Past in present

The uniqueness and charm of Dalat is largely down to its old french architecture.

By Tran Vo on December 14,2017 11:34 AM

Past in present

Photos: Thanh Van

It was fascinating to stroll through trails in the pine forest and among flower and fruit gardens at sunrise and sunset, watching the old villas and natural surroundings and gaining a sense of complete relaxation.

I woke up early to the cool climate of the city of Dalat after sleeping well on the night bus from HCMC. Dalat welcomed the new day and us travellers with its beautiful ambience, as the first rays of sunlight shone over misty pine forests and brightened the hills and valleys.

I felt quite excited when our group was picked up by old motor cars, as part of our journey was to explore Dalat’s heritage over the last hundred years or so. The old cars made their way slowly through the streets of the city, where I saw modern Dalat with new buildings and houses and old Dalat with French colonial villas and architecture. I began to wonder how Dalat really looked a century or more ago.

Past in present

In 1893, Dr. Alexandre Yersin founded Dalat on the Langbian Plateau after falling in love with the poetic land. He convinced the then Governor General of French Indochina, Paul Doumer, to establish a leisure spot for the French in Indochina and his request was approved. In 1899, the Governor General made a decision to establish Dong Nai Thuong province and two leisure spots on Langbian Plateau, with Dalat at its heart. Famous French architects such as Heabra, Moncet and Lagiquet designed the retreat, and the glory days for French colonial architecture in the city followed, between 1930 and 1945, when many French headed there to work and live. They came from many different regions of France and built their houses in an architectural style resembling their hometowns.

Past in present

DA LAT'S HIGHLIGHTS ARE PINE WOOD (CREATING THE NAME 'CITY OF THOUSANDS OF PINE TREES') WITH TWISTING ROADS AND MARIGOLD TREES BLOSSOMING IN THE WINTER. THE CITY'S TEMPERATE WEATHER STANDS IN CONTRAST TO VIETNAM'S OTHERWISE TROPICAL CLIMATE. MIST COVERING THE VALLEYS ALMOST YEAR-ROUND LEADS TO ITS NAME 'CITY OF ETERNAL SPRING'.

Called ‘A Miniature Paris of Vietnam’, Dalat possesses a unique French architectural heritage, with over 1,500 ancient villas and residences with diverse French architecture, from the north, central and south of France. Villas were often designed with two storeys based on the style and ideas of their owners, so are rarely duplicated. Roofs and chimneys all differ and leave an impressive of being in the French countryside. The charm of the old villas is also reflected in the sophisticated and luxurious interiors, which were created based on the taste of their owners, who were mostly from the middle class or French officials. Much of the French architecture has appeared on the International Union of Architects’ list of 1,000 unique architectural works in the world from the 20th century, such as the Dalat Education College (Lycee Yersin), Dalat Railway Station, the Palace Hotel, and villas along Tran Hung Dao and Le Lai Streets.

One architectural work in Dalat I love to visit is Da Lat Railway Station, designed in 1932 by French architects Moncet and Reveron and opened in 1938. The original    locomotive remains on display, and a trip to Trai Mat, seven kilometres away, is open to tourists.

We spent a full day taking in the old villas along Le Lai Street (now renovated and known as Ana Mandara Dalat Villas Resort & Spa). The area is located among pine forests and flower gardens and was the residence of Jean Oneil, a Colonel in the French Army. Every villa in Dalat, it seems, comes with a story.

After retiring in 1920, Jean Oneil chose the Cam Ly area in the north of Dalat to build a plantation and a dam to provide water to his residence. He invited French architects to design all of the residence. Fifteen villas were then built in the area from 1929 to 1938, owned by the Colonel and his relatives and friends living and working in Saigon and elsewhere in Indochina at the time.

The architectural style of most of the villas in the area is from the southeast region of France, Colonel Oneil’s homeland. The designs included certain changes to make them suitable for the terrain and climate as well as the owner’s taste.

It all gave me a sense of staying in an ancient French village, with the space reflecting memories of a golden past. Under the shade of huge pine trees, the villas reveal their old beauty, with classic yellow paint and mossy stone walls and tiled roofs, old cars in the garages, doors and windows in the shape of beautiful arches, chimneys, big wood fireplaces in the living rooms, and a lot of antique furniture and items such as telephones, clocks, ceiling fans, and gramophones.

I was really impressed by Villa No. 26, called ‘Peaceful House’, because its original owner placed a plaque with the word ‘Pax’ (Latin for peaceful) above the archway of the front door. The owner was a cheese manufacturer with a shop just opposite, which is now surrounded by mossy stone walls and creeping vines.

Past in present

It was fascinating to stroll through trails in the pine forest and among flower and fruit gardens at sunrise and sunset, watching the old villas and natural surroundings and gaining a sense of complete relaxation. Our group had a warm evening in the luxurious living room of an old villa, accompanied by great French cuisine and wine.

Dalat has, of course, changed a great deal since it was first established more than a century ago but its preserved architectural heritages are always a major attraction for visitors.

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