Nestled within the central highlands of the Da Lat Plateau, 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) above sea level, is the former French hillside retreat of Da Lat. Boasting a mild climate year-round, average temperatures range from a perfect 70–77°F, crowning Da Lat as the ‘city of eternal spring.’ Not only does the appealing weather draw many locals to escape the oppressive summer heat, but it also provides ideal conditions for growing a variety of crops. The combination of consistent temperatures and rich soil put Da Lat on the map as a chief grower of coffee, tea, and flowers, as well as a number of fruits and vegetables. In fact, some 30% of Vietnam’s vegetables come from in and around the Da Lat region.
We arrived somewhat weary and tired to the highland city after a 9-hour bus ride from Saigon and, for really the first time on our trip, were presented with a couple of unexpected challenges. The first came immediately after arriving in Da Lat. After hopping in our included transfer from the bus station, we arrived at our (pre-booked) guesthouse to find a young man informing us they had no rooms, and were closed for renovations (major screw-up by the online booking agency). Tired, starving after a day with no meals, and hauling our cumbersome packs, we were less than excited to find we had nowhere to stay. Additionally, as it was the start of the locals’ vacation season, and because Vietnam does not support our cell plan, we were instantly worried that’d we’d not find another accommodation.
Luckily, the young man spoke some English, and he and the older gentleman who owned the property were two of the nicest people you could imagine. He seemed to instantly sense our panic, and welcomed us to sit in the lobby, and connect to their WiFi to find another guesthouse. He even insisted we enjoy a cup of a [delicious] local tea while we searched. With his assistance, we quickly found availability at a nearby accommodation. As we got ready to head off – as if he hadn’t already done enough for us – the host offered to drive us one-by-one on his motorbike to our new guesthouse, so we wouldn’t have to haul our heavy packs. It was one of the kindest, most generous gestures, and we couldn’t have been luckier to have found such wonderful people.
While we managed to finally settle in and get a short sleep at our new accommodation, we awoke the next morning to learn that Stephan’s grandmother had passed away. We were incredibly sad to hear of her passing, though it really is incredible to think of the life she lived. She was born in January of 1912, three months before the sinking of the Titanic. She lived through two World Wars, the Depression and, particularly impressive for women of her time, obtained a college degree. She was a pretty unbelievable lady, and we chose to honor her memory with a hike at a nearby peak. Thus, we set off on the ‘Grandma Chase Memorial Hike’ at Lang Biang Mountain, the centerpoint of Bidoup Núi Bà National Park, and just 10 kilometers north of Da Lat. One of Da Lat’s highest surrounding mountains, Lang Biang (Núi Bà) tops out at 2,167 meters (7,110 feet). Although quite a short hike, the last kilometer to the summit was surprisingly steep, with muddy stairs that were each between knee- and nearly waist-high. The trail was deserted, and we passed only six other hikers during our journey. At the summit, we were treated to a beautiful view of Da Lat, showcasing the undulating, green countryside and expansive farmlands that enveloped the lakeside community.
Total distance: 6.4 miles
Elevation gain: 2,158 feet
After a trying 36 hours, we spent our second day exploring the city and surrounding country. Da Lat is quite a picturesque city, with layers of colorful French colonial-style buildings and cathedrals wrapping around a large, artificial reservoir – Xuan Huong Lake. The road that twists and turns around the lake passes by a number of small parks and greenspaces, and was a perfect spot for a scenic motorbike ride.
With a population of just over 200,000, Da Lat also has a bustling downtown district. Although some of the more built-up areas are fairly unspectacular, the city certainly has no shortage of small cafes and coffee shops, offering locally grown teas, coffees, and fresh juices. Seemingly endless bakeries also speckle the city streets, offering fresh breads and pastries, reminiscent of the region’s French influence. Stephan enjoyed perusing the local bake shops each morning for breakfast, and found one right around the corner that offered enormous, fresh croissants for about 6,000 Dong ($0.30 USD) a piece. I enjoyed trying some of the unique teas, including one steeped with artichokes and another made with coffee cherries, kumquat, and cinnamon, at a great little restaurant we stumbled upon called An Café. Even better than the delicious teas and fresh juices they prepared, the wait staff handed out paper and crayons to everyone in the restaurant. What more could one ask for? Tasty beverages and coloring make for the perfect late afternoon lunch.
One day we decided to hop on the motorbike and explore the area just outside the city. While the heart of town was somewhat busy and loud, you didn’t have to drive far before the urban sprawl was replaced by lush hillsides and tranquil lakes. Just south of Da Lat’s center, we discovered Café Ngoai Ô, a cute little café perched on a hillside, offering locally-grown coffee. After a quick java stop, we continued south for another 8 or so kilometers to Tuyen Lam Lake. We hadn’t really done a lot of research on the area before arriving, but we saw the lake on the map and figured we’d give it shot. Needless to say, we were pleasantly surprised with location. The lake was isolated from any sort of town or village, and we were shocked to find it nearly deserted; as we scooted around the perimeter, we passed maybe half a dozen other mopeds. The silence was refreshing after our stay in Saigon, where we endured the incessant drone of engines and horns from vehicles of the city’s nearly 10 million inhabitants. Here, there was neither road noise nor the sound of another human being – just the chirping of birds in the treetops. We were actually quite surprised with the abundance of mid-day birdlife, and Stephan was beaming as he chased a noisy white-throated kingfisher and a number of shrikes and drongos around Tuyen Lam’s shoreline. This lake excursion and our hike were what we enjoyed most about Da Lat – we only had to venture about 10 kilometers outside the city center to find the beauty and peacefulness of nature. That, and the 30°F decrease in temperature from our previous nine weeks in SE Asia – a welcome relief!
Postscript by Stephan:
On June 8th, 2016, at the incredible age of 104, my grandmother passed away on the same minute that my sister was born 28 years earlier. I will think of her every time I blow the seeds off a dandelion, cut into a piece of pie, or watch a flickering firefly illuminate the summer sky.
I walked to breakfast that morning, lost in my thoughts. As I sat waiting for my pastries, an elderly Vietnamese woman took a seat next to me. She smiled at me – a big, toothless grin – and I greeted her, xin chao, welcoming the distraction. She did not reply, and instead reached over and took my hand, just holding it for a moment, before getting up to leave with her food.
We’re touched by everyone in our lives, sometimes greatly, sometimes in small but meaningful ways. My grandmother’s fingerprints are all over who I am, how I think, and what I believe. I will miss her more than words can describe.
Thank you for being the best grandma any kid could ever dream of.