Dalat and the central highlands

Dalat and the central highlands

By
Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
Contains
10 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742701578
Photographer
Michael Fountoulakis

The bride wore white. A fake mink stole around her bare shoulders kept the highland chill at bay and her thick make-up made her look like a porcelain doll. The happy groom in a suit one size too big for his slight frame stood behind her, coyly clasping his hands together in front of her stomach and romantically gazing at her profile. Both leaned against the black car—the groom casually resting one leg on the wide footboard and the bride steadying herself with her right hand against the elegantly curved mudguard of the 1955 Citroën, which had been polished and buffed to within an inch of its life.

Nestled between pine groves at the southern tip of the Central Highlands and about 345 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City, Dalat has long been the honeymoon capital of Vietnam. The town’s most popular spot for wedding photos is the grand Sofitel Palace Hotel, built in colonial times. Renovated after more than thirty years of neglect, it comes complete with vintage car in the driveway, French chansons on the PA and a chintzy dining room called the ‘Rabalais’. Unaffordable to the average Vietnamese, couples retreat after finishing a few rolls of film to their boisterous wedding receptions in the many local hotels closer to the centre of town.

Dalat, a town 1,500 metres above sea level, started life as a spa for French colonials tired of the oppressive heat and humidity in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta. The French created their own little piece of Europe in the cooler climes of the Central Highlands, complete with alpine hunting lodges, a golf course and even a replica of the Eiffel Tower. Dalat soon acquired a reputation as the colony’s playground for the rich and idle. This was no doubt helped along by the fact that Vietnam’s playboy emperor, Bao Dai, built himself an art-deco villa on the outskirts of town as a base for big-game hunting and relaxation with his favourite concubine.

The French not only modelled the township itself on their home country, but also introduced European food to the region. The consistently cooler climate in the mountain areas lends itself to cultivation of European vegetables and Dalat is famous for its market gardens, which start right at the outskirts of the town and stretch to other villages in the Lam Dong province. At Dalat’s central Xuan Huong market, there is an abundance of asparagus, avocados, cabbages, artichokes, tomatoes and zucchini available.

The town is also well known for its berries, particularly strawberries and mulberries—and there appear to be more people with bad or missing teeth than anywhere else in the country. The reason for this may just be found in the front section of the market, which is home to stall after stall selling candied berries and sweet strawberry wine. The people of Dalat certainly seem to have a sweet tooth.

Café Trung in the city centre is one of the two bohemian icons that remain to this day. It is a time capsule—with brown vinyl benches and low laminex tables sporting cigarette burns probably dating back to heated discussions over strong highland coffee and local red wine in the early sixties.

The so-called ‘Crazy House’ is the other—a sprawling number of buildings connected by walkways and designed without a right angle in sight. Sticking with the organic, back-to-nature theme, each room is planned around a particular animal—the ‘Bee Room’, for example, is decorated with irregular yellow and black glass panes. The building was designed by the architect daughter of a former Vietnamese president—very handy when it came to getting the building permit from the local committee. Originally intended to be a guest house and built against the wishes of the more conservative locals, it is now one of the main tourist attractions of Dalat.

Recipes in this Chapter

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