Dalat in the Central Highlands is home to some of the finest examples of French architecture in Vietnam. Here are 8 of my favourite buildings to see and photograph in Dalat.
Brutalist concrete apartment blocks, grand colonial villas, turn-of-the-century bungalows, and pretty cottages—Dalat has a little bit of everything. The biggest city in Vietnam’s Lam Dong Province in the Central Highlands region has a taciturn style and a laissez-faire approach to town planning.
Architecture buffs and intrepid Instagrammers alike will especially love Dalat for its French architecture. Painted in bright shades of canary yellow and pastel pink, colonial buildings are perfectly symmetrical and extremely photogenic. It’s these 1930s and 40s constructions that give Dalat its famously romantic, old-world retro appeal.
The French first arrived in Dalat in 1932, establishing the city as it’s known today as a hill station retreat to escape from the hot Saigon summers (Dalat is just 300km north of Ho Chi Minh City). (There’s a long and complicated history behind French conquest, settlement, and eventual expulsion from Vietnam—but this post isn’t about that. This post is about French-style architecture, which has undoubtedly endowed Dalat with the spirit and style it embodies today (which also happens to be one of the things that draws in tourists and contributes most to the local economy). If you’re curious to know more about how the French came to be in Vietnam, I recommend checking out this introductory article.)
When they created Dalat, the French gave the city its wide boulevards, broad roundabouts, and pretty flower gardens. They also constructed enough European villas, institutes and government buildings in Dalat to rival Hanoi or Hoi An.
If you’re on the trail of French architecture in Vietnam, you’ve come to the right place.
8 examples of French architecture in Vietnam to see in Dalat
Here are my top picks for the best architecture to see and photograph in Dalat.
1 | Domaine de Marie
Domaine de Marie (Nhà Thờ Domaine De Marie) is a Catholic church. Built by the French in 1940, it’s become famous in recent years for its pretty pink facade—which depending on the light, actually appears as more of a shade of coral or brick. People flock here to snap photos of each other in front of the church and on the little Juliet balcony. I highly recommend getting there early if you want to skip the photo frenzy! Domaine de Marie also features beautiful gardens and an impressive hedge-lined staircase that leads up a little hill to the main entry.
At the back of the church, there’s a large convent painted in similar colours and with the same feminine charm. I especially love the crucifix insignia on the shutters and the candy cane-stripe details on the top floor windows.
2 | Pasteur Institute
Location: 18 Le Hong Phong
Built between 1930 and 1936, the Pasteur Institute in Dalat (Công ty TNHH Một Thành Viên Vắc xin Pasteur Đà Lạt) was once one of the biggest producers of vaccines in the region. Named after the French biologist who pioneered fermentation and pasteurisation, this branch of the Institute (versions of which can be found in many cities in old Indochina) was founded by Alexandre Yersin, a Swiss bacteriologist and one of the first foreigners to settle in Dalat.
The Pasteur Institute is now owned by the Vietnamese Government. Photographing state buildings is a big faux pas in Hanoi—but here in Dalat, the guard at the little station warmly welcomed us in for a photo in front of the gate. I adore the perfect symmetry of this building (very #AccidentallyWesAnderson) and its bright yellow and steel grey palette.
3. | Dalat Cathedral (St. Nicholas Cathedral)
Nhà Thờ Con Gà (which literally translates a ‘chicken church’) is so-called because of the little rooster perched on the top of the main steeple. The Romanesque-style Catholic church also goes by the name St. Nicholas Cathedral or just Dalat Cathedral—it is the biggest church in town, after all. Construction on the brick church started in 1931 and took a decade to complete. It was repainted a pinkish cream colour quite recently; and in fact, the whole church and complex is immaculately clean and well cared for. Inside, there are some magnificent stained glass windows and bas-relief sculptures.
Similar to Domaine de Marie, there is a convent and gardens around the back. One building in the church complex is particularly eye-catching—the facade is a set of arched doorways with garage-like doors and crucifix motifs inlaid in tiles. There is a lookout point around the side of the cathedral that offers lovely views of the rest of the town.
4 | Dalat Railway Station
Possibly Dalat’s most famous building, the Dalat Railway Station (Ga Đà Lạt) was designed by French architects in 1932. When it opened in 1938, the station was part of the Da Lat–Thap Cham Railway line, which connected Dalat to Vietnam’s main north-south arterial. The art deco station building and the line it serviced are full of history—during the Vietnam-America War, the railway came under heavy bombardment and was eventually cut off. When the war ended, parts of the railway were pillaged to re-build the main line—the famous Reunification Express, which connects Hanoi and Saigon. A small section of the line reopened in the 1990s so tourists that could travel between Dalat and the nearby Trai Mat village.
The mustard-yellow station building itself is very pretty, but it’s the train carriages out back that are the main attraction. Decorated to look vintage and rebranded with the name ‘Dalat Plateau Railway’, one of the carriages has even been transformed into a cafe.
This was the only building we had to pay to photograph in Dalat. We only relented to the aggressive demands of the guard in the carpark very reluctantly. It cost us 10K VND per person to get up close to the station building and walk through to where the carriages are kept at the rear.
5 | French Quarter villas
Location: Tran Hung Dao
Dalat’s French Quarter is little different to Hanoi’s. Instead of one little corner of town that easy to explore on foot, the French villas in Dalat are spread out over a long distance on either side of a main road. It’s not the most pleasant place to take a stroll (and it’s very difficult to keep crossing the road to see the buildings on either side)—so I recommend picking a small section of road and focusing on that. The shabby, decaying villas around this area are particularly beguiling.
It’s only after visiting this part of town that you start to realise why Dalat has a reputation for being haunted. Most of the houses appear to be long abandoned, but a few have been somewhat refurbished. Incredibly, the one the appears on the bottom left in the photos above is actually a hotel—it now goes by the name Green Dream Dalat Hostel.
6 | Teacher’s College (Lycée Yersin)
The Lycee Yersin (also known as the Teacher’s College or Pedagogy College) was by far the most architecturally impressive building we saw in Dalat. It’s been recognized by the World Association of Architects for its historic and aesthetic value. When we first approached the campus on a Saturday morning, we were surprised by how many motorbikes were filtering through the front gates. We thought there must have been a group of students sitting an exam (it still functions as a university today)—but no, everyone was there to take photos in the courtyard! There is a security guard at the front gate and sign that requests for all visitors to present ID—we approached him and were waved through without any questions.
Need a coffee break? Here are my favourites cafes in dalat.
The brick bell-tower and wrap-around-style main block, with its archway details, is rendered on an unimaginable scale. It’s very difficult to squeeze the whole building into a photograph without using a wide lens! Also named for Alexandre Yersin, the school was founded in 1927 as a school for the children of French colonialists and ‘elite’ Vietnamese families from the area. Famous alumni include Norodom Sihanouk, the two-time King of Cambodia.
7 | Bao Dai Summer Palace
Bao Dai Summer Palace (Dinh III Bảo Đại) is the most touristy spot on the list and one of the few colonial buildings that’s been restored on the inside. The third in a series of houses in Dalat belonging to Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai (who also studied at the Lycee Yersin), this was said to have been his favourite. The mansion was built between 1933 and 1938 and has a very peculiar Art Deco style. The outside of the house could do with some TLC—as could the surrounding flower gardens. Visitors are welcome to tour the interior of the house for the low price of 15K VND.
8 | Hotel du Parc & Cafe La Poste
Dalat’s Hotel du Parc (Hôtel du Parc) and Cafe La Poste are located opposite each other, just up the road from Dalat Cathedral. It’s doesn’t have quite the same grandeur as the Metropole in Hanoi or the Continental in Saigon—but for a city of Dalat’s size, it must have been quite a spectacle when it opened back in 1932. Cafe La Poste and the Dalat Palace Hotel are located nearby and also worth a look.
Do you enjoy a bit of colonial architecture? Do you have any recommendations for where to see French architecture in Vietnam? Leave your recommendations in the comments below!