DALAT, Vietnam — Seventy-five years ago, French entrepreneurs sewed the hillsides of this highland town with one exquisite collection of villas after another.
Today, the colons are gone, but the Vietnamese entrepreneurs who have taken their place are no less enamored with the ‘City of Eternal Spring,’ and villas are sprouting again.
Le Ngoc Khanh Tam is leading the charge with La Vallee de Dalat, a fledgling neighborhood of seven luxurious single-family homes on a piney slope that overlooks miles of still-bucolic terrain and looks back to the glory days of Gallic design for inspiration.
Last week, the development’s general director moved into the first villa with her husband, Barry Israel, an American lawyer and investor who helped finance the project.
The 6,500-square-foot residence features contemporary stone and wood flourishes, spacious terraces and a floor plan that encourages movement toward vantage points that drink in the outskirts of this one-time hill station.
From anywhere on the bluff, it’s clear to the well-traveled Le Tam what the French saw in this plateau, which physician and explorer Alexandre Yersin began mapping for the colons in the 1870s.
“The architecture firm we used (Asiatique Design) said this is what drew them to the project — the views, the land,” said Le Tam, a Dalat native. “For the majority of people we show the property to, the first word out of their mouth is ‘wow.’ The site is that spectacular.”
La Vallee de Dalat is also the only private, gated residential compound in Dalat, which emerged in the 1930s as a leading candidate for the capital of Indochina. And it nestles right up next to historic Bai Dai Palace II, one of several grand palaces in Dalat erected for the last emperor of Vietnam.
Bao Dai was famous for tapping great locations for his retreats, whether in mountainous Dalat or beachy Nha Trang. To this day, the ridge line that Bao Dai Palace II and La Vallee de Dalat occupy is referred to as the ‘King’s Land’ by locals.
“It’s good to be the king,” said Israel, former owner of the Dalat Palace Luxury Hotel and the Dalat Palace Golf Club, two of the destination’s most iconic landmarks. “But if you can’t be the king, you can still live like one. That’s the level of luxury we’re offering at La Vallee de Dalat.”
The six remaining villas for sale range in size from 464 square meters (4,995 square feet) to 600 sqm (6,458 sqf) and start at US $1.2 million.
Le Tam expects to realize sales from both domestic buyers — for whom Dalat’s climate is an antidote to the swelter of Vietnam’s coastline and lowlands — and to foreigners from the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong who want to travel no more than a couple of hours for a second home in a temperate climate.
Indeed, Le Tam and Israel have worked assiduously to ensure the rights of foreign buyers.
“Our agreement with a foreign buyer will include the provision that if at any time during the 50-year lease period the government permits actual ownership, the buyer will be entitled to take whatever form of ownership is allowed without paying anything additional to us [Dai Phuc Development Co., Ltd.],” Le Tam said. “I will sign whatever papers are required to convert the lease document to a property title.”
That time could come sooner rather than later. Recently, the government announced it is considering new rules that would allow any foreigner with a three-month visa and foreign companies doing business in Vietnam to purchase developed housing lots.
At La Vallee de Dalat, potential buyers can choose from two floor plans, each with four bedrooms, terraces on every level and access to common areas for entertaining.
“There’s no better place in Vietnam to be outside than Dalat,” said Le Tam. “The temperature is comfortable year-round. The air is crisp and clean. These villas are designed to let owners and their guests enjoy Dalat’s climate to the max.”
The French believed Dalat’s altitude was its greatest virtue. At elevation, the incidence of tropical disease was much lower, Yersin told then-Governour-General Paul Doumer.
By the 1930s, a prototypical hill station began to emerge in the highlands just north of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), complete with a health complex, playing fields, parks, schools, a hunting lodge (now the Dalat Palace Luxury Hotel) and the aforementioned golf course.
Upscale villa communities sprang up as well, including Cite Decoux, whose blueprints called for a suite of 64 villas — some “evoking Alps mountain chalets,” according to a vintage brochure — next to a lake about five kilometers from town center.
By the mid-1940s, France’s grand plan for Dalat started to fall by the wayside, as the realization set in that it could no longer maintain control over Vietnam.
But many of the Norman-, Savoyarde-, Landaise- and Corsican-style villas the colons built still stand today, which the experts at Asiatique Design took full advantage of when conceiving La Vallee de Dalat.
“It was amazing to go up (to Dalat) at the beginning and see houses exactly how I remember in France,” said the firm’s founder, Aline Ho, who was born in Vietnam but lived in France for 12 years. “We also found a book called 100 Years of Dalat, which had information about all the different types of architecture used to shape Dalat over the years. That was tremendously helpful. As was taking hundreds of pictures and cataloguing them all.
“We’ve worked on projects similar to this before, where we’ve blended Vietnamese design elements with French touches. But this is … more French. It just goes that extra step.”