Posted by: Richard Marshall | January 18, 2010


View of Dalat

After four months in the chaos and dirt of Ho Chi Minh City I’ve finally taken a vacation. I decided to head up to Dalat in the Central Highlands.  The landscape towards Dalat was surprisingly reminiscent of Africa. This was partly a result of the crowded, dirty road out of HCMC lined with endless shabby villages, but even more striking was the colours of the countryside. I’d always imagined that all of Vietnam was hot, steamy and green, but this is the dry season and the country is all browns and reds – dry grass along the road side and red earth in the unsown fields. As we approached the highlands themselves the country became more forested, though the foothills have been severely logged. The road wound up a steep pass which was quite inaccessible so there is some remaining forest there. Dalat itself is surrounded by huge pine forests. I haven’t quite been able to figure out whether the pines are indigenous or introduced, though I’m pretty sure the French are responsible. It’s quite hard to find old photos of the town, but the few I have seen show the nearby peaks to be grassland, which I guess has now been invaded by pines. It’s possible that the previous inhabitants deforested the place but they did a hell of a job if that’s the case. There is still some remaining indigenous forest in some of the valleys so the place is very similar to Nyanga or parts of the Amatolas – grass and pines on the higher ground and forest along the streams.

The town itself, like so much of Vietnam, is absolutely booming. Most of the hotels seem to be new and there are many being built. Some of the hoardings around building sites suggest that there are even plans to build a fancy mall with glass and steel high rises. That would be a real shame since despite the development Dalat still retains a lot of the charm of a peaceful mountain escape. The streets are relatively quiet, the scent of pines is strong enough to mask the motorcycle fumes and the air is cool and refreshing. There are also still many French buildings left. The heyday of the town seems to have been the 1920s and 30s and many of the buildings – the railway station, the cathedral and some of the large hotels – have a distinct feeling of dressing for dinner and puffing away through cigarette holders. For the Vietnamese, the town is the ultimate romantic destination, so the place is full of cosy little hotels, horse carriages covered with flowers, gigantic topiary hearts, swan-shaped pedalos on the lake…

Train Station


The night I arrived I went down to a restaurant right next Ho Xuan Huong lake and savoured a beer while shivering in the cold wind off the water. The next day I headed up to the Dalat flower garden, which is really very attractive despite the inevitable kitsch topiary, statues, fibreglass dustbins shaped like animals etc that the Vietnamese are so fond of. After that, I took a look at the railway station and then decided to rent a motorbike and try and find a certain waterfall. In the end I took a wrong turn and landed up at some lakes but the sheer pleasure of riding a motorbike on a quiet country road under the pines, stopping every now and again to admire the view and enjoy the silence, made the destination irrelevant. I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to drive for recreation.

Flower Garden

The Bike

On Tuesday I went on a mountain bike trip, which was a lot of fun though it certainly showed me how unfit I’ve become living in HCMC. In the afternoon I visited the “crazy house”, which is a really wierd house/ hotel being erected by a Russian-trained Vietnamese architect. The place is supposedly reminiscent of Gaudi (if I ever get to Barcelona I’ll let you know) and full of narrow winding staircases and pokey rooms themed around animals such as bears or kangaroos. I tried to imagine the place lit up at night and being like some kind of magical fairy tale, but I’m pretty sure that sleeping there would leave me tense and paranoid. Nearby is Bao Dai’s summer palace. I’ve always felt bad for Bao Dai. Although he became a corrupt, dissipated fellow the French set him up for a pretty impossible task as the last puppet emperor of Vietnam. His palace confirmed this impression. It’s little more than a villa, build in the style of Highlands junior school in Harare and full of shabby, dowdy fifties furniture – the interior is how I image a hotel in Gwelo or Umtali  might have looked in 1950.

Crazy House

Bao Dai’s Summer Palace

For the next two days I went hiking, which I found physically much less demanding and went through some really beautiful country. The second day took us through some indigenous forest and I managed to do some good birding. The company was pleasant too – the guides were friendly and Lydia and Irene from Singapore were a lot of fun. The campsite was freezing but comfortable, and I saw the stars for what must be the first time in Vietnam. It was really reassuring to find so much countryside so close to HCMC – I had always imagined that all of Asia must be teeming, but there are obviously a few open spaces left.

Tuyen Lam Lake

On the final day I visited the Lam Dong museum which had little of interest but was housed in a beautiful French mansion. Afterwards I went the one crossroad which still feels really French. I sat on the terrace of the Cafe de la poste and drank an espresso, looking out on the Hotel du parc, the cathedral, and the Eiffel Tower-shaped radio mast that the French for some reason erected in the middle of Indochina. I just wished I smoked and hadn’t shaved that morning to complete my notion of Gallic comfort (excuse the stereotype, of course!). After that I took the cable car to Tuyen Truc pagoda next to Tuyen Lam lake. The cable car is three kilometres long and though I was reassured by the signs saying “Doppelmayr Technologies, Wolfsdorf, Austria” being suspended in a small box above the pines in Vietnam was slightly nervy. The pagoda was new and dull as most pagodas seem to be in this country. In the arfternoon I went to the Cafe Tung, which the trusty Lonely Planet claims to have been a hangout for Saigonese intellectuals in the 1950s. It’s been deliberately kept that way, and the dim lighting and leather chairs actually made for a very cogenial little cafe. The idea of Vietnamese intellectuals seemed slightly fantastic to me, but sure enough there were leather jackets, trenchcoats, wild hair and nerdy glasses all in evidence.


Cafe de la poste

I spent long enough in Dalat to be happy to return home. The bus trip back was a bit of a nightmare – Vietnamese comedy gags on the TV screen, some idiotic pom playing his ipod too loud in the seat behind me, the bus driver talking on his cell phone while overtaking on moutain roads, stopping in horrible provincial bus stops and on the side of the road to pick up yokels who couldn’t decide whether they were coming or going – but after 304km and eight hours I was back safe and sound.


  1. Hi Richard

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading about your travels!

    Hope work is alright and you have recovered from the burglary!


    Uncle Craig

  2. Sounds awesome!

  3. hey Rich, sounds like an awesome vacation! i guess you are back in the swing of work again. when’s the next vac? coming to visit us?
    miss you! xoxox

  4. Hey Rich, looks blimmin interesting. and i am jealous of your bike. maybe rephrase that – jealous of you having one (i don’t have sneaking desire to be sat on by you. or for that matter ridden). Whats all that about being burgled? I had 3 chickens rustled by stock thieves the other day!

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