As kitschy as life-size dinosaur sculptures hanging out by a desert highway or an open-all-year boutique dedicated to Santa, Dalat is Vietnam's most unusual destination, a low-rent Las Vegas for honeymooning couples and bemused tourists. Dalat is set in the central highlands of Vietnam, with its landscape of lakes and waterfalls and cool mountain air that first attracted French colonialists in need of a retreat from sauna-like Saigon. A relatively new city—established in 1912—Dalat still features plenty of French tourists, several French restaurants, colonial-era villas and a miniature Eiffel Tower. But perhaps the overwhelming reason to check out Dalat is the giraffe statues, Vietnamese cowboys and Indians, and other random sillinesses that have sprung up to serve the local tacky honeymooning industry, a Southeast Asian version of the Poconos.
When my girlfriend and I arrived in Dalat, our first impression of the town was bleccch. Rather than the "City of Eternal Spring" or "Le Petit Paris," as it is referred to in travel brochures, the center of the town, especially west of Xuan Huong Lake, is gritty; malodorous sewers and open manhole-like pits in the sidewalk vent a fecal perfume. We saw a Chihuahua-sized rat run into a store as we carefully placed each step.
Apart from checking out the lively Central Market, visitors to Dalat should spend most of their time on the periphery of the town, where innumerable odd surprises lurk amid evergreen hills.
To get to Dalat's scattered sites, most folks join one of the tours readily available at hotels. But my girlfriend and I generally try to avoid hanging out with other tourists. We considered getting around by bicycle but were dissuaded by the traffic and potholes. Though renting a motorbike would probably have worked fine, we chose to walk.
Our first destination, within easy reach of the town, was the Hang Nga Guesthouse or Crazy House, a knockout Alice in Wonderland creation as impressive —and as un-Vietnamese—as anything I saw in Vietnam. Designed by architect Mrs. Dang Viet Nga (whose work the government has occasionally called anti-socialist and torn down), Hang Nga is Vietnam's most Disneyesque attraction, with its swirling staircases, themed rooms, and miniature zoo with monkeys and songbirds.
Next we sauntered over to Cam Ly Falls, one of the most popular attractions among Vietnamese. My girlfriend thought the jungle-animal statues and Vietnamese cowboys and Indians posing for pictures and offering rides on their horses were cheesy and that the falls (cascading brown sewer water) were sort of disgusting. But I loved the fucked-up, kiddie-park atmosphere of the place and couldn't get enough of the smelly brown falls.
By then, we were pooped, so we hired a cab to take us to the Valley of Love, a five-kilometer trek north of Central Dalat. Looking more like Switzerland than Vietnam, the Valley of Love surrounds a very attractive lake set in an evergreen valley with swan-shaped paddle boats, gazebos, benches with pink hearts overhead, and more cowboys and Indians hustling tourists for photos. At twilight, though, the cheesiness subsides, and the lake is a genuinely romantic place to stroll in the mud.
I didn't really want to leave Dalat. I knew I wasn't going to find another place in Asia quite that silly. While most tourists go to Vietnam to check out Cham ruins and Vietnam War sites, Dalat is a worthy stop for those who dig high-quality bad taste.