The French call it “un coup de foudre” which literally translates to “a bolt of lightning,” but the term is also used to describe love at first sight. When it comes to travel, I’d only experienced that feeling twice before: Lausanne in Switzerland, truly one of the beautiful cities in Europe, and San Francisco, California, which is right near the top of any list of gorgeous destinations.
As of now it’s three times – it took me only a couple of hours to see that Da Lat (also spelled “Dalat” in one single word like many other cities in Vietnam) is a city unlike any I’ve seen in Asia. Perched up in the hills about 200 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City (commonly abbreviated to HCMC, and often referred to by its former name Saigon), Da Lat is at 1,500 meters or 5,000 feet above sea level, so the first thing you’ll notice is the temperate climate.
That’s why the French conceived the city – a cool retreat from the searing heat of Saigon. Da Lat is only just over 100 years old, built in the early 1900s during the French colonial era, but you’d never know it. The old city is built on various hills and looks like it could be a city dating back several centuries anywhere in France, or elsewhere in Europe.
Colonial-style building looks centuries old
And that’s just the center – most of this city of over 200,000 inhabitants is modern and well laid-out, with wide boulevards and European-style traffic circles and a beautiful lake in the heart at the foot of the surrounding hills.
Don’t take those wide boulevards too literally because some of the streets wind around and up and down the hills, causing the most experienced traveler to be lost, in some cases lost for a long time. A very long time, that is, to which I can attest from my own personal experience!
There are small neighbourhoods built into the hills, accessible only by steep footpaths, which wind around and around often ending up in dead ends. I know, because I’ve landed in a few living rooms accidentally only to have to excuse myself, retreat, and continue making my way through the maze.
The temperature ranges from the mid-teens Celsius overnight to the mid-20’s in the daytime, very rarely reaching 30 degrees on the hottest days. The rainy season begins late April or early May with brief afternoon showers sometimes turning into deluges, then peaks from June to October when the rains are longer and heavier, subsiding in November.
November through April in Da Lat are an absolute pleasure, with daytime highs around 25 degrees and overnight lows in the mid-teens. Just like in Lausanne and San Francisco, you start with an extra layer of clothing in the morning and slowly peel it off as the day goes on.
Most of Southeast Asia seems to be either hot or rainy or both at any point in time, so a cool retreat is indeed a rarity. Some other notable cool spots in the region include Tagaytay and Baguio in the Philippines, Bogor and Ruteng in Indonesia, and the Cameron and Genting Highlands in Malaysia, plus Chiang Mai in winter in Thailand, but none have the allure and breathtaking beauty of Da Lat.
Based on weather alone, Da Lat is already a top destination in my book. Add to that the beautiful colonial architecture and hilly landscape which create so much extra romance for any travel experience, and you’ve got a top-notch destination, at least for six months of the year.
The areas outside the city of Da Lat are a nature-lover dream, with various parks, waterfalls, and trails, always at the top of the list for those escaping Ho Chi Minh City and all its congestion. Da Lat is among the top flower-producing cities in Vietnam, so when you head out of the city center many greenhouses dot the hillsides, full of gorgeous flowers to be sent to the large metropolitan areas later.
It’s very difficult to label the most picturesque feature of Da Lat, but many would say it’s the sight of Xuan Huong Lake as you come down the hill from outside the city.
The lake exudes all the charm and relaxation that goes with a placid, calm body of water situated right in the center of any city. The lake has several nice cafés, rides and boats for kids and a promenade that covers the circumference.
The surface of Xuan Huong Lake covers about five five square kilometers with the southwest end of the lake featuring a dam which feeds a charming canal that winds through the lower altitudes of the city.
On my first journey to any destination I focus on discovering the city on foot, trying to put my finger on the pulse. In Da Lat, the biggest feature and daytime reference point is the big and bustling City Market. I’ve never seen such a spotless market in Southeast Asia, with hundreds of vendors selling fresh meat, produce, fruit, clothing, and souvenirs.
But the soul of the city is in the side streets, alleys and cobblestone lanes that lead up and down to the different levels of the old city, each lined with shops, restaurants, and small businesses. The atmosphere is completely European, unique little restaurants and cafés line the streets together with little small businesses.
Old city cobblestone staircase
Not only does Da Lat look like Europe, but it feels like it also. The pace is slow although there is some hustle and bustle on the main thoroughfares with more than enough motorcycles zooming around the streets.
There are an extraordinary number of cafés, even for Vietnam, the undisputed coffee shop capital of the world, and a whole lot of sitting around and jawing going along with that slow provincial pace.
Keys and other things made
It surely is a strange twist of fate that sent me to Da Lat.
After all those years when I lived in Europe, coming to Da Lat was like a homecoming, a feeling of “déjà vu.” It’s an exciting feeling yet eerie – you’ve already been somewhere before, but it’s impossible because it’s your first visit. “Déjà vu” comes from French, translating literally to “already seen.”
I always explain that Da Lat could be a city miraculously transplanted from Europe to Vietnam with all French language signs removed and replaced with Vietnamese.
Maybe that’s what happened.
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