Da Lat station puffs out of a beauty sleep

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The Da Lat Railway Station, built in 1938, incorporates traditional Vietnamese elements and French architecture / PHOTO: LAM VIEN

Vietnamese travel writers often call the Da Lat Railway Station, which is located about two kilometers to the northeast of the town's center, a "sleeping beauty."

The nickname refers to the fact that what was once considered the most beautiful railway station in Vietnam was abandoned for more than 20 years before it was revived in 1991.

During its heyday, the station, built in 1938, was busy receiving and seeing off daily trains on three routes: Thap Cham (in the central province of Ninh Thuan) Da Lat Nha Trang, Thap Cham Da Lat, and Saigon Thap Cham Da Lat.

The 84-kilometer main line between Da Lat and Thap Cham included a 16-kilometer zigzagged section.

However, the station was all but closed during the 1970s as the Vietnam War raged, and some sections on the line were destroyed. After the war ended, it slipped into oblivion as other means of transport like cars and airplanes gained popularity.

In 1991, when railway authorities joined hands with Lam Dong Province's tourism authorities to restore a seven-kilometer section from Da Lat to its outlying neighborhood of Trai Mat to serve tourists, the sleeping beauty was awakened.

It has since become a popular destination that attracts lots of tourists who come not only to take a trip to the outskirts, but also to admire and take photos of the artful design and nostalgic atmosphere of one of the oldest railway stations in Vietnam.

The structure's historical importance was also confirmed when the Ministry of Culture and Information (now the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism) named it a national heritage site in 2002.

The Da Lat Railway Station is an architectural delight designed by French architects Moncet and Revéron.

It is a combination between Art Deco a French-developed style that flourished in the 1930s-40s, and traditional elements which can be found in its three striking apex roofs at front. The roofs are said to reference either the town's iconic Lang Biang Mountain or communal houses of native ethnic groups.

Some travel writers have claimed that a large clock under the middle roof represents the time when French-Swiss doctor Alexandre Yersin first stepped foot on Lang Biang, leading to the French colonialists' establishment of Da Lat later. The memorial time is 3:30 p.m. on June 21, 1936, according to his diary.

Under each roof is a big, multicolored glass window.

Thanks to elevated ceilings and numerous windows, as well as the arrangement of ticket counters and a departure lounge in a horizontal row, it feels airy and spacious inside the station.

According to some historical documents, during its golden time, the Da Lat Railway Station boasted 11 steam locomotives, mostly produced by the Swiss-owned Fuka Company. But, after the war ended, only five were functional, and later the producer bought them back for tourism purposes.

The station now has two steam locomotives produced by Japan in 1941 and the former Soviet Union in 1968. The Japanese-made engine is used mainly for exhibition purposes, while the other is used for operating trains to Trai Mat.

One train leaves Da Lat every one and half hours for the suburban area every day. The whole trip takes about 30 minutes and costs VND30,000 (US$1.4), but delivers distinctive experiences with sights of rows of pine trees and mountains along the way.

Then, when the train stops in Trai Mat, passengers are introduced to the old images of Da Lat. Like the town's center, Trai Mat is also home to French-styled villas and ubiquitous flowers, but still preserves the simplicity, peacefulness and calmness that have gradually faded in Da Lat over the past 20-30 years. 

In Trai Mat, there are vegetable gardens set along mountain sides like terrace fields in the northern highlands areas. There is also the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, which was built in 1950 and famous for its architecture that includes more than 6,600 square meters covered with colored glazed terra cotta tiles.

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