July 17, 2020
It’s the Summer holidays and were it not for the current COVID-19 travel restrictions, you would normally be travelling. You still need a break from Saigon’s traffic and pollution by now though and thankfully, Vietnam has countless beautiful destinations waiting for you to explore. So why not look Northwards to the pretty town of Da Lat in the Central Highlands, one of our favourite places! Rolling hills, clean air and tranquillity less than half a day’s drive from Saigon. But you probably knew that about Da Lat already.
Da Lat – The Jewel of the Central Highlands
Saigonese often cite charming Da Lat as a favourite local holiday destination, receiving more than 5 million visitors a year, pre-COVID-19. Established by the French in the 1890s as an agricultural research centre and a mountain retreat for the wealthy, it has matured into a thriving tourist destination.
The capital city of Lam Dong province in the Vietnam Central Highlands, Da Lat is also known by other names such as The City of a Thousand Flowers or Little Paris, due to its French colonial connection. Only a 40-minute flight or a 6-hour drive from Saigon, the city is a welcome retreat for those from Vietnam’s South.
Da Lat is 1,500 metres/5,000 feet above sea level, with a pleasant average annual temperature of 18.9 C./66 F. The mountain air is clear and crisp, the sky is a bright blue, and the setting is picturesque. Da Lat is clean and unpolluted, much of its architectural heritage is well preserved, with pretty sculpted gardens. Add the walkable sidewalks and the absence of reckless driving and the stark contrast to the big city is clear. There are lots of things to see, do, and taste here, and the pace is blissfully slow – a welcome hiatus from bustling urban life.
Fun Things To Do
Da Lat and the surrounding countryside covers a lot of ground — too much for one weekend. It certainly offers something for every taste. Think great food, historic buildings, a bustling wet market with great photo opportunities and an abundance of tours to the surrounding countryside. Outdoor activities like hiking and biking abound through the picturesque tea fields and solemn pine forests. In short, there is a lot to do, depending on how much time you have. Here are some fun options:
Cloud Hunting at 5am
The perfect day in Da Lat would start at 5 am, when you would go
cloud- hunting, which, as the name suggests, ensures that you are on top of a mountain at daybreak to watch the fog rise from the valleys below. June to August is prime cloud hunting season. Make sure you get to a mountaintop before sunrise, around 5:30 am, for some spectacular photo opportunities. There are several good lookout points to enjoy the sunrise and get the best view of the clouds. Some good options are:
• Da Phu Hill, approximately 12 km from Dalat city centre, towards the Golden Valley Resort, is one of the best spots near the city. You will have to hike the last section up to the lookout point, but it is worth it.
• The main teahouse offers a 360-degree view of the greenhouses below. If you do not feel like hiking, and you need your morning coffee, this is the spot. They open at 8 am.
• Highly recommended for cloud hunting is Cau Dat tea farm (Cầu Đất), located 25 km South-East of Da Lat’s city centre, via beautiful, winding mountain roads and mist-filled pine forests. The farm offers beautiful views of the surrounding countryside, and you can sample the farm’s tea and coffee. The main tea house, at an altitude of 1,600 meters above sea level, is surrounded by tea fields that follow the gentle slopes down into the valleys below. The dense early morning fog should satisfy the most avid cloud hunters.
Cau Dat Tea Farm
Cau Dat Tea Hill is a popular destination. Situated on a hilltop, the main teahouse offers panoramic views of the 220-hectare tea fields. At sunrise, the mist rising from the valleys lends an eerie, surrealistic tranquility to the place that is popular for wedding photography. After sunrise, stroll through Cau Dat’s flower and vegetable gardens, it is worth the extra hike. Once you have taken enough pictures of the flower fields, head over to the Old Tea Factory. Completed in 1927 by the French, the majority of the tea produced here today is exported to Europe and the Middle East. After wandering through the processing plant, give your feet a rest and sample some of the best green tea Da Lat has to offer.
By the time you have finished, you should be starving!
Head back to town for lunch, or go next door to Xuan Truong commune and ask for Quang noodles, the local specialty.
Datanla Waterfall & Alpine coaster
Those a bit more adventurous can instead drive to Datanla waterfall, approximately 20km from Da Lat on Highway 20. It is a pretty waterfall, but the highlight here is an alpine coaster. Other activities on offer are the cable car, a zip line, canyoning, abseiling, and a high rope course. Most tour companies now include a visit to the park.
Approximately 1 km long, the alpine coaster rail runs downhill through the plantation at a maximum speed of 40km/h. If you are scared of high speeds, each cart has a hand brake which allows you to go as slow as you like, so that you can incur the wrath of those waiting in line behind you. It ends near the waterfall at the bottom of the hill, where you can explore and enjoy the natural beauty around you. Due to COVID-19, there are no noisy crowds at this time.
Stroll around Xuan Huong Lake
Nestled in the centre of town, most of Da Lat’s historic landmarks are along the gentle slopes around Xuan Huong Lake. It is a picturesque setting, with a view across the water and onto the hills beyond. The grassy verge and well-kept gardens on the edge of the water are great places for a picnic, or you could visit one of the tea houses built along the shoreline.
Take a leisurely sunset stroll or cycle around the lake, as there is plenty to see. As you sidestep joggers, look out for some of Da Lat’s landmarks, including the imposing silhouette of the historic Palace Hotel. Built-in 1922 as the centerpiece of Da Lat, it was a popular and luxurious get-away destination for the affluent French colonials. If you are hungry, I recommend taking a detour up the hill, through the grandiose old hotel lobby, and out the back. Once you reach the street, turn right and cross the street at the Du Parc Hotel. Take a left immediately past the hotel down Nhà Chung.
There are plenty of local street food options, but you should try the local specialties of Banh can or Banh trang nuong. If you already have dinner plans, skip the detour and make a quick stop at the Da Lat Flower Garden on the lakes North-West end. The venue for the annual Da Lat Flower Festival, this 15-hectare garden includes approximately 300 evergreen species of flowers.
The 100 Roof Cafe / Maze Bar
Every visitor to Da Lat has been to Crazy House, the outlandish creation of the architect Đặng Việt Nga. However, you would have had a long day, and bound to have worked up a thirst. The 100 Roof Cafe and bar, located at 57 Phan Boi Chau near the market centre, will be the most surreal casual drinking experience you will ever have. Nothing written here can quite prepare you for this uniquely themed cafe and bar. Make sure you have a drink in hand from the downstairs bar before venturing in. Once inside, you are likely to forget about the crappy drinks menu and your tired feet. It is a strange, colorful place, with hidden passageways, outlandish sculptures, secret stairways, and a labyrinth of rooms, nooks, and crannies galore. I climbed through a small hole and found myself on a different floor! If you are prone to get claustrophobic, stay on the main staircase. The best part about the 100 Roof Cafe is the extensive rooftop and garden. Given the maze of corridors, tunnels, and staircases, it’s impossible to give directions on how to get there. Just keep going upwards for about 5-6 storeys! The reward is a somewhat psychedelic fairytale garden with a gorgeous view of the city below and the stars above.
Da Lat has a lot more to offer, but this selection would kickstart a memorable week in the Central Highlands capital, or cover the basics if you only have a weekend to spare. Enjoy!
Next month: 5 Fun coffee shops in Da Lat!