Meet the Expert: Antoine Sirot - Dalat City Expert
Quick facts from our interview with Dalat expert Antoine Sirot:
There were once real swans in Xuan Huong Lake, but they were all killed for food sometime during the Second World War.
Dalat is the only city in Vietnam that began from nothing, and was built by some of the modern world’s first true city planners.
Dalat was partly modelled after the French city of Le Touquet, where Emperor Bao Dai spent much of his time before returning to Vietnam.
The villas that are now part of Ana Mandara Villas Dalat were once homes for French teachers from the 1950s to the 1970s.
The below pictures were given to Antoine by Archives Nationales, the colonial archives of France, in 2003 and 2004.
The chicken church has a rooster on its spire because at that time most churches in France had chicken-shaped weathervanes.
The Dalat Palace Hotel was built with the help of elephants.
The oldest city area in Dalat is Ap Anh Sang, where all the people forcibly relocated from Hue to Dalat lived.
French doctors treated the Viet Cong during the American (Vietnam) War.
More facts below!
Antoine was the general manager of the Dalat Palace Hotel from 2002-2008. He has been in the travel industry for over 30 years.
CPG: How did you get started with the Dalat Palace Hotel?
Antoine: I heard there was a beautiful, old colonial hotel, with a golf course. I was always involved in developing hotels with golf courses. The regional director of Accor said, “Antoine, this is exactly the hotel for you!”
At the time, Barry Israel was handling the Dalat Palace Hotel, managing the inheritance of the late billionaire Larry Hillblom - the “H” in DHL - who died mysteriously in a plane crash after spending $44 million on renovating the five-star hotel.
Antoine: No we named the bar after him. He died in 1995. They never found his body. After Larry died the financing stopped. It was very tough for operations. It was a beautiful hotel with 250 staff but barely any customers going to Dalat these days. Barry managed pretty well to bring the business up.
CPG: How did Barry manage to do that?
Antoine: By hiring the right people. Like me [laughs]. But I was involved in hiring too. We had a good time. After 2002, the hotel was still losing money. The high society of Saigon were interested in going to Dalat for playing golf, and it was a nice destination for the weekend and holidays. I was general manager there from 2002-2008 and it was really wonderful. The great years; the palace was doing well there were a lot of customers, there was an American guy managing the golf club. We were a good team there.
CPG: How do you know so much about Dalat?
Antoine: There was a big event on November 17 in 2002 to celebrate the 80 year anniversary of the Palace. We invited many people, many journalists from abroad, and we had artists coming. And I just had one month to prepare, and I had to do everything in that time, including having a tuxedo made because it was a black tie event.
It was an amazing event. I had to present the history of Dalat and the history of the Dalat Palace Hotel to the journalists and answer their questions.
I had zero knowledge back then. Luckily we had some prominent invitees, including Dr. Hach who helped set up the golf course in the 1950s. He was in his 90s at the time, but when we spoke French - not his mother language, but easier for him than English - it helped him get back into spirit and I was able to find out more about the history of Dalat and the Palace.
CPG: Did Dr. Hach found the golf club in 1954?
Antoine: It was first founded for Bao Dai when he came back from France. I traced Bao Dai all the way to Le Touquet, which is a French resort in the north coast of France, where he went to play golf. Le Touquet and Dalat are really sister cities. It’s unbelievable, in terms of the villas, the architecture. One’s by the sea and one’s in the central highlands. The French city inspired the style of the villas in Dalat and the city’s first Golf Club House.
CPG: So Bao Dai brought over Le Touquet’s style to Dalat?
Antoine: Yes, including the palaces. Palace II and Palace III were under construction in those days. There was a lot of modification to the Bao Dai Palace, on the request of Bao Dai’s wife, Nam Phuong. I know a lot of stories - I’ve seen letters that Nam Phuong wrote to the architect. I traced the architect of the palaces. The sons of the architect lived in Dalat as kids. I met them in France, traced them all the way to a suburb of Paris, where they showed me the old Palace III drawings from their father. Palace III has now been turned into a museum.
CPG: Are you the only one that knows this much about Dalat?
In 2000-2007, we had among our guests a lot of old French people who knew the old days in Dalat. A lot of them were actually born in Dalat, because it was more healthy for the women to give birth here rather in Saigon, where it was more humid and filthy at that time. Even the Vietnamese from high society would come here to give birth.
I have a pretty incredible story about the younger son of the architect of Palace II and Palace III, Veysseyre. Palace I, by the way, was never built for Bao Dai - it was acquired by Bao Dai from a rich French guy, Bourgery, who had a private electricity company providing power to the city of Saigon and the French concession in Shanghai. He was very rich.
CPG: And the son of the architect?
Antoine: He had a disease that was eating his nervous system. He couldn’t do anything, just count the days and live as long as he could. His brother told me he was coming to visit Dalat and I told him I’d take care of everything. He was in his last months when he could travel and move. He came to Dalat for the last time before he died. I went to pick him up at the airport and took him around and showed him all the work his father had done.
He was the younger son, so he was born in his father’s last years in Dalat. I showed him the house his father designed and built in 1940, where his father had his architecture design study room (16 Tran Hung Dao). I showed him where he was probably born. It was extremely emotional for him, and for me. He was looking at his origin in life, knowing he had a few months to live. He died two months later, there was nothing anybody could do.
You know of course, the Ana Mandara Villas Dalat resort. Ten of the villas are from Paul Veysseyre. They were ordered by a certain Mr. David from Saigon, who was in the real estate business. I showed the 10 villas of Paul Veysseyre to his son. I took him from villa to villa with the help of the general manager.
I gave Ana Mandara some information about the villas, but now what they say is wrong. I read the information they had, told them these were built from this year to this year. The Le Lai hill was built from 1940 to 1944 during the Second World War, not before. It was a real estate development. In the 50s, 60s and 70s these villas were the houses given to the teachers of the French schools. Somebody told me that their French teacher lived there in 1974. Twenty years after the French left, there was still some education and cultural exchange between France and Vietnam.
In terms of culture, education and health, the French maintained good relations with both the North and South governments. Even during the Vietnam War, in the hospital in Hanoi, French doctors were helping the Viet Cong. Very few people know about this.
The big years of development for Dalat were during the Second World War. It started in 1939 and by 1940, the governor of Indochina, Admiral Jean Decoux, took his local government to Dalat, not Saigon. During this time the French could not go back to their country. They started to build villas so they could have a holiday house in Dalat and they followed Admiral Decoux’s government.
During these years the construction of Villas increased but some of the Villa on Tran Hung Dao were actually built before 1940. The Villa 27 was built in 1937 for the Director of the KATEKA company, a large rubber plantation in Dong Nai.
The most unusual fact about Dalat was that it was built from zero. Whereas all the other cities in Vietnam were all cities or villages that were developed already. Dalat was from nothing. They started to design and build a city using some of the first city planners.
They had a blank sheet and that’s what they had to design the city from. One of the oldest buildings there is the house of the governor, which is now the office of the People’s Committee, at 04 Tran Hung Dao street.
In those days, they had wooden houses built on stilts because there was a lot of wildlife, especially tigers. You had to lock all your doors otherwise you had some animals coming in at night.
CPG: Was the wildlife still there in the 1950s?
Antoine: The French had a regulation on this. You only had a few months in the year to go hunting. It was well monitored to make it sustainable. The animals disappeared during the Second World War, when people were so hungry they ate anything they could kill. Even the swans. There were once swans in Xuan Huong Lake, very beautiful. I asked the People’s Committee if we can have swans there again, and they said they wouldn’t last a week, they’d end up in a stew [laughs].
So now the swans are all plastic pedal boats.
CPG: When was the Dalat Palace Hotel really built?
The first drawings of the Dalat Palace Hotel are dated 1914, before the First World War. After the war started, construction began in 1916 and finished in 1922. They were almost finished before 1921, but it was only this year that they received electricity.
During this time there were a lot of people from Hue there. The French brought over the people of Hue to Dalat because they were very good at growing vegetables. They were moving people around, they called them “coolies”. It was the colonial times. In 1937 you had the second round of people from Hue coming in. They were following Emperor Bao Dai from the imperial city of Hue.
CPG:What was Bao Dai like in person?
Antoine: Well, he was raised in France during his youth. Very wealthy, he liked women a lot, kind of like a Gatsby character [laughs].
Did you know the Dalat palace was built using elephants? There were elephants everywhere. They brought everything by elephant, there were no roads yet in 1917, 1918. So you had to bring all the equipment, all the bulbs, the lamps, the silverware, the plates by elephants. Can you imagine? Using elephants to build a luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere in Indochina.
The hotel was built before the city. There was no city, just the hotel.
CPG: Any interesting revolutionary stories?
After the 15th of August, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered. The headquarters of the Japanese Southern Asian army where in Dalat, at the Dalat Palace Hotel. The staff were serving the Japanese, they tried to take advantage of that and steal their weapons at the Yersin school. It was some of the staff at the palace and the service staff. I met the maitre d’hotel of the Palace at that time in 2003, he’s probably dead now, and he told me the story.
CPG: Did they succeed?
Antoine: No, they got arrested by the Japanese.
CPG: Are there any secret places in Dalat that might not be well known?
There is a safety bunker behind Palace I, and that was built in the 1960s, I think. There were some high-ranking people staying there at that time. In case of any aerial attack by the Americans, they could have gone to that basement. It was last used by some government people of the socialist republic of Vietnam, when there was tension between China and Vietnam, sometimes after 1979.
China was very angry with Vietnam at the time. There was almost war. Sometime in the 1980s the officials in Palace I counted on this bunker in case of an attack. That was the last time it was used - somebody who was there told me this.
CPG: What about Dalat today?
Antoine: For many foreigners, going to Dalat is like watching a movie without the sound. You don’t know what’s going on.