Da Lat. The name conjures visions of luxuriant forests, mirror-like lakes, and cottony clouds. A century after French colonialists founded this resort centre in the Lam Dong highlands, Da Lat’s natural beauty and temperate weather remain as soothing as ever. Wondering what’s the best way to see the best of Da Lat? Read on for eight insider ideas to put on your itinerary.
Get in the great outdoors
All around Da Lat City, the Langbiang Plateau provides some of the most beautiful scenery in Central Vietnam. Tree-lined paths lead to gushing waterfalls such as Datanla, where you can test your mettle with Da Lat’s newest outdoor adventure: canyoning — mix of abseiling, climbing, swimming, and sliding — all in a beautiful natural settings in the forest.
In Bidoup Nui Ba National Park — one of Vietnam’s largest at 70,000 hectares — you can spend days camping, trekking, or keeping watch for rare birds. If you only have a day to spare, lace up for a hike to the top of Langbiang Mountain, or borrow an mountain bike and take on dirt trails in the pine forests north of the city.
Stop and smell the coffee
Coffee has long been a key agricultural product in Da Lat, but more recently, inspired entrepreneurs are opening a door for visitors to learn more about the area’s coffee growing history. For a morning you won’t forget, hitch a ride out to the K’Ho Coffee Farm and Roastery, to see how speciality heirloom Arabica is grown and processed sustainably by a community of ethnic K’Ho farmers.
Closer to town, La Viet captures the cool new spirit of Da Lat in their industrial-style warehouse-slash-cafe. After a smooth cup of your choice, take a free tour of the roasting labs. For coffee drinkers who prefer to keep it old school, or just want to encounter the Da Lat of the past, the fading decor and retro atmosphere at Cafe Tung will take you back at least a few decades.
READ MORE: In Da Lat, a tour for coffee lovers
Explore peaceful pagodas
Even if you’re not normally a temple goer, Da Lat’s hilltop pagodas are wonderful attractions in their own right. While tourists crowd to take pictures at the iconic Linh Phuoc Pagoda, inside the city you’ll find a quieter gem in Linh Son Pagoda. This elegant pagoda sits on a small hill at 120 Nguyen Van Troi. Dating to 1940, the pagoda’s serene corridors and courtyards are open to the praying public. Just be sure to dress modestly.
Another worthwhile stop is Truc Lam Temple on Phuong Hoang Hill. Created in the Zen buddhist tradition established by Tran Dynasty King Tran Nhan Tong, who abdicated his throne to become a monk, the compound has private quarters for the sangha and public areas open to visitors. Wander through fragrant flower gardens and ceremonial halls, or find a seat in the shade of a pine tree overlooking Tuyen Lam Lake.
Eat on the street
Pull up a seat. The fertile farms all around make Da Lat home to some of the freshest fruits and vegetables in the country. Anyone can eat well by joining the locals at the buzzing eateries on the street. Originally populated by ethnic minorities, Da Lat is known for tweaking and enhancing the dishes of its migrant population, rather than creating its own original dishes.
You’ll find versions of Central Vietnamese dishes served at streetside stalls across the city. Each dish is slightly tweaked to suit Da Lat’s climate and make the most of its beautiful produce. Don’t miss breakfasts of bánh căn — bite-size rice cakes topped with quail egg and dunked in onion sauce, lunches of sticky bánh bèo with river shrimp and evening snacks of bánh mì xíu mại dipped in hot, meaty broth.
READ MORE: Eating Da Lat with Chef Peter
Stay somewhere special
Da Lat has a wonderful variety of accommodation waiting to welcome you. Cosy, locally run hostels such as the Leuleu Hostels are a fantastic way to learn about the Da Lat lifestyle and explore city streets and cool hideaways. Hostels and homestays will give you the chance to make friends with your hosts and learn their stories. Da Lat also offers many charming BnBs and small hotels just outside the city centre. Here you can wake up to views of rustling pine trees and enjoy endless cups of tea outdoors.
If you’re coming to Da Lat with someone special, you might like to check yourself into Ana Mandara Villas, one of Vietnam’s most romantic hotels. The Ana Mandara in Da Lat is a collection of renovated French-era villas set in beautiful landscaped gardens on a hillside. The rooms all have hardwood floors, deep bathtubs, fireplaces and canopied beds. The hotel’s heated swimming pool, soothing spa and photogenic restaurant may make you want to never leave.
Shop the central market
Artichokes, avocados, asparagus — Da Lat supplies the rest of Vietnam with produce best grown at altitude. The city’s largest market is a focal point for commerce: a bustling, multi-level building smack in the centre of town. Deep inside the market on the upper floor cooks assemble bowls of vibrant mì Quảng noodles and other local dishes all day long. Below, stalls overflow with plump, brightly coloured fruits and vegetables.
Inside the market, whole rows are dedicated to clothes and fabrics. On its fringes, flower sellers, phở stalls, and dried goods vendors spread side-by-side along the pavement. If you’re looking for something to bring home, you’ll be surorunded by shops Da Lat’s famous preserved fruits, candied ginger, coffee and artichoke tea. Time your visit in the early morning for an eye-popping look around.
Check out colonial relics
If you’re a fan of art-deco architecture, you’ll have a field day roaming the roads and boulevards of Da Lat, where Indochine-era villas squat in a state of charming disrepair. French urban planners designed Da Lat as a holiday town for colonialists and elite Vietnamese, complete with health complexes, golf courses, and parks. Many hotels and residences in Da Lat still reflect turn-of-the-century trends in France, melded with a few local flourishes.
The Domaine de Marie Catholic church and convent is a good place to start. If you can get in, the former Lycée Yersin (now a teachers’ college) has a trove of striking structures on campus. Another option is to swing by for afternoon tea at the Dalat Palace Hotel. Opened in 1922, the property’s sweeping views and grand interiors still echo the days when it was a favourite playground for colonial officials and their families.
Spend time along the lake
Da Lat’s lakes are inseparable from its image as a romantic haven for honeymooners. Coupled or not, the paths bordering Xuan Huong Lake are an excellent spot to catch a glimpse of local daily life, stop for tea, or break a sweat with a jog along the water’s edge. Not far from the city centre, another manmade body of water lures nature lovers.
Tuyen Lam Lake is a 350-hectare oasis of placid beauty, encircled by pines and shrouded in fog mists many days of the year. Make the most of this dreamy setting with a spin around the lake, or take a boat or kayak on the water to chart your own course.