For the longest time the thought that stuck in my mind was that Vietnam is one of the blandest countries in the world. But that changed after I spent a post-new year vacation at Da Lat, thanks to an invitation from friends with their promises of an all-year-round cool climate and closeness to nature. So there we were, on a flight bound to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, for our first stop. It is one of the most progressive cities of Vietnam.
Though it was just a one-day stopover, we had a good time in Ho Chi Minh City. The city bustles with plenty of interesting sites and sights that are well-explained in general guidebooks: Ben Thanh Market, Reunification Palace, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Saigon Central Post Office and Jade Emperor Pagoda. After visiting the last site, we went off-track to the nearby river called Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe, where its shimmering water and the riverside breezes cooled us down from our over-enthusiastic schedule. We then moved to Bitexco Tower for a panorama of the whole city at night, and stopped to take a selfie with the Uncle Ho Statue in front of City Hall before boarding an overnight bus to our real destination, Da Lat.
We woke up shivering slightly the next morning, as the air of Da Lat carried a fresh chill. It was too early to check-in at our hotel and so we decided to rent motorcycles and cruise around first. You’d better be an expert driver before you get behind a wheel in Vietnam, as the traffic is slow but drivers are furiously intent on getting to their various destinations. But you’ll be rewarded with breath-taking scenery of the plateau and valley, and immersed in fresh air and greenery.
Da Lat was discovered by the French colony of Cochinchina in the 1890s, who sent French urban planners to build the area’s first hotel suitable for expatriates. That explains why Da Lat has strong French and Swiss influences, especially in its architecture. We drove past the French-classical Dalat Cathedral, the largest church in the city and also called ‘Cock Church’ by locals. A crowd of local Christians were heading toward the arched front door for Sunday service.
As we checked in at Hang Nga Guest House, we became speechless. Can you imagine what it feels like being ‘inside’ a piece of art? Also called the ‘Crazy House of Da Lat’, this is where this imagination meets reality – the building is Impressionist in style and highly unconventional, resembling the gigantic trunk of a leafless tree with branches of hollow walkways spreading out in all directions. You can take the highest walkway to reach the top from which you can look over the whole town, or explore the lower walkways that lead to the cavernous guestrooms, furnished in fantasy themes.
We took a break in one of the cafés that are lined along Le Dai Hanh Road. I ordered a glass of fresh milk and could not agree more with those who insist that fresh milk in Da Lat is the best. My friends ordered brewed coffee, served in individual drippers. The waiter advised them to wait for 10 minutes before drinking, which was hard to do as the aroma was so intoxicating for them. They found the taste of the coffee impressive.
Our next destination was Datanla Falls, hidden in the deep valley. You have two ways to get there. The first is to walk 15 minutes along the winding path. The second, which I preferred, is to take the self-control mini-roller coaster. The ride gave me such an adrenaline rush as it sped up, down and around the curves and slopes. Although I knew I could pull on the brakes at any time to slow down, I chose to let loose and just enjoy the raw excitement!
The cascade of the falls on the base floor has a 20-feet drop. There is an island of huge rocks on which you can stand to have a closer look at the waterfall. The mass of water crashing on the rocks sent sprays flying far enough to touch me. You can go down one more level by cable car to find another mesmerising cataract that flows down from the previous one.
The sun was starting to hang low as we continued on our way to another cable car journey at Robin Hill. This route is 2.4 kilometres long and each journey takes about ten minutes. The vividly painted carriage smoothly glides 1.6 kilometres above the area and provides spectacular views of the Da Lat landscape. You can soothe your eyes with the greenness of the lush pine forests and fields below, as well as local villages and the enormous Tuyen Lam Lake at the far end of the cable car rail.
Once we arrived back on land and exited the cable car station, Truc Lam Temple was waiting to welcome us into its well-trimmed botanical garden. We walked further in to the monastery, serene and sacred. A pair of pavilions with an oversized bell and gong guarded the entrance to the bigger pavilion in which a grand and solemn Buddha statue sat. We made a little prayer before heading back downtown.
We spent our sunset at Xuan Huong Lake, situated near the city centre. The lakeside park is always packed with native teenagers who came to play skateboard and socialize with their friends. We thought the best way to appreciate its beauty would be by getting into a pedal boat on the lake, and were not disappointed. It was also a good way to warm up our legs before a long walk to Da Lat Night Market for dinner.
Around the roundabout in front of Da Lat Market are numerous stalls that set themselves up as it gets dark. It’s very entertaining to stroll past them and haggle for dinner and items such as clothes and souvenirs. Our seafood hotpot and fresh yogurt for dessert were exceptional. Before returning to our hotel we stopped by a store to purchase some quality coffee beans. Our bags were heavier as we drove back, and our minds were uplifted by the experiences of our trip.
That’s when we had to say goodbye to Da Lat, but not before making the promise to revisit this charming city set on a plateau in the southern part of the Central Highlands, as soon as the next opportunity arises.
Text & Photos by Rangsimun Kitchaijaroen
Read about Central Vietnam in our latest issue here : digital.bookkurry.com/dishes/lt/lifestyle/issue_77