HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Getting Wet in Da Lat

We had booked a 7:30am bus to Da Lat, and much to our surprise there was only one other passenger, so we basically had a private minibus for the journey. We headed east on Highway 1 and then began the grueling climb up to mountainous Da Lat - it ended up taking eight hours to cover less then 200 miles, thanks to a slow driver, twisty climbing roads, and a 10 minute stop when our driver was pulled over and fined for no apparent reason. This ride also showed how living here forces you to adapt to things that most people consider bizarre. For example, every time a bus or truck came rampaging down the road towards us...in our lane...horn bellowing, Alex, Mike and Joe would look at Anthony and I, wondering why we were trying to kill them. I've gotten so used to idiot drivers though that it barely even phases me when two large vehicles come within inches of obliterating each other.

We finally arrived in Da Lat around 4, and we had hoped to rent motorbikes, but the weather was looking iffy so that didn't happen. Other than the threatening rain the weather was amazing - easily 15-20 degrees (F) cooler than the oven that is Saigon. We booked a canyoning adventure, which would involve rappelling down waterfalls and jumping off cliffs, for the following day and just relaxed the rest of the evening.

The following morning Groovy Gecko, a highly recommended adventure outfit, picked us up for the canyoning trip. We stopped on a road outside of town and started hiking down into a valley. The head guide then stopped and rigged the rappelling gear around a tree so that we could practice before doing it along the creek we were headed towards. We picked it up pretty quickly, as did the other people in the group, and continued down into the steep, narrow valley.

This canyoning trip turned into an amazing experience, as the guides had mapped out a course along the river that gradually upped the level of difficulty and intensity as we went along. The first rappel was down a flat rock face into a shallow pool of water - easy stuff.

We then hiked down a trail along the creek to a small waterfall that had carved two natural slides out of the rocks it was flowing over. We were a little skeptical of sliding down bare rocks, but it looked worse than it was. You just bounced along the rocks without hitting anything too hard before plunging into the water at the bottom. We all slid down a few times, some face down, others backwards, before hiking on.

After a little while we began to hear the roar of a large volume of water, and we popped out of the woods atop a waterfall that was probably 70-80 feet tall. We knew without asking that we would have to rappel down it, and everyone started hyperventilating a bit. I, for one, had certainly never done anything like this before. In a cruel twist the guides decided that it was time for lunch, so we were able to contemplate our potential impending doom while eating banh mi and fruit next to the falls. Just to make things that little but more nerve-wracking the guides said the rope wasn't long enough to reach the bottom, so we would have to simply jump once we got close to the end.

the head guide setting up the ropes and carabiners for our descent
this dude has balls
Mike (not me) went first, and the whole way down we could see him breathing hard and clenching the ropes as hard as possible while he lowered himself down. He made it safely though, and after Alex went I stepped up for my turn. Things didn't start well as I slipped before I even started descending - my old pair of worn-out sneakers had absolutely no traction left, and trying to stay planted on slick rocks with water flowing around me was like walking on ice.

After finally getting some footing I started lowering myself one tiny shuffle at a time. The first third of the descent was absurdly slippery, and after making it down a few feet my legs went out from under me and I was laying face-first on the rock. I got back on my feet and inched further down, reaching a ledge that stuck out like a tongue. After going over that the fall went straight down, and the water's roar blotted out everything else; I was tense, grasping the rope with all my strength, adrenalin rushing through me, focusing on every step, cool water pouring down.
Joe, not me

Anthony's turn
Once I got within about 15 feet of the bottom one of the guides got my attention and shouted, "OK, I'LL SAY 3, 2, 1, THEN YOU JUMP!" A timid "ok" from me, then the command - I kicked off the wall, let go before I started to swing back, and tried not to go in feet first. I came up gasping for breath. It felt like the descent had taken hours, but it had only been a minute or two - and what a rush it was. The first two parts of the course had been fun, but on this waterfall someone could have easily been seriously hurt, and we were all buzzing off of adrenalin at the bottom. Here's what that jump at the end looked like:

After everyone made it down in one piece we continued farther down the creek, where we soon came upon a 36-foot jump from a ledge into a natural pool. I was leery because there was a second ledge 10 feet down that jutted out, meaning you would have to get a running start and leap out to clear it.

I don't have much confidence in my ability to leap, so I opted for the lower ledge, which was still plenty high. Joe, Mike and Alex were braver though, and Anthony ended up in the unfortunate position of being the last jumper, and as he debated with himself over doing the high jump or the lower jump he came in for some brutal criticism. Below is the video evidence (and Joe does a frontflip!)(Remember to watch these videos in HD.): 

After the jump it was time to head to the last challenge of the day, something called 'the washing machine' that one of the guides said would be "a little bit scary." The lead guide set up the rappelling gear around a sturdy tree and dropped the ropes over a ledge. We couldn't see what was below, so we had no idea what to expect. Mike went first, and when we saw him appear (alive) farther down we felt a little better. I was second-to-last, but I still didn't know what would happen, because it was impossible to see the other people while they were descending. The only advice we got was a shout from Anthony when he finished: "Hold your breath!" Right.

I went over the ledge and immediately saw what I thought would happen - I had to work down a rock face for about 10 feet, where the rock then fell away. After that it was lowering yourself down into a chute, where I assumed the water would spit you out at the end. The lower I got, however, the more frightening this prospect looked: the chute was extremely narrow, surely not wide enough for someone to fit in, and I started to think I was doing something wrong. There was nowhere else to go though, with water bombing down a fall to my left and rocks to my right, so with absolutely no confidence I dropped into the chute. Much to my surprise the water didn't push me out, instead I had to swim to the pool at the end. In the end the worst part of the 'washing machine' was the anxiety of not knowing what was going to happen once you let go. It looked awfully dangerous, but it wasn't really that bad, although I did slam my right elbow into a rock.

By this point it had started to rain, but that didn't matter, as we were already soaked. We packed up the gear and started the steep hike out of the valley and back to the road we had started at. After piling back into the van we were soon back at our hotel, where hot showers awaited us. It had been an absolutely fantastic day, and I was left wondering why I hadn't gone canyoning before. I've done some pretty epic things in this country, but in terms of sheer fun this was near the top. If you're ever in Da Lat, don't sleep on this. Next stop: Mui Ne.

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