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I recently returned there and found that Da Lat still retains much of its old-fashioned charm, even though modernizing trends are rapidly changing the attitudes of at least some of its inhabitants. Rising to roughly 5, feet above sea level, the plateau was sparsely populated by hill tribes when, in , Alexandre Yersin, a Swiss-born scientist with a taste for adventure, trekked into the region.
Yersin, who had conducted research at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, later went on to China, where he discovered the bubonic plague bacillus, then ravaging Asia and threatening the West. The pristine beauty and salubrious weather so impressed Yersin that he persuaded the French colonial administration to develop the locale into a vacation spot. The vertiginous ascent from Saigon over a single rutted dirt road by car could take as much as a week; the only lodging was a rudimentary auberge.
But French officials, optimistically calculating that a luxury hotel would beckon an affluent clientele, erected the sumptuous Palace, opened in Imagining how they might have spent their days, I envisioned guests setting out on leisurely nature walks, riding horseback along forest trails or golfing on a course designed to amuse the adolescent Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai, whom the French controlled as their puppet. In the evenings, the men dressed in black tie, their wives, or mistresses, in frilly gowns.
They gossiped over aperitifs on the wide veranda and, after lavish dinners, played bridge in one of the salons or baccarat at the casino. There were piano or violin recitals and an orchestra for dances. A nearby bordello employed exquisite French, Vietnamese and Chinese prostitutes. But the resort, clobbered by the Depression in the s, floundered; travelers found the hotel as empty as a mausoleum. On my visits during the Vietnam War, the Palace functioned but had virtually no guests.