Return to Da Lat

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

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.

In 1981, on my first trip back after the war, Vietnam was deeply mired in poverty and on the verge of collapse, partly as a result of the devastation left by the conflict and also because of the regime’s Marxist economic policies, which forbade any hint of capitalism. Peasants were compelled to deliver their crops to the state; agricultural output fell drastically. Merchants were subjected to onerous regulations; they defiantly closed their stores, and trade declined. But a coalition of moderate politicians, alarmed by deteriorating economic conditions, has promoted a measure of free enterprise: today, Da Lat’s thriving outdoor market reflects a new prosperity.

A maze of arcades spills into adjacent alleys, thronged with gamblers, beggars, pickpockets, hustlers and peddlers. Elderly women and young girls clad in conic rattan hats and traditional ao dais—billowing pantaloons and long loose tunics slit to the waist—squat behind baskets, offering azaleas, chrysanthemums, geraniums, gladiolas and peonies brought in from suburban flower farms. Huge crates overflow with a dazzling array of fruit and vegetables: avocados, bananas, coconuts, durians, litchis, melons, asparagus, chilies, mustard greens, yams, tomatoes and water chestnuts.

Apothecaries carefully weigh out traditional remedies and elixirs by the ounce—powdered stag antlers, rhinoceros horns, ginseng. Sidling through the packed aisles, I observed scores of spices and herbs, ranging from basil, cardamom, cloves and coriander to sage, sesame, star anise and saffron. Fishmongers hover over bins of fresh-caught shrimp, squid, clams, oysters, crabs, tortoises, bass, perch and tuna. Cages of squawking chickens, geese and pigeons dangle from crampons above counters piled with slabs of pork, beef and veal. Other stands, catering to the superstitious, are heaped with mysterious amulets, talismans, fetishes and astrological charts. The clothing section bulges with a jumble of knockoff Levi jeans, ensembles bearing Bill Blass logos, Adidas athletic shoes and denim jackets emblazoned with Harvard, Princeton or Stanford insignia—all manufactured in Vietnam or smuggled in from China, Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea. I had expected to see native handicrafts, but cubicles are crammed with cheap plastic toys, New York Yankees baseball caps, Mickey Mouse wristwatches, Madonna mugs, fake Zippo cigarette lighters engraved with the emblems of U.S. Army regiments, and souvenir banners inscribed with mawkish mottoes in English—“Regards to my Mother from Dalat.”

Guidebooks publicize the mansion where the country’s last emperor, Bao Dai, dallied with his favorite concubine until he was exiled to the Côte d’Azur in 1955 after the South Vietnamese republic, with help from the CIA, deposed him in a blatantly rigged election. I anticipated regal magnificence, knowing that the French had spared no extravagance to gratify his whims. But except for the lush gardens abounding in orchids, bougainvillea, dahlias and magnolias, I found the residence prosaic. The furniture resembles conventional Sears. Shelves cluttered with gifts from foreign dignitaries display a routine collection of gold plates, jewel-hilted sabers and commemorative medals.

Not far from the royal mansion lies a mildewed cottage concealed in a bamboo grove; here, at the quirkily named Stop and Go Café, writers and artists gather to swap ideas and discuss works in progress. The proprietor, Duy Viet, cordially introduced me to his comrades who, presumably emulating Montparnasse boulevardiers, sport berets and scarves and wear their hair down to the shoulders. Sprawled across a sofa or seated on benches, they smoked Marlboros and sipped goblets of scalding artichoke tea, which reputedly calms the nerves. While Duy Viet strummed a guitar and crooned folk songs in a nasal twang, a poet recited in French an elegy dedicated to a deceased friend:

He reposes as he lived,
Alone, absolutely alone.

By contrast, another nearby studio seemed to thrive not on tranquillity but bedlam. Located on a dusty lane behind a tumbledown pagoda, it belongs to Vien Thuc, a Zen Buddhist priest. Attired in a coarse brown robe and cowl, he revels in his perhaps self-imposed sobriquet, “the mad monk.” No sooner did I step over his threshold than he grabbed a brush, dipped it into an ink pot and dashed off a haiku in ancient Vietnamese calligraphy on a paper scroll. “My inspiration is Van Gogh,” he proclaimed, charging around frantically and muttering, as he pointed to the dozens of sketches portraying his muse, full face and profile, with and without the ear.

The Han Nga Guesthouse and ArtGallery, named for its proprietress, Dang Viet Nga, is also called the “Crazy House.” It embodies a fusion of Surrealism and Dada gone berserk. The gate is guarded by two mammoth concrete giraffe sculptures, their necks interlocked to form an arch; the stomach of one constitutes a snack bar that dispenses cold Coke and Pepsi. Soaring above the patio is a giant concrete banyan tree, its twisted roots extended like slithering tentacles. An almost invisible filigree of wire spider webs is suspended from the branches. Tape-recorded calls of frogs croaking, monkeys chattering and birds twittering are piped through a loudspeaker, devised to foster the illusion of a bucolic setting.

The bizarre spectacle seemed amusingly zany until Madame Nga proposed that I inspect some of her ten rooms, supposedly representing various fauna and flora. Climbing a spiral staircase, we squeezed through narrow ramps to an aerie whose centerpiece is a gargantuan sculpted eagle, wings spread, talons bared, beak open. I also peered into the Kangaroo, Termite and Tiger rooms. In the subterranean Ant Room, swarms of slimy Bakelite insects infest a tree stump.

A petite woman in her 60s, Nga invited me into her parlor, offering cups of the inevitable artichoke tea. After studying architecture in Moscow during the 1960s, she rejected Soviet design orthodoxy and moved to Da Lat in hopes of establishing an experimental installation. “What I have achieved here,” she told me, “encapsulates the intimate relationship between humankind and nature.” I was astounded that the Communist Party, which rigorously insists on “socialist realism,” had authorized her weird project. But I understood why the minute I saw that the portraits on her walls depicted her father, Truong Chinh, who followed Ho Chi Minh as Vietnam’s president. Until his death in 1988, he had been one of the most sectarian Communist bosses. Clearly he had obtained the approval she needed—proof that in Vietnam, as elsewhere, kinship transcends ideology.

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.

I prefer, however, unpretentious bistros like the Long Hoa and the Hoang Lan. The two family-run establishments serve such local specialties as chao gia, or spring rolls; prawns skewered on sugar cane; steamed grouper with ginger and scallions, caramelized pork and lemon grass chicken with garlic—all doused in nuoc mam, the sauce made from fermented fish that flavors virtually every Vietnamese dish. Tiny curbside stalls beckon, too, serving bowls of pho, the national soup, a mixture of beef or chicken, spring onions and rice noodles, in a broth seasoned with ginger, cloves, coriander—and most important, star anise. The mixture is then topped with soybean sprouts, basil, chilies, lime and mint. I squinted into one restaurant where the menu featured grilled bear paws, sautéed snake in sorghum liquor and porcupine stewed in a concoction labeled "chinese medicine," but I was too squeamish to sample the exotic fare.

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