Stepping out of the Sofitel Dalat Palace hotel in Dalat, Vietnam, general manager Antoine Sirot greets me with a friendly “bonjour.” He opens the door of a restored 1952 Citroën Traction 11 Légère Familiale; I don’t climb in but instead swivel my lower half down into the plush velvet interior. The original extra folding seats have been removed, affording ample room for the other passengers – a Spanish couple – and, more importantly, a small cabinet for champagne. In the back of the black and bronze car, I feel like I’ve been transported (in the height of luxury) back to the first half of the 20th century, like Catherine Deneuve on the set of Indochine.
We chug uphill from Xuan Huong Lake to where colonial villas, in various states of disrepair and restoration, dot the pine-forested hills. This city was built up as a booming resort town from the 1920s to the 1940s when the French sought refuge from the oppressive lowland heat and humidity. They speckled the hillsides with as many as 3,500 villas, replicating the architectural esthetics back home. Shouting above the loud engine, Sirot points out the traditional Corsican stonework and Norman wood detailing.
Our guide extraordinaire parks the automobile near other buildings of historical significance: the quaint 1930s train station, a mini-me of the one in Deauville, Normandy; the 1930s summer palace of Bao Dai, Vietnam’s last emperor; and a 1940s Benedictine monastery, a salmon-hued architectural mongrel with a dominant Art Deco gene, dismissed by Sirot as “very Disney.”
Little-changed Tran Hung Dao Boulevard takes us to our final stop, Villa 27. Inside, we sip Bordeaux by the open fireplace while Sirot regales us with animated stories of tiger-hunting emperors. The former residence of a Michelin rubber-estate manager, the villa is now privately owned by the Dalat Palace; its kitchen herbs are cultivated here.
As we return to the hotel, the Citroën back seat feels cozy – maybe too cozy. With passengers carried away by the romance (and perhaps champagne), several marriage proposals have taken place here. I suspiciously size up the amorous couple beside me as we clink glasses.
“Dalat is like a black and white movie without a soundtrack,” Sirot says before we disembark. “We’re working on the soundtrack.”