Nicknamed the “Little Paris” of Asia, what I was expecting was pretty French-style cafes and people riding around on bicycles with baguettes; instead, what I got was the kind of hustle and bustle I thought I’d left behind in chaotic Ho Chi Minh City and a more temperate climate I hadn’t yet experienced in Vietnam.
Windy streets twist and turn up steep hills while thousands of Vietnamese people on scooters rush by, cutting corners, ignoring traffic lights and pedestrians and generally making crossing the road an incredibly painful experience.
But then the sun went down, the market sprang into life and I found myself actually quite enjoying myself.
But it was still a hard place to love. Located in Vietnam’s central highlands, Dalat is the capital of the Lam Dong province and is well known for its pine trees, of which there are thousands and thousands encircling the city, and its temperate climate, earning it another nickname: “city of eternal spring”.
Meanwhile, the backpacker district is confined to one lonely street where you can get a beer and a basic meal for a reasonable price. Otherwise, you can search the inner city all day for a good feed and a bit of peace and quiet.
Fortunately Dalat is one place where a one-day tour of all the main sites is inexpensive and worth the hassle of walking from hotel to hotel to get a good deal.
Mine started with a visit to the summer palace of the region’s former king, Boo Dai. I had to put fabric bags over my shoes to ensure the place wasn’t damaged by the tread of many tourist feet, which made me feel a little bit like a ninja.
Boo Dai’s summer palace is not like any “palace” I’d ever heard of or been to but it was worth a look, if only to time travel back to a time when this would have been the grandest building in all of Dalat (and to prance about the place like a stealthy ninja).
Next we caught a cable car which, to the never-ending delight of the Austrian friend we made on the tour was – you guessed it – built and manufactured in Austria, out of schnitzel. (I might have made that last part up.)
It took us down to a pagoda overlooking the Quang Trung reservoir. As fun as that ride was – and I do enjoy cable cars despite being a complete chicken when it comes to heights – the highlight of our tour was still to come.
The highlight of my Dalat day trip was undoubtedly the visit to the Datanla waterfalls, situated in the Prenn Pass just 4km from Dalat. But it wasn’t the waterfall that was special – oh no, it was catching a rollercoaster down to the waterfall that was the highlight of my tour of Dalat.
You know how some (lame) travellers say the journey is more important than the destination? This was one time that I would agree with them.
More like a luge or a toboggan on a track than an actual rollercoaster, my girlfriend and I were strapped in to a cart that raced down a single white track. I was in control of its speed, with two large handles that sped the cart up when I let them go and slowed it when I pulled them up.
As we shot a long like a bat out of hell I was reassured by the ability to stop it if I had to. The track twists and turns, with signs telling you when to slow down and when to start praying to a higher power (just kidding), and after an anticlimactic visit to the waterfall you can catch the toboggan back up again.
Next up on our day tour of Dalat was a visit to the old railway station, a historic building best known for its architecture and, in my opinion, for being perhaps the most boring tourist attraction in all of Vietnam.
And then Dalat really raised the bar. It wasn’t another boring tourist attraction; it was the tackiest, most schmaltzy, saccharine place in all of Vietnam: Dalat’s valley of love.
Thankfully, a giant golden Buddha at a Vietnamese monastery added a bit of culture and decorum to proceedings and ended the day on a more, shall we say, cultured note.
It was a wild and wonderful ride in Dalat – and I’m not just talking about the toboggan ride to the Datanla waterfalls. Dalat has a lot to offer travelers, as long as you can just get past the city’s disastrous first impression.