The cool mountain air make this former French hill station one of Vietnam's most charming retreats by Aidan Dockery
Though its verdant hills have long been home to the country's ethnic minority communities, the sleepy resort town also served as a popular getaway for French colonial residents of Saigon at the turn of the 20th century. Today, this history is reflected in the European-inspired architecture and manicured, rolling lawns which circle Dalat's main lake.
In the very heart of town, man-made Xuan Huong Lake serves as the focal point of the city, accompanied by the neighboring flower garden, where Dalat's famous annual flower festival is held. Nearby, the central market is also worth a visit, as its stalls are packed with a host of local produce – fresh flowers, candied fruit and cold-weather vegetables like carrots, pumpkins and potatoes – and knitted sweaters.
Elsewhere in the city, traces of Vietnam's French colonial days abound in the local churches and even the town's now-defunct railway station. Though Dalat's tracks no longer link up with Vietnam's north-south railway line, you can hop on a train out to Trai Mat for a visit to the spectacular, mosaic-covered Linh Phuoc Pagoda, taking in the scenery en route. Set against the backdrop of a stunning valley dotted with pine trees, vegetable farms and tea plantations, the area's colonial relics provide both a glimpse into the town's past but also some of its nicer city views.
While you're touring Dalat's colonial history, it's worth paying a visit to the handful of other attractions around the city center. Bao Dai's summer palace, the former vacation home of Vietnam's last emperor, is a charming art deco masterpiece, while the wild and wonderful Hang Nga Crazy House represents the vivid imagination of a celebrated architect who also happens to be the daughter of Vietnam's second president.
At 5,000 feet above sea level, Dalat is the coolest climate to hit the links and is home to one of the country’s oldest course, the Dalat Palace Golf Club. Opening in 1933, the 18-hole course carves its way around the town’s central lake and remains one of the country’s best golfing experiences—a bucket list course for those looking for a unique yet challenging outing.
More recently, several newer golf courses have opened on the outskirts of Dalat, including the Asian Tour sanctioned The Dalat at 1200 Country Club and Sacom Tuyen Lam golf course. All of Dalat’s golf clubs feature hilly terrains and pine tree forests, a stark contrast to the sandy dunes of Vietnam’s seaside golf resorts.
Dalat may be a quaint resort town, but beyond the city limits its surrounding area also serves as the gateway to Vietnam's Central Highlands region and an adventure destination in its own right. The dramatic terrain lends itself well to activities like hiking, mountain biking and canyoning, the art of rappeling down a waterfall and into white-water rapids.
Adventure junkies can enlist the services of several reputable local outfits for such activities or blaze their own trails on Lang Biang, where both easy and challenging hiking trails reach the mountain's two summits and local guides are also available for longer excursions into Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park.
To appreciate nature without the adventure, you can also stop by Datanla Falls, the town's nearest waterfall, or make a day of it and head out to Elephant Falls.
As an introduction to the Central Highlands, Dalat is where you'll find an army of Easy Rider guides. These knowledgeable gentlemen know the winding dirt roads and narrow paths of Vietnam's interior like the backs of their hands and are able to bring travellers deep into the countryside, presenting tourists with an altogether different, authentic view of Vietnam. Though most trips are customized to suit the individual rider, standard routes run between Dalat and Nha Trang, Mui Ne or even Hoi An with many scenic and cultural stops along the way, however you can tailor your trip to suit your own needs.
Begin your alpine escape with a trip to the central market, located in the heart of town. Knitted sweaters, dried fruits, flowers and artichoke tea line the stalls here, making the best souvenirs from this Highland resort. Once you've taken in the town square, stroll down to Xuan Huong Lake and take a lap along the waterfront to appreciate the city's relative calm compared to its livelier coastal neighbors. If you're keen, the Dalat Flower Garden is also right next door overlooking the lake.
After lunch, venture a short distance to the Hang Nga Crazy House, the bizarre, ever-evolving masterpiece of local architect Dang Viet Nga. Wind your way through its narrow concrete passages and up spiraling staircases before setting off to see Datanla Falls, the most accessible of Dalat's many nearby waterfalls. Back in town, wind down your day with a sundowner by the lake or in the lively outdoor market that sets up in the evenings.
On your second day in town, rise early for a hike up LangBiang Mountain. Though it's not especially high, travellers can choose to opt for the easier, paved pathway up to LangBiang's Rada Point or hustle their way to the summit, where views of the valley below are stunning. This trek will take you a few hours, so once you've made your way back down the mountain you may want to freshen up before grabbing lunch and paying a mid-afternoon visit to Bao Dai's summer palace.
For an additional day in Dalat, the more adventurous crowd can tack on an activity such as canyoning or mountain biking, while those who prefer to take it easy may want to visit the Dalat railway station for a glimpse of the town's beloved old train station. Though the original railway line is no longer in use, Dalat's station does run a train from the town out to Trai Mat, where you can visit the incredible, mosaic-covered Linh Phuoc Pagoda.
Thanks to its altitude, Dalat is always a little cooler than the rest of southern Vietnam, particularly between November and January. Rain falls from April to November, leaving a gray mist over the tea plantations and hilltops surrounding the town while things heat up in the summer around May.
Regular sleeper buses run from Ho Chi Minh City as well as Nha Trang, while flights to the Central Highlands land at the Dalat (Lien Khuong) Airport, 30 kilometers south of the city.
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