserved to be museum pieces. The historical village itself seemed like a gigantic movie set comprising of several sections enclaved into what felt like a maze. I heard that the owner (who was actually there) is one of the eccentric power-types that is typical to the shakers and movers of the Central Highlands.
Even though I know the Vietnam war ended 40 years ago and that the country has made leaps and bounds in catching up with the rest of the free world, the indelible images I still carry in my mind were about the war - as they were the last images I saw about Vietnam (mainstream media was clever in selectively feeding us information to further whatever agenda they had). I had the mistaken notion that after 1975, Vietnam was bombed out of the map...a desolate war-torn battleground that had to rebuild itself. I somehow expected to see a big hole in the ground from an aerial bombing, or see someone on a corner grimacing before his head is blown off.
In Da Lat, that notion was shattered. If no one told me I was in Vietnam, I would have mistaken the place to be one of the pristine cities in Switzerland - clean, expansive, uncluttered, orderly, almost manicured to dainty perfection.
I've toured a lot of Vietnam from Phu Quoc Island in the south to Hanoi on the north. Da Lat takes top 3 together with Hoi An and Saigon as the must-see destinations of Vietnam.
- 1.5 liter drinking water
- Pho noodle soup
- Banh Mi baguette sandwich
- standard room lodging, no air-con (it's cold, you don't need it)
- bus ride from Bao Loc to Da Lat thru hotel
- rice paper pizza
- bring cold weather clothing
- best to have your hotel book the bus ride which includes hotel pick-up and hotel drop-off - 2.5 hours, $6/pax
- Hang Nga Crazy House - it looks like a giant banyan tree and popularly called Crazy House for its eccentric architecture
- Da Lat Railway Station - built in 1938 with an Art Deco theme by French architects Moncet and Reveron
- Langbiang Peak - aka Lang Bian Mountain and Lam Vien Mountain, has 5 volcanic peaks reaching a maximum height of 2400m2
- Palace of Bao Dai King - the last king of Vietnam kept 3 palaces in Da Lat
- Truc Lam Monastery - enjoy the cable car ride and the view of the dams below
- Ho Xuan Huong Lake - you can't miss this as it's a 5km2 man-made lake in the middle of the city
- Prenn Waterfall - 9m high and 20m wide waterfall, 10 kms from Da Lat
- Valley of Love, Dreamlike Hill (Mong Mo Hill) - attractive places for lovers or romantic types
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- Vietnamese smokers will smoke in air-conditioned establishments, air-conditioned buses packed with people including women, children and babies. They also smoke inside hospitals with no smoking signs.
- Vietnam ranks almost the same as Thailand and Cambodia for cheap price. Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia cost more
- internet speed is generally fast and reliable but during important events like Tet holiday, election, etc., it slows down
- Vietnamese generally do not speak or understand much English. It will be a challenge.
- only Vietnamese Dong is accepted as legal tender (change your dollars into Dong)
- best to dress appropriately, not revealing too much skin (Saigon is an exception - the ladies there set the trend in very short shorts)
- remove your shoes when entering a home or place of worship
- ask first before taking someone's picture. If they say no, don't persist or offer money
- best to carry your hotel's business card with you when going out. You can just show it to the cab driver or XeOm driver if they don't understand English
- leave your valuables, passport, travel tickets, etc. with the hotel's safety deposit box
- when lying down, don't point your feet or the soles of your shoes to anyone or to a family altar
- carry only enough cash for your needs that day
- don't lose your temper in public - Vietnamese people are warm, generous and polite. They look down on people who lose their composure
- don't take pictures of military installations
- refrain from taking videos of minority people until permitted to do so
Nov 15-17, 2014
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