We start with coffee. At Café Tung, where the local brew is as strong as its fan base, we find a spot by the door and Liem and I sink into the long, dark brown leather sofa, ready for a piping hot cup of highland Arabica. As with many things in the beloved Dalat institution — the wainscoted walls, the faded oil paintings, the posters of ’50s Belgian singer Jacques Brel and the low rectangular tables — the sofa is vintage; an original from 1955, when Café Tung opened in Hoa Binh Square and quickly became the epicenter of the city’s intellectual and artistic life. Today the café draws a mixed crowd of cigarette-smoking old men, half obscured behind their newspapers, and young people fiddling with smartphones. Background music of French songs from the ’60s and ’70s, as well as local Vietnamese prewar tunes, mixes with the low hum of conversation.
Dalat grew out of a 19th century hill station on the Langbian Plateau in Central Vietnam and was, especially before the 1940s, almost exclusively for the use of French colonial governors hankering after a bit of European weather in subtropical Indochina. They called the mountain resort town Le Petit Paris, or “Little Paris”. Since then, the city has become a favorite highland destination for honeymooners and a popular weekend retreat among urbanites.
“This area was covered in verdant forests and that was replaced by hotels, cafés and karaoke parlors,” recalls Tran Dinh Thong, who took over Café Tung from his father. “Back then, there were very few cafes and, if any, they were packed with military personnel. These days, I could rent this place out and live comfortably, but I want to keep my father’s business alive.” Now the city in the coffee-growing valley is crowded with all kinds of cafés, from classic setups like Tran’s to the hip and trendy that wouldn’t look out of place in Ho Chi Minh City.
We chat briefly with Tran about what has and hasn’t changed in the mountain city as we wait for the coffee to drip through a metal filter. Outside, beyond the café’s glass walls, a bright mid-morning sun ever-so-slightly warms the seats of a long row of parked motorbikes. The French may have withdrawn from Vietnam in 1954, but they left their stamp on the mountain: a town square with spokes that lead to wide tree-lined boulevards, public gardens of flowering plants and an artificial lake called Xuan Huong.
The city itself is small and walkable, but you can happily lose yourself in an unmarked labyrinth of cobblestone backstreets and winding alleyways. When we step out of the café, out of a retro time warp and into present-day Dalat, we find the streets busy with motorbikes and groups of giggling children in thick sweaters and Barbie backpacks. Second-floor balconies are festooned with Gerber daisies and roses. And everywhere, it seems, loved-up couples cycle on tandem bikes or dreamily pedal swan-shaped boats around the lake, in scenes straight out of a romantic movie montage. With a number of abandoned villas, a radio tower modeled on the Eiffel Tower and a mercifully cool climate — at an altitude of 1,500m above sea level, it enjoys 22°C weather in July, getting cooler in the winter months of January to March — Dalat can feel like a piece of Europe transposed onto Vietnamese soil, but it’s a unique destination made more intriguing by the local flavor.
Our morning tour takes us to the Summer Palace of Bao Dai, one of Dalat’s most famous attractions. Built in 1928 as the mountain home of Emperor Bao Dai, this was where the last of the Nguyen dynasty rulers lived with his family in the final years before he abdicated the throne in 1945, paving the way for the revolutionary Ho Chi Minh to declare Vietnam’s independence.
Perched high on a pine-clad hill, the whole complex is inspired by European Art Deco architecture, although the exterior today resembles a government office that has seen better days. Inside, in a rather disorienting shift, it looks and feels more like a grand European country house — fraying carpets, heavy velvet drapery and antique furniture — than a former Vietnamese royal residence. The surviving grand staircases and brass, tile and ironwork, however, hint at the lavish lifestyle the emperor must have had. I imagine him dapper in a sharp Western suit, sipping imported Cognac and tucking into a meal with a knife and fork instead of chopsticks.
Another fascinating survivor of the colonial past is Dalat Railway Station, which weaves Art Deco style with the architecture of the central highlands (three pointed roofs, representing the peaks of Langbian, form the main hall). Built in the 1930s by two French architects, Dalat Railway Station was reportedly inspired by the stations of southern France. It is surrounded with big, blocky and colorful stained-glass windows and the waiting area is furnished with plush leather sofas. Today the Japanese-made steam locomotive on display provides a perfect backdrop for couples posing for pre-wedding photos.
The next day, we roll out of bed at 5am and step out into the ghostly blue morning light and the biting cold. Wrapped in thick layers of clothing, we saddle up on a motorbike and ride the winding road up Langbian Mountain, 12km from central Dalat.
We reach the mountaintop an hour later, just as the sun’s rays begin piercing through the thick white mist, our faces half frozen. As the mist clears, dazzling views slowly come into view. To one side of the mountain is a sweep of craggy peaks looming through gaps in the clouds; further off, we can just about spy the coastal city of Nha Trang. To the other side, a sprawl of low-rise houses and vegetable patches. Standing on the top of Langbian Mountain feels like standing on the uppermost terrace of Dalat.
Not surprisingly, the riding-perfect roads and the excellent hiking draw a number of tourists from Dalat to Langbian, and at the foot of the mountain lies a surprising treat: K’Be Wood Fired Pizza and BBQ, a humble farm-to-table restaurant helmed by James Reelick — a Connecticut-born horticulturist — and wife Lien. Named by the leader of the area’s village, K’Be translates as “buffalo from the forest” in the language of the indigenous K’Ho, a minority population with Mon-Khmer roots. The climate and the mountain’s laidback lifestyle charmed James into putting down roots here in a place that matches everything he loves most: “Being outdoors, trekking and hiking… and at the same time watching my daughter growing up, something that I missed out on while living in America.”
The restaurant began as a kind of hobby; a way to access food he missed from home. “I built the oven so I could eat the food I like,” he says. “In our village, free-range chicken costs only US$10 per animal, so we roast our own chicken and source all vegetables from the local farmers. We use reclaimed coffee wood for our oven and all the waste and vegetable scraps go to the pig trough and our own compost.” Recently James also began brewing the restaurant’s farmhouse ale, a unique brew of Vietnamese herbal leaf, persimmon and passion fruit.
In three years, the restaurant went from his personal pastime to a favorite hangout place among locals, open daily and by reservations only, serving only chicken, pizza and barbecue. To say it’s “no frills” is an understatement: the restaurant is all of a basic oven of brick and galvanized iron sheets along with a handful of communal wooden tables and benches. Shortly after we arrive, a group of sidecar motorcycle enthusiasts from Saigon comes swarming in. They gather around a large table, and in the next hour feast on pizza, barbecued chicken and stir-fried farm-fresh vegetables, and gulp beer from large frothing mugs, all before noon.
Just a stone’s throw away from James’s place, at Bonneur’ C Village, is the K’Ho Coffee farm, a co-op of coffee growers from 50 to 60 households belonging to the same clan. Back in the old days, the K’Ho tribespeople used to trade rice and silk for coffee and vice versa.
Founded by Rolan Co Lieng, a K’Ho tribeswoman, and Joshua Guikema, an American engineer, K’Ho Coffee has been a game-changer in the region’s coffee scene thanks to, ironically, traditional coffee growing methods. For instance, the K’Ho tribespeople raise their own pigs and cows and use the animals’ manure to fertilize the coffee trees.
Arabica seeds were considered a relic of the city’s colonial past, introduced to Vietnam from Africa by way of France. In the 1940s, Rolan’s grandfather, who worked building roads for the French, came into possession of some seeds and planted them in the jungle. Since then these heirloom Arabica trees have provided four generations with the very best little red berries from the jungle. In a country dominated by Robusta beans and strong, bitter coffee drinking tastes, these Arabica beans are hard to come by.
“As much as drinking wine, coffee drinking is very much about appreciating the fruity aroma. So, for me, Arabica coffee has just that,” Rolan says. The area has always been known as a coffee-growing region, but in recent years its single-origin Arabica has gained an enthusiastic following, especially in large Vietnamese cities, where appetite for coffee seems insatiable but where most available beans are from the Robusta tree.
The growing demand for the complex flavors of pure Arabica has created plenty of commercial opportunities for local farmers. Rolan, for example, leads visiting coffee fans on farm tours, and for a period of four hours, guests are steeped in the history of the region’s coffee-growing industry. The tour includes a hands-on experience of milling coffee and light roasting and, of course, a chance to sample the brew.
Before the coffee boom, coffee farmers led a difficult life, says Rolan. They would sell their harvest of unprocessed cherries to middlemen who would then sell to exporters. Profit margins were extremely slim. Things have changed since then. Improvements in processing and fermentation — as well as the practice of growing leafy persimmon trees alongside the coffee to provide shade and increase the nutrient content of the soil — have helped refine the final product and enable it to fetch higher prices.
Walking past the roasting house, we head straight down to their newly built espresso bar within a thatched-roof hut, set amid the lush green coffee plantations and groves of persimmon and avocado trees. We sip freshly brewed, velvety coffee while admiring the view — in the distance, acres upon acres of rolling countryside, blanketed by coffee trees.
But around us, there are chickens everywhere, roaming freely and clucking relentlessly, as though spreading exciting news from the neighboring valley. It adds an especially local touch to the scene, one that is unmistakably Dalat.
This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Smile magazine.