Aug 28, 2010

Dalat, Vietnam is a Very Special Place

After hundreds of years of war and occupation, Vietnam is peaceful and prospering. Saigon is a busy city with many upscale hotels and while there are sites to see within the city most people use HCMC as an entry city before heading to other locations. On this, our third visit to Vietnam, my husband, John, and I flew to Dalat in the highlands at 4500 feet. When we stepped off the airplane we took a deep breath of the cool fresh air. It was a wonderful relief from the heat and humidity of HCMC. On the 30-minute up hill drive to Dalat we passed green fields and evergreen forests before arriving at the Sofitel Palace Hotel. The line “We’ll all come out to meet her when she comes” from the children’s song “She’ll be coming Around the Mountain” popped into my head. Waiting on the steps of the porte-cochere was a lady in a pristine white ao dai, the elegant traditional Vietnamese dress, along with several other staff members ready to take care of our every need.

Everything oozed elegance. Built in 1922 in France Colonial style there are crystal chandeliers, gold and red velvet furniture, an inlayed marble floor in the vestibule, dark highly polished wood, and paintings everywhere, and a view to the lake that reminded me of a Impressionist painting.

Sofitel Palace Hotel has an interesting history. Dr. Alexander Yersin, a protégé of Dr. Louis Pasteur, visited Dalat in 1893 and found the place perfect for improving ones health. A sanitarium was built which led to the growth of Dalat. In 1922 the Palace Hotel opened. A gentleman’s agreement left Dalat untouched during Vietnam’s many wars. Today the hotel’s bar is named after Larry Hillblom, the American lawyer who co-founded DHL delivery services. In 1990, Hillblom visited Dalat, which had long been the favorite honeymoon destination for Vietnamese. He saw the tourist potential and through a joint-venture partnership spent $40 million restoring the Palace Hotel. The hotel reopened May 1995 as the Sofitel. Several days later Hillblom was killed in an airplane crash.

We arranged for a city tour with the hotel car, which turned out to be one wonderful adventure after another. The Dalat Cable Car gave us a panoramic view of the fields, heavily forested hillside, and a beautiful turquoise lake. At the ride’s end it was a short walk to Truc Lam Monastery. The car was waiting for our return to Dalat. Along the way we stopped at Datanla Waterfalls. On my personal roller coaster I went from one exciting curve to another until I reached the bottom of the steep hill and the beautiful waterfalls. According to local legend it is where the fairies from heaven came to bath. Going back up on the coaster wasn’t as exciting but it was better than a 15-minute climb up the steps. Our next stop was at Crazy House, which is a hostel that looks like Dr. Seuss created it. It seems incongruous to find it in Vietnam where out-of-the-box activities are not encouraged but it becomes more understandable when one realizes that the architect’s father was the president of Vietnam in the 1980s. Our last stop was Bao Dai Palace, the summer getaway of the last emperor of Vietnam, which is one of simplicity and comfort. Vietnam offers many surprises of which Dalat is just one.