I’m woken by melodic birdsong and when I throw open the wooden shutters of my bedroom window my view is obscured by swirling mist. A crisp breeze fans my face. I’m spending a few days visiting what could be considered, both figuratively and literally, the coolest place in Vietnam.
I’m in the resort town of Dalat in the country’s central highlands. Although it’s only a few hours drive north of sweltering Saigon, the average temperature in Dalat is a mild 18C (64F).
Back in 1893, when first he visited, French doctor Alexandre Yersin, a disciple of Louis Pasteur, thought Dalat ticked all the right boxes. Yersin was so impressed by the salubrious mountain climate that he proposed a sanatorium be established to restore his fellow countrymen sapped by the humidity and heat of the coast.
To this day, Dalat has retained it’s status of being a pretty “cool” place to visit, popular with both domestic and foreign travellers.
I watch from my window as the sun rises above the horizon and starts to disperse the mist. The outlines of the town, valley and surrounding hills are slowly revealed. The sight of a former Franciscan monastery and a Catholic church spire suggest I might almost be in Europe.
As a guest of the Dalat Palace Hotel I am most definitely staying at the coolest address in town. Constructed in 1922 as the Langbien Palace – named after Dalat’s highest mountain – this art deco mansion on a hill with its manicured gardens belonged to the French administration of that time. Many wealthy foreigners subsequently built holiday villas in the surrounding countryside, all of which led to Dalat be called “le petite Paris”. By the late 1930s, when the railway station was finally completed, there were several hundred villas set among Dalat’s forested hills.
Vietnam’s last emperor Bao Dai had a summer palace here. He went into exile in France in 1954 and died there in 1997. His palace is now a museum filled with furniture and artifacts. A few decrepit villas have been restored for use as offices or rental apartments and 17 are now part of the luxurious Ana Mandara Dalat Resort & Spa.
The best place for local colour is Dalat’s central market with local specialties such as artichoke tea, fabulous strawberry jam and a dizzying selection of candied fruits. I go really early to get the best photos of the fresh flower stalls before stocks are depleted. Among the crowd are indigenous hill-tribe men and women called montagnards (French for “mountain people”), easily identified by their distinctive woollen caps and padded jackets. The montagnards generally keep to themselves but come to market to sell woven cloth and other handicrafts.
Dalat’s defunct railway station is an art deco gem, long abandoned yet its clocks still work and show the time in various cities around the globe. There’s a tourist steam train that occasionally puffs along 17km of track to Trai Mat and the Linh Phuoc pagoda.
Dalat is hugely popular as a honeymoon destination. I see plenty of Vietnamese newlyweds at the Lake of Sighs and the Valley of Love, a picnic park and lake where cuddling couples paddle contentedly in little pedalos and pose for photos beside brightly-coloured plaster animals. Dalat’s Flower Garden is another popular location for wedding photos.
Pagodas, temples, lakes, waterfalls and forests in the surrounding Lam Dong area offer tranquil moments, especially Tuyen Nam Lake with its Buddhist pagoda at the water’s edge. The Truc Lam Monastery above the lake is the largest in Vietnam, and the Dam Ri waterfalls are the highest in the region.
At Datania Falls I ride a toboggan on rails down the mountainside, sweeping around tight curves as it plunges through the forest. And after chilling out beside the falls you can be hauled back up the slopes. How cool is that?