© Istock/Pham Hung
© Istock/Pham Hung

Dalat: the French colonial hill station

4 minutes to read

The former colonial hill station of Dalat seems to be protected by gods, like some kind of promised land. The French established it as a hot season retreat, but after they were driven away, the Vietnamese took it over without destroying it. During the American war, officers from South Vietnam and Viet Cong fighters came here to relax and recharge side-by-side. Perhaps they discussed tactics over a shot of ruou, to try it out later on a battlefield. Nowadays, the place retains its illogical, perhaps even magical attractiveness. It is touristy, tacky, kitschy, quirky, and yet somehow beautiful. Hectic as only a popular resort can be, and nevertheless relaxing. And even for those who find themselves immune to its spell, Dalat makes a perfect base for exploring the neighboring nature attractions. Plus, the hilly terrain makes for great views - almost any location will ensure lovely panoramas, especially on a misty night when the lights of Dalat illuminate the fog from below.

Crazy House

© Istock/alexkoral
© Istock/alexkoral

Designed by a Vietnamese architect who studied in Moscow, survived a period of political oppression, but eventually earned favor and fame, this building looks like something out of "Alice in Wonderland". Crazy House of Dalat puts Gaudi to shame with its total lack of rectangular shapes, overlapping contours more suitable for a karst cave, and a jumble of colors abruptly dropping into monochrome just when you get used to them. Its creator, Mrs Dang Viet Nga, ostensibly wanted to convey the insatiable human desire for freedom. What came out, however, is more of a tribute to unhindered creativity on the brink of madness. Tours are offered, and a part of the building serves as a hostel - you can actually stay overnight if you can afford it and are not afraid to wake up in a different reality.

Crazy House, Dalat
Crazy House, Dalat
03 Đường Huỳnh Thúc Kháng, Phường 4, Thành phố Đà Lạt, Lâm Đồng 66000, Vietnam

Bao Dai's summer palace 

© Istock/quangpraha
© Istock/quangpraha

Contrary to the Crazy House, the summer residence of Vietnam's last monarch is rather unimpressive on the outside. Come here for the history, for the elegiac, decadent feeling of changing times. Here the border between reality and falsitude, already thin in touristy Dalat, wears down to utter uncertainty. The interior, preserved without alteration and barely equipped with any captions or information boards, looks like though the highborn occupants have just left - and culminates with a photo studio where tourists can dress up in royal attire and pose on the throne. The king himself, in fact, stayed on that same thin line - the successor of a mighty dynasty, who was in all effect a marionette in French hands. All in all, the experience is nothing much in terms of sightseeing, but definitely philosophic. 

Bao Dai's summer palace, Dalat
Bao Dai's summer palace, Dalat
1 Đường Triệu Việt Vương, Phường 4, Thành phố Đà Lạt, Lâm Đồng, Vietnam
© Istock/saiko3p
© Istock/saiko3p

Temples

© Istock/saiko3p
© Istock/saiko3p

The two most interesting temples in the vicinity of Dalat are conveniently connected to the city by a toy train and a cable car. The latter will bring you to Truc Lam pagoda, a big active monastery, complete with resident monks and visiting pilgrims. Its main tourist draw is the panoramic view over a nearby lake, but it could also be a useful study case of the endemic Vietnamese religion, a synthesis of Buddhism, Confucianism and ancient local beliefs. Linh Phuoc pagoda, located close to the end of the toy train line, is another temple worth checking out. Almost every surface in this rather vast compound is covered with broken pottery or glass, turning the building into a weird 3D mozaic. There are also a few places of worship in town, but none are peculiar in any way. For general peacefulness and the photographic SFX of incense smoke try, Linh Son pagoda

Linh Phuoc pagoda, Trai Mat, Dalat
Linh Phuoc pagoda, Trai Mat, Dalat
Trai Mat, Thành phố Đà Lạt, Lâm Đồng, Vietnam
© Istock/Maksym Panchuk
© Istock/Maksym Panchuk

Fun rides

© Istock/Maksym Panchuk
© Istock/Maksym Panchuk

The old railway in Dalat is not connected to the main Vietnamese system, so the only way in is by road. But the colonial train station has been restored, and a short section of the old tracks is used by a small tourist train. The carriages are the real French-era thing, restored and returned to operation. The locomotive, alas, is a common diesel, while the vintage steam engine is mounted near the station as a background for selfies. Fun rides in the toy train are only run when there are enough customers. Another option, good for a day trip, is the cable car. Starting from Robin's Hill, the outskirts of Dalat, it runs to Truc Lam pagoda. A short walk from the pagoda will bring you to a large artificial lake, Tuyen Lam. Boat tours are available but overpriced. The lake is surprisingly nice for a manmade reservoir, but mainly this trip is a case of "getting there is half the fun". The best views are from the cable car anyway.


The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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