Devouring Dalat: A Glutton’s Guide to Vietnam’s Coolest Town
From bánh mì to bacon butter via grilled goat and curried rabbit
Somewhere around 1,500 meters up, during a bánh mì break in a stand of tall pines, K’Vang Mull and I struck a deal.
My 38-year old forest guide was fit, but he was also hungover and saddled with a backpack the size of his torso. I, meanwhile, was carrying nothing beyond my bottomless appetite.
So we agreed to downgrade our climb to the highest peak in Bidoup Nui Ba National Park to a leisurely evening on its prettiest overlook.
K’Vang, as he prefers to be called, spent the next hour or so explaining everything he touched as we left the pines and pushed through thick jungle.
This was the plant that girls in his tribe used to powder their faces. This was the tree no one ever burned because the smoke made women sterile. This was the lu-li leaf he planned to rub on the pork belly stashed in his bulging pack.
K’Vang, who speaks English and Vietnamese as well as his native K’Ho, works under a park program that provides eco-tourism opportunities to the ethnic minority tribes who first settled these mountains.
That morning, he’d hired a 21-year-old corn farmer named Kon Sa Ha Ret to run our camping gear up the mountain (specialty footwear: a pair of rubber rain boots). We caught up to him at our destination a little after lunch time. I took a two-hour nap while our tents were pitched in a small bluff on the Lang Biang Plateau — the coolest place in southern Vietnam, climactically and otherwise — and awoke to the smell of barbecue.
The three of us spent the afternoon watching the rolling peaks turn from gecko green to pimp purple. By sundown, we had consumed the better part of a pig (wrapped in lu-li leaves, dipped in ramen powder); four roast potatoes; three loaves of bread; two cucumbers; a bottle of Hanoi vodka; and the gourd full of corn porridge Ha Ret had packed for, you know, extra sustenance.
I dropped into my tent and—despite the unfamiliar cries of the birds overhead and the unidentified rustling in the bushes—fell into a dreamy sleep. In the morning, K’Vang handed me a cup of hot noodles and introduced me to the small black snake he’d found under my temporary quarters.
Instead of taking the easy way back, we plunged down a wild pig trail that ended in a thick wall of phragmites. Undaunted, Ha Ret hurled his body into the reedy stalks like a wrecking ball, beating a path that led us across shallow streams and grassy meadows to the coffee farm where we’d parked the scooters we’d take back to Dalat.
A Refuge From Heat of Various Kinds
The French found southern Vietnam to be a pretty tough place after conquering it in the mid-1800s. With climate-related illnesses killing soldiers and bureaucrats by the boatload, the administration decided it needed a high-altitude retreat and settled on Đà Lạt—a small lake at the southern end of the Lang Biang plateau wrapped in pines, flush with deer and barely populated by the indigenous tribes known as the Lat.
The colons generously expended thousands of Lat and Vietnamese lives to build the road to their new sanatorium. (Before its completion, a few of the casualties had the honor of hand-carrying feverish foreigners up the mountain on sedans.) But the “hill station” failed to solve the problem of sickness. In fact, the ornamental lakes added for ambiance created breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes.
Few cared: Dalat was a place where men of means could hunt a tiger, play a round of golf and be back at the Palace Hotel for cocktails at sunset.
After the French were sent packing and the Vietnam War officially began, Dalat offered a haven for intellectuals and political actors avoiding a different kind of heat. And after the country was reunified in 1975, it became somewhere to start again, with blacklisted former members of the US-backed regime carving out farms in the woods.
Now, under the “socialist-oriented market economy,” karaoke parlors outnumber villas by a wide margin. But no matter: This remains a great place to escape. It’s also one of the best eating destinations in Vietnam, which is to say, in the world.
Buttery Bacon, Baguettes, and Cappuccino
While you can fly from Saigon to Dalat in under an hour, you may want to opt for the 300km ride on the sleeper bus. If you time your Ambien right, you’ll wake to the pale purple dawn cracking over the pink spires and crumbling alpine roofs of the town’s skyline.
Waste no time and head straight for the little green-trimmed house on the corner where students and workers drink tea and toast baguettes — freshly delivered by motorbike — around a little charcoal brazier. (Marked A in the map linked to below). In back of the crowd, a pair of tough-looking sisters spoon out piping hot meatballs, pig skin and cracklings into little bowls of spicy green onion broth.
The bánh mì xíu mại here isn’t quite a sandwich and it’s not quite a soup. You’ll want to scoop up the big bits with a spoon and sop up the rest with as many crispy baguettes as possible before the sisters inevitably run out of their exquisite pig skin (think bacon, with the texture and consistency of cold butter).
Once you’re thoroughly meat-balled up, you’ll need a good cup of coffee. The Bicycle Cafe (B) occupies a trio of rooms in the center of town, artfully cluttered with old orchestral instruments, a hospital bed converted to a couch and a claw-foot bathtub planted with fresh flowers.
Tuong, a professor of architecture at the local university, and his wife Thuy, say they opened the place to house a decade of accumulated antiques and to provide students a spot to gather and appreciate the delicious arabica being grown on farms high above town.
As the soundtrack skips from Bruce Springsteen to Trinh Cong Son to ZZ Top, cool young Dalatois smoke, drink $1.50 cappuccinos and imagine a past where everyone rode home on a French racing bike and listened to music on a gramophone.
Quail Eggs and Pig Hearts
Now that you’re caffeinated, you could… visit a flower farm; take a ride in a cable car; stroll through a historic villa; or take a swim in a waterfall. All of these are secondary activities, essentially ways to kill the hours until 3PM: the time to đi chơi, đi vòng vòng and đi nhậu (go drinking and eating).
Start by tromping up the hill from the Bicycle Cafe and dog-legging into the little alley where a lady from Phan Rang poaches quail eggs in bánh căn—cups of grilled rice batter (C). Be sure to dunk each bite into the accompanying bowl of pineapple-infused fish sauce, where you’ll find two little meatballs floating for good measure.
Next, head further up the hill and across the street, where three generations of women stand shoulder-to shoulder, chopping pig hearts, tongues and chickens into an other-worldly dry noodle dish (D). Chilies, white onions, herbs and bánh ướt — paper-thin sheets of phở noodles — cut the offal with help from a ladle of fish sauce.
A little star-shaped ball of deep-fried rice dough gets thrown into every order like a texture grenade.
Meat and Drink
Now it’s time to celebrate the Year of the Goat with a trip to Quán Ăn Diệu Thông (“The Awesome Pine Restaurant”), where the lucky animal gets prepared seven different ways (E).
This is the destination of choice for well-heeled provincial muckity-mucks, military types and policemen on official benders. Get there early and grab a table overlooking the lush green valley below; the dê nướng (grilled goat) and dê tái chanh (goat ceviche, or near-as-be-damned) make a fine late-afternoon meal.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, don’t leave without trying the dê rựa mận — a dish that translates to “machete plum” but contains neither. Rựa mận refers to a northern style of cooking, usually reserved for dog, whereby hunks of skin-on meat are seared in an open fire and then simmered in fermented rice and some of the things served raw on the side: purple shrimp paste, herbs, lemongrass stalks and slices of galangal.
(Warning: If you arrive after dark, you’re destined to get roped into a round of ritual rice wine pounding that will end your night here.)
Rabbit and Religion
To make room for the next encounter, you could walk or bike 7 miles to the village of Trai Mat, where many go to gawk at the most garish Buddhist pagoda in the country, if not the world.
Fewer visitors pay any mind to the huge Cao Dai temple on the opposite hill, one of many shrines to the homegrown religion that recognizes Lao Tzu, Victor Hugo and Winston Churchill as patron saints.
Fewer still take the concrete road that soars high above the temple’s all-seeing eye to the turquoise hutch where one family has mastered the art of extreme rabbit-based cuisine.
Decorated with odd animal pelts, fake flowers and a stuffed hawk, Lộng Gió Quán (“The Windy Tavern”) has no sign, no address and only three dishes on its chalk menu (F).
Order a basket of thỏ nướng (grilled rabbit) to munch while you wait for your thỏ hon—curried bunny served in a wok full of chilies and citronella cooked atop a charcoal brazier. (As for item #3 on the menu—tiết canh thỏ, a soup of raw rabbit’s blood—even the bravest gourmand may be forgiven for taking a pass.)
With any luck, you’ll be invited to join some locals watching the lights come up on the temples and hot houses in the valley—a spectacle best appreciated with a bottle of local Soju.
“Pizza” and Peanut Milk
To finish off your evening, follow the packs of hungry students down Nguyen Van Troi street for curbside bánh tráng nướng. If this delicacy indeed qualifies as “Vietnamese pizza,” then consider Dalat the Naples of the nation.
Make your way to the narrow eatery that doubles as a women’s shoe store, where a lady from Hue has manned the single burner since the end of the war (G). Her two daughters now help her in the fine art of transforming a round of rice paper, a scoop of dried shrimp and a scrambled quail egg into one snack that could rule them all. Each costs a dollar and is eaten with a pair of scissors and a squirt of chili sauce.
End the night on a sweet note by hunkering down at the sữa đậu nành joint behind the central market, where the young and the beautiful linger over steaming glasses of soy milk simmered with knots of pandan leaf (H). If that doesn’t float your boat, you could always try the sữa đậu phụng, which goes down like hot, liquid peanut butter, or the mung bean milk or black sesame porridge. They cost a quarter a cup and the place is open into the wee hours.
U-Pick Coffee and Yardbirds
How to atone for that orgy of over-indulgence? Get up early and take the 45-minute drive to the little village of Lac Duong, where (wet) Catholic and (dry) Protestant K’Ho Cil communities hug opposite sides of the road that leads to the top of Lang Biang Mountain. Not far from its base sits the idyllic farm of Josh Guikema and Ro Lan Co Lieng.
Guikema grew up in a community of U-pick blueberry farms in Western Michigan. While working as a guide shepherding Vespa-riding tourists from Saigon to Dalat, he met and fell in love with Ro Lan — a trilingual farmer’s daughter with a gift for playing the bamboo xylophone.
After marrying and having a son, the pair settled in a cozy wooden cottage overlooking a dense hectare of Arabica shrubs. French colons brought these coffee varietals to Vietnam over a century ago, but they’re only now being re-discovered by aficionados all over the world.
Despite the ideal soil and altitude, coffee has proven a tough business in Lac Duong: predatory middle-men offer loans of fertilizer and cash as a tactic to snatch up land, and bandits can make off with a hectare’s-worth of fruiting shrubs in a single night-time raid.
Two years ago, Guikema and Co Lieng bought her family members out of debt and formed their own collective. During picking season, you can strap on a basket and help harvest coffee cherries that get pulped and dried on-premise. During the low season, you can watch members of the family weave traditional blankets, shawls and baby slings on a hand loom.
Best of all, you can sit down to a thick, rich cup of mud prepared in a French press as you plan your day. There’s nothing to stop you setting off on a bracing hike. But, on the other hand… there’s a guy around the corner from Sun Valley, Idaho, who stokes his Neapolitan pizza oven with wood from old coffee shrubs.
You’ll want to call K’Be BBQ (I) to make sure the oven’s hot. If it is, head in for the $5 pizzas or a local yardbird, roasted—head, feet and all—in foil.
As the sun goes down, K’Be’s picnic tables typically fill with local guides carrying plastic bags of cold beer in from across the street—fuel for long talks in a patois that few beyond the village gate would understand.
This is the time to plan your ambitious multi-day ascent to the highest point in the nearby national park. One that will involve shocking feats of physical strength and spiritual endurance. A trip that will bring you to peaks so high, you’ll disappear into the clouds above them.
Devouring Dalat Guide
View on Google Maps
Getting Around: If you’re truly fit and restless, you may wish to walk or bicycle most of this route — so long as you don’t mind hills.
Lazier souls can hire a xe ôm (motorcycle taxi) to most any destination on the eating map for $5 or less, with the exception of the outlying spots, which cost more. Actual taxis cost roughly 50 cents a kilometer.
The least safe and most fun way to go is to rent your own small-engine motorbike for around $5 a day. (Vietnam will soon begin recognizing international motorcycle driver’s licenses.)
Camping and Picking Coffee: Because K’ho Coffee is headquartered in a home with a (very cute) baby in it, you’ll want to call or email ahead to set up a visit. The more notice, the better.
Likewise with your triumphant hike through the National Park for which you’ll need nothing more than a small flashlight, some warm clothes and money. The park has a headquarters in Dalat where you can arrange to rent tents, sleeping bags, guides, food and transportation to a trail head. Call or email ahead to work out particulars.