Slice of Alpine France in the mountain forests of Vietnam mostly free from western tourists and surrounded by natural beauty.
Da Lat, or Dalat, is a city found in the wooded highlands of South Vietnam. It’s proximity to Ho Chi Minh City led to it becoming a holiday retreat for the French during their occupation. This is strongly reflected in the city’s look, from the man made “alpine” lake, to the mini Eiffel Tower. If you want to see a Vietnamese city with a distinctly different look surrounded by some beautiful mountain scenery then you have to consider seeing Dalat.
The city is a fairly popular tourist destination in Vietnam, however at the moment it’s really only popular with domestic tourists. The three days I was there, I could count on both hands the number of foreign tourists I came across, outside of one specific spot. It’s the kind of place where a bearded blonde guy draws stares and looks of curiosity as he walks the streets.
Paradoxically, in all of Vietnam Dalat was the place I felt the least like a tourist. There were no hawkers or touts bothering me and I never felt like I was paying a “tourist tax”. This is because Dalat’s tourism industry isn’t aimed at westerners. It felt like people tended to give me more space which felt freeing in contrast to places like Hanoi and Hoi An.
Many of the city’s tourist attractions are aimed at Vietnamese tourists and so for Western sensibilities they may come across as tacky or unrelatable. The perfect example of this is the Valley of Love, a nature park boasting some beautiful natural scenery sadly strewn with tacky love-themed photo spots. The site is based around a local romantic legend but I couldn’t get past the kitsch of it all. Not my cup of tea.
There are some places that fall into the above category that I did find entertaining. If you’re looking for quirk, then go no further than the Crazy House of Dalat. This house looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland, a brightly coloured place full of bizarrely themed structures, staircases and bridges that you need to see to believe. Half the fun there is trying to make sense of it all. Oh and it’s a hotel!
If trippy houses aren’t your thing, then you can look to the natural surrounds to pass the time. The cable car to Thien Vien Truc Lam Monastery gives you a chance to pass over the pine forests and enjoy views out over the hilly countryside. The Thien Vien Truc Lam Monastery is an active monastery with resident monks and well worth a look, plus the nearby lake is quite peaceful with boat rides available.
Now while it also has some tacky elements, there is quite a bit to enjoy at the Datanla Falls just out of town. I actually walked there from Thien Vien Truc Lam Monastery along some quiet back roads but I wouldn’t advise it unless you really need to. Anyway, the waterfalls are surprisingly extensive and accessible from the front entrance by either mechanical luge or the zigzagging path. Not too bad going down, but coming back up is a different story. There are quite a few falls in the Dalat area, but these were the most impressive I found accessible on foot. This is also the place where I saw a lot of western tourists, coming in by coach.
The hostel I stayed at was actually empty for 2 of my 3 nights and I wasn’t visiting during low season. Ran by a lovely couple, they even invited myself and the other guest to have dinner with them on my third night. They were extremely keen to get our input on what they could do to the hostel to draw more visitors/backpackers. This friendly and curious attitude is what I liked most about Dalat.
All in all, Dalat offers tourists plenty of things to see and do in a beautiful environment starkly different to many of the other main tourist spots in Vietnam.
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Have you been to Da Lat? Let me know how you liked it in the comments below.