Dalat, Vietnam.

One Day in Dalat – An Itinerary for a Heady Day in Vietnam’s Coffee Capital

One day in Dalat in Vietnam’s Southern Central Highlands most definitely isn’t enough time for this former French colonial hill station and tea, flower and coffee-producing centre, set amidst pine-forested mountains, rolling green hills and serene lakes. But sadly that’s all most travellers allow. Follow our Dalat itinerary to make the most of your one day in Dalat.

One day in Dalat in Vietnam’s southern Central Highlands, with part of that day dedicated to enjoying the fresh, cool air as you explore the surrounding countryside and picturesque mountains and valleys, peppered with sprawling lakes, will give you just a delicious taste of this agriculturally rich region. Thanks to its fertile volcanic soil, Dalat is known as Vietnam’s fruit bowl. Along with Dalat coffee, it is fruit and vegetables, particularly strawberries and artichokes, as well as tea, flowers, and wine, for which the region is best known.

Located at a cool 1,500 metres (4,900 feet) above sea level in Vietnam’s southern Central Highlands, Dalat was established by the French during the colonial era as a cool retreat from the sultry and often sweltering coastal cities. Laidback, friendly and picturesque, these days Dalat is a destination for Vietnamese honeymooners, coffee lovers here for the emerging coffee culture, and foodies here for the fantastic street food.

Here’s our how to spend one day in Dalat.

One Day in Dalat Itinerary for a Heady Day in Vietnam’s Coffee Capital

Getting to Dalat

If you’re only allowing one day in Dalat you don’t want to waste it, so take a flight from any of the major Vietnam cities to avoid the long drive. Our 50-minute Vietnam Air flight from Saigon departed at 6.20am getting us in at 7.10am so we had the whole day ahead of us. I booked a driver and guide to collect us from the airport, so we were able to jump straight into a full day tour. Note that Vietnam Air flight schedules change frequently so double-check flight times close to departure. Prepare yourself and take a warm jacket or cardigan on the plane: in your first moments outside the airport, the fresh, clean, cool air will come as a shock if you’ve arrived from sultry Saigon.

Where to Stay in Dalat

Overlooking lovely Xuan Huong Lake and a 10-minute walk downhill to Lam Vien Square and Da Lat market in the centre of town, the five-star Dalat Palace Heritage Hotel, dating to 1922, has high ceilinged rooms with polished wooden floorboards and furnished with antiques. Nearby, in a handsome early 1930s building, the four-star Dalat Hotel Du Parc has modernised its rooms and public spaces, but its original steel cage elevator, sweeping staircases and affordable prices make up for it. Dalat’s most luxurious accommodation is Ana Mandara Villas Dalat Resort and Spa, a collection of 17 beautifully decorated French colonial villas with four-poster beds, claw-foot bathtubs and fireplaces. Set in pine forest with a gorgeous outdoor pool, it’s a 3km drive from the centre. A similar concept, hilltop Dalat Cadasa Resort has spacious rooms and suites with fireplaces in antique-filled villas. Surrounded by fragrant gardens, it’s around 2kms from the market and lake. The cosy rooms and public spaces may be homey and old-fashioned, but guests love Flowersandrocks Villa, a French stone cottage with myriad terraces and balconies, a few kilometres from the centre.

A Dalat Countryside Tour

Nearly every guide and tour operator in the region offers Dalat countryside tours with similar itineraries. Maximise your time instead by hiring a guide and driver for a private, bespoke day-trip beginning from the airport and taking the back road (DT725) rather than the highway (CT14) to Dalat. I booked Binh of Dalat Street Food Tours for an evening food tour, and as I knew what I wanted to do during the day, I collaborated with him to create an itinerary that combined elements of the standard Dalat countryside tours with the things I wanted to experience.

Coffee in Dalat

Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer after Brazil and world’s largest grower of Robusta coffee and it’s Robusta coffee that is used for the ubiquitous filtered coffee, sipped everywhere from footpath stalls to coffee houses. Kick off your one day in Dalat itinerary with a cup of coffee at Obama Coffee Shop in the small hamlet of Nam Ban, about 30kms out of Dalat, for a ca phe sua da (cà phê sua đa), iced coffee made with condensed milk. Look for the sign of a waving Barack Obama. Obama wasn’t here on his Vietnam trip; the locals just have a bit of a thing for the former US president. In the sign on the beer joint across the road, Obama is toasting a group with a glass of Guinness. Up the hill, tranquil Linh An Pagoda is worth a quick stop for the colossal ‘happy Buddha’ statue, manicured gardens and mountain views. There are waterfalls nearby.

Breakfast in Dalat

If you missed breakfast due to your early departure, have your guide stop at nearby Cho Thang Long, a local market in Nam Ban. While the stalls are worth a poke around, you’re here to slurp one of Dalat’s popular noodle soups, bun rieu Dalat (bún riêu Đà Lạt). The region’s take on this hearty Vietnamese noodle soup is made with spaghetti-like noodles, a broth of tomatoes and ground rice paddy crab shells, and pork hock, congealed pig’s blood cake (huyết), vegetables, and spring onions. Add a heap of the garnish served on a side dish – crunchy bean sprouts, finely sliced iceberg lettuce, mint, and perilla. A squeeze of lime is essential. If you’re not with Binh in a woollen cap manning the pots out front.

Morning in Dalat

Spend the rest of your morning driving the quiet country roads and dirt tracks to take in the tea and coffee plantations that blanket the gently undulating hills as far as the eyes can see. As we stood on a hilltop gawking at the gorgeous green Arabica coffee fields, our guide Binh explained the coffee making process, from picking coffee cherries, selecting and drying beans, to the milling process. Guides can also arrange for you to learn from the producers themselves on visits to plantations such as Highlands Coffee Plantation. With more than one day in Dalat you could visit Cau Dat Tea Factory, established in 1927, and some 22kms from Dalat, to learn more about the tea process.

It’s worth stopping at a local rice wine maker to observe how the traditional rice spirit is distilled as it has always been and to have a tasting of this firewater. The small family-ran operation our guide took us to unfortunately also produced weasel coffee. We avoided a tasting for ethical reasons, but there are other rice wine producers in the area.

If you believe that protein-rich insects are the food of the future, don’t miss a visit to Thien An Cricket Farm, where you can see the crickets, learn about the breeding process and life-cycle, watch them feed, and sample this popular Vietnamese snack in its many forms, from crunchy crickets stir-fried with chilli and kaffir lime to cricket tea and cricket wine.

Your final stop before heading into Dalat should be the Van Thanh Flower village where you can stop to visit one of the many fragrant flower gardens and green houses growing lillies, carnations, tulips, buttercups, daisies, hydrangeas, chrysanthemums, gerberas, roses, and more. This is the wealthiest of Dalat’s flower villages, with some 300 growers. While this probably wouldn’t be very exciting anywhere else, except to horticulturalists and gardening lovers, stopping to smell the roses is a rare opportunity here in Southeast Asia. (The closest I get are to my Rose and Lemongrass martinis at Miss Wong bar in Siem Reap.) Make sure your driver pulls over at Ta Nung Pass so you can also gaze at those gobsmacking views over the valley, forest and lake for a while.

Lunch in Dalat

When it comes to eating, Dalat is one of those Vietnamese cities where the street food is far superior to the restaurants, but Le Chalet Dalat Coffee and Bistro (6 Huynh Thuc Khang) is an idiosyncratic little spot offering healthy food, including vegetable soups, sandwiches, fresh fruit smoothies and juices, crepes, and fruit based desserts, as well as Vietnamese standards, including noodle soups such as pho and Mì Quãng Khô, the local take on mì Quãng. Set in lush gardens, it’s a lovely setting to relax in for a while, with a quirky design tipping a hat to the nearby greenhouses with its floor to ceiling glass windows and up-turned watering cans serving as lampshades. There’s live acoustic music in several nights a week. It’s located near one of Dalat’s most visited tourist attractions, Hằng Nga – which I’m to understand more correctly translates to ‘fairy tale house’, but is best known as ‘Crazy House’. Built by a Vietnamese architect, the sculptural design was inspired by Catalan Antoni Gaudí.

Afternoon in Dalat

If you’re a coffee lover, spend some of your afternoon doing a Dalat coffee tour or two. Your first stop after lunch should be La Viet (Là Việt), for Dalat’s finest bean-to-cup coffee, some shopping for liquid and edible souvenirs, and a first-rate coffee tour. Located in a huge, airy warehouse space, La Viet is a café, coffee producer, roastery, and barista training centre in one. Staff offer regular, short, behind-the-scenes coffee tours, which tour operators and guides can book if you’ve only got one day in Dalat and are on a tight schedule. They also offer a longer, more in-depth afternoon tour (1.30-4.30pm) looking at how coffee beans are graded, processed and roasted, with some hands-on experiences at roasting and coffee making.

You or your guide can also pre-arrange a tour and Dalat coffee tasting at K’Ho Coffee on the hilltop of Langbiang village, home to the K’Ho ethnic minority peoples, 10kms from the city centre. You’ll get an introduction to the work of the co-operative, which grows 100% Arabica, an explanation of the coffee process, and on a hike through their coffee garden will hopefully see some coffee cherries, depending on the season. (Longer half-day and full-day tours can also be booked ahead of time if you decide to spend more than one day in Dalat.) With Langbiang Mountain as a backdrop, you can linger over a pour-over, cold-press, filtered, or espresso coffee – and even sample coffee ‘tea’.

Late Afternoon in Dalat

Back in Dalat, don’t miss seeing some of the handsome old villas of Dalat’s French Quarter, on the ridge along Tran Hung Dao road – if you didn’t check into Ana Mandara Villas Dalat Resort or Dalat Cadasa Resort, where you’d be staying in one. If you’re an architecture lover who, when in European cities, always make a beeline for the main square and church, then there a few to see here, although with only one day in Dalat you might only have time for one.

Don’t miss Dalat’s towering Romanesque-style St Nicholas Cathedral (also known as the St Nicholas of Bari Cathedral, Chin Toa Church, Con Ga Church or ‘Chicken Church’ to the locals), started in 1931 and completed in 1942. There are sweeping views of the city and Langbian Plateau from the bell tower. Also take a peek at the grand Pedagogical College of Dalat, formerly Lycée Yersin, a unique building that’s notable for its beautiful curved structure, lofty 54m bell tower, row of elegant arches, and bricks and roof tiles brought from France, and the pretty pale apricot-coloured, hilltop Domaine de Marie Church, built from 1940-43 in the Normandy style of churches.

The historic Dalat Train Station, built by the French in 1938, has a design with three high pointed roofs, a homage to the traditional communal buildings of the Cao Nguyen ethnic minorities while representing the three peaks of Dalat’s Lang Biang Mountain. Don’t miss the renovated interior, which has a large central clock and multicoloured glass windows, and the old steam locomotive. With more than one day in Dalat you could ride in the old wooden carriages along the last remaining section of the Da Lat-Thap Cham railway line, a 7km track to the small town of Trai Mat, where there are some unique pagodas that can be visited.

The Bai Dai Palaces are also worth a look. There are three palaces but with only one day in Dalat it’s best to focus on Palace III, the Bao Dai Summer Palace, which was the birthplace of Bao Dai, Vietnam’s last emperor, who lived and worked here, and hunted in the surrounding forests. Built in 1933 the fairly modest Art Deco residence also served as a family retreat. Vintage lovers will appreciate the retro leather sofa chairs and orange upholstered furniture.

Shopping in Dalat

Dalat is the place to shop for edible souvenirs in Vietnam and while you’ll find all sorts of snacks at the markets, with only one day in Dalat you’re best making a beeline for one of the wonderful L’angfarm shops for Dalat specialties. Terence brought me a bag full of scrummy Dalat treats on his last trip and I stocked up again when I was there for our Vietnam Culinary Tour. Great buys include teas (I bought some artichoke, noni and lotus tea), delicious fruit jams and concentrates (I’ve tried both the mulberry and raspberry and they’re heavenly), dried fruit and vegetables (artichoke and permission are popular), confectionery (I love the sugar-coated mulberries and tamarind), honey, nuts, Dalat wine and fermented rice wine, and, naturally, Dalat coffee, both Arabica and Robusta. See our guide to Dalat markets and specialty food and wine shops for lots more details.

Evening in Dalat

If you only have one day in Dalat, then sign up for Binh’s after dark Dalat street food tour and spend a few hours grazing on Dalat’s street food specialties. We sampled a long list of local snacks including Dalat style banh beo (bánh bèo Đà Lạt); Dalat’s very own Vietnamese ‘pizza’, bánh Tráng nướng; and a local specialty invented in Dalat called xap xap – crunchy green papaya salad with sweet and salty pork intestine jerky, fresh zingy basil, and sour tamarind sauce.

Dinner in Dalat

If you prefer to sip some Vang Dalat with your meal, try the welcoming Maison Long Hoa (6 Ð 3 Thang 2), a charmingly old-fashioned restaurant owned by Phan Thai, a Vietnamese Francophile. With lacy curtains on the French doors, tartan tablecloths, chequerboard floor tiles, classical music, and overall cosiness, it’s particularly inviting on a cold winter’s night. Phan Thai greets diners in French and pours glasses of his wife’s strawberry wine. Locals come for the large garlic steaks served with fries, while foreigners tuck into warming meals, such as clay pot fish and morning glory.

For something a lot fancier, reserve a table by the window for sweeping views of the gardens and lake, and dress up for Le Rabelais, the sumptuous French fine dining restaurant at the Dalat Palace Heritage Hotel (formerly a Sofitel). Expect chandeliers, parquet floors, white-linen tablecloths, and a nightly pianist. The classical French menu might include dishes such as foie gras on a balsamic salad with caramelised Dalat strawberries, a rack of lamb with creamy spinach and pommes au gratin, and duck breast with orange. Order anything with artichoke when it’s in season.

We included Dalat on our Vietnam Culinary Tour and we’ll include it again on our next trip. We’ll be setting new dates very soon so do let us know if you’d like to join us.

Have you been to Dalat or do you live there? What’s your idea of a perfect one day in Dalat? We’d love to hear your thoughts on our one day in Dalat itinerary in the comments below.

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