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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One morning I drove into the countryside. Peasants labored in paddy fields, protected at intervals by gleaming white statues of Phat Ba Quan Am, a Buddhist goddess of compassion. I stopped at a flower farm, where the owner, in his mid-40s, identified himself as Le Mai Xuan. As we strolled around the meticulous, one-acre plot, he told me that he cultivates chrysanthemums that wholesale for 7 or 8 cents each. He moonlights as a policeman. His wife, Thuy, is a teacher; together they earn $14,000 annually—a staggering sum compared with the Vietnamese average of about $500. Despite their wealth, however, they and their three children share a minuscule house with outdoor plumbing. The family cooks on a primitive charcoal stove, but they have a radio, television set, videocassette recorder and refrigerator. Their teenage son Hung sat at a makeshift desk in a corner, learning English on a computer. Logging onto the Internet, he demonstrated a vocabulary lesson, repeating the words on the monitor: “Bob and Jane are staying with their Uncle George in Pittsburgh.” Beaming with pride, his father told me, “My dream is that he becomes an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer, and cares for me when I retire.” I wished the youngster good luck.

These days, cruise ships unload hordes of tourists carrying cameras and camcorders to visit beautiful sites such as Hue, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. But Da Lat is too distant from the coast to be inundated by day-trippers. So the happy prospect is that its capricious, anachronistic atmosphere will endure as a reminder of its distinctive history.





Stanley Karnow on the Sofitel Dalat Palace Hotel

Enormous rooms, opening onto spacious terraces, feature fireplaces and are opulently furnished with massive oak armoires and elaborate lacquer cabinets, canopied beds, brocaded divans, ornate clocks and large, gilt-framed mirrors—all made by skilled local craftsmen. Inlaid with copies of delft tiles, the bathrooms are fitted with colossal tubs, Victorian-style faucets and unwieldy brass hand-showers. The tournament-quality par-72 golf course, complete with electric carts and cheerful female caddies, still operates for a fee of $85 a day.

The French imperialists, waging a paternalistic crusade to bestow on their subjects the benefits of a superior civilization, bequeathed them a superb cuisine. Thus they endowed Vietnam with crisp baguettes, flaky croissants, chocolate éclairs and the most succulent crème caramel east of the Champs-Élysées. To savor this gastronomic heritage in Da Lat, no place surpasses Le Rabelais, the elegant restaurant in the Palace. Crystal chandeliers hang from molded ceilings; Edith Piaf ballads waft through a sound system. I dined on a cream of green pea soup with scallops, roast duck breasts in port wine, crêpe flambée au Calvados and a carafe of the house red—for $24. One of the Vietnamese chefs, a rotund, jolly woman, emerged from her kitchen in a jaunty toque to accept the compliments she merited.

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