Dalat & Around

Itinerary Route Map

Dalat is Vietnam’s alter ego: the weather is spring-like cool instead of tropical hot, the town is dotted with elegant French-colonial villas rather than stark socialist architecture, and the farms around are thick with strawberries and flowers, not rice.

The French came first, fleeing the heat of Saigon. They left behind not only their holiday homes but also the vibe of a European town. The Vietnamese couldn’t resist adding little touches to, shall we say, enhance Dalat’s natural beauty. Whether it’s the Eiffel Tower–shaped radio tower, the horse-drawn carriages or the zealously colourful heart-shaped cut-outs at the Valley of Love, this is a town that takes romance very seriously, although it teeters on the brink of kitsch.

Dalat is a big draw for domestic tourists. It’s Le Petit Paris, the honeymoon capital and the City of Eternal Spring (daily temperatures hover between 15°C and 24°C) all rolled into one. For travellers, the moderate climate makes it a superb place for all kinds of adrenaline – fuelled activities – mountain biking, forest hiking, canyoning and climbing.

  • History

Home to hill tribes for centuries, ‘Da Lat’ means ‘river of the Lat tribe’ in their language. The city was established in 1912 and quickly became fashionable with Europeans. At one point during the French colonial period, some 20% of Dalat’s population was foreign, and grand villas remain scattered around the city.

During the American War, Dalat was spared by the tacit agreement of all parties concerned. Indeed, it seems that while South Vietnamese soldiers were being trained at the city’s military academy and affluent officials of the Saigon regime were relaxing in their villas, VC cadres were doing the same thing not far away (also in villas). On 3 April 1975, Dalat fell to the North without a fight.

  •  Sights

 Dalat

Hang Nga Crazy House NOTABLE BUILDING

(063-382 2070; 3 Ð Huynh Thuc Khang; admission 40,000d;  7am-7pm) A free-wheeling architectural exploration of surrealism, Hang Nga Crazy House defies definition. Joyously designed, outrageously artistic, this private home is a monument to the creative potential of concrete, with sculptured rooms connected by super-slim bridges and an excess of cascading lava-flow-like shapes. Think Gaudi on acid.

Wander around as you please; getting lost is definitely part of the experience.

The brainchild of owner Mrs Dang Viet Nga, the Crazy House has been an imaginative work in progress since 1990. Hang Nga, as she’s known locally, has a PhD in architecture from Moscow and has designed a number of other buildings around Dalat. One of her earlier masterpieces, the ‘House with 100 Roofs’, was torn down as a fire hazard because the People’s Committee thought it looked antisocialist.

Hang Nga started the Crazy House project to entice people back to nature, and though it’s becoming more outlandish every year, she’s not likely to have any more trouble with the authorities. Her father, Truong Chinh, was Ho Chi Minh’s successor, serving as Vietnam’s second president from 1981 until his death in 1988. There’s a shrine to him in the ground-floor lounge.

A note of caution for those with young kids: the Crazy House’s maze of precarious tunnels, walkways and ladders are certainly not child safe. Be extra vigilant.

Bao Dai’s Summer Palace HISTORICAL BUILDING

(Ð Trieu Viet Vuong; admission 15,000d;  7am-5pm) A faded art-deco-influenced villa, this was one of three palaces Bao Dai kept in Dalat. The building’s design is striking, though it’s in serious need of restoration and the once-modern interior is distinctly scruffy, with tatty net curtains and chipped furniture.

Bao Dai’s imposing office, with its royal and military seals and flags is still impressive.

The white bust above the bookcase is of the man himself (he died in 1997); the flags, huge desk, spears and crossbows add to the sense of occasion.

Upstairs are the living quarters. The huge semicircular couch was used by the emperor and empress for family meetings, with their three daughters seated in the yellow chairs and their two sons in the pink chairs.

The palace is set in a pine grove, 2km southwest of the city centre. It’s very much on the local tourist trail, so expect lots of tour groups.

Crémaillère Railway Station HISTORICAL BUILDING

(Ga Da Lat; 1 Ð Quang Trung;  6.30am-5pm)  Dalat’s wonderful art deco train station is no longer connected to the Vietnamese rail network, though you can turn back the clock by riding one of the five scheduled trains that run to Trai Mat (return 124,000d, 30 minutes) daily between 7.45am and 4pm. Arrive early and note that the train won’t leave without at least two passengers.

A crémaillère (cog railway) linked Dalat and Thap Cham from 1928 to 1964, but was closed due to VC attacks. There are old locomotives on display at the station, including a Japanese steam train, and the classy waiting room retains a colonial feel.

Lam Dong Museum 

(063-382 0387; 4 Ð Hung Vuong; admission 10,000d;  7.30-11.30am & 1.30-4.30pm Mon-Sat) Housed in a modern pink building, this hillside museum displays ancient artefacts and pottery, as well as costumes and musical instruments of local ethnic minorities, and propaganda about the government support for their mountain neighbours. There are informative exhibits about Alexandre Yersin and the history of Dalat on the upper level.

Xuan Huong Lake 

Created by a dam in 1919, this banana-shaped lake was named after an anti- authoritarian 17th-century Vietnamese poet. The lake can be circumnavigated along a scenic 7km sealed path that passes the flower gardens, golf club and the Dalat Palace hotel. Swan paddle boats are available for rent, a very popular pastime for visiting Vietnamese.

Du Sinh Church 

(Church; Ð Huyen Tran Cong Chua)  This hilltop church resembles a temple more than a traditional church; it was built in 1955 by Catholic refugees from the north. The four-post, Sino-Vietnamese steeple was constructed at the insistence of a Hue-born priest of royal lineage. Under the entrance archway there’s a statue in classical Greek style flanked by two golden Chinese dragons.

To get here, follow Ɖ Tran Phu out of the centre until it becomes Ɖ Hoang Van Thu. Turn left onto Ɖ Huyen Tran Cong Chua towards the former Couvent des Oiseaux, now a teachers’ training college, and the church is 500m southwest up the road.

GARDEN

(Vuon Hoa Thanh Pho;  063-382 2151; Ð Tran Nhan Tong; admission 10,000d;  7.30am-4pm) These gardens were established in 1966 and throughout the grounds you’ll find hydrangeas, fuchsias and orchids, the latter in shaded buildings to the left of the entrance. Like any good Vietnamese park, the gardens have been embellished with kitsch topiary.

  • THE PEOPLE OF THE MOUNTAIN

The uneasy relationship in the central highlands between the hill tribes and the Vietnamese majority dates back centuries, when Vietnamese expansion pushed the tribes up into the mountains. While French-colonial rule recognised the tribes as a separate community, South Vietnam later attempted to assimilate them through such means as abolishing tribal schools and courts, prohibiting the construction of stilt houses and appropriating their land.

In response the minority people formed nationalist guerrilla movements, the best-known of which was the Front Unifié de Lutte des Races Opprimées (FULRO) or the United Front for the Struggle of the Oppressed Races. In the 1960s the hill tribes were courted by the US as allies against North Vietnam, and were trained by the CIA and US Special Forces.

They paid dearly for this after the war, when government policies brought more ethnic Vietnamese into the highlands, along with clampdowns on education in native languages and religious freedom (many hill-tribe people belong to unauthorised churches). Many of these minority people have been relocated to modern villages, partly to discourage slash-and-burn agriculture. It also speeds up assimilation.

In 2001 and 2004 protests erupted, which the government quickly and, according to human-rights organisations, violently suppressed. International human-rights groups point to more deaths than the government admits to, and thousands of hill-tribe people fled to Cambodia or the US afterwards. Ask the ethnic Vietnamese and many will probably repeat the state’s line that the protests were the work of outsiders. Talk to any organisation that works with the minority people and you’ll hear a different story: one of continuing government surveillance, harassment and religious persecution.

  •  Around Dalat

Truc Lam Pagoda & Cable Car BUDDHIST TEMPLE

(Ho Tuyen Lam) For a spiritual recharge, visit Truc Lam Pagoda, which enjoys a hilltop setting and has splendid gardens. It’s an active monastery (ask about meditation sessions) and the grounds are expansive enough to escape the odd tour group. Be sure to arrive by cable car (adult one-way/return 50,000/70,000d, child 30,000/40,000d;  7.30-11.30am & 1.30-5pm). The terminus is 3km south of the centre), which soars over majestic pine forests.

From the monastery it’s a 15-minute walk down to the shore of Tuyen Lam Lake (actually a reservoir), where there are cafes, and boats for hire. Both the pagoda and lake can also be reached by road via turn-offs from Hwy 20.

Bidoup Nui Ba National Park NATURE RESERVE

( 063-374 7449; www.bidoupnuiba.gov.vn) Occupying a densely forested highland plateau, this national park encompasses evergreen and coniferous woodlands, bamboo groves and grasslands at altitudes between 650m and 2288m. Hill-tribe guides are available to guide you along trails, and there’s an impressive visitor centre, 32km north of Dalat, with interactive displays about the flora and fauna and K’Ho hill-tribe crafts and culture.

Bidoup Nui Ba has 96 endemic plants, including the Dalat pine, and nearly 300 species of orchids. Yellow-cheeked gibbons can be heard in the early morning if you’re fortunate, while the national park is also home to black bears and the vampire flying frog (which was only discovered in 2010).

The pleasant 3.5km trail from the visitor centre to a waterfall only fringes the national park; to penetrate deep inside Bidoup Nui Ba consider one of three other options, which include ascents of Lang Biang and Bidoup mountains. The longer trails do not start from the visitor centre itself, but staff there can organise guides and logistics.

There are five comfortable bungalows, each with three en-suite rooms (300,000d) at the visitor centre, as well as a canteen (meals 30,000d to 70,000d).

Cuong Hoan Traditional Silk Centre ART GALLERY

(063-852 338; 7.30am-5pm) Here you can inspect the entire process of silk production, which involves sorting cocoons, unravelling the threads and then dyeing and weaving them into shimmering new fabric. You can even sample the cooked grub, which has a nutty flavour. There are some beautiful garments and lengths of cloth for sale. The centre is in Nam Ban Village, 30km west of Dalat.

Waterfalls 

There are a number of waterfalls around Dalat, though none are royally spectacular and the focus tends to be on commerce rather than nature. If you’re exploring the countryside, others include Ankroët Falls, Gougah Falls (admission 7000d;  7am-4pm) and Pongour Falls (admission 10,000d;  7am-4pm).

» Elephant Falls

These imposing curved falls are best seen from below, but be prepared to negotiate an uneven and sometimes hazardous path to get here. Nearby, Linh An Pagoda has several large Buddhas (including a particularly happy Buddha with neon haloes and a room built into his ample belly). The falls are near Nam Ban village, 30km west of Dalat.

You can easily combine these falls with a visit to Cuong Hoan Traditional Silk Centre.

» Datanla Falls

(admission 10,000d, bobsled ride adult one-way/return 30,000/40,000d) This is the closest waterfall to Dalat, so expect loud music and lots of tour groups. The cascade is quite modest, but the bobsled ride is certainly a blast. Datanla is 7km south of Dalat. Take Hwy 20 and turn right about 200m past the turn-off to Tuyen Lam Lake. It’s well signposted.

Lat & Lang Dinh An Villages 

There are two minority villages a short drive from Dalat, both unremarkable despite their popularity. Less than 1km from the base of Lang Bian Mountain is Lat Village (pronounced ‘lak’), a community of about 6000 people spread across nine hamlets. Lang Dinh An (Chicken Village) is home to about 600 of the Koho people; it’s on Hwy 20, 17km from Dalat.

If you’re interested in hill-tribe life, you’re better off heading to Kon Tum or the far north of the country.

Only five of Lat Village’s hamlets are actually Lat; residents of the other four are members of the Chill, Ma and Koho tribes. It’s a sleepy little place with a few handicraft shops. Sometimes it hosts wine-drinking sessions or gong performances for tour groups.

Lang Dinh An has the distinction of having a giant concrete chicken caught mid-strut in the village centre, and offers the same woven objects and ‘cultural’ activities as Lat Village.

  •  Activities

Dalat’s cool climate and mountainous surrounds mean this is a great area for all kinds of outdoor activities. Adventure outfits are clustered along Ð Truong Cong Dinh, offering trekking, mountain biking, kayaking, canyoning, abseiling and rock climbing, as well as trips to the coast. Compare prices, but make sure that you’re comfortable with all the equipment and safety procedures.

 Phat Tire Ventures ADVENTURE TOUR

(063-382 9422; www.ptv-vietnam.com; 109 Ð Nguyen Van Troi) A highly professional and experienced operator with mountain biking trips from US$49, trekking from US$31, kayaking from US$39, canyoning from US$45 and white-water rafting (US$72) in the rainy season. Combined bike-riding/rafting trips to Mui Ne (US$115) are definitely the best way to hit the coast.

Groovy Gecko Adventure Tours 

(063-383 6521; www.groovygeckotours.net; 65 Ð Truong Cong Dinh) Experienced agency operated by a lively young team with prices starting at US$35 for rock climbing, canyoning or mountain biking, and two-day treks from US$59.

Pine Track Adventures ADVENTURE TOUR

(063-383 1916; www.pinetrackadventures.com; 72B Ð Truong Cong Dinh) Run by an enthusiastic local team, this operator offers canyoning, trekking, biking and some excellent multi-sport packages. A six-day trip taking in Dalat and the ride down to Mui Ne is US$510.

Highland Holiday Tours

(063-351 1047; www.highlandholidaytours.com.vn; 47 Ð Troung Cong Dinh) New agency offering mountain biking and motorcycle tours, trekking and canyoning. Two-day bike trips to Nha Trang are US$170, or rides into Cat Tien cost US$180.

Dalat Palace Golf Club

(063-382 1202; www.dalatpalacegolf.vn; Ð Tran Nhan Tong) This attractive 18-hole course near the lake was once used by Emperor Bao Dai himself. Rounds start at US$50. To get here, follow Ɖ Ba Huyen Thanh Quan north along Xuan Huong Lake and turn left onto Ɖ Tran Nhan Tong. The clubhouse is about 300m on the left.

  • EASY DOES IT

For many travellers, the highlight of their trip to the highlands is an off-the-beaten-track motorcycle tour with an Easy Rider. Besides the romance of cruising down endless highways, the Easy Riders’ stock-in-trade is good company and insider knowledge, providing a brief but intimate window into highland life.

The flip side to the popularity of the Easy Riders is that now everyone claims to be one. In central Dalat, you can’t walk down the street without being invited (sometimes harassed) for a tour. Some Easy Riders have banded together to protect ‘their’ brand, donning blue jackets and charging membership fees. Similarly, in Danang, Hoi An and Nha Trang, the Easy Rider moniker applies to other packs of motorcycle guides, with jackets of different colours.

Whether you’re speaking to a jacket-wearing chap or an indie-spirited upstart, it’s prudent to find out just what they can show you that you can’t see on your own. Easy Rider excursions start at US$25 for a day ride close to Dalat, ramping up to US$50 to US$70 per day for extended trips across the highlands and to the coast, or even all the way north to Hanoi.

Not every jacketed Easy Rider is a good guide and many freelance riders are perfectly talented guides (perhaps because they don’t have a ‘brand’ behind them). In the convoluted politics of the motorcycle-guide world, some freelancers now disdain the term Easy Rider and call themselves Free Riders or just plain motorcycle guides.

Before you commit to a long-haul trip, it’s a good idea to test a rider out with a day trip. Is he a safe driver? How is his command of English? Can you spend the next 48 hours or more with him? Are your bags safely strapped on the bike? Is the seat padded and the helmet comfortable (and clean)? Most riders can produce a logbook of glowing testimonials from past clients; also, check internet forums for recommendations.

One more important element to consider is the route. The most beautiful roads in southern Vietnam are actually the new-ish coastal highways that link Dalat to Mui Ne and Nha Trang, plus the old road to the coast via Phan Rang, although this is currently in poor condition. The main roads through the central highlands, particularly the Buon Ma Thuot to Pleiku run, are not particularly scenic, so it may be wise to discuss a back-roads option. If breathtaking scenery is the order of the day, consider motorbiking the far north of Vietnam around the Northwest Loop, Sapa, Ha Giang and Cao Bang, or take a look at the area between the DMZ and Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

  •  Sleeping

Dalat has an incredible choice of budget places, and some fine upmarket colonial-style hotels. You won’t need to worry about air conditioning as the climate is temperate.

 Dreams Hotel GUEST HOUSE $

(063-383 3748; dreams@hcm.vnn.vn; 138-140 Ð Phan Dinh Phung; r US$20-25) An incredibly hospitable guesthouse owned by a family that looks after its guests with affection and care. Boasts spotless rooms, a legendary breakfast spread, and hot tub and sauna.

Thien An Hotel  $

(063-352 0607; thienanhotel@vnn.vn; 272A Ð Phan Dinh Phung; s US$18, d US$22-25) Superb, very welcoming family hotel providing spacious well-equipped rooms, glorious breakfasts (including Vegemite and Marmite), a cosy atmosphere and high levels of cleanliness. Free bicycles provided.

Le Phuong Hotel  $

(063-382 3743; www.lephuonghotel.com; 80 Ð Nguyen Chi Thanh; s 300,000d, d 350,000-500,000d) From the gleaming lobby to the stylish, spacious minimalist rooms, this family run hotel is a great deal. Cleanliness standards are high and it’s conveniently located.

Green City HOTEL $

(063-382 7999; www.dalatgreencityhotel.com; 172 Ð Phan Dinh Phung; s/d/tw US$17/19/21) New place switched on to travellers’ needs with attractive, well-presented rooms, all with fine wooden beds, fresh linen, TV and minibar. Loafers will love the sofa-strewn lobby.

Hotel Chau Au – Europa $

(063-382 2870; europa@hcm.vnn.vn; 76 Ð Nguyen Chi Thanh; r 250,000-350,000d) Run by Mr Duc, the delightful and helpful owner who speaks English and French, this place has excellent rooms, most with two double beds and some with fine city views.

Hoan Hy Hotel  $

(063-351 1288; www.hoanhydalathotel.com; 14-16 Ð 3 Thang 2; r 350,000d) Near the epicentre of town, these smart rooms are fine value for money with midrange touches and tasteful decor. It’s above a popular bakery, so you can enjoy fresh bread each morning.

Pink House Villa $

(063-381 5667; ahomeawayfromhome_dalat@yahoo.com; 7 Ð Hai Thuong; s/d/tr US$10/15/20) A well-run family owned place, where many rooms have great views. It’s managed by the affable (if unfortunately named) Mr Rot, who can arrange motorbike tours in the countryside around Dalat.

Hotel Phuong Hanh  $

(063-356 0528; 7/1 Ð Hai Thuong; r US$7-12) Worth considering if you’re after a real cheapie. This is a well-maintained place with lots of rooms, most with two double beds, in decent condition for the price.

 Dreams 3 HOTEL $$

(063-383 3748, 063-382 5877; dreams@hcm.vnn.vn; 138-140 Ð Phan Dinh Phung; r US$30-35) This commodious new venture owned by the amazing ‘Dreams Team’ offers incredibly tasteful accommodation. All rooms have high-quality mattresses and modish bathrooms, and some have a balcony. On the top floor there’s a jacuzzi, steam room and sauna; a restaurant is planned. The only downer is the location on a traffic-heavy street.

Dalat Train Villa APARTMENT $$

(063-381 6365; www.dalattrainvilla.com; 1 Ð Quang Trung; apt US$70) A stunning French-era villa that’s been sensitively converted into four apartments, perfect for families or groups. Each unit has a lounge, small kitchen and large-screen TV. There’s a converted train-carriage cafe on your doorstep for meals. About 2km east of the centre.

Dalat Hotel du Parc  $$

(063-382 5777; www.hotelduparc.vn; 7 Ð Tran Phu; s & d US$50-70, ste US$110) A respectfully refurbished 1932 building that offers colonial-era style at enticing prices. The old lobby lift sets the tone and the spacious rooms include classy furnishings and polished wooden floors. However, it’s slightly lacking in facilities.

Empress Hotel $$

(063-383 3888; www.empresshotelvn.com; 5 Ð Nguyen Thai Hoc; r/ste from US$42/57) In a prime location overlooking the Xuan Huong Lake, this is an intimate and atmospheric place to stay. The rooms are modern, spacious and tasteful, and many face onto the peaceful courtyard garden. Check the website for promotional discounts.

Thi Thao Hotel  $$

(063-383 3333; www.thithaogardenia.com/en; 29 Ð Phan Boi Chau; r from US$28) Also known as the Gardenia Hotel, and offering stylish, bright, modern rooms with flat-screen TVs and superb bathrooms. It’s all very tasteful and good value.

 Ana Mandara Villas Dalat BOUTIQUE HOTEL $$$

(063-355 5888; www.anamandara-resort.com; Ð Le Lai; r US$82-102, ste from US$138) Elegant property spread across 17 lovingly restored French colonial villas. Rooms are finished in period furnishings and each villa has a lounge with fireplace and the option of private dining. The spa is glorious. Located in the suburbs, quite a hike from the centre.

Ngoc Lan Hotel  $$$

(063-382 2136; www.ngoclanhotel.vn; 42 Ð Nguyen Chi Thanh; r/ste from US$84/142) Luxury hotel where the rooms have clean white lines with stylish purple accents. The modern decor juxtaposes nicely with the colonial character of the building, including wooden floors and French windows. It’s right in the heart of town, so expect some noise.

Dalat Palace COLONIAL HOTEL $$$

(063-382 5444; www.dalatpalace.vn; 12 Ð Tran Phu; s US$246-306, d US$260-320, ste US$446-510) With unimpeded views of Xuan Huong Lake, this grande dame of hotels has vintage Citroën cars in its sweeping driveway, and lashings of wood panelling and period class. The opulence of French-colonial life has been splendidly preserved: claw-foot tubs, fireplaces, chandeliers and paintings. However, it can be achingly empty at times, and consequently can lack ambience.

Online deals can reduce rates to as low as US$130.

  • MADAGUI FOREST RESORT

Madagui Forest Resort ( 061-394 6999; www.madagui.com.vn; Km 152, Hwy 20; adult/child 30,000/20,000d, paintballing 58,000d, plus per shot 1500d) is a one-stop shop for adventures en route to or from Dalat. It’s more geared at the local rather than foreign tourist market, but there are still lots of activities on offer that might appeal, including white-water rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, horse riding, fishing and even crocodile feeding. Paintballing is a major draw here, although it is a fairly surreal experience. And no, Rambo costumes are not available. Accommodation is on offer (from 1,550,000d a night), but it’s probably better experienced as a pit stop between Dalat and HCMC.

  •  Eating

There’s a wide selection of restaurants geared towards travellers along Ð Truong Cong Dinh. For cheap eats in the day, head to the upper level of the Central Market (Cho Da Lat). At night you’ll find food stalls around the market along Ð Nguyen Thi Minh Khai.

 Trong Dong VIETNAMESE $

(063-382 1889; 220 Ð Phan Dinh Phung; mains 40,000-80,000d;  11.30am-9.30pm) Intimate restaurant run by a very hospitable team where the menu has been creatively designed – shrimp paste on a sugarcane stick and beef wrapped in la lut leaf excel.

 Goc Ha Thanh VIETNAMESE $

(53 Ð Truong Cong Dinh; mains 35,000-119,000d; 7am-10pm) Casual new place with attractive bamboo furnishings owned by a welcoming Hanoi couple. Strong on dishes such as coconut curry, hotpots, clay pots, stir fries and noodles.

Lan Mot Nguoi VIETNAMESE $

(58 РNguyen Chi Thanh; meals 32,000-68,000d;  10am-10pm) Specialising in steaming hotpots, this modern place has a casual air and draws a faithful local clientele. Try the spicy seafood hotpot.

Da Quy VIETNAMESE, WESTERN $

(Wild Sunflower; 49 Ð Truong Cong Dinh; dishes 30,000-72,000d; 8am-10pm) Run by Loc, a friendly English speaker, this place has a sophisticated ambience but unsophisticated prices. Try the traditional clay-pot dishes, a hotpot or something from the Western menu.

 V Cafe INTERNATIONAL $$

(063-352 0215; www.vcafedalatvietnam.com; 1/1 Ð Bui Thi Xuan; meals 80,000-170,000d; 7am-10.30pm) Atmospheric bistro-style place that serves international cuisine, such as chicken curry Calcutta and Mexican-style quesadillas. The interior is decorated with stunning photography and there’s live music most nights.

Nhat Ly VIETNAMESE $$

(88 Ð Phan Dinh Phung; dishes 35,000-130,000d; 11am-9.30pm) This place serves hearty highland meals on tartan tablecloths including sumptuous hotpots, grilled meats and seafood – try the steamed crab in beer (1kg costs 280,000d). Draws plenty of locals; always a good sign.

Quan Oc Trang SEAFOOD $$

(58 Ð Nguyen Chi Thanh; dishes 35,000-80,000d; 11.30am-9pm) Simple, local seafood place of the plastic stool and near-zero- English variety, with excellent shellfish, steaming bowls of lemongrass- and herb-scented mussels, sea snails and soft-shell crab.

Dalat Train Cafe CAFE $$

(www.dalattrainvilla.com; 1 Ð Quang Trung; snacks/meals from 50,000/90,000d; 7am-10pm) Calling all trainspotters! Don’t miss the opportunity to step inside this lovingly restored French-era railway carriage for a snack or meal in a unique setting. Try the blue-cheese burger or a salad. There’s a full wine list. It’s 100m from the train station.

Long Hoa INTERNATIONAL $$

(063-382 2934; 6 Ð 3 Thang 2; dishes 30,000-123,000d; 11am-2.30pm & 5.30-9.30pm) A cosy bistro run by a Francophile owner. Westerners come here for the Vietnamese food; Vietnamese come here to try the steaks. Top off your meal with a glass of Dalat wine.

Momiji JAPANESE, CAFE $$

(98 Ð Truong Cong Dinh; meals 80,000-150,000d; 7.30am-10pm) Part Japanese restaurant, serving good set meals, sushi and sake, and part cafe, with homemade cakes (including carrot cupcakes), green tea and cappuccino.

 Le Rabelais FRENCH $$$

(063-382 5444; www.dalatresorts.com; 12 Ð Tran Phu; meals US$30-50; 7am-10pm) For arguably the finest colonial setting in Vietnam, the signature restaurant at the Dalat Palace is the destination with the grandest of dining rooms and a spectacular terrace that looks down to the lakeshore. Set dinner menus (US$65 to US$85) offer the full treatment, but lunch is decent value at US$29, while high tea is US$16. It’s frequently pretty empty though.

Cafe de la Poste FRENCH $$$

(063-382 5777; Ð Tran Phu; meals from US$10;  7am-10pm) In a stunning French colonial building with a sweeping curved mahogany bar and huge mirrors, this place has lashings of style (although it can be short on patrons). The menu features salads, sandwiches, pastas and fresh bakery products, but the best value is the set lunch (370,000d).

  • DELECTABLE DALAT

Dalat is a vegetable lover’s heaven; its climate is conducive to growing peas, carrots, radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados, capsicums, lettuce, beets, green beans, potatoes, garlic, spinach, squash and yams. Translation: you can get meals here that are unavailable elsewhere in the country.

The Dalat area is justly famous for strawberry jam, dried blackcurrants and candied plums, persimmons and peaches. Apricots are popular, often served in a heavily salted hot drink. Other local delicacies include avocado ice cream, sweet beans (mut dao) and strawberry, blackberry and artichoke extracts (for making drinks). Artichoke tea, another local speciality, is said to lower blood pressure and benefit the liver and kidneys.

Dalat wine is served all over Vietnam. The reds are pleasantly light, while the whites tend to be heavy on the oak.

  •  Drinking & Entertainment

While Dalat has a lively night-market scene, sadly the same cannot be said for its night scene. Locals flock to the lively strip of cafe-bars (Ð Le Dai Hanh).

The Hangout BAR

(71 Ð Truong Cong Dinh;  11am-11pm) Popular hangout for some of Dalat’s Easy Riders, as well as visiting backpackers, with a relaxed vibe and a popular pool table. The owner, a fluent English speaker, is an excellent source of local information.

Envy Lounge Bar

(Ð Le Dai Hanh; 5pm-1am) With disco glitterballs, velour sofas and zany lighting, this bar is aimed directly at visiting Saigon hipsters. Expect expensive drinks and live cover bands.

 Escape Bar LIVE MUSIC

(basement, Blue Moon Hotel, 4 Ð Phan Boi Chau;  4pm-midnight) Outstanding live-music bar, owned by blues guitarist Curtis who performs here virtually every night with a rotating band (from 9pm). Yes, covers of classics are played, but the improvisation is such that each tune takes on a life of its own. Sunday is a jam session. The bar’s decor, all 1970s chic and ‘groovy baby’ furnishings, suits the sonics perfectly.

  • NATIONAL HIGHWAY 20: ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS

Open tour buses and private cars tackle the twists and turns from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat, and there are several possible stops along the way.

Langa Lake

The HCMC–Dalat road (Hwy 20) spans this reservoir, which is traversed by a bridge. Lots of floating houses, where families harvest the fish underneath, can be seen here. It’s a very scenic spot for photography, and most tourist vehicles on the HCMC–Dalat road make a short pit stop here.

Volcanic Craters

Near Dinh Quan on Hwy 20 there are three volcanoes, now extinct, but nonetheless very impressive. The craters date from the late Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago. You’ll have to do a little walking to see the craters. One is on the left-hand side of the road, about 2km south of Dinh Quan, and another on the right-hand side about 8km beyond Dinh Quan, towards Dalat.

Underground Lava Tubes

A bit beyond the volcanic craters, towards Dalat, are underground lava tubes. These rare caves were formed as the surface lava cooled and solidified, while the hotter underground lava continued to flow, leaving a hollow space. Lava tubes differ sharply in appearance from limestone caves (the latter are formed by underground springs). While limestone caves have abundant stalactites and stalagmites, the walls of lava caves are smooth.

The easiest way to find the lava tubes is to first find the teak forest on Hwy 20 between the Km 120 and Km 124 markers. The children who live around the forest can point you to the entrance of the lava tubes. However, you are strongly advised not to go into the tubes alone; as with caving there is the risk of becoming lost or stuck. Local kids hang out on the roadside and will sometimes act as guides for a small fee of 40,000d or so. Take a torch (flashlight).

  •  Shopping

There’s a good selection of Vietnamese coffee in Dalat; check out the shops in and around the Central Market.

  •  Information

Lam Dong General Hospital ( 063-382 1369; 4 Ð Pham Ngoc Thach;  24hr)

Main Post Office (14 Ð Tran Phu;  7am-6pm)

The Sinh Tourist ( 063-382 2663; www.thesinhtourist.vn; 22 Ð Bui Thi Xuan) Tours, including city sightseeing trips, and open-tour bus bookings.

Vietcombank (6 Ð Nguyen Thi Minh Khai;  7.30am-3pm Mon-Fri, to 1pm Sat) Changes travellers cheques and foreign currencies.

  • Transport from Dalat

Destination

Bus

Air

Car/Motorbike

HCMC

US$9–11, 7-9hr, every 30min

from US$34, 1hr, four daily

9hr

Mui Ne

n/a

n/a

5hr

Nha Trang

US$6.50, 4–5hr, 17 daily

n/a

4hr

Buon Ma Thuot

US$6, 5hr, nine daily

n/a

4hr

Danang

US$15, 12hr, three daily

from US$49, 1hr, one daily

13hr

Hue

US18, 15hr, three daily

n/a

15hr

  •  Getting There & Away

Air

Vietnam Airlines ( 063-383 3499; www.vietnamairlines.com; 2 Ð Ho Tung Mau) has daily services to HCMC, Danang and Hanoi. Vietjet Air also flies daily to Hanoi. Lien Khuong Airport is 30km south of the city.

Bus

Dalat’s modern long-distance bus station (Ð 3 Thang 4) has timetables and booking offices; it’s about 1.5km south of Xuan Huong Lake by road. From here there are express buses to HCMC, other cities in the highlands, Danang and Nha Trang. Phuong Trang ( 063-358 5858) operates smart double-decker buses, including several sleeper services, to HCMC (US$11, seven to eight hours, roughly hourly).

Dalat is a major stop for open-tour buses. The Sinh Tourist has daily buses to Mui Ne (129,000d, four hours), Nha Trang (129,000d, five hours) and HCMC (179,000d, eight hours).

Car & Motorcycle

From Nha Trang, a new-ish high road offers spectacular views – a dream for motorbikers and cyclists – hitting 1700m at Hon Giao mountain and following a breathtaking 33km pass.

Highway 27 to Buon Ma Thuot is scenic, but in poor condition with many potholes.

  •  Getting Around

To/From the Airport

The Vietnam Airlines shuttle bus between Lien Khuong Airport and Dalat (40,000d, 40 minutes) is timed around flights. It leaves from the airline’s office at 40 Ð Ho Tung Mau two hours before each departure. Private taxis to/from the airport cost around 250,000d.

Bicycle

The hilly terrain makes it hard work getting around Dalat. Several hotels rent out bicycles and some provide them free to guests. It’s also well worth looking into cycling tours.

Car

Daily rentals (with driver) start at US$40.

Motorcycle

For short trips around town (10,000d to 20,000d), xe om drivers can be flagged down around the Central Market area. Self-drive motorbikes are 150,000d to 200,000d per day.

Taxi

Taxis are easy to find; try Mai Linh ( 063-352 1111).

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