1. As Dalat (pop 180 000) was located some 300 km away from HCM City, we decided to start early at 9 am (May 21, Day 25) to ensure that we got there before dark. Before we got on to Highway 1, we found an Esso station to top up the tank. As it only had octane 92, we put in a bottle of octane booster before topping up. As we moved ahead, we discovered that octane 95 petrol was fairly widely sold by local petrol stations. By and large, it should not be a problem getting octane 95 petrol in Vietnam, based on what we saw so far. Price was about 13,000+ Dongs, which is about US$0.72
2. We travelled eastwards along Highway 1 for about 50 km before turning left into route 20. Highway 1 was 3 lane either way coastal road that went all the way to Hanoi. As it was the main arterial road coming out of HCM City eastwards, especially for the initial stretch, traffic was heavy and slow. Route 20, on the other hand, was one way either way; generally good driving, very scenic with rolling terrain, except for the challenges of overtaking slow moving vehicles from time to time, and been held up for about 0.5 hr at one point where road widening work was on-going. In the early stretches of route 20, we were surprised by the many churches, almost at an interval of 100-200 m apart.
3. As we approached closer to Dalat, we saw a road leading to the airport. When I was there in 96, I recalled there was only a military airstrip of some sort there and Dalat was not served by commercial flight. Today, Dalat has daily connections to HCM City and Hanoi. As we climbed the hills, we were welcome by straight and tall pine trees which covered the mountains and lined both sides of the road; similar to postcard scenery of the Swiss Alps. Our meter in the car read 1450 m above sea level and the outside temperature 22 degree C (temp ranges between 15 to 25 degree C). We arrived Dalat at close to 5 pm.
4. After checking a couple of hotels, we decided to check into Novotel Dalat, at US$71 a night for a superior twin sharing room, which came with breakfast and internet, for 2 nights. We understand that this was a good rate as it was low season and this year's low season was not as good as last year's low season. Not as many locals were coming for holidays, we were given to understand. The lighted building was where the meals were served. Peak season is year end. With the 2 christmas trees standing tall in front of Novotel, I can imagine a beautiful Christmas in Dalat.
5. Discovered by Prof Yersin (a researcher who worked under Pasteur), Dalat's life as a hill resort only really began when the main road was open to motor vehicles in 1915. A resort would need a lake; so a river was dammed to create the Xuan Huong Lake, which measured about 7 km in circumference. Hill-side developments practically revolved around the lake, modelled after beach resorts in France Atlantic coastal areas. Development of Dalat was greatly intensified during WWII when the French Governor General established its HQ in Dalat. More than 700 villas and 2 palaces were built, mostly of Art-deco design.
6. Today, Dalat continues to charm its many visitors with its nice cool weather all year round (some call it the City of Eternal Spring), its cover of tall straight pine trees (others call it the Land of Thousand Pines), its many beautiful villas, and its captivating hilly landscape dotted with buildings of various colours. I was already a fan when I first visited in 1996. It was a quieter town then, pitched darkness around Xuan Huong Lake as there was no street lights. Now, the area is lighted up, wider road around the lake, more cars, taller hotels with their neon lights, but no less attractive. Dalat Palace Hotel was completing its final touches then before opening for business. Today it is a fully functional 5 star Sofitel hotel; cheapest twin sharing room going for US$280 a room for low season which Sunny and I could not afford for the budget we had set aside.
7. All in, we had 1.5 days at Dalat. One of our highlights was golf at Dalat Palace Golf Course. After checking in, Sunny realised that the hotel had on offer a golf package of US$81 per person for twin sharing room and a game of golf. This worked out to be a better deal if we factored in green fees etc for 2 of us (the US$81 includes green fee, caddy fee and loan of golf set); a very attractive offer. Obviously, they were trying very hard to attract people to their hotels.
8. The Golf Course began life it the 1930s but only became a 18 hole championship course in the 1990s. Its a beautiful course, flanked by pine trees, with scenic view of the hilly landscape in the distance, and well maintained. A Tasmanian, Graham, who was on holiday in Dalat joined our flight. We had the course practically to ourselves until around noon, when players participating in some tournament turned up. I was happy with my round of 94, as this was my 2nd game after a lapse of 6 years.
9. After dinner, we took a walk to see the night market near the lake. Very buzzy, many locals with some tourists. Many local families just strolling, laughing and enjoying themselves. Some on rental tandem bicycles. It was basically like our pasar malan, with stalls selling food, warm clothes, soaks, decorative plants, etc. Interesting to see that there were people selling paper bags. In Singapore, we would mostly dispose them, as there would always be more the next day. There were many people selling dried cuttle fish, with a charchoal stove nearby to BBQ them. Dalat people sure like cuttle fish.
10. The next day, before we left Dalat for Nha Trang, we did some sight-seeing. THE highlight of my trip to Dalat was the visit to Hang Nga Crazy House. It is a visitor attraction and a hotel. Need an admission fee of 8000 dongs to see it. Design was very Gaudi like, big concrete trees with staircases inside leading to rooms, sitting or resting areas, Hang Nga's family areas. Very excited, we were like kids exploring the tree houses. The twists and turns were full of surprises, never knowing what to expect next. Each room was uniquely designed called Tiger Room, Bear Room, Bamboo Room etc.
Hang Nga was the architect (her pictures below), Russian trained, and was told that she stayed there. Her
father was at one time the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Vietnam, a very senior position. This work clearly shows that creativity in Vietnam is well and alive. I would definitely like to stay there the next time I am in Dalat.
11. We next visit the Bao Dai Palace; a functional palace, nothing lavish. Bao Dai was the 13th and last ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty. From 1926 to 1945, he served as the king of Annam, which comprised the Northern 2/3 of current Vietnam, which was under French rule. The visit reminded me of the film, "The Last Emperor".
12. Our next visit was the Flower Garden, nothing spectacular, just beds planted with various flowers, reasonably well maintained. Entrance fee less than US$1. Spent about 15 mins there and move on. In my last visit to Dalat, I recall visiting a flower market, that it was a buzzy place, very colourful with many flowers for sale. Would have been more interesting if the garden is combined with the flower market.
13. After lunch and car wash, we set off for Nga Trang, a break point before we head for Hoi An the next day; from Nga Trang Hoi An is still a good 500 km away. We took route 20, followed by a new route, route 27, before joining Highway 1 northwards to Nga Trang. Route 27 was largely laterite, most part still under construction, tough going. Was told by Thuan that route 27 was much worse last year as there have been some progress since then. Positive side was that the scenery was fantastic all the way. We were driving into the mountains, or looking down into the great plains.