Dalat- the most dalat-ful city in Vietnam
Although the hustle and bustle of Saigon is exciting and exhilarating upon arrival in Vietnam, it’s natural to become overwhelmed by the thousands of faces and its sweltering humidity. When this feeling arrives, I suggest jumping on a sleeping bus and heading straight for the mountain town of Dalat.
Known by the Vietnamese as the “city of romance,” Dalat is famous for it’s silk and flowers and is the perfect destination for escaping the crowds and heat that the rest of Vietnam offers.
Nicknamed by us as “the pastel city with the best weather in the world,” Dalat climate means comfortable, sunny days and cooler nights. With it’s pastel houses in different shades of pink, yellow and blue, Dalat looks like it should belong in a Doctor Seuss book.
So kick back, relax and smell the coffee (literally- Dalat is famous for it’s coffee plantations).
Getting to Dalat:
From Saigon, we travelled by bus which took about 8 hours, however it can be quicker depending on how much of a daredevil your driver is. The bus drivers are completely crazy and careless on the roads so I suggest taking a few sleeping pills prior to leaving or perhaps flying from your destination. The buses cost around $20AUD.
There is also the option to fly from Dalat to most major cities including Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh. This usually takes between 1-2 hours so is the faster yet more expensive option.
Where to visit by morning in Dalat:
To wake you up and prepare you for a day the day, I find coffee a necessary part of my routine. Although the country is famous for it’s Vietnamese coffee, sometimes a can of condensed milk in the morning is just too much. Hidden in between an alley way we found a small café reminiscent of home. With the first decent music we had heard since our arrival in Vietnam (enough Top 40 already!) and delicious coffee, Bicycle quickly became our morning favourite. Filled with interesting antiques and kitschy bric-a-brac the café offers a small menu of breakfast items, cakes and coffee.
Roadside fruit stalls:
Visit any of the roadside fruit stalls which offer fresh jackfruit that has been cut and peeled. Many of them also offer cane sugar drinks served with ice which are the perfect refreshment to wake you up.
Where to visit by day in Dalat:
Hire a motorbike:
Dalat is surrounded by beautiful lakes, waterfalls and gardens and hiring a motorbike allows you to truly enjoy the serenity and nature of Dalat. The further out of the city you head, the more dangerous the roads become so it is important to be confident in riding a bike. If not, you can hire a driver who will take you for a tour out of the city. The roads often lead in different directions making it super fun to get lost in. Try not to take a map and just see where the pitchfork roads take you. It’s often very easy to find your way back but be sure to fuel up your bike before you leave the city as petrol stations are hard to come by.
Thien Vien Truc Lam Monastery
Jump into a cable car and enjoy the insane view over the pine forests of Dalat. The monastery itself features beautiful golden buildings and rose gardens. The monestary is surrounded by Tuyen Lam Lake so pack a picnic or try the sweet strawberry ice cream the local stalls sell as you wander around the monastery and into the forest that surrounds it.
Pack a picnic:
It’s cooler climate means Dalat is abundant with beautiful fresh produce. Head to the markets in the morning to pick up an avocado the size of your head, a warm baguette and some fruit to take on your daily adventures.
Lavender Gardens mountain:
A short motorbike ride away from the city centre can find you at one of the most breathtaking views I have seen. Completely isolated, Lavender Garden is something one can only stumble across. With a discreet sign on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, we found ourselves winding our way up a mountain. Although we never actually found the advertised “Lavender Garden,” the view from the top of the mountain is like a Canadian postcard. Pull over and pick a spot on the side of the road to relax and enjoy the picturesque lake and mountain views.
Where to visit by night in Dalat:
The night markets should be your first dinner destination upon arrival. Take in the smells of BBQ seafood and chicken broth as you take in the market atmosphere.
Make sure to try the Dalat speciality- Banh trang nuong. What we dubbed as a “Vietnamese taco”, this tasty snack is a folded rice paper roll that becomes crispy over an open flame. The cooks crack an egg into it and fill it with mayonnaise, chill sauce, spring onions, crispy shallots and sausage and cheese. Each stall makes them differently so be sure to try a few and decide on a favourite. On cooler nights, enjoy a cup of warm soy milk with custard puffs as you watch the locals sip away on chicken broth and haggle over prices.
Follow your nose:
We found most of our favourite places by smelling out places to eat. The smell of pho broth or BBQed meat would often lead us into tiny family restaurants where you eat on tiny plastic furniture and pick by the photos on the Vietnamese menus. Also, keep your eyes peeled for ladies on the side of the road selling bahn mi. If it looks like a small roadside lemonade stand, chances are you are in for the real deal.
Every street in Dalat features at least two karaoke bars. Easy to spot with their neon lights, karaoke in Dalat is the perfect excuse to sink some beers, be entertained with some V-pop and for the brave, to belt out a tune or two.
Where to stay in Dalat:
Hai Long Vuong was definitely the best hotel we stayed at whilst in Vietnam. The rooms have balconies where you can watch the evening rain fall over the city. The rooms are bright, clean and very affordable. The family who owns the hotel are incredibly lovely and are often sitting in the reception playing with their baby. They are also really helpful and inviting. On the basement level, there is a kitchen that the family uses but if you ask nicely, they are usually obliging to let visitors use it also.
If you are looking for an escape, stay at Zen Valley. Located out of town, these wooden bungalows overlook a plantation and at night you can watch the workers work by dim lights. The bungalows are two stories and the top floor bedroom features a huge window which looks out onto the views.
Not only was Dalat the place where my European heart made room for South-East Asia but it was the place where I felt the sense of freedom and adventure that I really needed at that point in my life. Instead of heading straight to the popular Vietnamese tourist destinations, I suggest stopping into Dalat and getting to know this beautiful place.