While investigating landscape architecture in Saigon and Vietnam’s other cities, one is inevitably led back to Dalat, a small town in Vietnam’s south central highlands. It is here that many of the perennial plants used in urban planting schemes are grown, as well as many of the cut flowers sold on the streets of Vietnam. Indeed, Dalat is known by many as the City of Flowers. This fact alone would have been sufficiently enticing to warrant a visit, but with the promise of several examples of idiosyncratic architecture, I felt compelled to visit sooner than initially planned.
Perched 1,500m above sea level, Dalat enjoys a much cooler climate than most of Vietnam’s major cities. French colonial authorities established a hill station at the site in 1907, following a scheme laid out by the renowned French planner, Ernest Hébrard. Hébrard did a great deal of work across French Indochina and was a proponent of combining contemporary French architecture with vernacular styles. This is strongly evident in Dalat, where many typical Vietnamese homes have atypical pitched roofs, granting an alpine feel to the city. Indeed, the cool air, abundance of coniferous trees (it is also known as the City of Pines) and expansive lake conspire to create the illusion of a Swiss mountain retreat.
Local opinion on the architecture suggests that Dalat’s pointed roofs have an origin much closer to home, in the cao nguyen communal houses found in ethnic minority villages throughout the Vietnamese highlands. Whatever their provenance, the pitched roofs are certainly characteristic of Dalat, and nowhere more so than at the Da Lat Railway Station, designed by French architects Moncet and Reveron. Here, the Art Deco design of the building contrasts sharply with the three pointed roofs that cap the building, supposedly representing the three peaks of Dalat’s Mount Biang.
The immediate landscape surrounding Dalat is dictated by the city’s horticultural industry: terraced hillsides, though not as breathtaking as those of Sa Pa in the north, are a common sight in the countryside. Here coffee, tea, and grapes may be grown, though perennial plants are also grown here.
Amidst the formal arrangements of alpine housing and terraced hillsides lurks one architectural interloper: the Hang Nga guesthouse. Also known as the “Crazy House," this idiosyncratic project owes a great deal to Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, in terms of aesthetics and work ethic. Like Gaudi’s most famous design, La Sagrada Familia, the guesthouse remains incomplete, and there are obvious parallels in the rejection of rectilineal form and the preponderance of organic, interweaving lines. Unlike Gaudi’s masterpiece, the crazy house doesn’t merely dip a toe into the shallow waters of kitsch, it positively wallows in it. Parallels have been drawn, sometimes unfavorably, with various attractions at Disney World. Perhaps comparisons between La Sagrada Familia and Hang Nga guesthouse are unfair to both of their respective designers.
For all its pseudo-European charms, Da Lat is thousands of miles from Barcelona: should it not be considered on its own merits? What's your community's architectural style and does it have local or foreign roots? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích Trâm. Data linked to sources.