Da Lat is a sleepy town in the central highlands of Vietnam developed by the French into a colonial hideout and escape from the heat of city life. It was certainly a relief to be in the freshness of the mountain air and away from the more popular tourist routes along the coast. The calm didn’t last long though as the main attraction of this area is to get yourself on one of the many canyoning expeditions just a short 15 minute drive away from the town centre. On arrival at our wonderfully hospitable hostel (Smiley Backpackers) we signed up for the excursion the next day, not really knowing what we were letting ourselves in for. I’d heard about the canyoning here from other travellers on the road and from what I could tell it was basically a series of abseils which I was more than up for having tried it and loved it a couple of times before. A few abseils would be the understatement of the century.
We were dropped off at the side of the road by our minibus and kitted out in all the right, seemingly safe gear. Our first challenge was to get down deep enough into the canyon to find a cliff face for abseiling. Peering over the edge of the canyon I thought to myself there’s no way we’re walking down that. Nope. The hostel had convinced me to wear a pair of their spare trainers for the experience instead of my faithful Karimoor cross-terrain runners. Why I thought this was a good idea I don’t know; I’m not the most stable person when it comes to descending steep slopes. Treading as carefully as I could I made my way in a knackered pair of All Stars down the mud slide, eventually deciding to use my faithful backside as my main means of stability. The backwards crab walk on all fours caught on and before long we were all careering down the canyon on our bums whilst the Vietnamese pros sprinted past us in flip flops.
Having tried out a couple of basic abseils to get the basics on the way down, we made it to our first cliff face of about 30 metres into the strong river current before. I was still feeling pretty confident about my abseiling abilities so I volunteered to go first. I may have slightly overcooked it as I ended up launching myself over the edge with a tad too much gusto. Head down and legs dangling in the air, the instructor told me to stand up. How do you stand up when your legs are dangling in the air? Staying calm as ever I managed to swing my legs around to theside and regain some composure before steadying myself down the cliff face and into the oddly reassuring rushing water below. What a way to set an example! The rest of the group told me they were terrified as all they could see from the top were my feet poking above the cliff edge. At least I showed them how not to do it!
The trip involved four abseils in total with some awesome natural water slides and cliff jumps thrown in. The scariest of all though was hands down the waterfall abseil. I certainly hadn’t anticipated this. As we approached the top of the 25 metre drop, I thought we’d just found a nice spot to stop for lunch. Wrong again. What had I signed up for? The instructor explained to us the movements needed for the descent but despite his best efforts it all seemed a bit too abstract. Like many things when travelling, just nod, smile and get on with it. I stepped out carefully through the water to the middle of the fall and leant back using all the strength my arms and legs could muster to lower myself into the 90 degree angle required. We’d removed our shoes for this one for better feeling against the rock face. Socks only I started sliding my feet down inch by inch as instructed, slowly descending deeper and deeper into the force of the water. Half way down you reach a point where you are almost completely submerged by the fall so you have to turn your torso so that your head is in the space under the river of water crashing over your body. This was incredibly difficult as the weight of the fall on top of you completely destabilises your core so any movement forwards puts more pressure on your legs. I ended up front forwards against the rock face under the water. We’d been told how to rectify this but in the moment all you can think is “I need to get out of here!” so I continued to release the rope towards the bottom. Ideally we were supposed to jump from the abseil position as you actually run out of rope before you reach the water below but I was in no position to do this. I could hear someone shouting at me but I had no idea what he was saying so I just continued to sort myself out and eventually ended up dropping into the pool and swimming/being dragged to the edge of the basin. Half drowned I made it onto the bank, feeling very proud of my daring, if a little awkward achievement!
From that point on I had adrenaline coursing through my veins. The feeling of “I can do anything!” mixed with “What the hell did I just do?” was running around my head pushing me on through the rest of the day. In total we must have been in the canyon for at least five hours. I don’t think I’ve ever been kept on the edge of fear and excitement for so long! It was both exhausting and exhilarating. The company we booked with are called Groovy Gecko Tours and the whole trip (picnic included) only cost $22 which was amazing value for the experience. Whether you’re a thrill seeker or someone who wants to challenge themselves with an outdoor pursuit, you have to give canyoning a try. Don’t think about it, just do it.