Head for the Hills in Dalat

Exploring Vietnam’s abandoned railway

Text and images by James Pham

In the fading light of day, the once benign jungle takes on an eerie, almost suffocating quality.  In desperation, a woman climbs a tree to get a better vantage point, although her reward is a sea of green in every direction, miles from the nearest town. It’s devastatingly hot. The motley group is physically spent and time is running out. Their search for K’Beau, one of 11 stations that make up the now defunct 52-mile railway line linking the town of Dalat in Vietnam’s Central Highlands to Thap Cham on the coast, is flirting with failure. The wanderlust of just a few hours ago has quickly turned into resignation.

By the 19th century, France had thriving colonies in Europe, North Africa and the Caribbean. Indochina (what is now Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos), though, was a different story. Its intense heat, humidity and disease killed off colonists in alarming numbers. Soldiers from Northern France reportedly lasted only a matter of days before needing to be repatriated and doctors researching death rates in the colony often died before their articles could even be published.

Image by Quach Tung Duong

So began the urgent race to locate an Indochinese hill station, a place to restore health and wellness with cooler temperatures and living conditions similar to home, much like the British had with Darjeeling in India. After much searching, sparsely populated Dalat on the Lang Bian plateau in what is now Central Vietnam emerged as the winner.

Giving the colony a highland sanatorium is a humanitarian deed. Europeans will find ― within hours by train from Saigon ― a climate close to that of France… They will regain strength there, and will return to their posts without loss of time or resources for the colony,” proclaimed early explorer Alexandre Yersin of Dalat’s Mediterranean-like climate.

Already, Frenchmen were dreaming of cooler weather, salubrious hikes among the area’s pine forests and lakes, feasting on temperate crops like artichokes and strawberries ― in short, an escape from death and disease, a place where they could be miraculously transported home while still in the tropics.

In order for this desolate plateau to become a thriving spa town, roads and rail were needed.  However, the remote location inhabited by bears and tigers, an unwilling local workforce and rampant disease all conspired against building what would become a feat of engineering at the time ― a railway to conquer steep slopes and dense jungle. While the first half of the railway line got under way in 1903 using conventional adhesion rail technology, “the final 44km involved an ascent from 186m to 1,550m, with steep gradients of up to 120mm/m,” writes Tim Doling, author of The Railways and Tramways of Viet Nam. Cog technology was employed, emulating the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in British India. The line was finally completed in 1932, almost thirty years after work began.

By 1937/38, there was daily return train service to Saigon, while Hanoi was only an overnight trip away. Visitors arrived at the newly constructed station, modeled after the Deauville-Trouville station in the seaside resort of Normandy, “as if one passed without warning from one country to another, each having different geography, climate, and customs,” wrote one Dalat visitor of her train journey.

Dalat Railway Station

Sadly, war and economic unfeasibility shut the line down in 1969, with tracks and ties sold off for scrap, the backbreaking work of tens of thousands over three decades seemingly forgotten. It would take four more decades for a band of train enthusiasts to embark on a mission to rediscover the abandoned stations, bridges and tunnels of the original line. “You could call it modern day archaeology where you’re discovering something that foreigners generally haven’t seen in 40-50 years,” says unofficial group leader and railfan, Curtis King.

Image provided by Dalat Train Villa and Cafe

Arriving in Dalat for the first time in 2001, King was so smitten with the town that literally sprang out of nothing and the compelling story behind its railway that he decided to settle there, eventually opening up a small hotel just a stone’s throw away from the working train station. It surprised no one that the Dalat Train Villa and Café was a shrine to all things train, with the hotel being a colonial-era stone villa once housing train administrators and the adjoining café a renovated 1910 train carriage. King is often joined on his train treks by a regular group that includes a French photographer, a US war veteran and a Japanese restaurant owner. Then, too, “sometimes it’s people passing through who come by the train café and like to talk about trains and hiking. Sometimes it’s people who want to see something off the beaten path, not in the travel books and not on TripAdvisor,” explains King.

Image by Francois Deslauriers

The last of the eight abandoned stations the group found was at K’Beau, a location King describes as “really in the middle of nowhere, deep in the jungle, with no community or village nearby.” The group’s first attempt ended in failure, being able to see the station from afar but defeated by dense jungle. On the second attempt, only four of 15 hikers managed to reach the station. “I was actually obsessed with it, especially after failing to get to it after the first try,” remembers King. “Even on the second trip, we almost didn’t find it. We were running out of daylight, mobile phone coverage was limited and the group had split up because not everyone was in good enough shape to get to the station. We were also a little concerned about landmines. If it’s wartime, where do you put land mines? Around areas of strategic importance like bridges and stations, right? But at the last minute, one of the hikers sent out an SMS to say he had found it. When we made our way there, there was such a sense of satisfaction, friendship and success.”

Image by Francois Deslauriers

The group is hoping to stir up interest in restoring the Lang Bian line to its former glory. “I think the problem from the government’s point of view is that it’d be quite expensive to rebuild this line, in the area of USD 200-300 million for the whole 90 km stretch,” says King of a country where people on average earn less than USD 200 a month. “But technically it should be possible; the engineering’s still there. For Vietnam, it would be such a great source of pride to redo something so difficult, and as a tourist attraction, wow!”

If you go…

Touch Down

Dalat is served from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi by Vietnam Airlines. Lien Khuong Airport is located some 30 km south of the city. A pre-paid taxi counter before you exit the terminal offers flat rate fares for VND 250,000 / USD 12. The journey takes about 45 minutes along a modern, scenic highway before heading up to the city along windy hilly roads through the beautiful pine forests for which Dalat is known.

Check In

Dalat offers a glimpse into the past through its many villas built in a range of European styles from Swiss to Gothic to French-Asian fusion. A ride along panoramic Tran Hung Dao street, also known as the “French Quarter”, is a great way to see some of these villas which have been converted into boutique hotels, quaint coffee shops and summer homes. Better yet, stay in one of 17 colonial villas that make up the Ana Mandara Villas Dalat Resort & Spa (doubles from USD 119, including breakfast). Set on a spacious 17 acre property, these glamorous homes from the 20s and 30s have been meticulously restored to their early glory with gorgeous sitting rooms cum libraries, open fireplaces and outdoor terraces.

All Aboard

While the Dalat-Thap Cham line hasn’t been in use since 1969, a smaller four-carriage train does make regular journeys to Trai Mat, a pleasant town 5 miles away (5 scheduled trips per day when there are at least 20 passengers, starting from 7:45am; VND 43,000 / USD 2 each way). The 1.5 hour trip (which includes 50 minutes to see the wonderfully mosaic’ed Linh Phuoc Pagoda) offers a glimpse of the Dalat countryside passing by countless strawberry and artichoke fields as well as rows upon rows of greenhouses filled with Dalat’s famous roses and hydrangeas. Once back to the art deco station, walk 100m up the hill to the Dalat Train Villa and Cafe for some hearty Vietnamese and international fare, served up in a wonderfully renovated 1910 train carriage (mains  from VND 79,000 / USD 4). The adjoining colonial-era villa also has 4 units, each with 2 rooms, bathroom and mini-kitchen (doubles start at USD 60, including breakfast)

Take a Hike

The surrounding countryside is what brought turn of the century health-seekers to the region. Wild Vietnam offers delightful motorcycle trips to explore the surrounding waterfalls, coffee plantations and flower villages. A peek into how silk is made, from extracting the threads from the silkworm cocoons to the automated weaving process, is especially fascinating. For the more active-minded, the Jungle Boogie, a moderate full-day hike along scenic Tuyen Lam Lake and through Dalat’s famous pine forests, is sure to get the blood pumping.

This article first appeared in Passenger Train Journal

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