THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS || DA LAT
Vietnam’s premier hill station, DA LAT, sits tucked into the mountain folds of the Lang Biang Plateau at an altitude of around 1500m. A beguiling amalgam of winding streets, picturesque churches, bounteous vegetable gardens and crashing waterfalls, this quaint colonial curio is a great place to chill out, literally and metaphorically; if its cool air gets you in the mood for action, you could try trekking to minority villages, mountain-biking and rock-climbing.
By tacit agreement during the American War, both Hanoi and Saigon refrained from bombing the city and it remains much as it was half a century ago. However, it’s important to come to Da Lat with no illusions. With a population of around 200,000, the city is anything but an idyllic backwater: sighting its forlorn architecture for the first time in the 1950s, Norman Lewis found the place “a drab little resort”, and today its colonial relics and pagodas stand cheek by jowl with some of the dingiest examples of East European construction anywhere in Vietnam. Moreover, attractions here pander to the domestic tourist’s predilection for swan-shaped pedal-boats and pony-trek guides in full cowboy gear, while at night the city can be as bleak as an off-season ski resort.
Central Da Lat forms a rough crescent around the western side of man-made Lake Xuan Huong, created in 1919 when the Cam Ly River was dammed by the French, who named it the “Grand Lac”. The city escaped bomb damage, and a French influence is still evident in its central area, whose twisting streets and steps, lined with stone buildings rising to red-tiled roofs, cover a hillock located between the streets of Bui Thi Xuan and Phan Dinh Phung.
Around Da Lat
The spectacular scenery around Da Lat lends itself to challenging treks, bike rides and other adventure activities. None of the local waterfalls is worth visiting in the dry season (Dec–May), with the possible exception of Tiger Falls, though you might enjoy a boat ride on one of the local lakes or a cable-car ride from Robin Hill to Lake Tuyen Lam, where kayaks are available for rent. Another popular jaunt is by train to Trai Mat, taking time out to admire the adornments on the Linh Phuoc Pagoda.
The Valley of Love
Thung Lung Tinh Yeu, or the Valley of Love, sits five kilometres north of Da Lat. Bao Dai and his courtiers used to hunt here in the 1950s, before a dam project in 1972 flooded part of the valley and created Lake Da Thien. The valley’s still waters and wooded hills are actually quite enticing, though the music blasting from souvenir stalls and the buzzing of rented motorboats do not enhance the aura of romance. Kitsch diversions such as pony rides round the lake escorted by a cowboy are also on offer.
XQ Historical Village
More a tourist trap than a place of historical worth, though worth popping into if you’re visiting the adjacent Valley of Love. Here you’ll find several traditional houses displaying the process and product of silk embroidery picture-making. You can watch the girls painstakingly producing images thread by thread, then walk through an exhibition of landscapes, still lifes, portraits and more surreal compositions, all woven from silk.
The village’s thatch-roofed bamboo stilthouses are occupied by Chill and Ma, but mostly Lat, groups of Koho peoples eking out a living growing rice, pulses and vegetables. The various paths running through the village are easy to follow so a guide is not essential, though one can be easily arranged through any of Da Lat’s tour operators.
Ankroet lakes and falls
If you go it alone and hire a motorbike for the day, you could combine a visit to Lat Village with a jaunt out to Ankroet lakes and falls, signposted 8km along the road to Lat. The falls are more secluded and attractive than most in the area but there is little water during the dry season.
Lang Biang Mountain
From Lat Village, you’ll see the peak (2169m) of Lang Biang Mountain looming above you to the north. It’s a 4hr ascent on foot, though by car you can drive up to the canopy of pines on the lower peak. Inevitably, a schmaltzy legend has been concocted to explain the mountain’s formation. The story tells of two ill-starred lovers, a Lat man called Lang and a Chill girl named Biang, who were unable to marry because of tribal enmity. Broken-hearted, Biang passed away, and the peaks of Lang Biang are said to represent her breast heaving its dying breath. Biang’s death seems not to have been wholly in vain: so racked with guilt was her father, that he called a halt to tribal unrest by unifying all of the local factions into the Koho.
Robin Hill and Lake Tuyen Lam
As you leave Da Lat to the south on Highway 20, a slip road to the right leads to the top of Robin Hill, crowned by a huge cable-car terminus. Rides in the cable car once offered fantastic views over the slopes around the city, which are now marred by construction work. The twelve-minute trip deposits you at Lake Tuyen Lam, a placid and attractive expanse of water on which you can take a boat trip. Any taxi or xe om driver in town will be willing to take you here, but it’s also possible to get to the falls independently with your own wheels.
The Datanla Falls are some of the most impressive in the area, and can easily be combined with a visit to nearby Lake Tuyen Tam. In Koho, datanla means “water under leaves”, and that pretty much sums up the place: from the car park, it’s a steep fifteen-minute clamber down to the falls, probing some splendidly lush forest. The falls themselves are not terribly thrilling, their muddy waters cascading onto a plateau spanned by a wooden footbridge that provides a hackneyed photo opportunity. The more famous Prenn Falls are a further 6km out of town, but though extremely popular with local tourists a visit cannot be recommended – the park’s attractions include bears, deer and monkeys kept in wretched conditions.
CHICKEN VILLAGE (ask for Lang Con Ga) is just like any other Vietnamese village, apart from the bizarre, 5m-high cement cockerel that stands proudly on a plinth in the centre, its mouth open in mid-squawk. Whether you’re a potential buyer of textiles or not, it’s interesting to take a look at the rudimentary looms that the women need to strap themselves into to operate. It’s also possible to go rambling through the nearby fields and foothills without a permit.
The nearby village of TRAI MAT is just 7km from Da Lat, and ideally placed for a short excursion. Most head there by train, the line taking you east past some interesting, if not terribly beautiful, countryside. The village itself rewards exploration – Linh Phuoc Pagoda is the main draw, but if you have more time (or are willing to get a xe om back), grab a bite to eat or hunt down the beautiful Cao Dai temple on a rise just east of the village.
Linh Phuoc Pagoda
The highlight of Trai Mat is Linh Phuoc Pagoda, an incredibly ornate building which showcases the art of tessellation, whereby small pieces of broken china or glass are painstakingly arranged in cement. The first thing to catch the eye is the huge dragon in the courtyard to the right of the main building, constructed from over twelve thousand carefully broken beer bottles. Artwork inside the pagoda is even more intricate, with mosaic dragons entwined around the main hall’s pillars, while stairs lead up on the left to colourfully inlaid galleries, shrines and good views. The deep sound of resonating bells, rung by devotees, makes the main hall very atmospheric.
Located at the end of a precarious switchback road are the Tiger Falls, the most popular in the area with visitors. A steep concrete stairway leads down to the base of the falls, which tumble from a great height and offer good photo opportunities. The falls are a very popular destination for Vietnamese, so you’re unlikely to be able to enjoy the place alone. Pools and boulders around the base of the falls make ideal spots for a picnic. By the restaurants you’ll see a statue of a primitive hunter and another of a huge hollow tiger, whose mouth you can climb into for a photo.
The French in Da Lat
It was Dr Alexander Yersin who first divined the therapeutic properties of Da Lat’s temperate climate on an exploratory mission into Vietnam’s southern highlands, in 1893. His subsequent report on the area must have struck a chord: four years later Governor-General Paul Doumer of Indochina ordered the founding of a convalescent hill station, where Saigon’s hot-under-the-collar colons could recharge their batteries, and perhaps even take part in a day’s game-hunting. The city’s Gallic contingent had to pack up their winter coats after 1954’s Treaty of Geneva, but by then the cathedral, train station, villas and hotels had been erected, and the French connection well and truly forged.
The French elite who once maintained villas in Da Lat preferred to site their homes on a hill to the southeast of the city centre, rather than in the maw of its central area. The villas that they built along Tran Hung Dao survive today, some renovated and others in a sad state of disrepair, but they evoke the feel of the colonial era more than anywhere else in Da Lat.
From Tran Hung Dao two roads wiggle south, offering pleasant detours out into the countryside – the half-day bike ride outlined below will put a little definition on your calves. Khe Sanh branches south off Tran Hung Dao, opposite Pham Hong Thai, and further south leads back to Highway 20. The focus of this detour is Thien Vuong Pagoda, remarkable for its trio of four-metre-tall sandalwood statues (Sakyamuni, in the centre, rubs shoulders with the Goddess of Mercy and the God of Power), imported from Hong Kong in 1958, and for the huge statue of Buddha seated on a lotus, 100m up the hill above the pagoda. Stalls in front of Thien Vuong hawk the usual candied strawberries, artichoke tea and cu ly to the Vietnamese tourists who flock here, many of whom are young girls who come from all over Vietnam to pray for good fortune and a successful marriage.
Further east, Hoang Hoa Tham leads to colourful Linh Phong Pagoda, which is fronted by a gateway bearing a fierce, panting dragon face with protruding eyes. Behind its gaudy yellow doors, the pagoda exudes a peaceful aura. Its resident nuns are very friendly and the remote location affords peerless views of the cultivated and wooded valley below.
Those travelling through central Vietnam will surely, at some stage, hear references to the famed Easy Riders. Though the term is now used to describe pretty much any motorbike driver willing to go beyond day-trip distance, the concept started life in Da Lat; the success of the initial Easy Riders group spawned a glut of copycat operators (this is Vietnam, after all), many of which now go under totally different names and, on occasion, are said to be better than the originals.
The machinations of Vietnamese tour operations mean that it’s hard to give any cast-iron recommendations. However, the best place to go shopping for a budding Vietnamese Dennis Hopper is the bottom end of Truong Cong Dinh, where several competing outfits vie for your affections. Most are able to produce telephone directory-size books filled with glowing recommendations, but copying is rife and these are to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Prices range from around $15 a day for a tour of the main sights in the city to around $75 a day for a longer trip, usually including accommodation and entrance fees to sights; feel free to suggest your own itinerary.
The standards and prices of local operators change like the wind, however, there is a simple trick for those planning to go on a long tour – go on a short one first. Spending a day, or even a half-day, with your prospective driver will give you a good indication of what they’ll be like on a week-long trip.
Activities in and around Da Lat
There is some spectacular scenery in the vicinity of Da Lat, which lends itself to challenging treks, bike rides and other adventure activities.
Bike riding 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.
Canyoning There’s a beautiful canyon fifteen minutes from Da Lat by car; the adventurous course requires ropes and a bit of bravery. Half-day trips from $40- $60 per person.
Golf The eighteen-hole course just off central Da Lat boasts inspiring views from some tees. Starts at around $95 per person, including caddy.
Hiking Most local tour operators will be able to organize a guided hike, with everything from half-day to week-long walks and treks; figure on around $30 per person per day. Again, Lat Village and the surrounding area is a popular destination, while the above operators will be able to take you into more uncharted territory.
Tennis Both the Dalat Palace and Dalat Du Parc have tennis courts, available to guests for free, and non-guests for a small fee.
Whitewater rafting Phat Tire Ventures run rafting and kayaking trips on routes including rapids of class 2, 3 and 4. Kayaking from $40 up per person, rafting from $65 per person.