Perhaps if I’d been on my honeymoon I’d have had a different perspective on things. It’s not that I particularly disliked the place; it’s just that I didn’t particularly fall in love with it either.
Dalat is situated on a 1,500-metre high plateau in the central highlands of Vietnam, seven hours from Ho Chi Minh City. Its surrounding mountains have prompted many people to liken the area to the French Alps. Fields of flowers, waterfalls, coffee and tea plantations, hectares of pine forests (‘The City of 1000 Pines’ is yet another of Dalat’s names), vegetable gardens and fruit plantations are among the things that draw many visitors to the region.
The area attracts 800,000 domestic tourists a year, and a smaller number of foreign tourists — 80,000 to be exact. The climate is temperate all year round, the air is fresh, the skies are blue, and the rolling foothills of the countryside are lush and green.
The city is renowned for its marigold, hydrangea and orchid gardens. In the centre of the city is the artificial Xuan Huong Lake, created in the mid-1980s. Dalat’s attractions include the market, the Domaine de Marie Convent where a pink church sits atop a hill, the Valley of Love, the Lake of Sighs, Thien Vien Truc Lam Monastery which can be accessed by cable car, and Tuyen Lam Lake, also man-made.
At Dalat’s 80-year-old railway station, you can climb aboard an old diesel train bound for Trai Mat 7km away; a great little ride for steam train nuts like me. In the centre of the city there’s a surreal building dubbed The Crazy House. It is actually a guest-house, and resembles a cross between a medieval castle and a troglodyte’s abode. The interior is every bit as out-of-this-world as the exterior.
Dalat City has many buildings with French-era architecture, hotels from two-star and up, Vietnamese and ethnic restaurants, bars, and a few nightclubs and discos. Dalat’s nightlife is best described as muted. What little excitement there is fizzles out by around 10.30pm, which is kind of surprising for a city that attracts so many visitors. Fun City, it ain’t.
Back in the 1950s, Dalat was a Mecca for big-game hunters. Deer, roe, wild boar, black bear, wildcats, panthers, tigers, gaurs and elephants were all in abundance, and were eagerly hunted down by gun-happy sportsmen from across the world. Now all of the animals have now been wiped out. The only present-day reminder of the big-game era is a few mounted heads you’ll see on walls here and there. Sad, but a situation that’s happened all too often in many countries.
To my mind, Dalat is worth spending one or two days in, but more than that — not for me, thanks. On a rating of one to ten, I’d give it… ooh… a four. If it wasn’t for the steam train I’d give it a three.
So how come I’m not as enthused with Dalat as most visitors seem to be? It’s difficult to put a finger on it. When I was there I kept looking for something more, something unique, something memorable, that would have me gasping “Oooh! Ahh! Wow! This I’ve gotta tell the folks back home about!” But none of that happened. The place left me vaguely dissatisfied. I don’t know about you, but artificial lakes and vegetable gardens don’t push any of my buttons. Nor do acres of pine trees, for that matter. OK, the flower gardens are good, but only for about five minutes. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m all travelled-out this year. I might just have to go back and give the place a second try next year.
Born in New Zealand, Don Wills lives in Vung Tau. He’s been writing his way round the region for decades