It was during World War II, and the project was known as Cite Decoux (Decoux City), in honor of the Vichy Governor-General, Jean Decoux.
Back then, Dalat was the summer capital of French Indochina, a federation of three Vietnamese regions, as well as Cambodia, Laos and a small portion of China.
The colons came to Dalat then for the same reasons so many tourists come today: to escape the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia’s lower elevations, and to revel in the airy nature of a place now commonly referred to as the ‘City of Eternal Spring.’
When they came, they demonstrated a homesickness for the Landes, Savoy, Brittany and Normandy. That’s evident in the colonial-era relics scattered about Dalat, which author Barbara Crossette held out as Asia’s most exquisitely preserved hill station in her 1999 book on the subject.
Over the years, we’ve learned to distinguish the Norman villas (wood detailing) from the Savoyarde (wood up top, stone on the ground floor), the Corsican (all stone) from the Landaise (one long sloped roof, one shorter sloped roof). It’s the sort of thing you take an interest in when you own 16 villas on Tran Hung Dao Street, as we did several years ago.
Thanks to an old brochure we recently found, we know that Decoux City’s blueprints called for a collection of 64 villas next to a boot-shaped, man-made lake off of Van Kiep Street, about five kilometers from downtown on what had to have been a pristine plot of Vietnam real estate.
We're not sure if all 64 villas were ever built. (The brochure states that 30 villas “evoking Alps mountain chalets” were scheduled to be built by the end of 1942, followed by another 20 the next year.)
What we do know is that illustrations depict an array of villa types, with construction prices ranging from $8,800 to $12,000. Lots ran as big as 1,770 square meters (about half an acre), although the ones ceded to Mr. Decoux don’t have figures attached to them.
“All will be able to enjoy (these villas),” one of the more text-heavy pages reads. But “the absolute priority will be given to families with four or more children.”
Among the features of all Decoux City villas were sturdy stone foundations, chimneys, terra cotta roof tiles, small, multi-pane windows and louvered shutters. Some had long, wooden balconies running along the broadest facade, others had covered terraces. Some were designed with spacious, step-up verandahs, others were laid out with three bedrooms on a single floor.
In other words, they had personality, too. That’s something we think is important, as well. Houses in Vietnam need not be ordinary, or cookie-cutter. Nor should they be.
That goes double for Dalat, where architecturally distinguished structures are something of a tradition. We’re proud to keep the spirit alive with seven villas that combine the design sensibilities of the past and the luxurious amenities and conveniences of the present. Great weather and a kind of grace — you still can’t beat it.