With the romance of its cool highland setting and the growing allure of its great outdoors, Dalat—Vietnam’s City of Eternal Spring—is as appealing today as it was a century ago, when French colonials first came here to escape the heat of Saigon. Perhaps even more so, for it now offers a slew of fresh diversions, from canyoning and caviar to teeing off at the region’s newest golf course.
By Sanjay Surana
Photographs by Liem Tran Quang
Jump, jump, jump, barked a Vietnamese guide at his group of bearded German backpackers, urging them to rappel down an incline on the slopes of an otherwise tranquil pine forest. It was a practice run for the real thing to come a few minutes later, when they would attempt to abseil down a sheer rock face. The Europeans seemed a little nonplussed—it was 8:30 in the morning, after all—but at least they were game, bunny-hopping backward down the slope even as they wiped the sleep from their eyes.
My group was practicing a little farther downhill and our guides, thankfully, were more restrained. Seven of us, mostly strangers from different corners of the globe, had signed up with local operator Phat Tire Ventures for this five-hour canyoning excursion in the hills outside Dalat, where we would pick our way down drop-offs and waterfalls, leap off cliffs, and chute down natural waterslides, all in the name of thrill-seeking adventure.
Canyoning is just one of the activities that Phat Tire—and some of the town’s less established operators—offers, making Dalat a prime destination for visitors in search of a buzz greater than that delivered by a morning cup of ca phe. Situated 1,500 meters above sea level on a mountain-ringed plateau in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and blessed with eternal spring weather, Dalat seems almost tailor-made for outdoorsy types, be they mountain bikers or trekkers, white-water rafters or rock climbers. The salubrious conditions I encountered in April—cool and sunny, as it tends to be year-round—were unlike any I’ve experienced in Southeast Asia, even in the upper reaches of Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. It was the kind of weather that made me, a resident of sticky Singapore, ecstatic enough to actually jump off a cliff—and into a river 10 meters below.
Dalat’s climate is, in fact, its raison d’être, historically speaking. Though a scattering of mountain people inhabited the plateau for centuries before the French showed up, the town itself was only established after a colonial physician named Alexandre Yersin identified it in 1893 as an ideal spot for a health resort. Dalat was officially founded in the early 20th century as a refuge where French colons from Saigon could cool off, recharge, and rehabilitate—a Gallic version of the hill stations of British India, complete with gracious villas, an Art Deco train station, a swish hotel (the 1922-built Lang Bian, now the Dalat Palace), and three summer palaces belonging to Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai, who also preferred Dalat’s cool climes to the heat of the imperial seat in Hue. Today, almost a million Vietnamese tourists are drawn here annually by that same weather, as well as by the town’s European architecture, fragrant pine forests, and more playful—some would say “kitschy”—attractions, such as the horse-and-cart owners dressed in cowboy costumes, and Xuan Huong, a scenic central lake stocked with swan-shaped pedal boats favored by nuzzling paramours.
A new lure to add to that list is The Dàlat at 1200, so named for its elevation above sea level. The development—a joint venture between Singapore-based Centurion Properties and Vietnamese businessman Nguyen Viet Quy—surrounds a reservoir lake and will comprise many parts, including a golf academy and private villas. For now, though, there’s a gorgeously contoured 18-hole golf course designed by Burmese golfer Kyi Hla Han, which was being readied for private play during my visit. It’s slated to feature on the 2016 Asian Tour circuit.
The 30-minute drive out there took me past patchworks of tilled land, rice terraces, plots of orchids and tiger lilies, and hills shrouded in morning mist. “This landscape, there’s nowhere else like it in Vietnam,” The Dàlat’s general manager, a dry-witted Englishman named David Hill, told me shortly after I arrived on site. “It’s cooler than the Cameron Highlands and without the crush.” Jumping into a four-by-four golf cart for a look around, we bumped over rocks and around a soggy track next to a freshly watered hole before bolting through the jet of a sprinkler. “Don’t write that I did that,” Hill chuckled. Birdsong filled the air, punctuated by the hooting of owls and the rhythmic chk-chk of sprinklers. We weaved past a pump station and stacks of iron beams to the course’s second nine, which was in the midst of being grassed. A solitary wild mango tree stood between two holes like a giant broccoli. “We’re keeping that,” Hill said.