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Return to Da Lat

A veteran Vietnam correspondent revisits the romantic retreat where he, and so many others, sought respite from war in Indochina

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I often search for traces of nostalgia while traveling abroad, on the theory that delving into the past helps one understand the present. Particularly in Asia, long my turf as a newspaper correspondent, I’m intrigued by vestiges of the influence exerted by Western powers on their empires. I’ve journeyed to Darjeeling and Simla, hill stations nestled in the shadows of the Himalayas, to poke into the relics of airy bungalows where the British sahibs who ruled India ensconced themselves to escape the ferocious monsoon heat and humidity of New Delhi or Calcutta. I’ve visited Baguio, the mountain retreat that served Americans residing in the Philippines as a haven from suffocating Manila, and I’ve been to Bandung, constructed by the Dutch in the Javanese highland to flee the stifling months in Jakarta. When I was reporting on the Vietnam War for Time, the Washington Post and NBC News, as a respite from the relentless sweat, grime and danger of my assignment, I occasionally flew up to Da Lat, the resort that the French carved out of a misty, pine-covered plateau about 200 miles northeast of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. Apart from a brief clash in 1968, the retreat was hardly affected by the fighting, since by tacit agreement both sides conveniently used it for rest and recreation. I recently returned there and found that Da Lat still retains much of its old-fashioned charm, even though modernizing trends are rapidly changing the attitudes of at least some of its inhabitants.

Rising to roughly 5,000 feet above sea level, the plateau was sparsely populated by hill tribes when, in 1893, Alexandre Yersin, a Swiss-born scientist with a taste for adventure, trekked into the region. (Yersin, who had conducted research at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, later went on to China, where he discovered the bubonic plague bacillus, then ravaging Asia and threatening the West.) The pristine beauty and salubrious weather so impressed Yersin that he persuaded the French colonial administration to develop the locale into a vacation spot. According to some accounts, an anonymous bureaucrat baptized it Da Lat, meaning roughly “the water source of the Lat people.” Then, someone with a classical education created an advertising slogan, an acronym constructed from the first letters of the Latin phrase dat aliis laetitiam aliis temperiem—“offering happiness for some, a comfortable climate for others.”

Initially, the isolated area attracted only a handful of tea planters and hunters in quest of deer, elephants, wild oxen and boar. The vertiginous ascent from Saigon over a single rutted dirt road by car could take as much as a week; the only lodging was a rudimentary auberge. But French officials, optimistically calculating that a luxury hotel would beckon an affluent clientele, erected the sumptuous Palace, opened in 1922. A deluxe suite was 22 piastres a night, roughly $200 today. Da Lat’s distinguished guests included kings, maharajahs, princes, politicians, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham, whose novels and short stories vividly describe the European expatriate experience in Asia.

Imagining how they might have spent their days, I envisioned guests setting out on leisurely nature walks, riding horseback along forest trails or golfing on a course designed to amuse the adolescent Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai, whom the French controlled as their puppet. In the evenings, the men dressed in black tie, their wives, or mistresses, in frilly gowns. They gossiped over aperitifs on the wide veranda and, after lavish dinners, played bridge in one of the salons or baccarat at the casino. There were piano or violin recitals and an orchestra for dances. A nearby bordello employed exquisite French, Vietnamese and Chinese prostitutes. But the resort, clobbered by the Depression in the 1930s, floundered; travelers found the hotel as empty as a mausoleum. On my visits during the Vietnam War, the Palace functioned but had virtually no guests.

The Communists expropriated the resort following their victory in 1975, but lacked the skills or the inclination to run it. Besides, they abhorred it, or so they said, as a memento of “heinous imperialism.” Eventually Larry Hillblom, the founder of DHL, the global courier, bought it in a joint venture with the Vietnamese provincial government; Hillblom invested a fortune in its renovation. An eccentric Californian, he roamed Asia in T-shirts, shorts and sandals, fathering several illegitimate children by young women. He died at age 52 when his private plane crashed into the Pacific in 1995. Attorneys representing the four children—their paternity confirmed by DNA testing—induced the courts to award each $50 million or so from his stupendous estate.

The daily flight from Ho Chi Minh City is frequently delayed or even canceled. But I arrived on schedule and checked into the meticulously remodeled hotel, now the Sofitel Dalat Palace, whose amiable manager welcomed me with a flute of champagne.

Majestically perched on a crest overlooking placid XuanHuongLake, the Palace commands a vista of verdant landscape. Evoking the hotel’s vanished past, a black 1955 Citroen sits in the driveway. The walls of carpeted corridors are hung with a hodgepodge of reproduction medieval tapestries and facsimiles of Cézannes, Dufy aquarelles, Renoirs, Manets, Matisses and Monets, turned out by an assembly line of talented Vietnamese copyists. Miniature bronze sculptures of nymphs and satyrs flank faux-antique porcelains.

Hiring a taxi, I ventured out to explore the town, where parks and broad avenues are shaded by acacias, cedars, palms and mimosas. Jasmine, liana, hibiscus hedges and fragrant frangipani encircle pastel stucco, half-timbered French villas with wrought-iron balconies, brick chimneys, sloping ceramic-tile roofs and curved eaves—an incongruous though handsome hybrid of Oriental and Gallic styles sardonically dubbed “Norman pagoda.” The spire of a Romanesque Catholic cathedral looms over Buddhist temples; a secluded cemetery entangled in weeds and moss contains the neglected tombs of Dominican, Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries who came here to preach the Gospel. Afurther vestige of French influence is a roughly one-quarter-size replica of the Eiffel Tower.

I was struck by the carnival mood—an indication perhaps that the Vietnamese are striving to forget the horrendous war. Parents and children crowd confectionery shops, ordering up milkshakes and ice-cream sundaes. I sauntered through a square where ersatz cowboys in ten-gallon hats steered toddlers around on ponies while a troupe of clowns, costumed as buffaloes, gorillas, zebras and lions, staged pantomimes. At the Valley of Love, an amusement park on the outskirts of town, honeymooners self-consciously posed for photographs under bowers of roses.

The railway to Da Lat has been defunct for decades, but the station, a dubious Art Deco effort reaching back to 1938, serves as the terminal for a dinky train and dilapidated locomotive that puffs around its tracks for 15 minutes, bells clanging and whistles shrieking. When I appeared for an excursion, a conductor in a starched uniform embellished with braided epaulets courteously apologized that it was broken and being repaired—as a mechanic divulged to me it chronically is.

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