Once The Dàlat’s clubhouse (which will offer 24 guest rooms of its own) is completed, the next part of the project will kick in. This includes a second lakeside course, a hotel, villas and apartments, a golf and tennis academy, equestrian and water-sports centers, and hiking and biking trails across 850 hectares of thickly wooded terrain. At the far end of the site’s reservoir lake, the contours of the neighboring village looked a little like the rolling hills of a Tuscan hamlet. “Nice spot, isn’t it?” Hill remarked with considerable understatement as he turned around to survey the development. “We’ll use the tagline ‘The Great Escape.’” I could see why.
Back in town I met with Barry Israel, whose own building project near Bao Dai Palace II may not be as ambitious as The Dàlat at 1200, but it’s every bit as telling of Dalat’s future. Israel, an American lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, has lived in Vietnam for more than a decade. For a while he owned the Dalat Palace hotel, a bastion of old-world elegance where guests sleep in canopied beds and dine on fine French cuisine at the wood-paneled Le Rabelais restaurant. Now, he and his Dalat-born wife Le Ngoc Khanh Tam are developing a gated residential enclave called La Vallée de Dalat in the hills above town. When complete, the one-hectare site will be home to eight colonial-style villas, which, to judge by Israel’s own 600-square-meter residence—which doubles as a show home for prospective buyers—will be gorgeous, with Spanish limestone–clad bathrooms, high ceilings, and white-oak floors. “We designed them with the view in mind,” Israel told me. I understood what he meant the moment I stepped out onto the back veranda. A steep valley was trailed by a series of mountain ridges, with the undulating humps of Elephant Mountain to the right. Blackberries and lemons and hydrangeas sprouted from trees and bushes by the side of the house. I pictured myself spending many meditative hours here, staring at the horizon thinking about nothing except what lies in front of me.
“Dalat will take off,” Israel continued. “It will become a national city under Hanoi’s control in 2016 and will receive more funding from the capital. Apart from the great climate, there’s a good university and lower wages than Saigon or Hanoi. I think it would make a great location for the country’s high-tech industry.”
Israel and Le kindly offered to show me some other projects around Dalat. For an unassuming city of 250,000, there is plenty going on. Our first stop was Binh An Village, a newly built resort of 17 bright yellow villas next to Tuyen Lam Lake, with vibrant, blossoming landscaping and a sense of pervasive calm. “The sunrises are spectacular,” Israel said as we walked around, whispering so as not to disturb the tranquility. Next we visited Dalat Hasfarm, a flower-growing operation on the outskirts of Dalat where more than one million roses, chrysanthemums, carnations, begonias, and cyclamens flourish year-round in plastic-sheathed greenhouses that glow at night like lanterns. Closer to town, a venture called VMV Asia imports bulk wine from Europe and South America and bottles it here, offering a welcome alternative to the locally grown Vang Dalat, which tastes like it was left to cook in the sun. Dalat is also the base of spawning operations for Caviar de Duc. Owned by Le Anh Duc, a lively man with a trove of outlandish tales that he recounts in Russian-accented English (he lived in Moscow for 13 years), Caviar de Duc exported five tons of osetra caviar in 2014, mostly to Russia, though it has a growing local business. “I have almost two million sturgeon [across five farms in Vietnam], and in five years I will produce 100 tons of caviar,” he tells me. “I want to grow this on an industrial scale, to be cheaper than Russia, to bring caviar to the table of ordinary people!”
On my third day in Dalat it was time to explore the town itself. Thankfully, walking here is remarkably pleasant and safe. The traffic flows in a typically Vietnamese laissez-faire manner but even though there are no traffic lights here, it is almost provincial in its lack of intensity. Roses fill flowerbeds built into the road medians.
As dusk fell I ambled over to Tran Hung Dao Street to admire some of the city’s finest French villas. Their faded stone walls, clay roof tiles, and asymmetrical rooflines were a reminder of the town’s colonial boom days, and I stood outside each one trying to picture the city back then. I then walked down to Xuan Huong Lake. Along with the Dalat Cathedral (where some of the stained glass looks Mondrian-esque), a miniature Eiffel Tower, and the surreal Crazy House sculpture project–cum-hotel, the man-made lake is one of city’s main sights. At night its still, ink-black waters reflected the neon lights of the lakefront Thuy Ta restaurant like a mirror. Old men in wool hats fished along its banks and carousing teenagers zipped around on tandem bikes. In the nearby market area, food stalls offered skewers of meat, bowls of pho pulled from big vats, and banh trang nuong, a Dalat snack that can best be described as a cross between a pizza and burrito—processed cheese, sausage, mayonnaise, and charcoal-grilled fish rolled into a rice pancake. The gentle hum of scooters, the constant soundtrack, slowly wound down over the course of the evening, and by 10 p.m. the roads were virtually empty.
As in all agriculture towns, Dalat rises early, and the following morning so did I to inspect the abundance of local produce. On the way to the market I greeted anyone that passed by with a hearty “Xin chao”—hello—and they invariably broke into large grins. When I arrived at the market at 6.30 a.m. it was already in full swing, with vendors doing a brisk business in artichokes, avocadoes, cauliflowers, strawberries, blackberries, and leafy greens with robust stalks. As I scanned the highland bounty, I had to remind myself I was in Southeast Asia.
Ready for more adventure, I signed up for a hike and kayak excursion. My guide was Nhat, a smiley young man from Hue who’d studied tourism at university here—“there was lots of Marx and Lenin in the coursework,” he told me with an air of resignation—then stayed on to work with Phat Tire. The first part of our walk took us past fields of potatoes and artichokes, groves of avocado trees, greenhouses full of white roses, and tangles of Arabica coffee plants. Soon we entered a pine forest on the slopes of Phoenix Mountain, startling a wild boar and sending it scurrying into the underbrush. The track narrowed as we continued uphill and ferns closed in about us. Nhat’s steady clip was set at a harried–New Yorker pace and I struggled to keep up. We spoke about minorities, politics, and religion—standard throwaway topics for a cool mountain stroll. At one point he recounted a Vietnamese aphorism. “In an election, most people think you should vote for a skinny man, not a fat man. A skinny man is hungry, and hasn’t been corrupted. But in truth you should vote for a fat man because he’s already enjoyed the fruits of so much corruption, he doesn’t want any more.”