Da Lat – The Central Highlands of Vietnam

Da Lat..the flower city, a breath of fresh air.

Da Lat, the flower city, is located in the central highlands of Vietnam and it is a breath of fresh air. We arrived at our very pink hotel, the Dalat Boutique, with it’s great views of the city below, with enough daylight to wander out and about, down the hill along twisting streets to Lake Xuan Huong, in the center of the city. At the Lake we rented bicycles to ride the 7 km trail that circles the late and that took us through beautiful flower gardens. With spring in the air and on the heels of Tet there were plenty of floral arrangements. In keeping with the “got space…fill it” philosophy of Vietnam, this well used path, was a bikers obstacle course full of runners, walkers and sightseers, and even the odd motorcycles.

Other thank the crowded path it was a lovely ride and gave us a change to get the lay of the land in central DaLot. The center of Da Lat is very busy with traffic circles, open air markets, narrow lanes, busy streets and a hodgepodge of buildings mixing French colonial with Vietnamese homes, stores, malls big and small and myriads of street vendors.

Examples of French Colonial architecture, like a Catholic Church, are interspersed with new construction, much of which fails to conform to any particular style and visual collisions happen on every corner. We saw a building that resembles the tip of “The Pickle”, London’s city hall and just behind it was a communications tower build to resemble the Eiffel Tower.

We reached the end of our bike ride as the sun set, returning the rentals we struck off on foot toward the night market. Hoping for some delicious street food we soon found ourselves faced with the prospect of crossing the road connected to a traffic circle. A near impossibility given the dangerous swirl of buses, cars, trucks and motor bikes. Our weeks in Vietnam have taught us that however counter intuitive it may seem you cross by launching yourself at the vehicles and as soon as they pass you advance as many steps as possible until the next one zooms by. By some miraculous process you go around the cars and the motorcycles go around you. Repeating this process you eventually arrive on the other side of the street shaken but not scathed. It’s like a very complicated game of dodgeball. The other option is to attach yourself to a group of locals, ignoring the traffic and keeping your eyes glued on their movements which you copy through the river of traffic.

The night market was packed, blocks and blocks of open stalls selling everything under the sun. We managed to scrounge a spot for ourselves at a street food spot with their pint sized chairs and tables which are fine until you try to rise up out of them. We paid a pretty penny for our supper, mostly bbqued meat and vegetables which were good but definitely foreigner priced.

Dalat is an outdoor adventure city, perfectly situated in the highlands, surrounded by pine forests, and blessed with natural beauty. For about $25 CAD each we signed up for a small group tour and were picked up at our hotel for a day long trip to the areas surrounding Dalat.

Our first stop was Robin mountain where we rode a gondola to the top and had views to the farmlands below. The area around Dalat is densely agricultural and hothouses stretch as far as the eye can see.

Back in the van, we followed the twisting mountain road to the Truk Lam Zen monastery the biggest Zen monastery in Vietnam. Here

the monks and nuns have built a beautiful series of gardens and trails, including some really interesting bonsai, all linking the various temples and pagodas.

Our next stop was Datania falls accessible by foot or by a much more novel means, a self operated bob sled on a narrow track. We opted for the sled ride and whisked our way down to the falls. At the falls we saw some folks who had repeled down the whitewater, and we thought we were extreme by taking the sleds. Fortunately the sleds also took you back up the mountain and at one point if was pretty vertical with the track taking over the controls so you just had to lie back and stare at the deep blue sky.

A few miles from the bob-sled/falls was the “Glass Pagoda”, which on closer inspection is made from small bits of broken china and glass. An elaborate design it is a real draw for both Buddhist pilgrims and sightseers. You are able to climb the internal staircase of the pagoda and from there you see the farms below.

An odd little stop was at a “Puppy Farm” whose claim to fame was being a breeding kennel for more than 100 breeds of dogs. Not really my cup of tea, I didn’t like to see so many dogs (no puppies) in large but cement floored kennels or small individual cages. Still not sure why this was on the tour except right next door and included isn’t he price of admission was another beautiful garden, well worth visiting.

Saving the best for last we parked the van at the bottom of Langbiang mountain, the highest point in the Da Lat area. Leaving the van we were loaded into a very old, utilitarian jeep to make the steep climb to the top.

The mountain is named after a tragic love story between Lang and Biang, young lovers, and like Romeo and Juliet they were denied the chance to marry by their rival parents, ending in their double suicide. The elephants that were present cried so hard a waterfall, aptly named “Elephant Waterfall” formed nearby.

At the top there are a number of attractions like a craft shop by a local indigenous group, pony rides, hiking paths, a restaurant etc. The views alone were worth the trip up in the clanking grinding jeep.

Tour over we spent our third and final day in Da Lat revisiting the city center and visiting a place know as the “Crazy House”, which was only half a block from our very pink hotel.

A most unusual attraction it was built by Mra Dang Viet Nga, the daughter of Ho Chi Min’s right hand man. She studied architecture in Russia but her creation certainly doesn’t resemble anything you picture as coming out of Russia. The Crazy House is in fact a hotel in addition to be a busy tourist attraction with dozens of bus loads of folks visiting everyday. The place is not finished and has an organic propensity toward expansion not unlike the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Like Gaudí Nga’s vision is a chaotic construction of intertwining buildings all connected by tangled walkways suspended mid-air giving it the air of a tree house.

There are a couple of restuarants and coffee bars, the rental rooms are all named and overall the place looks like Gaudí fed steroids to the Hobbits. There are giant cobwebs, oversized mushrooms, aquarium motifs and a museum describing Nga’s journey.

It was hard to leave the beautiful city of Da Lat, the fresh cool air, the gorgeous scenery and the rural vibe made the “Flower City” well worth the visit.