Da Lat is the capital of Lam Dong Province in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam. The city is a popular tourist destination in Vietnam, famous for its cool climate and mountain scenery. It’s literally and figuratively a cool mountain city. I last visited Da Lat in 2012, so I was well overdue for a revisit.
Da Lat Map
Places mention in this post are listed here.
Introduction to Da Lat
Da Lat is 1,500 metres above sea level, and unprepared visitors to this part of Vietnam are often surprised to find that there is a place in Vietnam that gets cold. I came prepared and brought my hoodie, which usually only gets used for bus rides where the air conditioning is set to chill.
When Da Lat was “discovered” by Europeans, French colonialists turned Da Lat into a mountain retreat to escape the relentless heat of Saigon. Such was their determination to turn this remote location into a sanatorium for tropical ailments, they built a railway to get there. More on that railway later.
The central point of Da Lat is Xuan Huong Lake, which is an artificial lake created by said colonialists.
Near the lake is the central market. Like most cities in Vietnam, the central market is the most logical place to start your city exploration. In front of the market is the Dalat Women Monument. This is dedicated to the women of the resistance in the wars for independence.
One of the landmarks of the city is the Hoa Binh Theatre.
Da Lat trades on its reputation of being an idyllic escape from the humidity of the sea-level tropics. It still gets referred to as “Little Paris”, just as Saigon occasionally still gets called the “Pearl of the east”.
While it’s true that there are still French villas scattered around the surrounding mountains, the modern reality is that it’s a provincial capital with over 400,000 residents, and it has the traffic to go with it.
The main roundabout near the lake and market can be problematic to cross by foot.
Some of the streets at peak hour resemble the worst of Saigon traffic, with motorbikes turning footpaths into auxiliary roads.
Remnants of old Da Lat
There is no coherent old town in Da Lat. Instead, there are just remnants of old Da Lat throughout the city.
What once would have been a row of shophouses, this block has been carved up into individual units, with a solitary section as a reminder of what it used to look like.
Many old buildings are hidden by advertising boards.
No visit to Da Lat is complete without a visit to Hang Nga guesthouse, better known as Crazy House Dalat.
The building complex is conceived by a Vietnamese artist, drawing inspiration from the nature of Da Lat with influences from Gaudi.
The train to Linh Phuoc Pagoda
As part of my mission to ride the railways of Southeast Asia, one of the things I wanted to do in Da Lat was to ride the restored section of the Da Lat-Thap Cham railway.
The train used to run from Thap Cham on the North-South railway to Da Lat. It was built by the French, and as far as I know, it’s the only hill-station railway in Southeast Asia. This railway has long since been out of service, but a small section was restored for use as a tourist train. The service runs to Trai Mat, which is 7km away. I will have a separate post of the Da Lat – Trai Mat Railway.
Even if you aren’t getting the train, it’s worth visiting the station for the architecture alone. It also seems to be a hotspot for photo opportunities, as there were more people here taking photos than got on the train.
I was just going to ride to Trai Mat and back, as I wasn’t expecting to see much at the temple near Trai Mat. At this stage of my travels in Vietnam I can say I am “templed-out”. It turns out that Linh Phuoc Pagoda is now one of my favourite temples in Vietnam.
What makes Linh Phuoc Pagoda so good is the detailed mosaics.
There are beautiful details everywhere.
Many of the mosaic pieces are recycled glass and pottery.
The scales of the dragon are made of beer bottles.
For a split second, I thought this wax figure was a real monk.
Big Buddha in a hall overflowing with details.
I wasn’t ready to leave, but unfortunately, there was only one train operating this day so I had to go back.
Here are the full details of the Da Lat – Trai Mat Railway.
Another reason I wanted to visit Da Lat was for the cafe culture (trains and cafes were an easy selling point for me). One cafe I had marked out was La Viet cafe. I would never have found it by walking around as it’s somewhat out in the suburbs. When you get there though you see why it is so far out because the cafe is in a large warehouse where they also do their roasting.
I had been to a La Viet branch in Saigon, and it was worth the wander through urban Da Lat to get here.
Another cafe I visited was one I found via a video in a local news outlet. One More Cafe is run by an Australian expat, so I had to pay a visit.
Lorelle was in the cafe at the time so I mentioned how I found the cafe, and she was as lovely in real life as in the video.
An Cafe was another good cafe I visited. It is a classically geographically Dalatian, with the property being at a fork in a road on a steep hill.
There is a cafe at the Da Lat railway station, so even if the train isn’t running it’s worth going to see the station.
Near the Opera House by the lake is the Doha Cafe, and an impromptu cafe with little plastic seats outside it.
When I travel to provincial cities in Vietnam I note if there is a Highlands Coffee there yet (a good bellwether for economic prosperity). So far there is only one Highlands, and few other chains have set up here so far.
Overall I thought that the cafe scene here is still developing, and I think in the future there will be loads more third-wave-style cafes.
I wasn’t organised with my food itinerary, so I just ate whatever I happened upon that looked good. I did have breakfast marked out for the famous Banh Mi Xiu Mai.
I had some places marked out from this article, but it turns out you can find it everywhere in the morning. I left my hotel to walk to one of the recommended places only to find a popup stand next to my hotel. I ended going here for three days straight and I didn’t regret it.
Da Lat is also famous for Banh Trang Nuong, colloquially known as Da Lat Pizza.
This “pizza” has a base of rice paper and has various toppings such as a quail egg, pork floss, and dried shrimp. They make for a great snack between meals.
I keep a list of things I would like to try from friends and blogs I read, so when a friend posted a picture of a bowl of Mi Quang, I bookmarked it for my visit. Mi Quang is associated with coastal central Vietnam, so I wasn’t expecting to find this in Da Lat.
The restaurant in question was on the way to the train station, and at night it was overflowing with customers. A good choice.
Another restaurant I visited was Yam – Chiang Mai in Da Lat.
I was drawn in by its tagline, because there are elements of Da Lat that remind me of Chiang Mai. In fact, I wonder if Da Lat will ever reach the international appeal of Chiang Mai. I have penciled-in Hue as a city that could be the next Chiang Mai, but also put Da Lat on that list.
It was a fun restaurant, but I was actually hoping for a bowl of khao soi, which they did not have.
Da Lat has become a strong geographic name for agricultural products. Da Lat Milk is perhaps the most recognisable moo juice brand in Vietnam, to the point where surely not all of the milk could be produced in Da Lat. Fresh produce from Da Lat is also in demand, and to cater to this demand there are farms surrounding the city. On the train ride from Da Lat to Trai Mat is mostly greenhouses.
You get an idea of how intensive farming is in the region when you fly in. The plateau is almost completely given over to agriculture. When you consider that Vietnam has a population of 97 million people and that the country is narrow and mountainous, it is not surprising that every bit of flat space is being utilized for the production of food.
On the weekend the area around the main market becomes a walking street with an open-air market. The big stairs leading down to the market becomes a food court for street food snacks.
Later on in the night, there was barely any room to move on the stairs.
Hong Kong Bridge
A curious phenomenon that has developed here since my last visit is the photo-taking at what has become known as the Hong Kong Bridge. This is the footbridge that connects the back of the market to the hill behind it. It’s become a popular spot for photoshoots, helped by the new Da Lat Center as a backdrop. Of course, Instagram wasn’t what it is today eight years ago, and this moment reminded me of how far Vietnam has come in that time.
While it’s a bit of a stretch to compare it to Hong Kong, I like that this has become a thing. With a bit of creative editing you can make the market below and surrounding buildings kinda sorta look like Hong Kong.
Here is my self-portrait at the Hong Kong Bridge. Am I doing it right?
Da Lat Center and future Da Lat
The Da Lat Center that features in the Hong Kong Bridge photos is the most prominent new addition to the city skyline since my last visit. The complex is connected to the central market at the ground level, and at the top of the hill there are fancy bars and modern shops.
The Colline Hotel is the most modern hotel in Da Lat so far, and its architecture is not overpowering. I looked online to see what the rates were, but it was booked out during the dates I was there.
There are some other controversial redevelopment projects that have been proposed for the city centre, which would involve the demolition of the Hoa Binh Theater.
[Da Lat redevelopment proposal, image via Tuoi Tre News.]
There isn’t a lot of high-rise buildings here yet. The Panorama Sky House looked bigger than it is due to being perched on a hill.
I will do a report on “Future Da Lat” at Future Southeast Asia, so subscribe to that site if you want to see that article in the future.
Other random notes on Da Lat
I was in Da Lat in December, and it was getting cold by then. At least it felt cold according to my tropified bloodstream, which is so used to heat and humidity that a few degrees difference is noticeable. For me, 20c seemed very cold.
While walking around Da Lat I happened upon Khe Sanh Road. In Vietnam there is a road in every city named Dien Bien Phu, so named for the famous battle where the Viet Minh forces defeated the French. This is the first time I’ve seen a road named after the Battle of Khe Sanh (and not the Cold Chisel song).
I had three nights in Da Lat, which really wasn’t enough time. There are so many little things to do in the surrounding hills, that you need to come prepared with a game plan.
One thing I would have liked to do was walk around Xuan Huong Lake. It’s 7km around the lake, so it’s not going to take up too much time. One of the things to see by the lake is the Da Lat Opera House.
Getting to Da Lat
Da Lat is about 300 km from Saigon, and there are regular buses throughout the day. Most of the buses now though are sleeper-style, which I personally don’t like (uncomfortable for tall people). Another option is to get a limo van, which is faster and more comfortable.
Search for bus transport to Da Lat.
I got the bus last time I visited (when buses had normal seats), so this time I got a flight. I felt like I was cheating by travelling such a short distance by air. We had barely reached cruising altitude before starting our descent.
The airport is about 30km from the city centre, and there are shuttle buses from the airport to Da Lat.
There are flights from major cities in Vietnam. Another itinerary option if you are starting in Saigon is to go to the Mekong Delta first, and then fly from Can Tho. That way you will avoid the hassle of double-tracking back into Saigon.
Before the pandemic, Da Lat Airport was beginning up to international flights, with flights to Bangkok with VietJet Air. I wonder how more international it will become, post-pandemic.
Continuing from Da Lat, the most common route is to go to Nha Trang.
The closest city on the coast is Phan Rang-Thap Cham (where the old Da Lat railway branched from the North-South line). Hien An runs a bus service here throughout the day and it takes 3 hours. They can also drop you off at the train station if you ask. Their depot in Da Lat is in the suburbs and not at the main bus station (search for Nha Xe Hien An).
There is no longer a railway to Da Lat, but there have been plans announced over the years to restore the Da Lat – Thap Cham railway.
I took the bus to Phan Rang, which was my next destination. Here is my trip report for Phan Rang-Thap Cham.