Da Lat, the capital of Lam Dong province, has long been rated a top-favorite holiday destination in Vietnam. The city rose during the French colonial period and many buildings of historical importance still remain in place. Moreover, the cool climate, natural beauty and slow pace of life offer unique features of the Central Highlands, distinct from other regions in the country.
Discovered by a doctor looking to establish the first French-style health resort in Asia, the fantastic hill resort station was filled with manicured gardens, opulent villas, turn-of-the-century hotels and a huge lake surrounded by forests of pine trees. Da Lat was the dream of Alexandre Yersin, a French-Swiss doctor who studied bacteriology with Louis Pasteur. Having travelled extensively around Cochinchina (Southern Vietnam) and Annam (Central Vietnam), it is said that Yersin was the first person to identify the area around Dankia Lane and Lang Biang mountain as the one with perfect weather conditions to build a resort town.
Commissioned in 1897 by the French General Governor Paul Doumer, Yersin declared the location ideal to develop a health resort station to welcome French officials and military officers away from the torrid summer in Saigon. Given its high altitude, the area had excellent weather conditions, with temperatures rarely going below 10% and rarely exceeding 26° in summer. The nearby large water resources, pine forests and relatively easy accessibility were considered as prime assets as well.
The new hill resort started taking shape by 1905. Building a city with the standards of a French hill resort was not an easy task. The Cam Ly river was enlarged with a dam upstream to create a lake surrounded by the Annamit mountain chain. In this perfect landscape, villas and sanatoriums were created. Da Lat was born and soon turned into Indochina’s most prestigious health resort town.
With the opening of the road to Saigon in 1915, the city started to grow. Between 1920 and 1940, many French architects who developed beach resort destinations along the Atlantic Ocean (Arcachon or Biarritz) or along the Channel Sea (Deauville or Le Touquet) reproduced the same models in Da Lat. The city was covered by villas in a style similar to France Southwest or Normandy. Large hotels like Hotel du Parc or Dalat Palace were inspired by famous hotels in Deauville in Normandy. These hotels are still open today and give a romantic and nostalgic feeling of the old Indochina.
Golf courses, parks, schools, hospitals, cafes, and restaurants turned Da Lat into a piece of France in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The city attracted not only public officials and wealthy businessmen but also the emerging new Vietnamese elite. In 1939, the French authorities decided to relocate the Colonial Government during six months per year to accelerate the city development. New offices and residences for the General Governor, and Palaces for the Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai and his family were established in Da Lat.
The Da Lat–Thap Cham Railway, connecting the city of Da Lat to the main North–South Railway at Thap Cham in Ninh Thuan province, was established in 1932 after thirty years of construction in phases, beginning in 1903, providing easy access from the lowlands and the coast.
The railway line was abandoned during the Vietnam War and gradually dismantled after the North Vietnamese victory in 1975. A 7 km section of the line between Da Lat Railway Station and the nearby village of Trai Mat was restored in 1990 and returned to active use as a tourist attraction under the name of “Dalat Plateau Rail Road”. It remains active as of today.
The best way to enjoy Dalat is just stroll around the town discovering the beautiful French villas and palaces, sit around the Xuan Huong Lake during the sunset and go to the night market to taste Da Lat famous fruits.
In the city surroundings, trekking through the pine forests and sightseeing the lakes and waterfalls are the favorite activities of the travellers.
The largest structure in town is the Lycée Yersin, the former Yersin Secondary School built in 1927. With its tall belfry in red bricks imported from Europe, the school has reminiscences of Northern France. It is now a Teachers University and is open to visit after classes.
Da Lat Railway Station designed in 1932 by French architects Moncet and Reveron resembles to Deauville-Trouville Railway Station and incorporates elements of Art Deco fusioned with local influences.
The tour around the city center must include a visit to the former Palaces. There are four in Da Lat, three of which are open to the public. The most beautiful is certainly Palace 1 surrounded by opulent gardens. It was originally a French-Italian Mansion for a millionaire who owned electric factories in Shanghai.
Palace 3 used to be the official residence of the Emperor Bao Dai. The structure was constructed between 1933 and 1938 and has preserved all the furniture of all the imperial family. The building is also surrounded by magnificient gardens.
The Queen’s Palace can be found behind the Lam Dong Museum. Modest by its size, the palace reminds of classical villas on the French Riviera.
Travellers in Da Lat have also the opportunity to stay in some of the historical hotels and former sanatoriums. The Dalat Palace is a luxurious five-star property overlooking the center with its lake and reminding of the opulent lifestyle of the 30s. More modest -and cheaper- but also located in a French Art Deco building, the Hotel Du Parc is a good alternative.
Da Lat’s most pictorial hotel property is probably the Ana Mandara Villas, near to Domaine de Marie monastery. Former villas for French high-rank public servants have been converted into an exquisite resort: colonial style villas with Art Deco furniture are hidden in pine forests. The Dalat Casada Resort is also located in a series of Art Deco French villas surrounded by gardens near Lam Dong Museum.
Finally, another amazing hotel for visiting is the Guesthouse of the Vietnam Labour Confederation, which is located on the hill dominating the lake. Reserved for the Union, restaurants are however open to the public while the hotel itself is a spectacular mansion from the 1930s.
Start off the day and head to Thien Phuc Duc Hill early in morning to experience the sea of clouds over the city. The access point is located about 30 kilometres North of Da Lat.
Pongour is probably the cleanest and most breath-taking waterfall of Da Lat. The site requires a little hike to reach. Should you love to see more waterfalls, the Elephant waterfall is another site to check although being less impressive than Pongour.
If you wish to enjoy more nature, you can spend the afternoon chilling around the peaceful lake of Tuyen Lam, in the outskirts of the city. If you have time, take a short walk to visit the Truc Lam Zen Monastery.
After sunset, visit Da Lat’s night market. It is popular spot where locals and visitors gather in the evening to enjoy street-food and do a little shopping. You can find all sorts of stuff here, from clothes to souvenirs and fruits.