We’re standing inside a tunnel that once formed part of the train line from Dalat to Phan Rang. Outside rain coats the alpine trees and the valleys, and one of our group, a female Japanese musician, has just run out of the darkness in a state of terror. When we find her later sat in the taxi, her face is still red with tears and shock. We’re not clear what’s happened, but the word ‘ghosts’ comes up.
It’s the second time I’ve followed the former train line from Dalat towards its once-busy coastal terminal in Phan Rang. The previous trip was almost three years ago. We took the train one stop to Trai Mat, hopped on xe oms to the next station, Da Tho, which stands in ruins, before hiking to Cau Dat, another sojourn on the French-built train line. By the time we reached our final destination, Phan Rang, we had obtained a vivid sense of what this cog railway completed in 1932 had once been like.
Three years on and except for the journey from Dalat to Trai Mat, where the line now ends, the experience is no different. Last time the carriages were empty. Now there’s a scramble for seats. The train heaves with families and baseball-capped groups out on a day trip.
I wangle my way into the driver’s compartment to take photos. The instruments, the electrics, the switches and bulb-lit buttons have that nostalgic aura of age, and the meandering journey of the single-track line takes us through valleys, fruit plantations and small villages on the outskirts of Dalat. It provides passengers with a landscape that while not breathtaking, gives an insight into the city behind the scenes.
Where Tourists Rarely Tread
At Trai Mat the train empties out and our group hops into a taxi. Leaving the hordes behind, the journey comes alive.
7km later we descend on what was once Da Tho. The mountain air is fresh and clean, inviting you to breathe it deeply into your lungs. The countryside is littered with coffee and vegetable plantations, shining with drops of rain, and the French-built station stands in ruins. Left to the elements, you can explore at will. There are no entrance fees, no organised, perfectly curated tours, no barriers, no queues. This is tourism fodder but without the tourists. Instead there is solitude, isolation and quiet.
As we return to Dalat a couple of hours later I ponder the words of our guide. He is correct. There should be no tours out here, no legions of tourists treading what will become a well-trodden trail. It will destroy the magic of the mountain, the charm of the ruined train line.
This is a journey for individual travellers, for the bold who want to go where other tourists rarely tread.
To get to Da Tho and Cau Dat stations, follow Highway 20 downhill from Trai Mat station. Although the tracks have long since been repurposed, the former railway line is easy to spot from the road. A few hundred metres after Da Tho a track leads off the main road taking you through woodland towards the first tunnel. For more information on the Dalat-Phan Rang Railway go to vnafmamn.com/tracing_shangrila