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If you are looking for a change of pace and seeking some respite from the heat on the coast then head straight to Dalat. Located 300 kilometers north of Saigon at the southern tip of the central highlands, the “Sapa of the South” is a totally different world from the rest of Vietnam. Dalat is 1.5kms above sea level which means it has a unique climate, compared to the rest of Vietnam (typically 18-25 °C), which allows locals to cultivate fresh vegetables, amazing coffee and tea, and an incredibly wide variety of flora. The stunning natural scenery of the region, coupled with the quirky locals and artisans, as well as its reputation as the honeymoon capital of Vietnam, make Dalat a town not to be missed.

Dalat, meaning the ‘river of the Lat people’, is a romantic getaway for Vietnamese. Upon arrival you will undoubtedly see tandem bicycles, young university students and cozy couples all blending into the scenery to help give this town a lovely air of old-school romance. However there’s plenty of action (of an entirely savoury variety) just outside of the city too! Countless wonderful excursions to fill your days including visits to traditional local minority villages, cycling through nearby pine forests and abseiling down pristine waterfalls. Dalat makes for a great two or three day visit and will help give you a refreshing understanding of the Vietnamese people and landscape.

Dalat was, until only 150 years ago, a land of hill tribes and wild pristine forests filled with tigers, elephants and rhinoceros. This all changed in the early part of the 20th Century when the French established a hill station here as a retreat for those who worked in the sweltering heat of Saigon. The town also served to help oversee and control the tea and coffee plantations nearby. The last Nguyen Emperor, Bao Dai, in the 1920’s and 30’s, built palaces here so he could relax and hunt – a golf course was even built – and soon Dalat developed into the welcoming town it is today.

Vietnam Photo, Dalat Central Market, Dalat
Dalat Central Market, Dalat, Vietnam: I took this shot from the upstairs, prepared food level. I spent hours at this market — the produce is shown here, and there was entire other room that had meat products, rice, and eggs. Fantastic.
Photo by jen maiser

Why not go to Dalat

Dalat isn’t famous for a vibrant nightlife or white sand beaches and warm weather. However it is a great visit for a different perspective on life in Vietnam. If you are only in the country for only 10-14 days and you want to cover Vietnam’s most popular destinations and highlights then you may find yourself hard pressed to find enough time to squeeze it in as a 2 or 3 day side trip.

Why go to Dalat

Dalat is all about taking a break from the crazy, helter-skelter pace which has been chasing you through most of the major centers in Vietnam. If you feel like all you’ve seen in Vietnam is 100,000 motorbikes, busy streets and relentless construction in a drive to modernize, you may need a time-out from all of that. Dalat could be just for you.
Dalat is such a change that many tourists who have flown in from Saigon or Hanoi have had to be reminded that they are not, in fact, in an entirely different country! The landscape is different, as are the people, the cuisine, the pace of life … even the air is fresh! Beyond all of this Dalat is a great base for checking out many of the nearby attractions including waterfalls, national parks, minority villages and for the historians out there the legacy of the French influence in Indochina can be seen through the old and kitsch French architecture.

Best time to go to Dalat

Without a doubt the best time of year to visit Dalat is during the annual flower festival which usually falls in December or early January. The 2010 festival runs from January 1st – 4th. Dalat is a wonderful place to visit most of the year, however during the local rainy season (April to November) you may find Dalat more dreary than otherwise. Having said that even in the wet season Dalat is still enjoyable in the mornings. Typically at the end of summer (around March), Dalat is dry, not as green as usual, which can spoil the impression of the town for some visitors.

Where to stay in Dalat

Hotels abound in Dalat, but if you are looking for a cheap and cheerful local option with a great central location then head to Viet Phong (30 Khu Hoa Binh) which is just near the top of the stairs, above the central market in town. However for something more luxurious and beautiful spoil yourself with a reservation at the Ana Mandara Sixsenses Hideaway (Duong Le Lai.) The secluded location and private restored villas from the 1920s and 1930s make this an amazing place to settle in for a few nights if you can afford the price tag.

Where to eat / dine in Dalat

A great local eatery can be found at Ngoc Duy (14b Hunh Thuc Khang Street – not far from Crazy house.) Their vegetable soup, venison and banana flambé are to die for! Another great option is the Café de la poste (Tran Phu) which is opposite the Novotel hotel in town, they do a great breakfast.

Nightlife in Dalat

Saigon nites (Hai Ba Trung street) is probably your best option in town. However for a cozy and quiet setting try Larry’s bar underneath the Sofitel hotel. This quiet little bar runs a great happy hour and is a fun place to have a few drinks and imagine what life in Dalat would’ve been like back in the middle part of the 20th Century.

My to do list in and around Dalat

• The Dalat market is my favorite market in all of Vietnam. The produce available is incredibly diverse and the candy section as you first walk in can keep you busy for hours with taste testing (eagerly encouraged by the sellers!) Make sure you try one of the local specialties, artichoke tea.
• The Dalat cable car (opened in 2003) is a must as it carries you soundlessly over forests, vegetable gardens and right down to a beautiful pagoda that lies above the Quang Trung reservoir. The views from the cable car station back over town are great.
• Bao Dai’s summer palace (which is now a museum) would’ve been a fun place to call home. Completed in the 1930s it adhered to the popular trends of the time and is now very kitsch in it’s art-deco design.
• A morning walk around the 7km Xuan Huong lake in the middle of town is a wonderful way to take in the sites of Dalat.
• A visit to Prenn waterfall is worthwhile, especially for the kids, who will definitely enjoy the luge/bobsled down to the base of the falls.

Stay away from

Avoid walking through the back of the local market unless you are interested in seeing live animals which are soon to become meals. Also be wary of hiring a bicycle and cycling around the city unless you have a good map and are prepared to tackle the hills. Be aware that the streets in Dalat make it a very easy place to get lost, so take a business card from you hotel whenever you head out. At night, keep an eye out for the local Eiffel tower (a telecommunications tower), the central lake or the market to keep you bearings.

Getting there

There are daily flights to both Hanoi and Saigon. Bus connections are also available to Saigon, (6-9 hours), Nha Trang (4-5 hours), Mui Ne (6-7 hours) and Hoi An (10-12 hours.) There is a local train but this only runs a short distance to the Linh Phuoc pagoda and returns along the same track. If you are interested in the train trip keep in mind that the train only runs when there are enough passengers so inquire at your hotel, or at any of the tour agencies in town, for possible departures.

Filed Under: Dalat, Featured

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Joshua Owen – landed a ‘dream job’ as a tour guide in 2005 throughout Vietnam, China, Laos and Cambodia. However his love of Vietnam never let him stray too far from the country he now calls home.

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