Nestled in the central highlands between the popular tourist destinations of Nha Trang and Mui Ne sits the small town of Da Lat. Away from the coast and slightly out of the way, this has long been a popular destination for Vietnamese couples on their honeymoon. Also used as a resort area for the French during their colonization of Vietnam in the 70’s, Da Lat is beginning to get popular with foreigners again and for good reason.
It’s off the beaten track
There are two main hostels in town making this a popular stop for backpackers doing Vietnam top to bottom. This being said, Da Lat seems to have fallen off the tourism train and has a definite “off the beaten track” small town feel. Markets are aimed less at souvenirs and more at food and household items. One day my friend and I wanted a massage and instead of being pointed to a touristy massage parlour, we found ourselves in a very nice family’s house that agreed, “Yes I can give you a massage!” A few times we took a soccer ball to the nearby field and a bunch of locals, from school kids to a security guard, all wanted to join in. English is not commonly spoken and we often had difficulty getting directions, but that’s part of the fun of “off the beaten track” destinations.
You’ll find unbeatable hospitality
I have never experienced better hospitality than at Da Lat Family Hostel. “Mama”, who runs the place, doesn’t speak a word of English, but you are never in any doubt you are welcome. From the moment you walk in the door you are being rushed inside and your bags are taken off of you and tea and snacks are offered. Every night Mama cooks “family dinner” which costs an additional US$2 and is all you can eat of her delicious Vietnamese cooking. If you feel like hanging around the hostel at lunch time she will also try to force feed you lunch. The other girls who work at the hostel are equally as friendly and are happy to book anything for you from day trips to renting motorbikes. When we left at the end of our 5-night stay (twice as long as what we intended) the girls were all hugging us and begging us not to go.
The weather is mild
Even in the “dry and cool” season, Vietnam is still very hot and humid. This is usually fine for those people who are from hot countries because they are used to this type of weather. Being a Canadian who had never been to a tropical country before, I struggled for a while dealing with the weather. Since Da Lat is away from the coast up in the highlands, it has significantly cooler weather. Day time temperatures are lovely in the high twenties. Night time cools off to the point where you will want pants or a sweater but are still quite pleasant. For somebody like me, Da Lat is like heaven away the sauna that is the rest of Vietnam.
It boasts some of the best roads in Vietnam
The stretch of highway winding up towards Da Lat is freshly paved and arguably one of the best in Vietnam. As I am an inexperienced rider, we hired guides to take us on motorbikes from Nha Trang to Da Lat. The ride was smooth, easy going and made the whole experience that much more enjoyable. Add the killer views you get as you wind your way up the mountain and the day on the road to get to Da Lat is almost as good as the time spent in town.
The jungle is on your doorstep
Da Lat is surrounded by lush green jungle and offers outdoor activities for everybody. One of our days in Da Lat we did a day-long canyoning tour. I had never been canyoning but knew this was an opportunity not to be missed out on. The whole day was spent rappelling down waterfalls, jumping off cliffs and sliding down rock “waterslides”. The water is clean and cool (maybe even a bit cold on a cloudy day) and the jungle absolutely beautiful. Even if you feel canyoning is a bit above your physical capabilities (it was hard work!), there are many other opportunities to get out and see nature. A quick drive out of town brings you to the incredible Elephant Falls. If you’re feeling especially adventurous you can climb under and behind the falls.
The architecture is awesomely diverse
With so many buildings left over from the French colonization, Da Lat still has a distinctly European feel. Chateau style buildings can be seen around town mixed amongst the Vietnamese style houses. The main market sits beside a large roundabout circling a beautiful garden and massive European-looking statue. On the other hand, Linh Phuoc temple, also known as Dragon Pagoda, is one of the most impressive Buddhist temples I saw in south-east Asia. Built using recycled glass, pottery and porcelain, the temple is huge yet has such intricate detail. It also features a massive Buddha statue decorated with fresh flowers and beautifully carved wooden Buddhas.
There are unique attractions
The one downside of smaller “off the beaten track” destinations is they sometimes don’t offer enough for people to do. Da Lat seems to be in that sweet spot where there are interesting attractions around, yet the town itself doesn’t have too touristy a vibe. Crazy House, a hotel built by a (crazy) Vietnamese architect offers tours of its bizarre rooms and grounds. Resembling something out of Alice in Wonderland, it a great way to spend an hour or two. The Valley of Love is also a bit of an unusual yet interesting stop. Pony rides, children’s theme park rides and souvenir stalls, all with a kitschy love theme make for an interesting visit. When we went, we paid for a ticket, entered, and found the place pretty much abandoned. It almost had an eerie ghost-town feel. However, a walk around the beautiful lake in the grounds made the trip worth it.
So what are you waiting for?
Whether it’s an escape from the heat, a trip into the jungle, a break from mass tourism, or you’re just looking for something a bit different, Da Lat has something for everybody. You better get going soon, though, a place like this won’t stay hidden for long.