Monday, August 29, 2016

It’s Always Spring in Đà Lạt

                               by Jim Goodman

Đà Lạt in its Central Highlands setting
       When the French ruled Vietnam they named the major city streets after their own officials and military officers.  After their departure in 1954 Vietnamese on both sides of the 17th parallel rushed into a rectification of names program.  The new city authorities replaced the colonialist street names with those of Vietnamese heroes and revolutionaries.  Nha Trang, in south central Vietnam, also carried out the changes, but left the names of two intact: Pasteur Street and Yersin Street. 
       Louis Pasteur discovered how to make milk safe to drink, giving his name to the process—pasteurization.  Alexandre Yersin, his protégé, became famous for identifying the plague bacillus.  But around this part of Vietnam, he is also known for another discovery—Đà Lt.  Living in Nha Trang at the time, Yersin used to make excursions exploring the Central Highlands to the southwest.  On one of these trips in 1893 he wandered into a place in Lâm Đng province that he found particularly lovely.  It had rolling hills, lots of pine forests and, at 1500 meters altitude, a climate that was refreshingly cooler than that in the tropical plains.
central Đà Lạr
       Afterwards Yersin pressed Governor-General Paul Doumer to turn this place into a resort.  The colonial government approved the idea and in 1898-99 built the road connecting the site to the national highway at Phan Rang.  The first hotel opened in 1907 and in 1912 the government officially established the city of Đà Lt.  The name derives from the area’s indigenous people, the Lch, a small branch of the Cơ Ho ethnic minority, which the new settlers pronounced Lạt.  ‘Đà’ in their language means ‘stream,’ so the city’s name meant ‘the stream of the Lạch.’
       Two other explanations for the name persisted for a while.  Some claimed that educated Vietnamese referred to it by the Sino-Vietnamese term Đa Lạc—Great Pleasure—which evolved into Đà Lạt.  Others claimed it was from a Latin acronym coined by the French planners—Dat Aliis Laetitiam Aliis Temperiem, meaning “giving some people pleasure and others freshness.’  But the first French commissioner himself confirmed the true origin of the city’s name.
Đà Lạt Flower Garden
       A city of ‘Great Pleasure’ was, however, exactly what Đà Lạt’s planners had in mind.  Villas in the European style began dotting the hillsides.  Boulevards connected the neighborhoods.  The French created parks, golf courses, hospitals and boarding schools, but no industries.  Đà Lạt was to be, purely and simply, a holiday resort for their colons sweating in the tropical heat of places like the Mekong Delta.  In Đà Lạt the high temperatures throughout the year range from 21-25 degrees C. and the lows from 11 to 16 degrees, about like Paris in May.  Promoters quickly began touting Đà Lạt as the City of Eternal Spring.
       To enhance the beauty and atmosphere of the city and its environs, French engineers turned springs and streams into scenic lakes, beginning in 1919 with a modest lake in the center of Đà Lạt.  Four years later they added another dam below the lake, enlarging it and naming it Grand Lake.  In 1932 a typhoon destroyed both dams and so the French built yet another, bigger dam to re-create the lake that lies there today, currently called Hồ Xuân Hương—Spring Fragrance Lake.  The long flower garden along one side of it no doubt influenced the choice of the new name.   
Đà Lạt Cathedral
stained glass window, Đà Lạt Cathedral
       Throughout the 1920s and 30s the town continued to grow.  More French colons erected houses here and enrolled their kids in the boarding schools. To cater to their spiritual needs, construction started on the Đà Lạt Cathedral in 1931, which took more than a decade to complete.  It resembles a typical church in the French countryside, featuring a narrow steeple 47 meters high.  Above the altar inside are several stained glass windows, evocative of those created in Notre Dame and Chartres Cathedral.
the Eifel Tower replica in Đà Lát
       As a final fillip to nostalgia for the homeland, the city installed a replica of the Eifel Tower in Paris.  This gave the city a new nickname—Little Paris. Le Pétit Paris.  That Paris was flat and Đà Lạt hilly didn’t seem to matter.  Đà Lạt was a French town, not an occupied Vietnamese town with French settlers.  It was supposed to be a place where the French could pretend they were in Europe, not in Southeast Asia.
       Among the pleasures offered was big game hunting.  Lâm Đồng province and the Central Highlands were sparsely populated at the time. The forests were still quite extensive and home to deer and roe, boars and bears, peacocks and pheasants, panthers and tigers, gaur and elephant.  Big game hunting became such a popular pastime that by the time the French packed up and left Đà Lạt in 1955, all those animals were extinct in Lâm Đồng.
       Hunting wasn’t restricted to the French colons.  High-ranking Vietnamese officials in the colonial government also built villas in the city and joined in the same pursuits.  The last Nguyễn Emperor, Bảo Đại, had a summer palace constructed in Đà Lạt in 1933 and a smaller one in Buôn Ma Thuột.  One of the routes between the two cities was a private one for the emperor’s entourage, so he could indulge in his favorite ‘sport’—shooting elephants.
       During World War II, with the Japanese occupying northern Vietnam, France made Đà Lạt the capital of its government of Indochina.  The city then had more French officials than usual, but no major changes took place.  After the war, it reverted to its role as a resort, but by the 1950s the Việt Minh insurgency had reached the Central Highlands and roads connecting Đà Lạt to other cities experienced sporadic guerrilla attacks. 
Huế specialty in the Đà Lạt market
       After the French departure Đà Lạt continued to be a holiday resort city, only now it was for officials and businessmen of the South Vietnam government.  The city’s population had always had a Vietnamese majority.  The French proportion peaked at 20% and was declining just before they all left.  The Vietnamese took over the vacated villas and hotels, added more and in 1966 opened the city’s premier attraction—the Đà Lạt Flower Garden next to Xuân Hương Lake.
       The Việt Cong insurgency was already underway by then.  Đà Lạt hosted a military academy that trained officers for the Sài Gòn regime.  But the only time the city came under attack was during the 1968 Tết Offensive, when every city in South Vietnam was targeted.  Otherwise, the two sides seemed to have an unofficial agreement not to let Đà Lạt suffer from the war.  The military academy stayed open and South Vietnamese officers spent their holidays in the city’s villas.  The Việt Cong trained their soldiers in the nearby forests, while their cadres relaxed in their own villas.  No planes or artillery bombed the area either, so today it is free of any unexploded ordnance or leftover mines.  North Vietnamese troops took the city 3 April 1975 without firing a shot.
a room at Hằng Nga, the 'Crazy House'
       After Vietnam’s re-unification Đà Lạt, like other cities in the country, fell upon hard times.  War damage and international isolation left Vietnam in dire straits economically.  When hardly anyone could afford to take a holiday anywhere, a place like Đà Lạt, designed to be a resort, could hardly prosper.  But by the end of the 20th century, with a new economic policy in effect and the country’s pariah status ended, growth, investment and tourism returned to Đà Lạt.  Nowadays it’s one of the country’s top travel destinations, but it has also developed along lines the French neither intended nor anticipated.  In short, now it is a fully-fledged city, important to other sectors of the economy besides the tourist industry.
       Among the Vietnamese who migrated to the Đà Lạt area in the early 20th century were those taking advantage of the newly tamed wilderness of the highlands to make farms.  Cabbages grow well around here and are in such abundance restaurants sometimes give customers a free plate of cabbage leaves with the meal.  Artichoke is another, valued as a treatment for liver and gall bladder problems.  Vietnamese tend to consume it less often as a vegetable and more likely as a medicine in the form of jelly or pills or as powder turned into tea.  And in recent years coffee plantations have spread throughout the Central Highlands, replacing the forests and sparking an influx of immigrants from all over the country.
Đaranla Falls
       The central market, Chợ Đà Lạt, has stalls full of cabbages, artichokes and coffee, as well as local flowers, avocados and strawberries in season, plus area specialties like preserved fruits, shredded deer meat and Đà Lạt wine.  Vietnamese were not wine-drinkers traditionally, so this was something the French introduced.  First they used strawberries and later grapes from vineyards established around Phan Rang.  Production continued long after the French left and now Đà Lát wine is available throughout the country and an all but obligatory beverage for Vietnamese tourists having dinner in a Đà Lạt restaurant.
       One of the surprises in the market is that one can hear all the language’s dialects in a single stroll.  Vietnamese from north, central and south Vietnam have all settled here and some operate businesses catering to regional tastes, like the goat restaurants run by northerners and the stalls making bánh khoài, the stuffed pancake from Huế, run by women from that city. 
Prenn Falls
       Tourism is still the city’s main business and visitors have a choice among dozens of hotels, ranging from five-star to backpacker specials.  The most unusual one, though, is clearly Hằng Nga, with weird buildings shaped out of trees, fanciful sculptures, decorations and room interiors that seem to have been inspired by an old hippie’s psychedelic fantasy.  Locals call it the Crazy House, the place also bills itself as an art museum and at any given time hosts more visitors than guests.
       Contemporary Đà Lạt’s attractions are still the same as they were in colonial days—the climate and the countryside.  Temperatures are always comfortable and several lakes, waterfalls and mountain views can be reached with easy motorbike excursions.  Just ten km south of the city off Route 20 is the Đatanla Falls.  The path to get there winds through a thick pine forest and descends steeply to the falls, which cascade gently across the boulders.  The area was a base of Lạch/Cơ Ho people resisting Chăm invasions in past centuries and a Cư Ho ceremonial pole stands nearby as a reminder.
            Another two km south is Prenn Pass, the former boundary between the Cơ Ho tribes on this side and the Chăm on the other side.  It was here the Cơ Ho turned back a Chăm invasion by King Pôrômê of Panduranga in the 17th century.  The waterfall at the foot of the mountain drops 13 meters over a precipice.  Even more spectacular are the Elephant Falls, 24 km sw of Đà Lạt, which drop 30 meters.
display in Đà Lạt Flower Farden 
       The lakes in the Đà Lạt vicinity are largely artificial, the result of dams built first by the French, and later by the Vietnamese, as hydropower and water storage projects.  As a bonus, the dams created a string of new scenic tourist spots:  the Gold and Silver Springs, 24 km northwest of the city, Tuyền Lâm Lake, just 5 km south, with a Trúc Lâm (Zen) monastery on the hill opposite, Đa Thiện just north and Hồ Than Thở, the Lake of Laments, named for a tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers who died here in the late 18th century.  
       With such sites within easy access of the city, Đà Lạt has drawn an ever-increasing number of Vietnamese tourists.  Mass domestic tourism has resulted in a plethora of tailor shops and souvenir stalls selling things like stuffed forest animals and silk-embroidered pictures of rural scenery and flowers.  And at places like Cám Ly Falls, in the city suburbs, tourists are offered pony rides by locals dressed like American cowboys, with some of the ponies painted to look like zebras.                 
       Despite such kitsch distractions, the main lure of the city for the Vietnamese is its landscape, its hills and valleys studded with pine forests and myriad flowers.  Among the species of flowers, decorating waterfalls, growing along the rural roads, sold in the markets and laid out in beautiful patterns in private and public gardens, are the peach blossom, sunflower, orchid, rose, hydrangea, pansy, mimosa and gladiolus. 
Đà Lạt flowers
Đà Lạt orchids
       Đà Lạt Flower Garden, sprawling alongside Xuân Hương Lake and the most beautiful place in town, features these and dozens more, including vines, ornamental plants and cacti.  Đà Lạt is one of the top destinations for Vietnamese on honeymoon and a leisurely amble through the flower garden is a must for newlyweds.  And if that isn’t romantic enough, they can take an excursion to the Valley of Love and the Forest of Kissing and Cuddling north of the city, appropriate anytime of year.  Spring is the season for lovers, and in Đà Lạt, it’s always spring. 

sunset in Đà Lạt

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