It’s easy to get stuck for a while in Vietnam’s beautiful Dalat, nestled in the Central Highlands in the Lam Dong Province. The province is one of Vietnam’s major producers of flowers, producing 10% of the country’s flower exports, hence Dalat’s nickname of ‘The City of Flowers’. And as soon as you reach the edges of Dalat, the flower farms dominate; by 2020 the province aims to produce 30% of all flower exports. With so much to see and do in the vicinity of Dalat, and with such a cool, refreshing climate, it’s the perfect place to spend a few days.
Dalat is a beautiful scatter of colourfully painted buildings, surrounded by emerald green forest and mountains. It’s quite a large town, although there’s not so much to see in the centre itself. But its proximity to an abundance of outdoor activities in its beautiful and diverse surroundings makes it a great place to visit. The Central Highlands are very different to the mountainous north of the country; instead of rice paddies, the hills are covered in pine forest and the plastic covers that protect the delicate flowers growing beneath.
In the town itself, the Crazy House (officially Hằng Nga Guesthouse; entrance 40,000 dong/$1.80, August 2016), built by Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga and opened to the public in 1990, is like a tiny amusement park, a maze of quirky staircases and rooms in which it’s easy to lose your way, and maybe your mind. However, it’s not exactly child safe, so be watchful if taking children there. The top of the house is high enough to provide lovely views of the town and surroundings.
Also within easy reach of the town centre is Dalat Cable Car, which runs from Robin Hill to the hilltop Trúc Lâm Pagoda and monastery (one way 50,000/return 70,000 dong, August 2016). The journey provides fantastic views over the town and across the mountains into the distance. Trúc Lâm monastery is open to visitors (no entry fee) every day from 6am to 6pm, although the cable car closes at 5pm. It is also possible to visit the monastery by road.
Dalat Cable Car
The main draw of Dalat for many is canyoning, which is, in simple terms, abseiling down waterfalls. There are several companies that run canyoning day trips, but it’s worth spending a little more and going with Groovy Gecko Tours, the only company that takes you to Dasar Falls and allows you to abseil down a 30 metre waterfall (the highest you do with other companies is only 16 metres). If you’re not keen on heights then canyoning is probably not for you, but adrenaline junkies may rejoice.
The location of Dasar Falls is fantastic, in the middle of nowhere surrounded by coffee plantations, and the Groovy Gecko staff are great; they happily answered all my questions about the local area and the plantations, telling me all about the local ethnic groups that harvest them. A short (and bumpy!) Jeep ride will take you through the forest to the falls.
Canyoning in Dasar Falls
A canyoning day trip with Groovy Gecko, including transport to the falls and lunch, is $44 (about 990,000 dong) per person (August 2016). Make sure to book a couple of days in advance, as places can fill up. Most other companies run half-day trips to the closer Datanla Falls, taking you down smaller drops, with prices usually a little less; a good option if you’re on a seriously tight budget. Shop around to find the best price.
Due to its setting in the highlands, Dalat is also a great base for hiking. Although there is no extreme climbing to be done, with the province’s highest peak, Langbiang, at 2,167m (Dalat itself is 1,500m), hiking in the region provides fabulous views of the pine-covered mountains, and the cool climate makes it a pleasant way to spend a day, or just an afternoon.
From the base of Langbiang – 20km north of Dalat – to its highest peak is around a two hour hike through pine forest (and around an hour back down). The trails are not obvious, since the local council likes to encourage an expensive Jeep ride to the top rather than walking, but if you just keep your eye on the peak and head upwards, you shouldn’t have any trouble reaching the top! You can always make your way back to the road that winds up if you lose your way. Langbiang has two other smaller peaks, and it possible to hike all three in a day; Groovy Gecko Tours does a guided day trip across all three.
There are several waterfalls within easy reach of Dalat. Probably the most popularly visited from the town, Elephant Falls, is 30km southwest of Dalat. The falls are impressive although not mind-blowing, and there is no swimming to be done in the murky waters. If you want to swim, head to Pongour Falls, slightly further away at around 50km to the southwest of the town. There is also Tiger Waterfall, 15km to the east of Dalat, Gougah Waterfall, 35km south, Bao Dai, 50km south, and various others further afield.
The best way to visit the falls and explore the countryside is to hire a scooter or motorbike (around 120,000 dong/$5 for the day, plus around 40,000 dong/$1.70 per litre for petrol). Although the roads can be unpaved and bumpy at times, they are mostly pleasant to drive. Just be wary of the sometimes careless local drivers, especially on corners.
Dalat is one of my favourites of the places I visited during my month in Vietnam – I ended up spending almost a week there! It shouldn’t be missed if you’re in the region.