By Steve White
Built by the French in colonial days as a hill station hideaway from the heat of lower altitudes, today Dalat is the market garden of southern Vietnam.
Locals drive much of the tourism, coach parties flocking here for the novel tang of fresh, pine-scented air and to buy temperate vegetables otherwise rarely seen in Vietnam. Foreign visitors come too, but tend to take advantage of the cooler climate in more active ways, with hikes, rides and canyoning trips all popular.
Besides views of photogenic mist-shrouded hillsides, you can expect plenty of kitsch. Every lake for miles is populated by a bobbing flock of swan-fronted pedalos, and parks and hedgerows are as likely to harbour concrete herds of zebras and prides of lions, as living-and-breathing local wildlife.
This is the main event for the adrenaline-fuelled in Dalat. Note though that upwards of 20 companies offer trips, and even after several recent deaths, some still exhibit a worryingly casual attitude towards safety. The best advice is to avoid the cheapies or anyone taking parties of 20 or more. At the very least you’ll do much less waiting around getting cold. Only one company – Phat Tire – has international certification and consequently are the most expensive.
Different areas are on offer but the vast majority head for Datanla Falls, a major draw for daytrippers too, hence the start point is thick with souvenir stalls and has a theme-park atmosphere. Start before 10am to avoid competing for a slot on the rock with hordes of others.
Most companies offer full and short options but the components are identical. Both start with a literal dry run: a 15-m abseil down a water-free face to get familiar with the kit.
Then comes a waterslide, a rock chute that twists first one way and then the other. Laid full length, arms tucked in, your guide releases you to shoot down into the pool beyond. After you’ve tried it feet-first, head back up to try headfirst too.
Third is a free jump – from anything from 7-11m depending on water level and your nerve.
The finale is the ‘washing machine’, a blind abseil into a narrow slot dropping you into a pummelling fall. Once you are in there’s only one way out. Dropping the last few metres, you are pushed under for a which-way-is-up rinse before being spat out into the pool below.
The full option adds a zipline-style descent into a pool and an abseil on an impressive 25-m fall. Or alternatively, lose the crowds entirely, by trying out other canyoning locations.
This is the other big drawcard. Rentals for easy rides in the city are everywhere but the good quality roads in the area are a boon for touring, or for day rides out to trails round Tuyen Lake.
Phat Tire’s most popular mountain bike route is Northern Exposure, a 22-km out and back starting on roads and taking in a 12-km loop of dirt single- and doubletrack. Climbing up through pine forest, you descend to the Valley of Love, a cheesy tourist spot with flower beds, the ubiquitous pedalos and a reenactment of a Serengeti migration.
Other itineraries include Slingshot and Crazy 8, the latter a more technical ride where you can expect to get good and dirty. AA
When to go
The ‘City of Eternal Spring’ has two seasons in fact: a rainy season from May to October and a dry season from November to April. Even at the height of summer, the typical daily maximum is in the mid-20s.
How to get there
Ho Chi Minh is the closest international airport, from where many people take one of the surprisingly comfy sleeper buses for the seven-hour ride to Dalat.
Another option is a flight with VietJet Air. In theory this is way quicker but regular delays plus transfers can mean a trip scarcely faster than that on the bus.
Where to stay
Many foreigners are content with the friendly guesthouses and smaller hotels, while local tour groups opt for bigger, flashier properties.
There’s also the heritage hotels: the affordable Hotel Du Parc, and the top-end Dalat Palace, both dating from the colonial heyday of 1922.
A wackier option is the Crazy House (a concrete Dali-esque fantasy) if you don’t mind staying in a place that is itself a tourist sight.
What to eat
Market – smack in the centre of town, this place is thronged with interesting options for food to eat in situ or take away.
Ming – set on dim sum despite yummy local food? This colonial-era mansion above the lake is a world away from any Hong Kong eatery.
Nhat Lien – a vegetarian favourite not far from the Crazy House with its own kitsch charm.
Phat Tire, www.ptv-vietnam.com