Dalat is the stepping stone to the Central Highlands of Vietnam. This former French hill station with its own mini replica of the Eiffel Towere stands at 1475 metres. It is a breath of fresh air both literally and metaphorically after the mayhem and humidity of HCMC.
There are three likely points of entry to Dalat:
- From the north via Nha Trang on the coast. The most common tourist route is up and down the coast travelling by open tour buses or train. Dalat is a short detour inland from the hub at Nha Trang.
- From the north via the Central Highlands. Some more adventurous travellers will avoid the coastal route and head inland from Hoi An then go through the beautiful Central Highlands on the way to Dalat. Please note that permits are required to enter most of these central districts and travel with a guide and private transport is recommended.
- From HCMC to the south. This was the way we chose, travelling on the Sinh Cafe Open Tour bus. We left HCMC at 8.30am arriving in Dalat at 3.30pm. It’s only a 308km journey but the roads are slow but that’s not a problem amidst such beautiful lush scenery.
Dalat also has an airport 30km to the south of town with daily flights to and from HCMC.
Dalat has long been a popular centre for domestic tourism attracting over 800,000 Vietnamese tourists a year. Average daily temperatures range from 15ºC to 24ºC so you’ll need to wrap up in the evening. We were there in November and there was a chill in the air even in daytime. The dry season is officially from December to March and the rainy season from April to November though we fortunately managed to avoid any rain at all.
Dalat Accommodation and Transport
On arrival the Sinh Cafe open tour bus circles the Xuan Huong Lake and drops you at their base at the Trung Cang Hotel (4A Bui Thi Xuan St). In their office in HCMC they’d offered us a room here for $20 US a night be we’d decided to look for an alternative ourselves. With hindsight we should have taken the room. By the time we arrived there were only basic rooms in the basement available which we weren’t interested in so we went into the street where a woman waiting for tourists took us further along Bui Thi Xuan St to her Phuong Huy hotel. This place wasn’t as fancy as the Trung Cang but at $7 US a night for a large clean room in a pleasant hotel run by the family you can’t complain. In general there are plenty rooms available along Bui Thi Xuan St to suit all tastes and wallets.
Almost as soon as you appear in public in Dalat you’ll be approached by men on motorbikes claiming to be ‘Easy Riders’. These guys will take you around on the back of their vintage motorbikes on day trips to the surrounding area or on extended tours.
We met several of them taking tourists from Dalat through the Central Highlands to Hoi An and some tourists have enjoyed the experience so much that they have continued all the way to Hanoi.
It seems that the ‘Easy Rider’ idea was started by a local teacher who had a restricted number of riders but as their notoriety grew every local man with a bike started calling himself an ‘Easy Rider’. From the people we met in the Central Highlands, riders and passengers, there is no doubt that this is a great way to travel and was the highlight of SE Asia for some travellers. However, in Dalat these men become a real pain offering their sevices from the moment you step off the bus and wherever they see you in town. They’ll follow you to your hotel insisting on showing you their notebook of recommendations from previous clients and really don’t give you any peace. The best thing to do is tell them that you aren’t interested from the beginning then take some time to decide what you want to do before agreeing any deal with them. Don’t worry, they’ll never be far away if you want one.
Dalat Sightseeing and Tourist Attractions
For a day excursion around the local area the ‘Easy Riders’ offer a great service provided you’re comfortable on the back of a motorbike. They’ll charge you about $10 US for a day excursion to the main attractions around Dalat which will probably include a visit to Chicken Village, a Koho minority people’s village where a huge concrete chicken stands above the wooden houses. From here most excursions continue on to visit a silk factory where you can watch the whole process of producing silk scarves, then proceed to the impressive Elephant waterfalls. Similar routes covering other waterfalls and alternative craft industry visits may be offered.
Within Dalat itself it’s difficult to do the main sightseeing on foot as the main sights lie well away from one another and at this altitude and with some steep hills around you’d be better off getting around on the back of a motorbike or taking one of the daily sightseeing tours offered by Sinh Cafe or other local operators.
Highlights of Dalat sightseeing tours include Emperor Bao Dai’s Summer Palace, the Linh Phuoc Pagoda and Dalat railway station. A landscape sightseeing tour takes you a little further out of town and the Langbiang Mountain hiking tour takes you to a traditional Lat village by four wheel drive from where you walk the steep hill to the top of the mountain for stunning views over Dalat and beyond. No matter what they tell you in the office, a good level of fitness is recommended for this climb.
Private Tours from Dalat
On the Langbiang Mountain hike we were accompanied by a guide called Phu who was originally from Pleiku in the north of the Central Highlands. He told us of a trip he’d just done with a couple of Australians which began in Dalat and continued north through the Central Highlands ending in Hoi An five days later. He quoted us a price of $50 US per day per person (there were two of us) for the services of him as a guide plus a driver. This seemed quite expensive at first considering local prices but we decided we’d take the tour for three days ending in Nha Trang. This trip would prove to be the undoubted highlight of our time in Vietnam. After the first two days we asked to extend the trip to five days and travelled the whole Central Highlands from Dalat to Hoi An accompanied by Phu and our driver Tam in a 9-seater Mercedes people carrier.
Other Useful Information
In HCMC there was no malaria risk so having taken no medication we had no worries. However, going to Dalat we had been concerned. We needn’t have worried as hotel rooms had mosquito nets and there were hardly any mosquitos anyway. The hotel owner didn’t seem to realise that our concern was with the danger of contracting malaria and not with the potential discomfort of mosquitos bites. Malaria clearly wasn’t an issue locally.
Commiting to the Central Highlands tour which followed was a concern because of the mosquito factor as we would be off the tourist trail but again there was no problem. Phu assured us that there were no mosquitos which seemed a likely story from a guide looking for business. But he was true to his word and I don’t recall seeing hardly any during the five days we travelled through the centre.