If you’ve ever thought about visiting a place in Vietnam that will fill you with a sense of nostalgia, you simply can’t go past Dalat.
To touch the very soul of the central highlands city, visit with the spirit of a person looking for nostalgia, listen attentively to the sounds of dripping coffee at Tung Café, climb up the mossy steps of an old villa in Tran Hung Dao Street, or admire the wild Himalayan cherry tree at Minh Mang Slope (now called Truong Cong Dinh Slope), and a lot more.
The most difficult thing is perhaps to write about what we have great love for and what we are very familiar with, because you are very likely to become embarrassed and become unsure about what to begin with. I have written about Dalat before with a feeling of solitude and a feeling of being overwhelmed by the task.
For a long famous tourist attraction like Dalat, finding enormous amounts of information is pretty straightforward. But the way to admire Dalat’s past and present is from the standpoint of the local people or those who love it and consider it their ‘spiritual home’.
From the moment the French laid the first stones in the construction of the luxury resort city in 1893, Dalat attractiveness in the eyes of tourists has only grown. Through a great many ups and downs and historical changes, its ‘soul’ remains unchanged in different corners of the city, in the melodies at old-style cafés or the mossy walls of old villas.
Some people say that Dalat is a place where happy people become happier while lonely people can sink to the bottom of loneliness. How does the dreamy highland city inflame such intense feelings? It may be because of the cool climate, romantic stories mixed with the scenery, or happy and unhappy historical moments that can still be found here and there.
In recent years, there has been a growing number of tourists to Dalat. New-style homestay hotels have become popular and there has been a wider variety of services. Some people, however, are unhappy with the changes and new style, noting that rapid urbanisation is causing the gradual disappearance of forests of pine trees and destroying the lovely pristine conditions in around the city. Several old buildings are deteriorating because they have not been well preserved. But you can still find old features of Dalat under its new coat.
From 1950 to 1955, Dalat was the capital of the autonomous region consisting of six central highlands provinces, called ‘Hoang Trieu Cuong Tho’ (Domaine de la Couronne). At that time, it was still a rather pristine place, with some French-style buildings among the wooden houses of local people and with absolute respect for nature. This is why Dalat was often referred to as a ‘royal land’, despite no dynasty ever building palaces in the city.
There was a time when those who came to Dalat for a visit or to study were required to show their passports. It was a cradle of culture, arts and education for the whole southern region of Vietnam. The Vietnamese National Military Academy of Dalat (formerly under the control of the old South Vietnamese administrations), the Lycee Yersin School, the Bui Thi Xuan School and old-style monasteries still retain their features. Many people have expressed regret for the loss of many other old properties.
Apart from Café Tung - a popular place for artists - many other old places are still of interest to local people and those who love Dalat. Such places include the Teachers’ Training College, the Train Station, Bao Dai Palace, Tran Le Xuan Palace, Dalat Cathedral, Camly Temple, Minh Hoa Church of God, and old villas along Tran Hung Dao Street. Some of these villas have been renovated and turned into restaurants and cafés.
Although there have been a lot of changes, the beauty of the French-style architectural properties of wooden stairs, fireplaces, big clocks, large windows and romantic balconies still remain pleasing to the eye. A typical example of an old-style wooden house in Dalat is Café Home, down a laneway in Quang Trung Street and about 70 years old. The garden full of flowers, the wooden chairs and tables, the old TV and highland-style pieces of furniture all take you back to the old days.
More and more new farms have been set up to grow different crops and welcome visitors on tours. But Dalat has never been famous for its farming. Its fame has always come from its beautiful landscapes, elegance, and ceremonial ways. Old Volkswagens are still on display here and there and can be found at the old car club of Dalat. They are a symbol of the luxury life of Dalat residents in days gone by.
It would be a major mistake to talk about Dalat without touching on its residents. Waves of immigration have made Dalat a mix of cultures, but its ‘soul’ of elegance and courtesy remains unchanged. Dalat people don’t speak in a loud voice and always deal with things in a gentle way. While it can be hard to find a typical Dalat native, it is not difficult to recognise their typical character traits. This is why many people have a special love for Dalat residents, because they care a great deal about retaining their character as a ‘heritage’.
Dalat people have always paid a lot of attention to their look and appearance. Women always comb their hair carefully and put on make-up early in the morning before starting a new day’s work. Most Dalat women have a charming skill - knitting with wool - which they do in their free time as a hobby or as a part-time job.
In the past, local people were interested in long coats, berets and woollen hats, scarves, and leather shoes and boots. Such fashion items can still be seen around the city. Despite a mix of cultures and rapid changes, the old values of Dalat are still to be found in different corners of the city.