Hinged by the Cam Ly River, and nestled at an elevation of just under 1500m among the pitching hills of the Lang Bian Plateau, the city of DA LAT is Vietnam's premier hill station, a beguiling amalgam of squiggly streets, picturesque churches, bounteous vegetable gardens and crashing waterfalls, all suffused with the intoxicating scents of pine trees and wood-smoke. The city's more fanciful historians swear its name is an acronym of the Latin, dat aliis laetitiam aliis temperiem, "offering pleasure to some and freshness to others", though a far likelier derivation renders it as the stream ("da") of a local hilltribe, the Lat.
It was Dr Alexander Yersin who first divined the therapeutic properties of Da Lat's temperate climate on an exploratory mission into Vietnam's southern highlands, in 1893. His subsequent report on the area must have struck a chord: four years later Governor-General Paul Doumer of Indochina ordered the founding of a convalescent hill station, where Saigon's hot-under-the-collar colons could recharge their batteries, and perhaps even take part in a day's game-hunting. The city's Gallic contingent had to pack up their winter coats after 1954's Treaty of Geneva, but by then the cathedral, train station, villas and hotels had been erected, and the French connection well and truly forged. By tacit agreement during the American War, both Hanoi and Saigon refrained from bombing the city and it remains much as it was half a century ago.
It's important to come to Da Lat with no illusions, though. With a population of around 200,000, the city is anything but an idyllic backwater: sighting its forlorn architecture for the first time in the 1950s, Norman Lewis found the place "a drab little resort", and today its colonial relics and pagodas stand cheek by jowl with some of the dingiest examples of East European construction anywhere in Vietnam. Moreover, attractions here pander to the domestic tourist's predilection for swan-shaped pedal-boats and pony-trek guides in full cowboy gear, while at night the city can be as bleak as an off-season ski resort. Despite all this, Da Lat remains a quaint colonial curio, and a welcome tonic to heat-worn tourists – all in all, a great place to chill out, literally and metaphorically. If the cool air gets you in the mood for action, you could try trekking to minority villages, mountain-biking or rock-climbing, but you'll need a permit and a guide. Contact one of Da Lat's adventure tour operators for more details of what's on offer. Horticultural enthusiasts might like to time their visit to coincide with the annual Flower Festival, which takes place each December (see Web: www.vietnamtourism.com for exact dates).