A holiday in the Central Highlands yields delightfully cool temperatures, great street food, year-round flowers and a beautiful town-center lake.
Christmas doesn’t seem like a winter holiday when the weather is hot and muggy, as it almost always is in Ho Chi Minh City. A visit to DaLat offered a way to escape the heat, and a lot more.
This former French colonial hill town — its center rising like a citadel above the surrounding sprawl — sits at about 1,500 meters’ elevation in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, nearly 5,000 feet higher than sea-level Saigon. Eight hours on a bus, to travel 240 kilometers (150 miles), was a small price to pay for the reduction in heat.
By the time I arrived at DaLat in the early evening, the thermometer had dipped from 84 degrees to 57 degrees Fahrenheit (14 Celsius). Townspeople were swaddled in downy parkas, gloves and wool hats. Santa’s sleigh, perched on a fountain in the central roundabout, didn’t look so out of place. But there was no danger of a white Christmas: No one could see their breaths.
The poinsettias didn’t have to be covered. Indeed, they were being sold in the public market, along with dozens of other kinds of flowers that, even now, were growing wild and in gardens throughout this provincial capital of 350,000.
A jungle out there
My bus from Saigon was a luxurious sleeper coach, with just 22 recliner seats well suited to overnight journeys. I may someday take advantage of that option, but for my first visit to DaLat, I was glad for the scenery.
The first couple of hours were decidedly urban as we crossed the wide Saigon River and proceeded through the modern industrial suburb of Bien Hoa. As Dong Nai province grew more rural, small farms became visible behind a single row of buildings that lined the highway. After the small town of Tan Phu, we began a steep climb through jungle-covered mountains to Bao Loc.
As we crossed into Lam Dong province, I looked out my window at a dozen different shades of green. The highway switch-backed around broadleaf foliage and sturdy trees draped head-to-toe with liana vines. I could imagine monkeys, colorful birds, snakes and other wildlife, perhaps even rare tigers, that might be hiding here.
In the wink of an eye, we climbed the last hill, left the jungle and emerged on a street where coffee was king. Every home in Bao Loc, it seemed, had fresh coffee beans — olive green, chocolate brown and blond — spread to dry on blankets in their yards.
A picturesque two-hour ridgeline drive ended at my hotel in DaLat. (My booking at a budget inn called Khánh Hân was so disappointing that I moved the next day to the Phu’ong Vy boutique hotel. This was superior in every way, at the hardly exorbitant nightly cost of US$13).
I was just in time for dinner. In the town center, a street market on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai was drawing a large Monday night crowd. Several women, dressed for the wintery weather, were hawking skewered meats, which they barbecued over sizzling coals as I sat with a Tiger beer. The chicken and beef sticks were good, but the baby squid and okra combination was exquisite.
Further down the row, a young man had his own mobile street-food café at which he offered bánh tráng nướng, otherwise known as “Da Lat pizza.” Instead of wheaten dough, he used several layers of rice paper, topped with a beaten egg to prevent burning, then grilled on a hibachi. Cream cheese, mayonnaise, chili sauce, spring onions and other ingredients, including locally made sausage, were added as it cooked. I especially liked the strawberry flair at the finish, but I think avocadoes, another popular local product, might have been more complementary.
Like a banana moon
As a mountain-town boy living in the Ho Chi Minh City megalopolis, one of the things that I miss most is having places to walk where there’s no traffic to dodge. Even circuits of the big city parks, where many choose to exercise, aren’t appealing to me.
I loved walking in DaLat, especially around Hồ (lake) Xuân Hương. It’s in the heart of town, entirely fringed by a park strip. Some say this reservoir is shaped like a crescent moon, others like a banana; I suppose they’re both right. On my first morning, I easily covered the 5-kilometers (3.2-mile) circumference in a casual two-hour stroll, with plenty of time for photographs.
My initial destination was the DaLat Flower Garden, on the north shore furthest from the city center. En route, I paused at a purple-painted lakefront café, where I enjoyed a cup of local coffee; a tiny marina, where paddleboats disguised as giant swans attracted parents visiting with young children; and a depot for ornate horse-drawn carriages that could have been extras in Disney’s Cinderella.
But I was grateful to use my own horsepower. And as I ambled, I was astounded by the botanical wonders lining this promenade. I passed white and orange trumpet flowers, pink and red hibiscus, jacaranda, mimosa and poinsettias. There were anthurium, ginger, morning glory, hydrangea and crepe myrtle.
Tiny, delicate blossoms peeked from quiet garden corners and flamboyant garlands draped from trees. There were red flowers, purple flowers, yellow flowers, pink flowers, more than I could put names to. The Flower Garden was an anticlimax, a few beds of carefully tended fuchsias and orchids amidst seasonal kitsch such as Santa and reindeer.
I turned at the head of the lake and followed the south shore back toward the town center, passing en route an inconspicuous pagoda, a public market (where I purchased a stock of fresh roasted cashews and dried apricots), and the DaLat Opera House (more on which in my next blog). Along the fertile shoreline, hobby fishermen pulled in catches of what, to my untrained eye, appeared to be carp, as white cattle egrets stared on hungrily.
And to think: I had not even spent 24 hours yet in DaLat. What would tomorrow bring? Indeed, what was ahead for the afternoon?
Next: Crazy? Who’s crazy?