Within Da Lat
In the words of one local restaurateur, Da Lat's tourist sites are more 'distraction' than 'attraction'. The best way to orientate yourself for a solid day of distraction is by using Xuan Huong lake. The lake's circumference is 7 km and all or part of it makes for good walking.
The Flower Gardens sit at the lake's northern edge and are average at best. Marble walkways lead through the flower displays and some comment that the design is not fantastic.
Not too far away from here, also past the lake to the north, is the Cremaillere Railway. An old Russian steam engine lies dormant here on the line that once ran from Da Lat to Thap Cham. Now it's only possible to take the train 5 kms down the line to Trai Mat where you have 30 minutes to explore a nearby pagoda before returning. Total journey time is 90 minutes and costs 70,000. Departure times are at 06:30, 08:00, 09:30, 11:00, 14:00 and 15:30. The train needs a minimum of three people before leaving. The nearby Linh Phuoc pagoda in Trai Mat is a complex containing one temple with a five-metre high Buddha and one tower which holds a huge bell -- it is one of the most interesting pagodas in the area and worth a short look-in. You can also get there easily by motorbike.
Over towards the south of the city is the Crazy House. Designed by the daughter of Ho Chi Minh's third successor to the presidency of Vietnam, this may explain how she was able to get away with it. It's crazy in the sense that a kid's adventure playground is crazy. The bizarre structure has a number of rooms all linked to together by walkways, ramps and steps -- entertaining for a very short length of time.
A few minutes from the Crazy House is Bao Dai's Summer Palace. Bao Dai was the son of Emperor Khai Dinh. The palace, built in the 1930s, remains in it's original state, furnishings and all. Palace may be a tad misleading -- the building is more an elaborate French villa. It's full of interesting artefacts relating to Bao Dai's life and is worth a visit despite there being little information in English.
A few kilometres north of Xuan Huong lake is the Valley Of Love. It's not worth visiting unless you're in the market for some terrible kind of kitsch product, or taking a canoe out onto the totally unimpressive lake. The Valley Of Love has been turned into a bus drop off point for tourists, as the constant coming and going of tour coaches will show.
Outside Da Lat
Take the road heading out of Da Lat south towards Ho Chi Minh City and within a few kilometres you'll come across the turning for Tuyen Lam lake. The most scenic lake in the area has 'putt putt' boats which take you to the far shore, where it's possible to ride elephants and visit the Nam Qua area, which has gazebos with reasonably priced BBQ meat including deer and wild boar. The cost of the boat trip depends on how many people travelling.
Overlooking the lake, and a five-minute drive from the ticket office car park, is Truc Lam pagoda. Built in 1993, it's Da Lat's best maintained and prettiest Buddhist shrine. The temple halls are immaculate and a very impressive cast bronze bell sits at the site, but the best thing is the location. The grounds are set on the hillside above Tuyen Lam Lake, and there couldn't be a more perfect place for a picnic. A sensible itinerary is as follows: take the cable car to Truc Lam one way, then head down to the lake from the pagoda. The cable cars cost 50,000 VND for a return journey or 35,000 VND one-way and are accessible from Ba Thang Thu (3/4 St) just past the city bus station in the south of the city.
A few metres after the turnoff to Tuyen Lam Lake is the entrance to Datanla Waterfall. Here you can stroll through the forest until you arrive at this medium-sized fall and rapids. Also at Datanla is a newly installed luge -- the ride to the bottom costs 20,000 VND for adults and 15,000 for kids.
Traditional silk centres are beginning to welcome tourists and one such place is the Cuong Hoan centre. Although very small, local workers use traditional methods to extract fine strands of silk. It's possible to buy embroidered silk from this centre and others such as XQ, which is on the road to the Valley of Love. At XQ you'll get a much more tailored tourist experience -- this is a 'historical village' after all. Here you can observe the silk being embroidered, or browse the museum of embroidered arts.
Nearby Cuong Hoan, about 20km from Da Lat, are the Elephant Falls. The climb down to this fall is over crude steps chiselled into the rock, and once at the bottom there is no special viewing platform -- you just make use of the rocks available. A small pagoda sits at the site (Linh An Tu pagoda) and includes a contented sitting Buddha statue.
By far the most impressive falls in the area, Pongour Falls are worth the 55km drive. Turn off Highway 20 at the sign and the unsealed road is a bumpy 8km away. This waterfall is 30m high and stretches 100m across in a semi-circular shape, presenting an impressive spectacle. It's also possible to have lunch here at one of the numerous small restaurants serving meat, rice, noodles and cold drinks.
Chicken Village is a place tourists are bound to be dragged to by their tour bus. It's dubbed an ethnic minority town but in truth it is a collection of huts just off the road to Nha Trang, 17km from Da Lat. Tourists get off their bus, take a picture of the big chicken statue, look around the stalls selling souvenir items and leave.
Also popular is Suoi Vang or the Golden Stream, around 18km from Da Lat. At around 12km towards the stream are some much better flower gardens than those in the city, and a beautiful picnic area. Suoi Vang is located at Dankia Lake which can be seen from Lang Bian Mountain -- the highest peak is 2,400m. Lang Bian is featured in the itineraries of the outdoor adventure companies in Da Lat -- undoubtedly the best way to explore the natural features surrounding the city.
Outlying areas contain a number of other waterfalls, lakes and ethnic minority village attractions, available via city tours or a good motorcycle guide.
The Easy Riders started around a decade ago with a group of unemployed local men, most having served in the South Vietnamese Army. Ferrying tourists from A to B was all they took on at that point, and most had old motorbikes such as Minsks and Simpsons (today the Honda Bonus or Win is more prevelant). In 1999 the Riders gained their first mention in a certain guidebook and have never looked back, transforming from a glamorised xe om service to day tours through Da Lat surrounds. Now there are around 70 Easy Riders. They have their own uniforms and a website through which you can arrange tours in advance. They can be found at The Hangout or Peace Cafe on Troung Cong Dinh St. Failing that, they'll find you.
A word of warning: it's still advisable to shop around if you wish to have a tour guide and not just a driver -- there is a difference. Some can barely speak English, relying on their friends to arrange the itinerary for them, while others are near fluent and have a detailed knowledge of the sites in and around the city. Easy Riders cost around US$8-15 per day, depending on desired activities and distance travelled.
Da Lat Market (Chợ Ðà Lạt) is better seen before dawn and after dark than in the normal hours of daytime. That’s the way it has been since forever.
Before dawn is the time when young and old women gather to choose the freshest produce for the day's cooking, and after dark is the time when bulk buying happens and restaurant chefs come for their specific needs. On the other hand, during daytime hours, the stalls are packed more with browsers than buyers, and the vendors are much busier with showing than with selling.
The night time also brings to Chợ Ðà Lạt the odd looking and useless looking merchandise on the tarps whose vendors call out prices in sing song voice, many of these entrepreneurs do not have license to sell and always on the look out for police. This makes the activities more interesting and the pulse beats faster for both sellers and buyers.
If the Easy Riders are not your thing, another way to visit the attractions of Da Lat is via one of the many travel agencies, which offer day tours to a combination of sites. For example, a tour with Hanh Cafe featuring an itinerary of Pongour Falls, Truc Lam Pagoda and Tuyen Lam Lake, Chicken Village, Crazy House and Bao Dai's summer palace departing at 08:30.
Mountain passes make for an exhilarating motorbike ride whether done independently or with a chauffeur. Take a drive along Tran Hung Dao St in the southeast of the city to see old French villas hidden away in the woods, and continue along Huong Vuong St for spectacular views of Da Lat's vegetable farms, terraced into the hillsides.
A good mountain road near the city is the stretch to Ta Nung village. Find the Saigon Tourist Da Lat Hotel and turn right, following the road until it forks, then taking the left, following the sign to Tu Nung. The road winds over the mountain presenting great views across the central highlands.
Further afield is the Ngoan Muc Pass which rises to 980m. It's a few kms past Dan Nhim Lake and 38km from Da Lat on the road to Thap Cham.
Da Lat is slowly but surely gaining a reputation as being Vietnam's outdoor activity centre, with a number of places running all kinds of trips in the surrounding Highlands -- the perfect location for hill-trekking, mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing and canyoning.
Volunteering in Da Lat
The local English Language Centre has started a program encouraging tourists to drop by and help out in a lesson -- the teacher will instruct you on what to do. English is a vital part of education and the kids rarely have a chance to speak to foreigners.