Unabashedly kitsch, Da Lat tends to either charm or repulse. The town's penchant for Disneylandesque attractions leaves many scratching their head. For others however, the stunning rural scenery, cool climate and somewhat avant-garde student scene more than compensate for the undeniably appalling taste displayed across Da Lat, the capital of Vietnam's Lam Dong province.
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The town was established in 1897 after explorers decided it would make a fine resort centre. At the time, the region formed a part of French Cochinchina and offered an ideal escape from the steaming delta plains of Saigon. With an altitude of 1,500m, an average temperature of just 17 degrees Celsius and dawns often bathed in early-morning mist, it's easy to see what lured the early explorers, including bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin, whose name you'll see adorning street signs across Vietnam.
The first hotels appeared in the early 20th century and within a relatively short span of time the colonialists endowed the city with a wealth of villas and boulevards -- many of which remain today. By the 1930s an estimated 20% of the population was French. By the middle of the 20th century there were boarding schools, seminaries and military colleges and throughout World War II, Da Lat was the capital of the Federation of Indochina.
The province of Lam Dong was once rich in wildlife and Da Lat was for a while the epicentre of Vietnam's hunting "scene". This popularity nicely blended with the Vietnamese penchant for flaunting one's possessions -- for a long time some of the tattier taxidermied creatures littered the walls of many an establishment -- though thankfully they're all long gone.
Aside from turning the area into one great game park, locals took advantage of the region's fertile soils and today Lam Dong province is one of Vietnam's top-performing agricultural provinces. Da Lat fresh produce -- especially its tomatoes and strawberries -- can be found as far afield as Phnom Penh and even Bangkok. There's also a burgeoning coffee and tea trade (though we think the Buon Ma Thuot blends are better) and a massive trade in cut flowers. A nascent wine-making industry is slowly developing -- while the best grape-growing areas can be found in nearby Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan, a French-Vietnamese facility with an annual capacity of some one million litres was opened in Da Lat in early 2007.
Outside Da Lat town you'll find individual villages specialising in the cultivation of this or that -- often giving you the opportunity to find out just how mushrooms or strawberries are grown and harvested. All this makes for scenic sightseeing and the central market, with its wealth of berries, fruits and flowers, is unlike any other in the region.
Da Lat is one of Vietnam's premiere destinations for kitsch-hardened domestic tourists. For honeymooners in particular, Da Lat is where the action is -- even if it involves nothing more than a series of tacky happy snaps by Xuan Huong lake.
For non-honeymooning foreign tourists, Da Lat offers an excellent opportunity to explore some of Vietnam's hinterland, sample its outstanding produce and vacation alongside Vietnamese holidaymakers. So savour the food, do a motorcycle trip with the Easy Riders and swap addresses with some locals on the banks of Xuan Huong Lake.
There are two banks within two minutes' walking distance of the market in central Da Lat. One is Sacombank at the top of the steps, the other, down on the same level as the market, is Vietcombank. Both banks have international ATMs, as do numerous hotels around town.
In the event of a medical emergency, Da Lat is well served by Lam Dong Hospital. For criminal offences, report the matter immediately to the hotel owner, who can then help you file a report at the nearest police station.