Untouched Retreat

Visiting Vietnam’s peaceful vacation spot

By: Jim Calio

During the Vietnam War, the opposing sides did an unusual thing: They took a break together in Dalat, the old resort town in the country’s south central highlands about 200 miles north of Ho Chi Minh.

It was understood between the North and South that Dalat was a no-fire zone, a place where the war’s savagery was set aside. Even in wartime, the Vietnamese revered and respected Dalat as a place of peace, and it’s not hard to see why.

The town, at 4,500 feet in the mountains, was created in the early 1900s as a vacation spot for the occupying French. Now with a population of 135,000, Dalat has become Vietnam’s honeymoon capital and a retreat from the heat.

After a 45-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City (the locals still call it Saigon), I arrived in Dalat. When the ground crew popped the door open, we were greeted with a rush of cool air, a sharp contrast to the hot, humid weather we had left behind in the south.

The popular image of Vietnam, no doubt from news footage and movies, is of a hot, steamy jungle. This holds true along the coast, but the mountains that run down the country’s spine offer contrasting weather. In autumn, locals wear sweaters and boots, and it’s not unusual to see people on motorbikes whizzing by in parkas.

One of the best ways to see just how different the central highlands are from the rest of Vietnam is to drive up Highway 1 from Saigon to Route 20, which climbs the mountains through coffee plantations, dense forests and spectacular waterfalls. (Given the highway’s reputation as a dangerous speedway, advise clients to take the trip with an experienced driver.)

The word Dalat comes from a combination of the words da for lake and lat, the name of a local hill tribe, and the city is also a mix of cultures old and new. The French influence is obvious in some of the architecture, although many buildings reflect the later Soviet-era with massive, non-descript structures. Travelers can also tour Emperor Bao Dai’s summer palace (he abdicated in 1945), which seems to be frozen in time with old-fashioned phones and musty rooms.

Cuisine ranges from fine French cooking to traditional dishes like xa lat tron thit bo (mixed salad with beef). At the Buddhist temples scattered about the city and the adjoining hills, dried deer meat and candied strawberries, a big cash crop for Dalat, are considered delicacies.

The central market downtown, like most Vietnamese markets, is full of brightly colored vegetables and fruits and fresh meat. Stalls serve pho, the country’s national dish, a soup with bits of meat and vegetables which is simmered and sampled all day.

Clients would be cheating themselves if they didn’t check into the Sofitel Dalat Palace, a building that beckons colonial days. Claw-foot tubs and old-fashioned telephones garnish the rooms, while hallways feature faux French Impressionist paintings. The hotel owners, Danao Resorts, also parked a black 1930 Renault on the front lawn.

The scene from the Sofitel is spectacular: The hotel sits high on a hill overlooking Xuan Huong Lake, allowing views of cloud-shrouded mountains, reminding me of summer in Lake Tahoe, and the city’s only golf course.

I took in one round, and my caddy quickly learned I was no Tiger Woods. At the end of the game, I found that she had shaved a few strokes off my score: I gave her a big tip.

Although the Sofitel Dalat Palace is the city’s only five-star hotel, there are other comfortable lodgings. The Novotel Dalat Vietnam across the street is a good choice: Its cozy bistro-style restaurant features Western and Vietnamese food and a billiards table.

Dalat will soon expand its offerings, in the air and on the ground. For spa-goers, Evason Spas and Resorts will open 15 colonial-style villas along with its signature Six Senses Spa later this year.

Getting there will soon be easier. Currently, Vietnam Airlines flies daily from Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi offers three flights a week. Although the schedule will soon increase when a new airport opens in 2006.


Sofitel Dalat Palace and Novotel Dalat Vietnam