Heritage destruction in Vietnam has become so commonplace that it’s hard to be surprised these days. But last weekend, I was.
I was headed towards the beautiful grounds of the Dalat Palace Hotel - a place I first visited in 1991. A new gate, far more decorative than the original, warned of what lay ahead - a crane, and the beginnings of a substantial new structure adjoining the west side of the hotel.
Built by the French in the 1920s, the appeal of the Dalat Palace has been as much in its vast green grounds, as its architecture. But judging by the scale of the work under way, neither the hotel, nor its grounds, will be the same after this "upgrade".
Nobody at the hotel could tell me what was happening, and there was no information around the construction site - never a good sign in Vietnam. Whatever is coming, it seems likely to dwarf the original structure. The construction footprint is enough to confirm this.
The Dalat Palace was one of the great South East Asian hotels of the late French colonial period - and it's connected historically with Vietnam's last King, Bao Dai.
In 1946, Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam’s most celebrated military figure, was a guest at the hotel when he shot to prominence at the fateful Dalat Conference, hosted by the French colonial government. The collapse of the conference prefaced three decades of war.
When I first stayed at the Dalat Palace in 1991, it was at the end of a 16 year post- Vietnam War malaise and the beginning of a tourism and economic revival in Vietnam. The place was in poor shape but its charms were obvious. I loved it.
As investment poured in, Dalat, with its mix of cool weather, mountain scenes, history and architecture, looked set to become a regional hub of cultural and historical tourism. Larry Hillblom, the “H” in DHL, was early to spot Dalat’s potential and ploughed 40 million USD into the Dalat Palace and other properties before his mysterious death in 1995 (Hillblom is another amazing story).
It feels like a new malaise might be descending on Dalat. There are plenty of tourists, there's plenty of construction and there's plenty of money. This is a heritage malaise. The city’s 1990s outreach to international travellers wanting to explore history and culture, is stumbling, along with the heritage integrity of the Dalat Palace Hotel.
Local hotels, restaurants and museums confirmed to me that cultural and historical tourism to Dalat peaked years ago. The town has become a centre of backpacking, adventure travel and domestic travel.
It's a problem that extends beyond the grounds of the Dalat Palace Hotel, to heritage sites and the natural environment across Vietnam. Years of neglect are taking a toll. There’s a new blingification under way across the country. The new construction at the Dalat Palace, whatever it is, fits the pattern.