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Da Lat, back in the day

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People have been visiting Da Lat for 115 years in search of fresh air, peace and tranquility, but a recent photo exhibition highlights how the city has sacrificed some of its natural beauty for the sake of development in recent decades.
On the surface a recent exhibition Da Lat in the Olden Days, organized by Xua va Nay (Past and Present) magazine, showcased this former mountain resort town’s compelling and captivating beauty. A fitting tribute for a city as it approaches its 115th anniversary. But the exhibition served another purpose. It also highlighted how much the town has changed since many of the photos were taken four decades ago.
Held in coordination with Ba Ria-Vung Tau Tourist Company at the Sammy hotel in Da Lat City the exhibition presented a collection of 60 photos taken by a number of famous photographers including Tran Van Chau, the late Nguyen Ba Mau and Dang Van Thong. The exhibition also featured photos taken by Renaudin Esperance, the former director of Da Lat Power Plant back in 1918, who married a Vietnamese woman.
Today Da Lat is a well-developed town with an airport, five star hotels and multiple tourist attractions. But of course that wasn’t always the case. It was a hard-to-get-to mountain retreat. The town’s temperate climate and magical scenery was the intrepid traveler's reward for scaling the mountainous roads and precipitous slopes.
“In 1947 when I started taking pictures for Da Lat photo, a photographer’s studio, Da Lat was still in its primitive form and had many beautiful waterfalls and lakes,” says Dang Van Thong. “As the population was sparse and pine forests were thick and endless, the literati described it as a ‘city in a forest and a forest in a city’. Even in the late 1980s, Da Lat’s landscape was still poetic and dreamlike.”
In old photos the Grand Lycee Yersin school (now the Teachers’ College) as well as churches, villas, hotels and houses around Da Lat are all partly hidden by the thick pine forest. The hilly town at that time abounded with wild flowers, especially in springtime when the cherry trees were in full blossom.
This breathtaking landscape seduced tourists, who would buy postcards made by the likes of Dang Van Thong to send to friends or keep as a memento. Thong shot the city’s spectacular waterfalls and lakes in the vein of the late Nguyen Ba Mau, who was awarded the title of ‘King of Technical Photos’ by the British Royal Photographers. Mau produced thousands of photos featuring Da Lat’s scenery which were posted to the four corners of the globe.
But nothing lasts forever. Today images of Da Lat are but a click away on a computer screen while the city’s famous landscape is now also home to increasingly modern developments. “In recent years Da Lat has ceased to be like it was in the past because of the requirements of economic development,” says Thong.
Tran Van Chau, a photographer who took one of the most enduring aerial images of Da Lat, returned to Vietnam from the US just to attend the exhibition.
“Da Lat has changed a lot from what the early 1960s,” says Chau. “At that time people were amazed by its beauty on board a helicopter when they saw the entire panorama.”
It is often said that Da Lat was so foggy once upon a time that you could be standing 4-5 metres from someone and not see them. However, after the 1980s, the uncontrolled felling of trees and the clearing of forest land to build houses and set up public facilities has led to the destruction of Da Lat’s landscape.
Beauty spots such as Cam Ly waterfall and Me Linh Lake have suffered as a result. Than Tho lake has silted up while Xuan Huong Lake is badly polluted.
Many inhabitants of Da Lat say the city was once as beautiful as a painting hanging in the middle of a garden in springtime, but over the last 20 years, Da Lat has exchanged its natural beauty for socioeconomic development. Of course, many changes have been necessary, as Da Lat cannot remain a small town, but developments should be made in harmony with the nature that drew people here in the first place.
The exhibition has given the people of Da Lat as well as tourists a panorama of a poetic and seductive Da Lat in the old days. Duong Trung Quoc, the secretary general of the Vietnam Historians Association and editor-in-chief of Xua va Nay, said at the opening exhibition, “This is an exhibition that links the memory of the past generation to today’s generation, and shows how much Da Lat has changed. This also makes us remember Da Lat in the old days and persuades us to develop Da Lat into a famous tourist centre in the country and the region.”


Source: Timeout

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