The first time I read about Da Lat was in Patricia Schultz’s book, “1000 Places to See Before You Die”. Growing up (traveling wise), it was my travel bible, and I used to tick off the places I went to, and dreamt about visiting everything else in her book. I remember hoping to make trips to many places in the book someday (Da Lat included), so during my visit to the beach town of Nha Trang (you can read about it here) — I made it a point to head to this Vietnamese mountain retreat.
Da Lat, Vietnam
Da Lat is located in the southern part of Vietnam‘s central highlands region, on a plateau 1,500m above sea level. Because of that, the town has a lovely spring like weather instead of the Southeast Asian humid heat — and is a popular holiday resort getaway, even back then during the French colonial times. The French left behind lots of French colonial villas in the city, and the area is surrounded by tea plantations, flower gardens, and fruit and vegetable farmlands. Locals frequent this ‘honeymoon’ destination for quick weekend getaways — and during my trip to the city, I noticed more local visitors than foreign ones. The main draw is definitely the sweater weather, sometimes going as low as 10°C.
Tour to Da Lat — Vietnam Typical Tours
After my solo travels in Nha Trang, I was joined by my mother and her friends for this league of my journey in central Vietnam. With 6 ladies in tow, I decided to book a tour that would take us on a 2 days 1 night trip from Nha Trang to Da Lat, and back again. After a quick search online, we decided to go with Vietnam Typical Tours. The tour cost US$108 per person, and we had to pay a 50% deposit to book the tour (with clear instructions and easy online payment). 2 days before the tour, we were assigned our tour guide (Mr. Liam) and given our tour voucher with pick-up instructions. All communication was via email and the entire process was smooth and easy. Most importantly, everyone had a good time — everything was as per the itinerary and we were always accompanied by Liam, who is a very entertaining guide and being from Da Lat, knew the town very well.
We were picked up at our hotel in Nha Trang at about 8.30am in the morning. Our guide, Liam, was already in the lobby waiting for us when we got down (he helped us with check-out too) — and after a brief introduction, ushered us into the 9-seater van and whisked us off to Da Lat. Our journey from Nha Trang to Da Lat took almost 3 and a half hours. Half way along the journey, we had a quick pit stop by a pretty scenic rest area that faces a river.
Lunch at Nhat Ly Restaurant
We arrived in Da Lat just in time for lunch. We were dropped off at a restaurant called Nhat Ly, that was filled with other fellow tourists on tours. Walking in, I noticed that most of the tables had almost the same kind of dishes — sweet and sour pork, fried pork knuckle, curry chicken, fried spring rolls, stir fried vegetables, salad and artichokes among others. To be honest, I’m not one for tour restaurants. But the food was actually pretty good, and there was such a crazy variety of dishes that I really had nothing to complain about.
After lunch, it was time to visit our first Da Lat destination — Prenn Waterfalls. It started drizzling when we got there, but thankfully it was only for a little while. Entrance to the falls cost VND40k (~US$2) per person, but of course it was already covered in our tour. Situated about 10km from the city center of Da Lat, the Prenn Waterfalls area is usually frequently by Vietnamese tourists. Other than the falls, the 160 hectares of land is mainly covered by a pine forest and trees; and offer many other activities like a cable car, a suspension bridge, boat rowing, music performances, as well as elephant and ostrich rides. We were there mainly to see the Prenn Waterfalls itself — and at a height of 9 meters and a width of 20 meters, I wouldn’t say the falls are very impressive. However, visitors get to walk behind the thundering waters through a curved pathway beneath its basalt rock cliff — now that, was pretty exciting.
Truc Lam Temple
After exploring a little bit more around the Prenn Waterfalls area, we got back to the van to get to our second destination of the day, the Truc Lam Temple. Located on top of a hill just outside the center of Da Lat, there is a cable car ride with picturesque views to get to the temple; but we went by the winding road up the hill. The main hall and the garden area of Truc Lam Temple is open to the public, but there is also a closed-off domestic area where the nuns and monks live. Our tour guide Liam told us that his mum was currently practicing meditation and living in the temple. The main ceremonial hall in the public area is elegant and beautiful, with a statue of Buddha in its center. It is surrounded by a garden of the most gorgeous flowers — I don’t know much about the names of flowers, but they came in a myriad of red, pink, yellow and orange colors. We were also introduced to a blue flower called the Vietnamese Tiger Claw — said to be only found in Da Lat.
Bao Dai Summer Palace
It started raining again when we got to the Bao Dai Summer Palace — so we didn’t really get to explore the grounds of the palace. Constructed between 1933 to 1937, the palace was built for the last king of Vietnam, King Bao Dai and the royal family to escape the summer heat. The palace has an art deco architecture, and has a total of 25 rooms spread across its 2 floors. As we walked through the entrance of the palace, we were given shoe covers so as to not stain or spoil the palace’s flooring. We were first brought into the king’s office on the first floor, which also includes the reception area, the entertainment room, the library, and the large dining room. The second floor is where the royal family lives — we walked through the king and queen’s bedrooms and its huge balcony, the children’s rooms (which were in red for the girls, blue for the boys, and yellow for the crown prince), their play area and dining rooms, as well as the queen’s private room. It was interesting to see the old artifacts and photos of the royal family, and to admire the interior decor of the mid-20th century.
Du Lys Hotel
It was evening when we finally arrived at the Da Lat city center to check into our hotel for the night. The 3-star Du Lys Hotel is built in a Neoclassical French architecture facade — and the interior completed the style with dome doors, grilled balconies and high ceilings. There were 7 of us altogether, and we were placed in two rooms that had 4 single beds in each room. Overall, the hotel was pretty comfortable, and had views of Da Lat city from the balcony. However, being right in the center of town — we were awaken in the morning with traffic noises and loud honking, but I guess the advantage of being within walking distance to the Da Lat Night Market made up for it (just a little).
Hotpot Dinner at Ken Quan
After settling down and freshening up at the hotel, we headed out for dinner. Our tour guide Liam brought us to a hot pot restaurant just down the road from the hotel — Ken Quan. The restaurant has a pretty fascinating interior with rope hanging down its ceiling, and a mixture of tree barks and porcelain tiles on its walls. Our hotpot meal was actually quite good — it came with a pot of chicken soup with mushrooms; and we had beef, fish, prawns and squid to fill it up. And of course, I washed it down with a bottle of Saigon Special beer.
Da Lat Night Market
After dinner, Liam left us to explore the nearby Da Lat Night Market on our own time. It was about a 5-minute walk away to where all the people were gathered — I have to say the Da Lat Night Market is probably one of the biggest (and most crowded) night markets I have ever seen. The main area of the market is located in a circular space with a monument in the center, and then sprawls out into the many streets away from the circle. The entire market is pedestrianized, and is surrounded by restaurants, stores and hotels. It is also divided into different sections. Walking into the many streets I found sections dedicated to fresh foods (fruits and vegetables), and then another part that sold souvenirs and clothing, and then one that had all the stalls with second-hand goods, and of course… a whole street with food stalls. We ended up just walking about the night market quite aimlessly — I bought some local snacks to munch on, a glass of avocado juice, and ended up getting lots of local products like tea and snacks to bring home.
We explored the Da Lat Night Market for almost 2 hours, and then made our way back to the hotel for the night.
We began our day in Da Lat bright and early on our second day, partially thanks to the loud traffic noises coming in from our window. Our stay in Hotel Du Lys came with a buffet breakfast, but I wanted to try the banh mi (Vietnamese baguette) at a popular local bakery that Liam told us about the day before. It is located just a 5-minute walk from the hotel, so while everyone else was having hotel breakfast, I made my way over to get me some banh mi.
Banh Mi at Lien Hoa Bakery
Lien Hoa has been a local Da Lat institution since opening its doors in 1987. A bakery on the ground floor and a restaurant on the 1st floor — it is popular with the locals, as well as foreign visitors. The bakery was already buzzing when I got there in the morning, with the smell of freshly baked bread just filling the air. It sells all sorts of baked goods from cakes to croissants; but I was there for the banh mi. There is a counter specially dedicated to making the sandwich — and I order the banh mi cha (Lienhoa’s combination sandwich) with all the meat that was available, for VND15k (~US$0.6). Considering its popularity, it isn’t the best banh mi I’ve tasted in Vietnam, but it was still pretty good. The restaurant is popular for the bo kho (beef stew), but I didn’t have time to pop in for a taste.
Da Lat Flower Garden
I got back to hotel just in time to check-out and to leave for our first stop of the day, the Da Lat Flower Garden. I would say we arrived at the gardens rather early — but judging from the amount of tour buses and groups that were already there ahead of us, this place has got to be the most popular attraction in the city. The Da Lat Flower Garden was founded in 1966, and is said to have more than 300 different kinds of flowers within the 7000m² park. Walking around the gardens, we were greeted with a myriad of colors from all the many flowers — from orchids, roses and hydrangeas, to fields of cactus and trees and trimmed bushes. While I was pretty impressed with the variety of flowers in the garden, I wasn’t too thrilled with the gordy-looking topiary displays and kooky sculptures dotted around the area. Maybe if they were a little more well-designed, the garden would look much neater and more elegant. That being said, we still had a lovely walkabout the garden, especially in the cool Da Lat weather.
Xuan Hong Lake and the Giant Artichoke Monument
After visiting the garden, we were ushered onto a horse carriage ride around Xuan Hong Lake. I was absolutely appalled with the horse ride (it was included in the tour itinerary, and I really should have known better and opted out) — the horses looked old and tired and it broke my heart, so I will not write about it any further. Let’s talk about the lake instead. The artificial Xuan Hong Lake is located in the center of Da Lat city and is in a crescent moon shape. It is a popular local hangout spot, right next to the Da Lat Flower Garden on one end, and the Giant Artichoke Monument on the other. I requested for a quick stop at the monument (and the lake) for some photos, and Liam obliged. Located on Lam Vien Square, the Giant Artichoke Monument is a symbol of the city and represents Da Lat’s most famous produce. Beside it is a Giant Sunflower Monument.
From Da Lat city center, it was a 10-minute ride to one of the most bizarre attractions in Da Lat — maybe even the world! The Hang Nha Guesthouse is lovingly given the nickname Crazy House because of its super unusual building design. It is so weird that the guesthouse is open to the public (since 1990) during the day — to visit, to explore, and to gawk at. If you’ve read Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Faraway Tree as a child, this is probably how it could look like. Designed by Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga, the overall design of Crazy House is made to resemble a tree, incorporating elements like hidden caves, peculiar looking animals, dripping icicles, and vines that curl all around the buildings and up the rooftops. There is also a newly constructed 5-floor Banyan Tree, and an underwater-themed building in the works. The public is free to wander the grounds, peek into the non-occupied themed guest rooms, and even climb up the steps winding around the rooftops. The guesthouse is so wonderfully peculiar that it made such a fun, artsy, fairytale-like visit.
Cao Dat Tea Farm
I could have stayed longer at the Crazy House if we weren’t rushed for time. So after exploring for about an hour or so, we were back in the van and ready to make our way back to Nha Trang. We took a different route from our journey to Da Lat the day before — and after an hour’s drive, arrived at the Cao Dat Tea Farm. Established in 1927, the 200 hectares tea plantation produces high quality black tea and oolong tea, with green tea being its specialty. On our visit to the tea farm, we were allowed to roam around the numbered paths, and walk in between the tea plants for some pictures. The rolling landscape of green was really pleasing to the eyes, and best seen from a viewing point at the end of the numbered path atop a hill.
Lunch at Random Restaurant in Cao Dat
It was a little after noon when we arrived at Cao Dat, and we were famished. After the visit to Cao Dat Tea Farm, we decided to stop for lunch at a random restaurant in the small town center. It was actually the only one open that day (we found out from the restaurant owner that many people in town closed their shops to attend a local wedding — that’s how tiny the place is)! We had to settle with whatever the restaurant served, which was steamed chicken and stir-fried vegetables with either porridge or rice. It was actually a good, solid local meal, and we were satisfied. It’s a pity I can’t remember the restaurant name — everything was written in Vietnamese.
Coffee Stop at Hammock Cafe
Along the journey, we passed through mountain areas and small villages. I admit that I slept most of the way, but I would sometimes wake up to peek out the window to admire the views. About another hour into the journey, the ladies decided that they’d like to make a pit stop to stretch their legs and drink some coffee. Liam found a small roadside cafe that had hammocks hung all over the place — and locals can be seen just lying around or sleeping, with their coffee on a small table next to their hammocks. It was quite a sight to see, but we just sat down on the small stools and enjoyed our Vietnamese drip coffee the traditional way. The place didn’t have a name, so I just called it the Hammock Cafe.
Po Klong Garai Towers in Phan Rang
Our next stop on the journey was at the Po Klong Garai Towers — about midway between Da Lat and Nha Trang. From the car park, it was quite a walk thorough a long walkway to get to the towers on top of a granite hill. The site has a couple of old Cham ruins, and even though they were absolutely breathtaking with beautiful views of the surrounding area (and the place was devoid of people too) — it was hard to truly appreciate it without any knowledge of the history surrounding the towers. Our guide, Liam didn’t follow us up to the towers, and there were no signage around. So all I could do was admire the carvings on the walls, the Cham inscriptions on doorways, the Hindu God sculptures and the structures as a whole — and then read about it later. It was only then that I found out that these Cham ruins was built in the 13th century, in honor of King Po Klong Garai, who ruled the area from 1151 to 1205. According to some legends, it might even have been built a century earlier.
After imagining being Lara Croft and discovering a set of hidden ancient Cham ruins — it was time to head back straight to Nha Trang. After another 2 hours, we arrived back in the city at about 5pm, just in time for some freshening up at our hotel before dinner. All in all, we had a enjoyable trip into the cooling hills of Da Lat with Vietnam Typical Tours; and I got to add yet another tick in my “1000 Places to See Before You Die” book.