Dana Filek-Gibson escapes the heat and noise of Saigon for a holiday in the hills. Photos by Michael Tatarski.
At the end of winding Le Lai Street, the Ana Mandara Villas hide over a hill and behind thick clusters of pine trees. While most destinations in Vietnam are peaceful in comparison to Saigon, Ana Mandara’s sprawling green grounds are a complete 180 from the frenetic pace of the southern hub. The resort boasts 17 fully-restored French villas spread out over its generous grounds, a top-notch restaurant, a spa and a heated pool with which to occupy your time. But perhaps Ana Mandara’s most attractive feature is one it cannot, in fact, control: the weather. As Saigon’s rainy season slides into dry and cooler temperatures have not yet caught up with the absence of rain, Dalat’s temperate atmosphere is brisk by comparison, coming in at a pleasant 20 degrees and sunny; in other words, ideal conditions for a Christmas escape.
The first thing you’ll want to do during your yuletide getaway is settle into the resort’s charming accommodations. Dark wooden floors, whitewashed walls and small touches like the vintage door handles or antique claw-footed bathtub give the place a cottage vibe that’s both rustic and opulent at the same time. Large French doors open onto the perimeter of each villa, affording you a peaceful view of your tree-clad surroundings. Inside, Ana Mandara spares no luxury, from ample sitting room to cozy fireplaces to generous four-poster beds.
When you’re ready to venture off the resort grounds, begin your Christmas escape on Lang Biang Mountain, 14 kilometres from downtown Dalat. The area’s tallest peak, Lang Biang sits 2,167 metres above sea level and enjoys just enough tourism development to allow for your choice of an easy or strenuous trip to the top.
At first sight, the mountain’s entrance is a far cry from natural: Lang Biang bears a Hollywood-style nameplate, perched on a hill often populated by ponies – some painted as zebras – which visitors can ride. For a more leisurely visit, hire a Jeep up to Rada Point, the lesser of the two summits, where a small cafe overlooks the sun-dappled hills and valleys in the distance. If you’re up for a challenge, however, start up the paved road on foot. It takes some time before the forest begins to thicken and the steady stream of Jeeps dissipates but once you reach the entrance to Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park, home to the highest point of Lang Biang, the paved road gives way to a dirt path that narrows as it moves deeper into the woods.
In a country where most natural attractions come packaged or altered in some form, Lang Biang’s trail is a refreshingly no-frills departure from Vietnamese ecotourism. Much of the climb’s appeal lies in its simplicity: en route, birds chirp and small creatures scurry to and fro near the trail. While you won’t encounter many wild animals, it’s clear that this is a forest with life. Scale the final 360 metres to the top, a steep ascent of mud-and-wood steps, and you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the plateau, shining greenhouse exteriors, lakes, forests and small towns dotting the valleys. All told, the trek takes around three hours from base to summit and back again.
After your outdoor excursion, head back to Ana Mandara for some much-needed R&R. You’ll want to save your appetite, however, for the four-course tasting menu. An incredible homage to local ingredients, the resort’s ever-changing set menus need no fanfare to accompany their simple, flavourful dishes. Whether crafting beautiful Vietnamese-inspired meals, like the Dalat artichoke and pork rib soup, a seamless combination of the local specialty and tender, slow-cooked morsels of pork rib, or translating the Central Highlands’ fresh produce into Western plates, such as the broiled chicken breast with mustard sauce and organic vegetables, the chefs at Le Petit Restaurant do not disappoint. Add to this an impressive wine list, expert service and a beautiful, high-ceilinged dining room, all of which round out the experience.
Finally, as the sun sets over Dalat and temperatures cool even further, retire to your room for a lounge by the fireplace and a glass of wine. Whether your Christmas memories come from a hot climate or a cold one, there is nothing quite like a quiet evening among the trees.