When we visited the old Dalat University or rather Lycee Yersin I thought it would be the best location for a ghost movie of the really, really scary kind. You know, the Asian sort of scare that makes you wake up at night in doubt of your sanity.
Many of my old friends know that I have some background in Biology and my love for animals dead or alive stretches back to early childhood.
So to me, this museum is the eeriest and utmost fantastic place of Dalat!
A former monastery and school for priests, the stone building has 115 rooms, narrow corridors and narrower side corridors. Tiny dark chambers and the catholic ambient that reminds me of my own secondary and high school makes it as creepy as the antechamber of hell.
The first floor however is dedicated to the work of early scientists who worked hard to collect and catalogue the wildlife of the Indochina peninsula during colonial times. So, let's go there and get our skin to crawl!
The prepared animals with their glass eyes stare into nothingness if they don't stare at you, for an extended period of time conserved in lifelike poses by zoologists who did their best to be taxidermists.
You enter a room containing exclusively skeletons, a snake, some monkeys, skulls of large cats and Vietnamese deer. Another chamber shows how silk is made from the silk worms. You look at them and realise they are the same you have eaten at Saigon's street food markets weeks before. Atlas moths are the biggest species of the butterfly collection while the beetle collection proudly shows off a huge rhinoceros beetle or some other giant member of the scarab family.
Then the eerie flair of the place gets further intensified by a large collection of partially disintegrated fungi in formaline, labelled in Latin. The small collection of ethnic hunting weapons on the wall is interesting as well and then you enter room after room with prepared animals, from mice and birds over tigers, a bear and a huge elephant.
The hundreds of years the dead eyes of many specimen have seen passing in the gloomy, dim intestines of the stone building have not been so kind on their appearance and some seem frozen in eternal agony. It would not surprise me if in the tenebris of night the spirit of a long dead scientist would take hold of your elbow and ask with a faint voice if Alexandre Yersin had discovered that vaccine for the bubonic plague already that they were working on. Except that a scientist's ghost probably would not believe in himself.
There is more however and what seems like two humongous paraboloidal antennas, fit for receiving the signal of an outworldly declaration of war - are a gift from the Soviet Union during the times of the iron curtain. We were told they depict the universe. And at the other side, under the watchful glass eyes of a long deceased black bear sits a fish tank with a two-headed suckling pig in formaline.
The saddest thing about the Dalat Biological Research Institute is the fact that all the specimen are presented without any protection from uneducated hands. No glass panes, no fences. The uneducated pick feathers as souvenirs, pet a tiger that may have eaten their great-grandfather and laugh at a monkey who has been sculpted into the eternal pose of a buccaneer, anxiously scouting for a ship of the line from his crow's nest.
If you won't listen to reason and still feel it necessary to touch the animals of this sad but impressive museum in Dalat, know that the taxidermists of old used lovely amounts of arsenic in their work to keep moths and other skin-and-hair eating critters from damaging their work.
Arsenic you know, works on intrusive humans as well...
One thing for sure, the Dalat Biological Research Institute will leave a long-lasting impression on you. Whether you are creeped out by one of the strongest sensations of death and decay you can experience in a safe environment - or the fascination for science and the eldritch as such makes your heart fall in love with this place, you will never forget this museum.
How to get there?
Best by rented motorbike, the museum is about 7 kilometres north of Da Lat City. You follow Xô Viết Nghệ Tỉnh street until a church pops up to the Left. Follow the crappy field road through the forest.
The entrance fee is 15.000đ that serves as meagre funding for the place, since there is no government backing.
Downstairs there is a shop for wood carvings and souvenirs. They also have some lovely blue parrot orchids.
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