Dalat, one of the most charming and “European” of Vietnamese of it passed through its many historical buildings.
If you didn’t know you were in Vietnam, the pine forests, cool mountain air had charming villas of Dalat, might make you think were in the Alps, halfway around the globe.
It’s easy to understand why Dalat was chosen as a highlands resort site by the French colonial government at the beginning of the 20th century. Famed architect Ernest Hebrard was tasked to design the city plan, and by the early 1930s, Dalat had become tourism, recreation, sport and game hunting region, as well as an educational and research centre.
One of the best ways to get a sense of Dalat’s history is through the architecture that remains from colonial times. Instead of a uniform style, the homes and public places of Dalat reflect the variety of backgrounds and tastes of the original builders and inhabitants.
A stroll along the old Tue des Glaieuls (now Nguyen Viet Xuan Road), Rue des Rose (now Hung Thuc Khang Road), or Paul Doumer Road (now Tran Hung Dao) is like a gallery exhibition of the individual tastes. Set back from the highway, with windows like eyes peering over the treetops, the villas almost seem to express the innermost thoughts and feelings of their owners.
One look and you can guess each homeowner’s birth place.
This home’s walls are made of bricks and timber, a style from Normandy architecture. Another’s distinctive sloped roof connected with a chimney is a classic style of Brittany.
A Mediterranean style can be seen in one house with a flat roof and many vaulted doors. Another house has a grounds floor built with stones and the first floor made of wood, with a balcony running along the exterior; its owner must have come from the Basque country.
When the Second World War broke out, the number of villas in Dalat increased rapidly as many French in Indochina could not go home. In 1936 there were 327 villas; by 1945 that figure grew to over 1, 000 into a “Paris in miniature”.
The public architectural buildings in Dalat also express the nostalgia of their designers. The Dalat Railway Station, built by architects Moncet and Reveron in 1938, takes elements from the community houses of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, but maintains an overall French Art Deco theme. Unique details of the station such as the roofs and the stained glass windows echo the Trouville – Deauville railway station in Normandy.
Not every French building in Dalat carries such heavy nostalgia. There are also original works that represent the modernist styles of the times between World Wars I and II.
One such building is the Brad Lycee Yersin Scholl (now the Dalat teacher Training Collage), named after the Swiss – French bacteriologist who helped settle Dalat, Alexandre Yersin. Paul Moncet, one of the architects of the Dalat Railway Station, designed the school. Built from 1929 to 1953, the school is designed to look like an open book, with curved walls and a belfry rising straight up like a pen shot skywards.
Nor is every building’s style French in origin. Built in 1930, the granite Phi Anh villa (now Phu Dong restaurant) was imbued with Spanish architectural details, such as pillars and a vaulted gate, its two triangular components connected by a large corridor with low roof in the middle.
The imprints of this colonial city continue to be seen in the present-day architecture of new villas. The most popular new homes there are the A – form villas, like those in the Basque country. Of course, the materials are different and the amenities are modern, but they still bear the French style.
At the end of the day, Dalat with its unique architecture and climate can be said to be small bit of Europe in Vietnam.
Travel tip shared by Lanh Nguyen