Dalat – A French Hamlet in Vietnam

So you’ve reached bustling Saigon and feel like you’ve explored it to the hilt, did you know that a quick 50-minute flight away lies a whole other world altogether? This is a world where fresh produce, flowers, mountains and pine forests come together in a seamless symphony. Here lakes weave through streets and the skyline is dotted with colonial homes and ancient churches. Welcome to Dalat.

During the French occupation of Vietnam, Dalat was zeroed in as the location the French folk would go to escape the drudgery and sheer exhaustion that comes with colonization. They left their mark by building French colonial villas and planting pine trees, and even today, as you step out on to Dalat soil you’ll be reminded of Europe.

The Vietnamese government decided to leave the hundreds (if not thousands) of colonial villas intact and have now leased them out individually to budding entrepreneurs. One such property is Ana Mandara Villa Resort and Spa, essentially a cluster of beautiful old French villas now converted into a Villa and Spa complex. The villas are rather grand and each one contains a spacious suite with a massive bathroom attached bathrooms that come complete with standalone baths and views of pine trees. It gets quite chilly in Dalat so the rooms are equipped with an electric heater as well as a fireplace, which the staff is happy to get going for you.

Because of the sheer size of the villas, some areas of the property have a slightly worn outlook, but it’s more of a well-worn look as opposed to one of neglect. In any case, the attention to detail and the fantastic service of the property makes up for everything else. Even if you choose not to stay at Ana Mandara, I’d highly recommend giving their extremely affordable Fine Dining restaurant a visit. Le Petit Dalat Restaurant is the epitome of the organic philosophy that most of Dalat embodies. Usually, I am one to steer away from a dessert that resembles a rainbow in its colour scheme but as an, I scooped up a bite of my light green Pandan Crème Brule served with a purple Mulberry Sorbet in Passion Fruit and a side of red Strawberry coulis, my trepidation proved to be baseless. If you happen to be staying at the villas, you’ll also be treated to a phenomenal breakfast with mostly locally sourced ingredients.

It might be worth reminding yourself that there’s a lot to explore in Dalat lest you fill up on those fresh croissants and can’t move out of your seat. If you can’t, then head to their award-winning Spa. For the quality of therapists and the Spa itself, the prices at the Spa are highly affordable. They usually offer a discount voucher or deal of some sort so ask if they have one on while checking in. While Ana Mandara offers tours and some of them in charming vintage cars, I am of the opinion that Dalat is best explored on your own be it on a scooter or a hired car for the day so that you can sync your rhythm to Dalat’s eclectic beat.

Dalat is an adventurers paradise and surrounding the town are several waterfalls, mountains, lakes and rivers. You have the option of going kayaking, hiking, biking, and even canyoning, a sport where you rappel down the face of the waterfall. The town centre is best explored on foot and lots of local tour operators offer some great tours around the area.  Walking around the centre you can shop around until you find one that meets your requirements. A reliable operator known for their commitment to safety is Phat Tire Ventures. Walking around the town centre encourages you to indulge in fresh strawberries, apricots and to literally, stop and smell the roses. There are even a couple of flower gardens in and around the city and they are ladled with all the Vietnamese kitsch you’d ever need.  The town is also home to the notoriously famous Crazy House, a Gaudi-esque house designed by Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga.  Despite occasional clampdowns on her creativity this house which also works as a hotel continues to grow and expand. The rooms are as crazy as the property itself with themes like gourd, kangaroo, ants, giraffe and the like. If you’re a fan of kooky architecture, I’d definitely recommend paying the Crazy House a visit.

There is a bustling night market with vendors selling everything from knitted minion keyrings to chicken feet salad to everything in between. Take your pick, wander around and perhaps pick up a few bottles of jam and Passion fruit concentrate. A restaurant in the centre that I’d highly recommend is Goc Ha Thanh run by a lovely couple from Hanoi. Their focus here is not only on creating extremely flavourful dishes but to also present the food in the quaintest ways possible. Think handwoven Vietnamese baskets, ceramic pots, clay pots et all.

Should the centre feel too busy and you’d like to find the Dalat that the French sought, head to Binh An Village, the new property on the block about 6 kilometres away from the city centre. They have shuttles going into the city and back three times a day which makes things very convenient if you don’t have your own transport. The property is new and therefore the service has quite reached professional standards yet. The people are lovely though so as long as you’re okay rolling down some very tricky blinds all by yourself every night, I would recommend Binh An Village. Sitting at the edge of Tuyen Lam Lake with a little deck that goes out on to the water, this property is the colonial charm and natural calm combined.

Once again this is a property with a high focus on eating organic and they even grow most of their produce on the property. As someone who grew up in a highly self-sustaining natural environment Binh An gets extra points for that from me. They also hire out kayaks and mountain bikes. Sadly as someone who barely makes it to 5 ft, the bikes were too big for me and the staff didn’t seem to have an alternative. Another hint of some minor issues that need to be ironed out as the property gets a solid footing. The sunset hours I spent on the wooden deck of the property overlooking the lake are some of my finest memories of all of Vietnam so I can assure you Binh An Village will definitely leave an impression. I foresee this place soon becoming the go-to getaway in Dalat.

Dalat is full of charming discoveries both big and small and as you walk around, amidst the pine trees, the lakes and buy yourself a bag full of fresh fruit you are going to fall in love with Dalat. That’s guaranteed.

Contacts:

Ana Mandara Villa Resort & Spa:

Address: Lê Lai, Phường 5, tp. Đà Lạt, Lâm Đồng, Vietnam

Website: www.anamandara-resort.com

Binh An Village:

Address: Tuyen Lam Lake, Ward 4, Dalat City, Lam Dong, Vietnam

Website: www.binhanvillage.com

Note: I was lucky enough to be a guest at Ana Mandara Villa Resort & Spa and Binh Anh Village but being the opinionated lady that I am, all views expressed here are entirely my own.

And another note for Indian Travellers: We can apply for an e-visa. You need to go via a local agent who will email your sponsor letter across to you. Might sound a bit dubious but is perfectly legitimate and easy. I used Visa4Vietnam and had a quick, easy and hassle-free experience. Highly recommend them (they’ve even got a testimonial from me on their website!)