Nestled between pine groves at the southern tip of the Central Highlands and about 345 kilometres from Sài Gòn, Đà Lạt has long been the honeymoon capital of Việt Nam. The town’s most popular spot for wedding photos is the grand Sofitel Palace Hotel, built in colonial times. Renovated after more than thirty years of neglect, it comes complete with vintage car in the driveway, French chansons on the PA and a chintzy dining room called the “Rabalais.” Unaffordable to the average Vietnamese, couples retreat after finishing a few rolls of film to their boisterous wedding receptions in the many local hotels closer to the centre of town.
Đà Lạt, a town 1.500 metres above sea level, started life as a spa for French colonials tired of the oppressive heat and humidity in Sài Gòn and the Mekong Delta. The French created their little piece of Europe in the cooler climes of the Central Highlands, complete with alpine hunting lodges, a golf course and even a replica of the Eiffel Tower. Đà Lạt soon acquired a reputation as the colony’s playground for the rich and idle. There was no doubt helping along by the fact that Việt Nam’s playboy emperor, Bảo Đại, built himself an art-deco villa on the outskirts of town as a base for big-game hunting and relaxation with his favourite concubine.
The French not only modelled the township base on their home country but also introduced European food to the region. The consistent cooler climate in the mountain areas lends itself to the cultivation of European vegetables and Đà Lạt is famous for its market gardens, which start right at the outskirts of the town and stretch to other villages in the Lâm Đồng province. At Đà Lạt’s central Xuân Hương market, there is an abundance of asparagus, avocados, cabbages, artichokes, beetroots, and zucchini available.
The town is also well known for its berries, particularly strawberries and mulberries-and there appear to be more people with bad or missing teeth than anywhere else in the country. The reason for this may just be found in the front section of the market, which is home to stall after stall selling candied berries and sweet strawberry wine. The people of Đà Lạt certainly seem to have a sweet tooth.
After the French left, Vietnamese artists and bohemians moved in. Life in the highlands was not only cheaper but even past its heyday, Đà Lạt was still more beautiful and comfortable than the average Vietnamese country town. While close to Sài Gòn, the place was far enough to avoid the war and the sometimes oppressive politics that followed. During the Việt Nam War, it was not only the alternative scene that took a fancy to Đà Lạt-the sought and North Vietnamese military had an unspoken agreement to spare the town and both used it as a base for some “R and R.”
Cafe Trứng in the city centre is one of the two bohemian icons that remain to this day. It is a time capsule-with brown vinyl benches and low Laminex tables sporting cigarette burns probably dating back to heated discussions over strong highland coffee and local red wine in the early sixties.
The so-called “Crazy House” is the other-a sprawling number of buildings connected by walkways and designed without a right angle in sight. Sticking with the organic, back-to-nature theme, each room is planned around a particular animal-the “Bee Room”, for example, is decorated with irregular yellow and black glass panes. The building was designed by the architect daughter of a former Vietnamese president-very handy when it came to getting a building permit from the local committee. Originally intended to be a guest house and built against the wishes of the more conservative locals, it is now one of the main tourist attractions of Đà Lạt.