A gentle breeze herds puffy clouds across a clear blue sky. Stretching out in the distance are miles of mountains and pine forests. Banana and papaya trees strain to stay upright, weighed down by their heavy fruits, while the hills are dotted with greenhouses full of brilliant flowers, temperate-zone produce, and ripening strawberries.
I meet Larry Chilcoat, a 70-year-old native of Fort Worth, Texas, at my hotel. Larry says that he first heard about Dalat from a documentary that he saw, and then made a couple of exploratory trips to help get a sense of the food, the cost of living, and the liveability of the city. “I had been living in Davao in the Philippines,” he says, “but I was tired of the heat. When I heard about Dalat; the climate, the mountains, and the nature caught my interest.”
The mild climate is one of the biggest draws of this area. Dalat is in the Central Highlands, an easy day’s drive from the steamy, low-lying coastal cities of Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh. Its 4,900-foot elevation explains its spring-like climate. Days are typically in the mid-70s F, with evenings chilly enough to wear a sweater or light jacket. “It’s one of the few places in the world you can live without a heater or air conditioner,” Larry points out. “80 F in the summer would be a hot day. In winter, evenings average around 50 F.”
Expats I’ve met from the U.S. Pacific Northwest compare the weather in Dalat to that back home. The mercury in Dalat has never risen above 89 F, though during winter cold snaps, it can occasionally get near freezing. Like most places at this tropical latitude, humidity is a factor, especially during the rainy season, which lasts from April to October.
Compared to the coast, the weather here is quite invigorating. The air is crisp and clean, and it’s cool enough that you want to spend time outdoors. That’s not a problem in Dalat. From the center of town, you can be in the hills in less than five minutes. In half an hour, you can visit fascinating temples, pristine waterfalls, and tranquil mountain lakes. Or you could choose flower parks, avocado farms, or hiking trails.
Recreational parks are scattered all around Dalat. The scenic and enjoyably kitschy Valley of Love Park and the Maze of Love Valley are less than four miles from downtown. The impressive Dalat Flower Park is more sober, and has thousands of local and imported flowers on display. It’s an easy walk from the city center. The hiking trails and abundant hydrangea beds of Yersin Park—named after the celebrated 19th-century bacteriologist Dr. Alexandre Yersin, who lived in Vietnam—are in the same area, just steps from Dalat’s largest Western-style shopping center.
When I first explored Dalat in 2014, aside from a handful of English teachers, I saw no foreign faces. Now, about 300 Westerners have settled here, with more arriving each year. The city population has grown to 410,000, and has changed as new international hotels, resorts, restaurants, and tourist attractions have opened, raising the standard of living for many of its residents. Dalat has long been a favorite cool-weather getaway for the Vietnamese; now, it’s also a popular retreat for expats living in the coastal towns and cities.
You won’t find any expat enclaves in Dalat. Foreigners live in local neighborhoods throughout the city, and in the surrounding hills and valleys.
That said, it isn’t hard to make new friends. “I have both local and expat friends,” Larry says “but I prefer going to the same places as the Vietnamese, and I have more Vietnamese friends than I do expats. I feel more comfortable with them. When you’re a foreigner and don’t spend time with the locals, you won’t have as full of an experience. I don’t speak much Vietnamese, but Google Translate makes communication easy, and most of my Vietnamese friends speak English.”
Before the pandemic, expats were organizing regular meet-ups several times a week. I was invited to one when I was there, too, held at One More Café—the Australian-owned coffee shop and eatery that serves as the hub for Dalat’s expats. I met a diverse group of foreigners: at least one person from every continent (OK, apart from Antarctica) was attending, and they all knew each other. I’ve not found a more welcoming group of people in all my years of travel. The owner of the café put on a potluck, and I indulged in everything from sushi and schnitzel to Tanzanian couscous and homemade cupcakes.
Larry occasionally goes to these gatherings, as well. “Expats meet at different places and have a meal and some beers together. There’s a restaurant owned by a German person, one owned by an Australian, and other restaurants and bars owned by people from other nationalities. Everyone will gather to watch games and to socialize,” he says. The meetups paused during the pandemic, though expats I’ve been in contact with here say that they expect them to resume soon.
Our conversation naturally turned to Dalat’s food scene and Larry suggested that we have dinner together at his favorite spot, the Hai Con Buffet. “I come from Texas and I like barbecue. Hai Con’s costs less than $8 per person for dinner. You go up to the serving buffet, pick out your meats—pork, beef, fish, crocodile, whatever you want—and grill it yourself at your table. It’s wonderful. They have other restaurants here that I like, too. One place has a mango and fish salad that costs about $2.25 and it’s enough for two people. The expat places will be a little more expensive, but I usually eat local. I enjoy cooking at home, too. I might make pasta with Parmesan toast, or I’ll cook up a ribeye steak or shrimp on the grill.”
Larry says that the best beef here comes from Australia, so it can be a little expensive. “A couple of good ribeye steaks cost about $15. I cooked up a beef stew the other day but used pork tenderloin instead of beef. I cut it up and marinated it and couldn’t tell the difference from that and beef—but the pork only cost $1.73.”
I’m able to live well on my Social Security alone.
We had our fill of barbecue and beer at the Hai Con, and it was as good as Larry had promised (actually, it was so good that I ended up going back there two days later for another meal). I also discovered a fabulous new Italian restaurant called Chef’s Dalat, run by four creative young Vietnamese friends. It offered impeccably prepared and presented pastas and steaks—and incredibly good desserts—in an elegant setting for less than $10 per person.
The gargantuan central market in the heart of downtown is a busy maze of vendors selling all types of local produce: fresh flowers, coffee, honey, wine, and other items that originate in this area—a region that’s often referred to as “the market basket of Vietnam.” At night, the shops close down and the space in front of the market and the street leading up to it turns into a huge, outdoor food mall where you can load up on seafood, shellfish, the freshest veggies, and practically anything cooked on a skewer for $5 per person or less. It seems that on any evening, half the town is there taking advantage of the incredible selection of cheap eats.
Many expats who live in Dalat choose to walk or take taxis rather than drive, and it makes sense. This city of nearly half a million has not a single stoplight or stop sign. Aside from a few traffic circles, the rules of right-of-way are more by mutual agreement than law, and everyone shares the same goal of avoiding accidents.
Larry leaves it to the experts. “I have my own driver. He drives a taxi, but he comes and gets me when he’s available and takes me where I want to go. If I need him for a full day, I pay him $43. When I take a vacation to Phan Rang—a beach town on the south-central coast about 65 miles from Dalat—I’ll pay him $108 for the entire weekend, which includes his gas, lodging, food, and all expenses. It would be a six-hour bus trip, but it’s only three hours when he drives.
“On an average month, I’ll spend $80 to $100 on transportation. It just depends how much I travel and whether I’m walking a lot or not, but I’m going somewhere almost every day. I enjoy traveling and I’ll go to a new location within Vietnam every month or two.”
It feels like I’ve come to heaven.
Since the conversation has turned to costs, I ask Larry about his monthly budget. “The cost of living was a huge factor,” he explains. “I’ve found that I’m able to live well on my Social Security alone. Things are so reasonable here. My monthly budget, with travel and everything, is $800 to $1,000 per month and I don’t hurt for anything; I have everything that I want and need.”
Rents, in particular, are extraordinarily low. Larry leases the second floor of a big villa. “It was originally a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment, but I remodeled it to make one of the rooms into a living and dining room,” he says. “It has one large balcony with plenty of patio furniture and an almost full, 360-degree view of the mountains.
“I’ll usually wake up at 5:30 a.m. to watch the sunrise. I grow flowers, lettuce, and broccoli—my landlord plants all of it for me. The kl apartment has a huge bedroom and an expansive view of the mountains and flowers. It’s about 1,100 square feet, and the rent includes electric, cable TV, internet, water, garbage—everything. It came mostly furnished, but I bought a La-Z-Boy recliner, a flat-screen TV, a rocking chair, and a sofa. I couldn’t be happier or more comfortable—and it’s only $303 per month. A place like this in Fort Worth would cost a minimum of $1,200 to $1,400 per month.”
Vietnam’s best medical care is in its major cities, and everyone I’ve spoken with in town has said that they avoid the Dalat hospitals if possible. Using his TravelEx health insurance, which costs him about $115 per month, Larry travels to Ho Chi Minh City to have his hypertension treated. I had the occasion to check out the general hospital a couple of years ago, and agree that the quality of care and facilities are immeasurably better in the larger cities. However, expats I’ve spoken with who have had local dental care describe that as being perfectly fine.
Larry says that moving to Dalat was the right decision. “When I sit on my patio and have a cool drink, it feels like I’ve come to heaven. I expect that this will be home for the rest of my life.”