by Moon, MAKE UP

Dalat in the spotlight: 50 years after Tet offensive, an invasion of a different kind


Dalat in the spotlight: 50 years after Tet offensive, an invasion of a different kind

Half a century after Dalat’s only major involvement in the Vietnam war, the 『city of eternal spring』 is grappling with the 3 million tourists who now visit each year

For Dalat, the pretty mountain town in southern Vietnam’s central highlands, the 「American war」 was, for the most part, taking place elsewhere – such was its isolation from the rest of the country. That is until 50 years ago, on 30 January 1968, when it found itself part of the Tet offensive – a series of surprise attacks undertaken by communist north Vietnamese forces across the country during its traditional New Year celebrations. Over 10 days, south Vietnamese and US forces stationed in Dalat were able to withstand Viet Cong raids and even rocket attacks. The brief Tet offensive was snuffed out on 9 February.

A bolthole from the war

The scars of the war are all but invisible now, for which Dalat can thank its rarified place in Vietnamese culture. A temperate resort full of Indochina-era charm, 「the city of eternal spring」 was apparently, by tacit agreement, used for R&R purposes by both sides in the war. Now this city of 350,000 is grappling with a second invasion, albeit a friendlier one: the 3 million tourists who visit annually. Developers and house builders are resorting to underhand methods to secure space for new buildings in Dalat’s limited footprint. Unlike the nearby coastal resort of Nha Trang, where overseas investment has transformed it into a south-east Asian Costa del Sol, land is at a premium, and what makes Dalat so unique – its farms, flora and fauna – is under threat.

City in numbers

1,500 metres – Dalat’s height above sea level.

486 – the number of hotels and B&Bs in the city.

17.8C – the average annual temperature.

Four – the average number of days tourists spend in Dalat.

History in 100 words

Established by French colonialists (including noted bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin) in the 1890s, Dalat began life as an agricultural research station and later an Alpine-style retreat, replete with hotels, spas and boarding schools for the offspring of the ruling classes. Despite the fall of the Indochina regime, and the city’s brief brush with the Vietnam War, Dalat has remained popular with domestic tourists and, increasingly, overseas visitors. It is also a significant source of vegetables such as broccoli, asparagus and artichokes, and probably its most enduring export, a wide variety of European flowers.

Dalat in sound and vision

The people of Dalat know how to throw a garish party, particularly when it comes to flowers. The biennial flower festival has become a huge tourist draw since it began 13 years ago.

Grand designs

While Dalat likes to style itself as 「Little Paris」, the pride the city takes in its heritage has fallen short in regards to the 2,000 French villas scattered around the town and surrounding countryside. In an article for the Vietnam Heritage website, Nguyen Hang Tinh paints a sorry picture of villas being squatted, broken up into condos and even used to house farm animals. 「I tried to find an 『intact』 villa but failed miserably: all are so faded and saggy that I could not imagine the splendour and glamour of their glorious days.」 Local government officials and state tourism organisations were quick to pass the buck for letting these architectural gems slip through their fingers, but all were in agreement on one issue: the time to preserve the villas has passed, and it’s now too late to save them.

The lack of aesthetic concern makes the political outrage directed at the Hang Nga guesthouse quite breathtaking in its hypocrisy. Dubbed the Crazy House by early visitors – architect Dang Viet Nga says the five-storey building is her tribute to Dalat’s natural surroundings by way of Antoni Gaudí. Its appearance was the source of much local government consternation. Officials repeatedly blocked Nga’s planning applications until she successfully appealed to their superiors in Hanoi. Following its construction in the late 1990s, it is run by Nga as a popular B&B, and was named as one of the world’s most bizarre buildings by Chinese newspaper, the People’s Daily.

Eco-fitting the city

As Dalat expands, green thinking is low on the priority list. The city makes much of its surrounding forests as a tourist attraction, but they are being sacrificed in the search for living space. As online newspaper Saigoneer put it in 2014: 「One of the saddest practices occurs when people, trying to set up houses in the forest, use acid to saturate tree roots, causing them to die en masse. Once [the] trees are dead, they petition the government for authorised tree removal.」 This practice was still taking place as recently as October last year, suggesting that it is in danger of seriously undermining Dalat’s reputation as a place of untainted natural beauty.

What’s next for the city?

Massive growth. The population of greater Dalat is projected to double to nearly 1 million by 2050. And with Vietnam continuing to enjoy a massive tourism boom (with nearly 13 million visitors last year, compared to just more than half that in 2012), it’s likely that the city’s tourist footprint will greatly increase, too. How the city can preserve its splendour while updating its infrastructure is highly uncertain. For onlookers such as the Saigoneer, the prognosis looks gloomy: 「In Vietnam’s battle to balance growth and preservation, the former is clearly winning.」

Close zoom

Vietnam’s most widely read daily, the VN Express, has turned its attention to Dalat following a crackdown on 「undesirable elements」 who threaten to disrupt the tourist trade. The official website of Lamdong province offers a frank history and overview of the city, so long as you』re not interested in anything that has taken place after around 2007.

Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to join the discussion, and explore our archive here

Asia Pacific Vietnam holidays Asia resources


  • Moon
  • 2018-02-01 15:01:17
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