Perched 1500 metres above sea level on the Lang Biang plateau is Da Lat, the quaint capital of Lam Dong province. A temperate climate and fertile soil have earned Da Lat the moniker “city of eternal spring” and it is one where the flowers bloom, birds sing and the air is clear, fresh and redolent of pine.
The high altitude, cool climate, natural beauty and rich game hunting are what first drew the French colonialists here in the first half of the 20th century. Da Lat became a popular holiday spot, a respite from the country’s heat and tropical maladies. It flourished as an alpine/lakeside summer holiday town, garnering it yet another nickname, “Le Petit Paris” or little Paris. Remnants of bourgeois French colonial architecture can still be seen today: grand old hotels, charming crumbling villas with rose gardens, tree-shaded promenades and churches.
Da Lat’s appeal continues as it now enjoys popularity as a vacation spot for domestic tourists. As one local explained, Da Lat experiences four seasons in one day. When you wake, the weather will feel like spring. Midday temperatures rise to a summery 24 degrees Celsius. At four o’clock the air turns as crisp as an autumn’s day. By nightfall, it’s winter – at least by Vietnamese standards. Judging by all the thick puffy jackets for sale at the market, you’d think it was Siberia. For most, the 15-degree nights are refreshing and pleasant. Come prepared with a warm layer.
Da Lat’s cooler temperature is good explanation for why it has become the wedding and honeymoon capital of Vietnam. Vietnamese couples flock to the city for romantic getaways and what better way to stay warm then to cuddle with your sweetheart. You’ll see pairs strolling holding hands and canoodling beside the lake. If you’re a solo traveller, you’ll feel a little out of place in the Valley of Love.
Tourist attractions in Da Lat fall into two categories: those targeting domestic tourists and those for international tourists. The former are heavy on the kitsch and will have foreigners scratching their heads at concrete animals, costume photo ops and horses painted with zebra stripes. For Western tourists, Da Lat is about waterfalls and countryside, and the best way to explore both is on two wheels, whether you are driving yourself or you ride pillion.
On a motorbike you can smell the pines, see the flowers, feel the cold air and drink in the stunning pastoral scenery. Motorcycle tour companies have popped up like weeds and we counted a dozen or so with “easy rider” in the name. A one-day trip is a great way to cover many of the Da Lat sights such as Truc Lam Pagoda, Crazy House, Elephant Waterfalls and Pongour Waterfalls, while a multi-day trip ending in another city is far more interesting than a regular old bus ride.
Da Lat is the proverbial breadbasket of Vietnam. The region is famed for its agricultural prowess, growing fruits, vegetables, flowers, silk, dairy, rice and coffee – lots and lots of coffee. In the late 19th century the French introduced coffee cultivation to the Central Highlands, using the K’Ho ethnic minority (“Montagnards”) to work the plantations. After the war the coffee industry began a slow recovery. In the early 1990s, Vietnam accounted for just 1% of the world trade.
Fast forward to 2015: Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer, the first in Robusta beans, all primarily grown in the Central Highlands. Some 95% of the beans produced in the country are Robusta, usually exported to make instant coffee and cheaper blends. But recently boutique plantations in Da Lat focused on growing Arabica and improving quality have enhanced Vietnam’s reputation on the global stage. In 2015 Starbucks introduced their first ever coffee from the country, a fancypants limited edition single-origin coffee “Starbucks Reserve Vietnam Da Lat”. Luckily for you and your wallet, the city is bursting with cheap cafes ranging from local corners where men congregate to drink thick Vietnamese coffee, smoke and play cards, to youthful hipster joints.
Most easy rider trips include a stop at a coffee farm or you can easily make your own way to one. There are a number set up for tourists where you can buy a few bags and learn about production. And yes, you can learn about prized civet dung coffee and quaff on a few cups of this Da Lat specialty. Cat poo coffee is just one of the many experiences that make this agricultural heartland so memorable.
At the heart of Da Lat is the central market and Xuan Huong Lake, the city’s prime feature. A well-manicured footpath leads around all 32 hectares of water and it’s a popular spot for people to gather, stroll or hire a swan paddleboat.
In the evening, a night market takes over the stairs and roundabout in front of the central market. Vendors sell nibbles and kitschy tourist things including cutesy hand-knitted hats with earflaps and toys. Every Saturday and Sunday from 19:00-22:00 the town centre is closed to vehicles and becomes a walking street.
Da Lat has a temperate climate year round, with daytime averaging 25 degrees Celsius, and nighttime lows dipping to 15 degrees. Most hotels don’t have air-con. Dry season is from November to March (expect colder temperatures at night) while rainy season lasts from April to October and you can look forward to bright, sunny mornings and a dramatic downpour (and flooded roads) in the afternoon.
ATMs are readily available, though it may take a few tries to find a machine that works with your card. Foreign cards have a frustratingly low limit of 2,000,000 VND per withdrawal. There are nine different ATMs lined up at the entrance of the post office.
The post office is located at 02 Le Dai Hanh, Phuong 1 (the south end of Le Dai Hanh, at the large roundabout at the western edge of the lake). Services include Western Union. T: (063) 382 2586 ; (063) 382 2767; open Mon-Sat 07:00-20:00, Sun 07:30-18:00.
Big C Supercentre is a well-stocked grocery store located on the southern edge of the lake, on Ho Tung Mau Street. Hoan My Hospital Da Lat: Mimosa St, Ward 10, Da Lat; T: (063) 3510 878; (063) 3577 633; www.hoanmy.com
Hotels informed us to use an agency or “expert” to do a tourist visa extension and that going directly to immigration was not allowed. We visited the immigration office and surprisingly they also told us to use an agency. If you want to try your luck, the immigration office is located at 31 Tran Bimh Trong, P5, Da Lat, T: (063) 3822 460. Open Mon-Fri 08:00-11:30, 13:30-17:00.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 22nd June, 2016.