19. Crazy About DaLat

Visitors may marvel at the quirky Hang Nga Crazy House, but that’s not the only architectural oddity to stir interest in this Central Highlands city.

The yellow Da Lat Opera House rises behind an artichoke-like cafe. (JGA photo)

It is often said that highly creative people may be a little crazy. That being the case, the hill town of DaLat seems to have more than its fair share.

The quirky architecture found in this community of 350,000, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, contributes mightily to its stand-alone quality among Vietnamese cities. An undeniable streak of independence inspires artists, entrepreneurs and conservationists to turn from convention and do things their own ways. From coffee farmers to wildlife guides, oil painter-chefs to wine producers, there’s a place for anyone here. Eccentricity is not just accepted; in some circles, it’s the norm.

Looking south across the waters of Hồ (lake) Xuân Hương, two hillside structures capture an onlooker’s eye near the Eiffelesque spire of a radio tower. One of the buildings is roundish and yellow, like a half-buried pineapple lying on its side. The other resembles an artichoke. They are hardly the concepts from which socialist dreams are nurtured and grown.

The courtyard of the Crazy House is sheltered by a giant banyan tree. (JGA photo)

More Dali than Disney

The same might be said of Dr. Dang Viet Nga’s Hang Nga Crazy House — if the architect were not the daughter of Trường Chinh, a Vietnamese Communist party leader through the years of war with France and the United States.

This eccentric estate, formally dubbed Hang Nga (“Moon Goddess”) Villa, is truly an architectural oddity, more Gaudi than Gehry, more Dali than Disney. Nga, who studied and practiced architecture in Moscow from 1959 to 1972, moved to DaLat in 1983 after a decade with the cultural ministry in Hanoi. She designed and began to build the house in 1990 and called it complete 20 years later. But it clearly remains a work in progress, as there are plentiful signs of ongoing construction both inside and outside.

Frightening fingers creep down an arboreal wall at the Crazy House. (JGA photo)

Entering the complex (where Nga, now in her 80s, still lives) is like following the March Hare down the rabbit hole, or tracking Peter Pan’s Lost Boys into their arboreal refuge. From a courtyard beneath a fanciful five-story banyan tree, seemingly directionless staircases climb to slender bridges with jungle-vine handrails. These link a series of audaciously decorated rooms — some straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien, others, like the “Ocean Room,” more Jules Verne — and colorful outdoor areas.

Bony red hands that creep down a garden’s giant tree-trunk wall seem more attuned to a horror film than to a freewheeling forest. But turn a “corner” (there are no straight lines or angles here) and you’ll find yourself passing a … guest room? Yes, the Crazy House is also a boutique hotel. Rooms are sculpted like caverns within the hollows of what appear to be giant roots, their spider-web windows one more example of Nga’s commitment to recreating a whimsical natural environment.

A guest room at the Crazy House appears to be hollowed from a tree root. (JGA photo)

Fruits and veggies

The “pineapple” on the hillside above the lake is the Da Lat Opera House, which opened in 2020 at a cost of over US$3 million. With a three-story theater and an 850-seat outdoor auditorium, the concert hall was specifically designed to present performances of live classical and acoustical music and to attract international festivals. There’s a gallery for art exhibitions, as well as an underground cinema complex, bowling alley, video-games center, restaurant and gym.

I can’t say for certain, but I suspect the architect is the same person who designed the nearby Doha Café. This green “artichoke” rises three floors above a public plaza just west of the Opera House. Both structures overlook a tented public market selling everything from clothing to rosewood furniture, from cheap jewelry to dried fruit and nuts.

A better choice for market lovers might be Cho Da Lat in the heart of downtown. Each morning, the stalls are replenished with a new abundance of strawberries, avocadoes, durian fruit, and of course flowers by the thousands. Indeed, Da Lat likes to call itself the “city of eternal spring.”

A flower vendor at Cho Da Lat is immersed in color. (JGA photo)

Food and drink

The sweeping steps that rise above the central market area lead pedestrians to Hoa Binh Square, the focal point of a web of streets that wind away in every direction. Here are some of the city’s nicer mid-range hotels, restaurants and bars.

On Tru’ong Cóng Dinh street alone, eateries include Goc Ha Thanh, which makes a great Thai-style chicken curry; The Sky Over Da Lat vegetarian restaurant and gallery (try the cauliflower gratin pizza); and Mỹ Liên Từ’s carnivore-luring Aussie Burger bistro. Down the hill, at Artist Alley, on Phan Dinh Phung, accomplished painter Vo Trinh Bien hangs his oils and acrylics in the same upstairs room where ostrich steaks and grilled sea bass delight Western palates.

I would love to recommend Da Lat wines, but I cannot. It seems that most are sweet, high-potency varietals (as much as 17.5% alcohol) with a substantial blend of local mulberry juice. Wine lovers are better directed to Le Retour, a dedicated wine bar on Phan Boi Chau that specializes in European imports.

Eccentric decor and steep, narrow staircases are hallmarks of the Maze Bar. (JGA photo)

Amazing places

One establishment not to miss in this area is the Maze Bar, also known as “100 Roofs.” Coffee shop by day, bar by night, it’s a bohemian response to the Hang Nga Crazy House — like something out of The Hobbit. There are no jungle vines, no viaducts, but dark, narrow staircases that connect clandestine chambers conjure claustrophobia in even the most adventurous and level-headed visitors. Climbing five stories from basement to multiple rooftops, the watering hole is decorated with a trove of tribal antiques and collectibles from all over the world, adding even more mystery to its oddness.

Far saner is the DaLat Mountain View, a café and dessert stop that promises “coffee, joy, music” from its ridgetop outpost on the city’s east side. The view across the verdant highlands from the spacious deck draws throngs of young visitors for selfies and group photos framed by luxuriant foliage and luxurious hillside homes. And there’s nothing crazy about that.

A visitor to the DaLat Mountain View cafe enjoys the view from the deck. (JGA photo)

Next: The beach at Mui Ne

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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