(No.11, Vol.3, Dec 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
Hidden in the very deep of pine forests, Dalat is an enigma that puts a lasting spell on everyone paying it a visit. The perfume of mystery is almost palpable in the Dalat air. It makes those who felt it at their first visit to come here again and again. The very special atmosphere of the city that, no doubt, is partly created by high mountain air that makes new-comers tipsy and overexcited, but is also richly flavoured by intrigues and secrets of the close past, when French colonial elite was living its passion here.
Du Parc Dalat Hotel, formerly Novotel Dalat, in Tran Phu St.
Photo: Nathalie Sokolovskaya
With old French architecture and a general European-city-like image, Dalat’s beauty can be compared to the cold beauty of a lightly snobbish aristocratic dame who keeps her real face under voile. This city impresses by an amazingly weaved combination of habits left from colonial times; as a fashion of 1940’s French with berets, long coats and scarfs prevailing amongst the elderly generation of the city’s inhabitants, local wine producing tradition, freshly baked small croissants in the streets, old songs and tango from the windows of houses, and multicolored features of authentic Vietnamese culture.
Mountains seem to completely conquer the traditional understanding of time. Dalat visitors get a chance not only to live through four seasons a day in the local mountainous climate, but also meet face-to-face the mysterious living past that hasn’t yet left the city.
Situated high in the mountains, at the altitude of 1,500 m, between the earth and the heavens, Dalat has a fabulous bouquet of mysterious stories, its own spirits and ghosts and even small miracles such as self-revolving wooden tables.
The city cinema building that used to be a central market in the old times is piquantly repudiated for its unusual regular visitors-two spirits. Today, local cinephiles get a chance to watch not only the promised movie but also some other surrealistic performances: the vague silhouettes of two men in clothes from the beginning of the last century are said to cross from time to time a cinema room during a movie projection. These mystical gentlemen move as if they are choosing some products in the market, walking without any haste with several stops on their way from one dark corner of the cinema room to another. None of Dalat’s inhabitants can tell where these unusual personages appear from and to where they subsequently disappear. They are only said to love visiting the cinema when old white-black movies are being projected.
The old French style chalet of the last queen’s father, Nguyen Huu Hao, towering high above the beginning of Khe Sanh Street, also has a mystical reputation for its sinister inhabitants, and reminds one of an ominous villa on the hill from old Hitchcock horror movie.
Dalat possess a considerable number of old villas, badly repudiated for their sinister inhabitants. Some of them are so sinister that no one dares to live in those houses for dozens of years.
The scariest is Chrysantheme Villa at the very gates of Dalat city, on the Prenn pass. This old French villa has been a witness to the mysterious death of a whole French family who lived there, more than 40 years ago. After their death, the perished house owners started to haunt the house, scaring the inhabitants of the whole city. Starting from the 1970’s, no one has dared to live there. Even during the most violent winter colds, homeless people never enter it. Only a couple of years ago some daring businessman from Saigon has bought it for an uncertain purpose, and he still doesn’t live there. There is only an old man guarding the old villa and living on a few tips from the rare tourists who have enough courage to go there. He has installed an altar to burn perfume sticks for spirits’ peace. However, he never turns the light off at night.
The ghosts are said to be frequent guests at Dalat’s oldest hotels, but these errant souls seem to be much friendlier than those from the scary villa and only add a piquant touch to the charm of these hotels.
If friendly spirits did ever exist, they would definitely choose Hang Nga Moon Villa on Khuynh Thuc Khang Street for their auberge.
The Moon Villa, known amongst indigenous people and tourists as Crazy House, is probably the most insolite and delirant construction in South-Eastern Asia. This fantastic guest house was erected 10 years ago by lady architect Dr Dang Viet Nga. Inspired by the natural beauty of the mountainous city, the architect planned to build a villa that would harmonize with the natural landscape as much as possible. The result of her vivid imagination, great inspiration and hard work stands above all possible expectations.
Moon Villa represents an immense, branchy tree made of concrete, with labyrinths of honey-bee house like corridors, sheltering 10 rooms.
Each of villa’s rooms has its own friendly spirit: Bear, Eagle, Tiger, Honey Bee, etc., placed in the center of each room to guard a sweet sleep of their guests. The whole incredible construction is finished by giant Beton giraffe outside.
One can break the eyes trying to find a single sharp corner in the whole building! But there is none.
The author of this fantasy of stone and concrete is Dr Dang Viet Nga, an outstanding woman who had overcome many obstacles, but managed to conquer her fantastic world from banality.
Her Moon Villa is a place where all the notion of time and space can be completely lost and forgotten for an hour or even night or two and where one can be swept away by a riptide of its author’s powerful fantasy!
Dalat is the city that strikes by mysterious atmosphere, inimitably weaving the amazing combination of old French architecture with traditional Vietnamese pagodas and even with Zen Buddhism monasteries, by peaceful neighborhoods of juicy yellow bamboo valleys and deep green pine forests, by the happy co-existence of the close past and the present. This city seems to turn contrasts into amazing harmony, to reunite and to deflect two opposite categories-the past and the present. It seems to know the secret of time deflection, and it has got its own time niches and time bridges. It even possesses its own time machine! It departs daily at 4 p.m. from Dalat old railway station, so anyone intrigued has a chance to experience how it feels like to travel across times and cultures at an hour.
The old steam-engine locomotive that carries tourists throughout time and culture has its own interesting story to tell. The railway connecting Dalat with Phan Rang on the central coast was built by French in the early 20th century. It gave the high hill town development its kick-start and led it to the pretentious position of the summer capital of colonial Indochina. To make the train resistant to mountainous landscapes and hard passes, it was supplied with specially-designed saw teeth-like wheels. In 1997, seven km of rails leading to Trai Mat village was restored to serve tourists. The route is not that long, but provides the full variety of bright impressions. A few minutes after departure and one observes the total change of outer decorations from the cold beauty of a European look-alike city to truly Asian countryside with tiny houses, small gardens that seem to have just escaped from some kind fairy tale, persimmon trees with bright orange fruits, flower greenhouses and Linh Phuoc Pagoda as a final route destination.
Built in 1953, this pagoda is one of impressive examples of authentic Vietnamese architecture. It’s one of the brightest reflections of the imagination and skills of Vietnamese artisans at their full creativeness and inventiveness. The full complex comprises the two-storey pompous main pagoda, richly decorated with a multicolored mosaic of broken porcelain dishes with a five-metre Buddha on a lotus flower inside, and a six-level tower covered with sophisticated ornaments, giving a magnificent panorama of surroundings from the top. The tower shelters an immense bell fixated to the very top, seen from the ground floor as the bottomless eye of eternity and a big drum to help Buddha more clearly hear the prayers of visitors. The whole incredible construction is completed by a 36 metre dragon made of beer bottles and broken dishes, kneeling to worship Buddha.
Photo: Angeline Ibarra
Some abandoned villas at the beginning of Hung Vuong Street are also said to shelter unusual inhabitants. Or maybe it is just a mountain wind disturbing old wooden floors or the voices of the past that don’t want to leave the city.
Those visitors who like to find the authentic features of truly Vietnamese culture in Dalat that do exist in fact and live happily with General European look of the city should visit Tau (Chinese) Pagoda on Khe Sanh Street, where a small, self-revolving wooden table of uncertain provenance found its home. It revolves independently according to visitor’s orders, without them even touching it. The most amazing about this is that it understands all languages.
Its ‘younger brother’, another magic table (yes, there are two) can be found in the small house, next to Tau Pagoda on the left. The owner of the second magic table says her father brought it from Qui Nhon, where he had bought it from Chinese merchants at the beginning of the last century. The owner is sure that the table brings luck to the family and she is very grateful to this unusual family member made of wood for providing her a constant income from tourists coming to see the local small miracle.
The living history in Dalat seems to look through the windows of old villas, to pass just behind your back, touching you lightly with the hands in velvet gloves. The spirit of the close past here sometimes is so dense that one can catch a perfume of old candles, the smoke of pinewoods from some old fireplace, a sweet perfume of Chanel, and hear a distant sound of gramophone playing tango, or the klaxon of some old Peugeot.
The recent past that hasn’t yet had enough time to leave Dalat; it has just stopped, deep in its thoughts, to observe its lands for the last time before quitting. Walk along old French villas on Tran Hung Dao and Hung Vuong streets at dusk, and you’ll feel how the past, coming together with dense night fog, fills the air with mystery.
*Nathalie Sokolovskaya is a Russian writer who has been living in Dalat for years.