Dalat, Vietnam is set in the highlands and blessed with year-round cool weather. As a result, many Vietnamese choose to spend their vacation time here, away from the heat and dust of the rest of the country. The number of Vietnamese visitors arriving in tour buses, armed with thick wooly coats and fluffy ear muffs, vastly outnumber the backpackers shivering in thin tank tops. For every one backpacker, there are 100 Vietnamese visitors.
The weather in Dalat usually hovers around 18 degrees Celsius (about 64 degrees Ffahrenheit), never going higher than 30 (86 degrees Fahrenheit).While winter gear is uncalled for (just a warm sweater would suffice for evenings), it is endearing to see the Vietnamese, used to a hot and humid climate, dressing up for the slight chill.
Things to Do in Dalat, Vietnam
The Art: Crazy House
Easily one of Dalat’s most famous spots, the ‘Crazy House’ is actually called the Hang Nga Guesthouse. The Gaudi-inspired architectural marvel lends an air of surrealism and whimsy to the town. It looks like it belongs in a Dali or Magritte painting. No wonder the nickname is ‘Crazy House’. There are themed rooms inside featuring tigers, kangaroos and eagles, but even getting from one point to another is an adventure. Imagine curvy bridges, tiny tunnels and steps that lead you on a roundabout.
It is also open as a guesthouse, so thrill-seekers can spend a night or more here. The architect, Dang Viet Na, had to rely on private funding from her friends and family early on, as the local authorities frowned the project. The guesthouse option was to raise more money for the continual construction of the house. After the ‘Crazy House’ started drawing in tourists, the local authorities finally gave her their support.
The History: Bao Dai Summer Palace
While the palace is bare and run-down by European standards, one can spot vestiges of luxury set in a different time and place if one looks carefully. Silken yellow sheets, a long dining hall and balconies overlooking the gardens below are part of a lifestyle only the royals have a chance to live in Vietnam.
Visitors can also explore the grounds. Having an ice cream cone in the cool weather is more fun than it sounds. There are also ponies and their handlers at certain parts of the garden. While one can pay for a pony-pulled carriage, discerning travelers will opt not to — the conditions of the creatures (ribs showing, open wounds) make most people feel sympathy instead of excitement.
There are many kitschy photo spots around, and while one would expect visitors to roll their eyes, the Vietnamese love taking posed photographs.
The Agriculture: Coffee Farm
The cool highland climate makes Dalat an ideal spot for coffee bean farming. Visit the plantations and check out the civet cats which help produce the infamous civet cat coffee. Unfortunately, the conditions they are in are not ideal — small cages with barely enough space for a few paces each way — so keep that in mind if you are considering try the civet cat coffee.
Most plantations would build a special ‘coffee house’, where visitors can order up a fresh cup of caffeine while taking in the view of green trees and blue lakes in the distance. The coffee plantations are also located near flower, silk worm and cricket farms that are worth a look.
The Daily Life: Night Market
Every weekend, the locals close off the main street so none of the Vietnamese can attempt to bike in their devil-may-care way through the night market. Here, you can find everything, from fresh vegetables to winter coats to copies of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover,’ translated into Vietnamese, of course.
There is no shortage of cheap street snacks to try, from crispy onion pancakes and boiled peanuts to chicken soup glistening with yellow oil. It is best to come here on an empty stomach and feast on what feels like a hundred different things as you make your way from one street to another.
Always try to make out how much money the locals are handing over, so you know you are not being quoted ‘tourist’ prices.
While Dalat is often sidelined for her more famous sisters — cultural Hanoi and trendy, gritty Ho Chi Minh — she has a quiet beauty of her own. The climate makes slurping down a hot bowl of pho an entirely different sort of delicious, and to witness how a small town is so different from the rest of Vietnam is an experience in itself.
Author Bio: Ling Xin is from Singapore, and likes cooking, reading and rehoming animals. A former print and online journalist, she now spends her time at asiarooms.com/en/community, where she travels and writes about her experiences. Also find her on twitter at @ohhellosailor.