Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam
Dalat is best known for romance, but it has swashbuckling aplenty. DUNCAN FORGAN clambers up ravines and evades cowboys in swoon-inducing surrounds.
Published on Oct 14, 2015
It is the height of the dry season in Dalat—Vietnam's City of Eternal Spring—but all I can hear is the sound of crashing thunder and a whooshing deluge of water raining down on me from above.
The weather gods are notoriously fickle in this part of the country's Central Highlands, however it's not an unexpected downpour that is creating the cacophony and soaking me to the bone. It's the fact that I'm suspended on a rope beneath a cascading waterfall halfway down the Datanla Canyon with only the guide supervising my cautious descent as protection (or, perhaps just as a talisman) from a nasty drop onto the rocks 15-meters below.
Canyoning in Datanla takes endurance, and a leap of faith. ©Jessica Traver.
Risking life and limb in a rugged ravine is not the typical tourist experience in a country best known for endless beaches, honking metropolises and one of the world's most on-trend cuisines. Yet, the unique topography of Dalat, a 50-minute flight from Saigon, has helped it grow into a center for adventure sports. The mountain destination has long been geared towards recalibration. French-colonials founded the town in the pine-clad foothills of the Central Highlands as a place to retreat to when the summer months down in Saigon reached their most intolerable.
In those days, the main activities encompassed a bit of tiger hunting in the hills mediated perhaps by a regenerating round of golf at Dalat Palace Golf Club, the oldest layout in Vietnam. The short but challenging course is still there and the cool climate remains as refreshing as ever.
Clearly, big-game hunting is off the table these days, so visitors have turned to more acceptable extreme diversions such as canyoning. The act of traversing a river valley by any means necessary, canyoning has enjoyed a huge growth in popularity worldwide in recent years. In Vietnam, the sport has been boosted by the arrival of several foreign-run companies with internationally recognized expertise and a willingness to invest in the right safety equipment. Among these, the American-headed Phat Tire Vietnam is one of the best known.
Dalat Palace Golf Club, the oldest in Vietnam. Courtesy of Dalat Palace Golf Club.
All of its canyoning guides are certified in Abseiling Proficiency Level 2 by the Singapore Mountaineering Federation, ensuring professional backup for the Datanla descent, which includes sheer drops of up to 20 meters. With such safeguards, visitors can relish the experience of scrambling over rocks, rappelling down waterfalls and launching full pelt into deep, cool, emerald-hued jungle pools.
The typical route, taking about four hours to navigate, is replete with memorable moments. The sight of multi-colored butterflies and the sounds of birdsong are soon lost as the waterfall batters your helmet while you abseil down the lichen-covered rock face. Other highlights include the 14-meter cliff jump, a slightly terrifying leap of faith that I complete with minimal grace and an incomprehensible frightened bark; luge-like intervals where we whoosh over miniature waterfalls, hands crossed over our chests like reverent devotees of some thrill-seeking sect; and peaceful periods of respite where slow-moving sections of the river invite a leisurely swim.
The ruggedness of the area's terrain belies the comparative calm of Dalat's sprawling center. It is possibly the most peaceful city in the country—and, many say, the most romantic. Beret-clad locals catch up on the news over cups of thick Vietnamese ca phe, while an Eiffel Tower-like radio mast spears out of the pine trees. Nestled in hilly green gardens, Ana Mandara Villas Dalat ups the canoodling factor with woodburning fireplaces in their turreted rooms, while the Dalat Palace Hotel, a grand relic of the days of French rule, overlooks the scenery from a crest in the middle of town. But the colonists don't get all the credit: Dalat was a favorite of Vietnam's last emperor, Bao Dai, and his summer palace—a striking Art Deco villa—is an architectural standout.
So too, but for entirely different reasons, is Hang Nga Crazy House. The brainchild of owner Dang Viet Nga is something perhaps only the daughter of a former president would have the effervescent audacity to concoct. The sprawling structure is a riot of woozy concrete shapes, lopsided stairways, and cave-like crannies and rooms linked by precarious bridges. It's a must-see, Dalí-inspired hallucinatory oddity.
The—we kid you not—Honey Moon room in a spider-webbed garden at the Crazy House. Courtesy of Hang Nga Crazy House.
Still, most of Dalat's trippy action is in the surrounding river-cut highlands. Apart from canyoning, popular activities now include trekking through one of Vietnam's newest and largest national parks, Bidoup Nui Ba; hiking to the summits of the two towering 2,000-meter-plus peaks after which the park is named; and taking up the challenge of a rafting and biking expedition with Groovy Gecko Tours: a cycling trip along a 28-kilometer downhill pass in the shadow of the two summits, before discarding the bikes to brave the Cai River rapids.
But, you don't have to take your heart rate up a few notches to appreciate Dalat's amazing scenery. The cable car ride from town to the hilltop Thien Vien Truc Lam monastery offers stirring views over the forest. And you'd be remiss to pass up on the Pongour Falls and the outlandishly kitsch Thung Lung Tinh Yeu (Valley of Love), where Vietnamese honeymooners pose in front of lovey-dovey props and are transported on horseback by riders in full cowboy regalia.
Another way to take in Dalat and its surrounds at a more sedate pace is on the back of the motorbikes of the Easy Riders—English-speaking locals with insights on the hidden charms and tribal culture of the Central Highlands.
Skimming the treetops en route to Thien Vien Truc Lam monastery. ©Ngoc Huong.
In truth, Dalat doesn't offer much in the way of a post-action party scene—and just because this is Vietnam wine country doesn't mean you'll want to drink a lot of the local vino—but there are a few options. V Café offers bistro-style cuisine, Western and Vietnamese, with live jazz, and nearby bar Saigon Nite (11 Hai Ba Trung St.) has decent drinks and friendly service. There are also a couple of Vietnamese clubs offering bottles and pounding house music.
It is at one of these that I find myself after my Datanla Gorge trip. The dance floor nearly empty, we are lavished with attention by the friendly staff. Giant platters of tropical fruit are proffered and my whiskey glass never seems to be empty due to the replenishing efforts of the hovering waitresses. But with another full slate of activities to look forward to the next day, we decide not to stay late. Adventure and a hangover are a notoriously queasy combination and with all that visual manna to enjoy, Dalat is worth appreciating with a clear head.