DALAT, Vietnam β The Dalat Palace Hotel sits loftily atop the south central Vietnam highlands, as regal and out of place as a Hummer in Hanoi.
Call it an anomaly, call it incongruous, call it surreal, but there it is: a French colonial hill station overlooking a city built from the ground up by the French β smack dab in the middle of Vietnam.
It isn't just the geography, or the fact you go from the leaden air of the lowlands to an atmosphere dry as French champagne. The essential nature of the land is transformed, turned upside down if you will.
In this high-climate enclave, French aristocrats and diplomats once planned their ill-conceived power strategies and the French social elite came to get away from the great unwashed and their hot-weather diseases in the pestilential lowlands.
The French built this city at the height of their power in Indonesia, when they wanted to show off β and nobody shows off like the French. Now, the French are long gone, officially anyway, and the city is abuzz with Vietnamese on motor scooters careening around the wide boulevards and past buildings right out of France's colonial past.
The Palace Hotel begs adjectives like opulent, grand and decadent. Everything seems over-sized, reflecting the grand architecture of the period, including the 43 rooms and five suites, with their period furnishings.
There are more than 500 pieces of artwork around the building, most of them copies of European masterpieces painstakingly copied by Vietnamese artists.
The Palace was built in 1922 as the anchor to the fledgling colonial resort of Dalat. In 1991, a company called Danao International invested in the deteriorating hotel, starting a $100 million revitalization of several properties, including a neighboring colonial-era hotel, now known as the Novotel Dalat, and a Russian-built hotel on the coast at Phan Thiet, now known as the Novotel Ocean Dunes.
Danao has since bought out its local joint venture partners and now owns the hotel, as well as other properties, solely, including the hotel's superb golf course. Plans call for a 300-seat ballroom and meeting facility next to the hotel, and a heated swimming pool, an absence which stands out like a sore thumb for a resort like this.
"For the same reason that golfers key on Dalat as a destination β the climate, the historical integrity of the environs and proximity to Ho Chi Minh City β we're confident that Dalat is an especially attractive venue for meetings and conferences," said Barry Israel, chairman of Danao International Holdings.
Danao also plans to "accelerate the hotel's commitment to the buildings' historical integrity" by acquiring more period furnishings and reviving the early 20th century dΓ©cor.
"We're moving forward by looking backward," said General Manager Antoine Sirot. "As we discover images of the hotel from its first grand decades β pictures of what the rooms looked like, what the dining rooms looked like, the hallway and the grounds β we're replicating that detail, as thoroughly as possible, for consummate elegance."
You can definitely get a feel for the luxury those French who left the Vietnam lowlands for Dalat and the hotel were after. Sit in one of the chaise lounges on the front lawn, with its sweeping views of the historic city, and of the lake spread out beyond the wide boulevard that crosses in front of its gate, and you can feel like a pampered, colonial bigwig.
That goes double when you eat at the restaurant, Le Rabelais. The hotel lured chef Didier Corlou, famed for his dishes at Hanoi's Metropole Hotel, to spice up its kitchen.
The Dalat hotel gets Corlou, probably the country's most renowned chef, for one week a month. He's cooked for Jacques Chirac, Bill Clinton and will tempt the urbane, sophisticated palate of U.S. President George Bush at November's APEC Summit.
Then, there's the golf course, a short walk or ride away.
It was originally built as a nine-holer in the 1920s as the personal playground for Viet Nam's last emperor, Bao Dai, making it one of the oldest golf courses in Asia.
The emperor abdicated in 1945 and the course was left to nature and weeds. A Vietnamese dentist named Dao Huy Hach painstakingly restored it 15 years later.
"There was a caddy from the original course who helped us to find it again," Dr. Hach said in a written history of the course. "The most difficult part was seeing the greens. We had to use aerial photos from the National Geography Institution."
The Dalat Palace golf course was a long way from its current condition β in fact, the greens were made of a mixture of sand and motor oil β not exactly adhering to USGA specs.
The course was abandoned again in 1975 when the Communists took over the country and golf was essentially outlawed as an elitist sport, although club manager Jeff Puchalski pointed out Ho Chi Minh was never on record as opposing the game.
In any case, it sat neglected through the early 1990s when golf management company IMG eventually restored the layout. The result of this long history of neglect and restoration is a beautiful, serene course that overlooks the historic city; almost every hole opens on to views of Dalat and surrounding mountains.
It's a fairly surreal experience, mixed with the fun of playing a terrific golf course in the Vietnam highlands, with dramatic elevation changes and fairways that twist, bend and slope with the mountainous terrain.
"You can't believe you're in Vietnam," Puchalski said. "You kind of get lost out here."
From the United States, United Airlines, flies non-stop daily to Hong Kong from San Francisco (13.5 hours) and Chicago (15.5 hours), and then on to Ho Chi Minh City (2.5 hours). Currently, there are no non-stop flights from the U.S. to Vietnam by any airline.
After Vietnam and the United States signed an Air Treaty Agreement in 2003, United Airlines became the first (and remains the only) U.S. branded carrier to touch down on Vietnamese soil, with an inaugural flight from San Francisco to Ho Chi Minh City on Dec. 9, 2004.
In April 2007, United will add three additional flights per week to its Ho Chi Minh City/San Francisco route. United currently operates 10 non-stop flights per week between Chicago and Hong Kong. In addition to Ho Chi Minh City, United flies to 12 other destinations in the Asia-Pacific region.
March 6, 2007
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