Dalat is a City I'd wanted to visit for a long time. It's a place well spoken of amongst Vietnamese people and is seen as the Ultimate Honeymoon Destination for Newlyweds.
The girls in the office where I work made a lot of noise about it when they heard I was taking a trip there.
"Who's he taking?" (They were already feeling sorry for that person). Vietnamese women are not immune to the allure of gossip and word spread like wildfire.
I went with a friend of mine. We weren't going there to get married. But just a mention of the word 'Dalat' symbolizes immediate association with marriage to the Vietnamese people.
So Where is Dalat?
Dalat City is located in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It's a 7 hour bus trip from Saigon City (Ho Chi Minh) and a 5 hour bus trip from Nha Trang.
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) to Dalat and Nha Trang to Dalat are the 2 most popular routes to Dalat.
If you look on the TINY map you'll see that Dalat is just up from Saigon, in the center of Vietnam and to the West or left of Nha Trang.
This is a city that sits atop the mountain ranges or the 'Highlands' of Central Vietnam. Because it's 2000M above sea level the climate is cool and the air clean and crisp.
The average temperature is 17°C, and does not exceed 25°C in the hottest season. In the early mornings there is often a mist hanging over the lake.
I was there during the TET holiday (Vietnam New Year) in late February. It was so cold that people were wearing gloves and there were ice formations on the ground.
I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt without any other warm clothing. I still have the scars where the cold hit me like a truck.
Despite what they say as an average temperature of 17°C, it gets cold at night in the winter months. You'll enjoy your visit so much more if you pack some sweaters for this trip if you're going in the winter months.
The problem is, if you're coming from Saigon there really isn't a winter there or at least one you'd notice. It shocked me to leave 27 degree weather and experience such a change in climate.
Both Colin and I had been working in Saigon for the last six months and we needed a break. Of course we'd be driving up on our 125cc Honda Wave motorcycles. That's the part that made it so enticing.
So, I arranged a week off work with my friend to visit the Highlands of Vietnam.
I was leaving the house to meet Colin when I bashed my head on the stairwell. I took it as an Omen and bought a Biker's helmet.
It was a good idea because we saw more than a few dead bodies on the road along the way. Not to mention our own accident.
Colin bought his own helmet. He'd also had many people tell him we were crazy to make the trip to Dalat on 125cc Scooters during the Vietnamese New Year of TET.
If you decide to travel around Vietnam during the TET Holiday, you will have problems. The sheer mass of people heading upcountry from Saigon or Hanoi is staggering. You'll find hotels around the country fully booked and even if you can get a room it will be 5 times the normal cost.
It took us 2 days to get to Dalat from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) on our Motorbikes. But we stopped along the way in 2 separate, off the map, towns. A bus from Saigon will do the entire trip to Dalat in 7 hours but we wanted to take our time and see as much as we could on the way up.
We wanted to drive down every unique road and see every waterfall and sight on the way to Dalat.
Why the Heck Would You go to Dalat City?
Dalat and Nha Trang are the two places most often spoken about amongst the Vietnamese. Many times I found myself talking about Dalat with Vietnamese people. They described it in ways that ranged from the romantic to the ridiculous but always in a good way.
Some Vietnamese I knew described it as one of the most beautiful places in the world.
I had been in Vietnam for 6 Months and all I had seen were Saigon, Nha Trang and Mui Ne. But I always felt that Dalat was a place to go in Vietnam. I still think that, even though it is nothing like the Vietnamese say.
When Colin and I arrived in Dalat, we realized it wasn't all it's cracked up to be. But we kept on. The city sits in a depression at the top of the mountain. We drove down into the center of town and past Xuan Huong Lake at its center.
There are a lot of Hotels and Guesthouses in the center of town after you've passed Xuan Huong Lake. We were still intoxicated from the drive up to Dalat (Beautiful!) but tired and decided to find a room.
If you look around as you enter the city, you'll see a whole lot of Hotels encircling the roundabout at the city center. Most of theses hotels are nice and expensive. But not as nice as the price dictates.
Some of the rooms are $60USD and $70USD a night and are no better than 2 star rooms.
There is a small road that runs 1 tier up from the main roundabout. It's a small walking road that you can't miss if you walk up the stairs I'm standing on here. It overlooks the center of Dalat and runs in front of some great restaurants and a massage parlor, hair salon and more.
It's in behind this row of shops where I found the best prices on rooms. Most of the Hotels back there are just the rear part of the shop in front. They are decent rooms with a toilet and fan and a T.V.
But Colin and I arrived during the TET holiday and thus were left paying $50USD for a small room that would normally go for $7USD a night.
By now it was 10pm. Outside it was below zero or so it felt with the wind shaming my windbreaker. Colin and I made a fuss about the price of our room but paid it and were under the thick covers on our beds in no time. We could not get out of our beds for hours, just laying there regaining our core warmth.
What if I'm not Going by Motorbike?
It seems that there are 2 most popular methods.
You can get on the B1 North Bound bus from Mien Dong Bus Station. That's near Bien Trieu Bridge or 6km North-East from the city center. Get a taxi there or forget about going this route at all.
The public bus here is about $4USD so it is cheaper that the Mini-Bus but it is a pain to get there and even get your tickets because they issue them only here. You'll have to make the trip twice.
The bus schedule says that the bus departs at 6am and arrives at 5pm. The duration of the trip is listed as 7 hours but the schedule allows for 11 hours. Every aspect of the bus schedule is notoriously unreliable so...'Buses are not leaving on the schedule. They do with enough number of passengers', is the exact wording on the bus flyer-schedule-pamphlet thing.
This is a pretty large, air-conditioned Mini-Bus that is operated by Sinh Cafe. It's $6USD for a ticket one way and you can buy those tickets just about anywhere in Saigon but most commonly at travel agents and Guesthouses around the Pham Ngu Lao area of Ho Chi Minh City.
The Bus leaves at 7:30am but it varies as to what time they'll pick you up at your Guesthouse. The bus drives from Guesthouse to Guesthouse picking up passengers. You won't actually get on the road until about 8am but the duration of the trip remains the same at 7 hours.
It is a beautiful ride even if you are not buck free on the back of a motorbike.
The bus stops along the way at La Nga Lake, Bao Loc Pass, and a tea plantation. So you get a few photo opportunities to eat, take some photographs and have a pee as well.
What To See?
We first went to see the famous Dalatian(?) Cable Car. It becomes famous once you get there. If you stay long enough, you'll hear many people talking about it.
It was where everyone was going. The small cable car travels from the top of a little mountain across to an ajacent mountain and passes over much of the city of Dalat and the outskirts of the City.
The cable car only seats four people. If you are alone or as a couple, make sure the people sharing the car with you are not little children. It is a very beautiful ride that is worth the time but the kids start screaming the moment the Car hits the air. It is not great fun with screaming children no matter how much you like children.
From high above, you'll see farmers tending their fields and water-buffalo pulling their master's hoe through the soil. It is a nice look at life around the city of Dalat.
That took us most the day because Colin was trying to talk to every girl that walked past us.
This little lake is open all the time and there is no admission fee. You can stand on the side of this lake for free. I should feel so blessed. A "Registered" Dalat attraction that's free? Wow.
But you can rent boats and float across the 5km diameter of the lake but I don't see why. Maybe it goes with the romantic theme.
This lake is the main draw of Dalat. I saw lots of couples walking around it together. For me it all seemed a little cheesy as the lake is unimpressive and even its banks are not well suited for strolling.
This is on Phu Duong Thien Vong street about 5km outside of town. Open daily until 5PM. Admission fee under USD1. It's just a little valley with some canyons in it that people hike through. The area is beautiful but to just come and take pictures of the canyon is odd to me. I would have liked to go down and hike but it is still a very nice area nature-wise.
It's now called the valley of love. I'm sure this is to goad in the honeymooners that weren't visiting before. I guess it is romantic but I could never bring a wife here on a honeymoon. Better suited for hiking and maybe mountain biking.
If it isn't able to attract tourists with its beauty, give it a good name and story and then they'll come. this seems to be the motto. The story I got was that a woman whose husband was killed in the war came to drown herself here. Sometimes, at night, you can still hear the sighs of sorrow.
Those honeymooners will lap it up. Everything in Dalat is geared for the honeymooner Vietnam style. Every lake and every canyon somehow tell a story of love.
Anyway, I drove 5km northeast of town on Ho Xuan Huong road to see this lake. Then they charged me $1USD to set my eyes upon it. It was just another lake, one I won't rush back to Asia to see but not terrible.
Water flows into this lake from Voi mountain. It's 5km south of town on highway 20 so its not far but is the largest lake around.
It stretches some 350 hectares so it's impressive in that regard. If you plan on doing some hiking then it can be a good day but if you go with the '1-day-see-all' tour then you won't get long enough here but to take a few photos.
At the foot of Prenn Pass, about 10km outside of town. Open daily until 5PM. Admission fee under USD1. A very common stop on a typical Dalat tour, Prenn Falls is quite beautiful but is a lot more fun when you're hiking it than just taking pictures of it.
Who's Going to Show Me Around?
The best way to see Dalat and the highlands around it is with a good tour company. Easy Riders is well known and provides a service that makes it the only one in town.
The whole idea is to give non-motorcyclists the chance to tour the highlands without any need to drive. You can get a guide to drive you while you sit comfortable on the back.
Motorbikes get access to areas that you'd never normally get a chance to see. From about USD20/person for an 8 hour tour, up to $60USD/day for long distance multi-day trips, often including accommodation.
32 Truong Cong Dinh,
These guys offer extended trips outside Dalat. Hike the highlands, making your way across sketchy bridges, to meet hill tribes that rarely experience foreigners.
Or, canyon the Valley of Love and enjoy the stunned faces of honeymooners as you pass with climbing gear over your shoulder.
Or bike through coffee farms to Bao Dai palace or to the Bamboo forest and enjoy stunning views of Dalat's many lakes and rivers.
1 Phu Dong Thien Vuong Street.
Students from the Hand-in-Hand Club are eager to serve as free guides. I think they are taking the tourism courses at the university and if you contact them, someone will meet you at a prearranged place and they will guide you around to see all the sites.
Of course, you have to pay all the transport costs and food but if you really want someone to show you around they do a good job.
Good Spot for Cheap Rooms and Good Food
I found myself spending a lot of time at the Hoa Binh 1 hotel, also known as Peace Hotel 1. They have a great cafe next door that has some of the best budget food around town. In Fact, I found the food in the whole of the City pretty good.
At night the roundabout in the center of town is full of soup shops and Ice Cream stalls. You'll never have a problem finding good food if you are near the center of the city.
In the Hoa Binh 1/ Peace Hotel 1 the rooms are also cheap. In the off season they were letting rooms out for $7USD (2012) a night. They aren't much but the beds are comfortable and the rooms clean.
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