I’m back in Brooklyn, but thought I’d post some raw excerpts as I start writing up the various sections for the rest of my online guide…
DALAT: HILL TOWN OF THE SOUTH
Only a century old, Dalat has long been the place – for French colonials at odds in the tropics, Vietnam’s last king looking for hunting grounds, communist-era locals on honeymoon – to go to get away from the Vietnam day-to-day. In the last 15 years or so, guidebooks have put Dalat at par with other itinerary staples as Nha Trang and Hoi An, but not all visitors are equally swayed by its gentle green mountains, brisk temperatures and quirky take on what tourism means. Nightlife is limited, and the dining situation not that much more advanced. But I like it. Here, more so than anywhere, you can relive the colonial age in a superb French-villa resort or palace hotel (for varying costs), take some rewarding DIY motorbike drives in the hills, and sample some of the sillier products of Vietnam tourism, like bunny statues and ‘cowboy rides’ and dream-like tree/cave hotels with red-eyed kangaroos you can tour. It’s a place that – at first glimpse – feels a bit like a new country. I think it’s the clothes. Men wear berets and suits all day Sunday, and women are in full outfits rather than the lightweight pajamas in hotter parts of the country. A local French expat said, ‘It’s more formal here, probably because of the French influence.’ Few visitors stay more than a couple days, but it makes a good alternate route between Nha Trang and Saigon.
BEST HOTEL – EVASON ANA MANDARA VILLAS DALAT
Tel 063-555-888; Le Lai St; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.sixsenses.com; rooms from US$155
One of Vietnam’s best deals for luxury and quiet, the dreamy ten-villa, 57-room resort – soon expanding to 17 – is a thoughtful modern make-over of 1920s French villas on a hill-side location a couple kilometers west of Dalat center. Guests reach their villas on cobbled sidewalks through the forest. Part of the Evason/Six Seasons chain, each villa here holds onto its original (sometimes quirky) design. I enjoyed Villa 13, with views to the north, a great common area (with Wifi access), ‘rustic’ untreated wood floors, balconies looking to the northern valley of Dalat, TV with DVD player, an electronic click-on furnace for chilly nights, huge beds, and a claw-foot tub in the bathroom. Breakfast’s included in Nine, probably Dalat’s best restaurant – it’s ideal on the deck in morning. Nearby is a heated pool and a spa. The hotel arranges Dalat tours in vintage French cars, or – interestingly – very authentic walking tours of ‘street food’ spots around Dalat, including Chinese wonton soup, Dalat’s version of banh beo, and heated che pudding desserts – well worth signing up for. Similar conditions elsewhere – like Six Senses’ Hideaway Resort off Nha Trang go for much more. By all means try to stay a couple nights here.
BEST ATTRACTION: DIY MOTORBIKING TO ELEPHANT FALLS
Everyone goes — meaning heaps of Vietnamese tourists on tour buses — to nearby falls that are over commericalized and littered. I preferred spending half a day leading myself on a US$4 rented motorbike to Elephant Falls (Thac Voi; about 30km west), a dramatic falls in Nam Ha village, where you can walk down into the spray for vantage points from slick rocks. It’s more removed from the kitschy falls near Dalat – like Datanla – so there’s generally fewer visitors, plus the ride there’s fun.
To get there, drive out of the center west along 3 Thang 2 Street, taking a right at the roundabout at Hoang Van Thu St toward Cam Ly Falls. Shortly after you pass the falls (on your right) the road forks – go right towards Suoi Vang villlage (signed; not towards the Heroes Cemetery), 3-1/2km north. At Suoi Vang, the road forks again; go left 10-1/2km to Ta Nung village, where you turn right 13km to the village Nam Ha. The silkworm factory is to the left before you get to an unsigned turn to the right to the falls. If you pass the iron-grate bridge, you’ve gone a bit too far.
The falls are open 7.30am to 4.30pm. It’s about US$0.45 to enter, and there’s a large jolly Buddha to see at the adjoining Linh An Tu pagoda. Steps head down to the right of the falls, some carved from slippery rocks – go slow. A bit after the second bridge, the path forks – go left for a close-up vantage point of the main fall; go right to reach the foggy-from-the-spray base below.
BIKING TO NHA TRANG
The best way to move on from Dalat is on a bike in the backroads downhill. Talk with PHAT TIRE VENTURES (tel 063-829-422; 73 Truong Cong Dinh St; www.phattireventures.com, email@example.com) about their US$68 daytrip heading one-way to the coast.