Tuesday, November 11, 2008

36 Hours in Dalat

What can you do with 36 hours in Dalat? Here's one possible itinerary:

RAPPEL (thank you, Chris, for the correct spelling) (Europeans call it "ab sailing") down five cliffs or waterfalls, float down a river, hike through a canyon, slide down natural waterslides, ride 120 kilometers on a motorbike through hills and valleys, walk all around a special Saturday night market, fix a flat tire, fetch more gas when you run out, sit with a K'ha indigenous family for an hour, visit a silk factory and a mushroom farm, eat noodles at your guide's family's coffee farm and hear Vietnamese government secrets and ghost stories while standing in front of a Buddha shrine.

Beware, however: you will need every second of that 36 hours to do all of this, and you may come close to missing your bus back to HCMC, like we did...

K and I keep saying that we need to take some weekend trips on night buses from the city and not think about how long they are and how tired we will be when we arrive back Sunday night, so this last weekend, we finally do it. "Team Dalat" consists of three Canadian teachers from the elementary school:, K, Michael, Shannon, and me (I'm close enough to Canada and elementary school, I suppose) and we catch the 7:15 pm bus Friday night from the backpacker district, to arrive in Dalat at 2:00 am.
To announce our arrival, the bright bus lights go on and Vietnamese carnival music begins to play at corrupted levels. One minute, maybe two, might be necessary to wake you, right? No...evidently, you need FIFTEEN minutes of loud carnival music to do that. Anyway, we are booked at a hotel called The Pink House, and our new friend for the weekend, Rot, the hotel manager, is there to meet us at the gate. He is a character, and he can hardly bear to allow us to go to sleep because he wants to entertain us all night long. But we have an 8:00 date with some waterfalls, so we fall back into the pre-carnival deep sleep from the bus on very lumpy Pink House pillows.

K heard about Phat Tire Ventures from a guy in a taxi who said it was his favorite thing he's done in Vietnam: http://www.phattireventures.com/canyon.php

Here is the introduction to the "Canyoning" section of their website:

Datanla Descent
Are you an adrenalin junkie? Do you love the water? If so this adventure is for you! Professionally trained guides will show you the ropes and prepare you for the journey down the waterfalls. No previous experience is necessary for this action-packed day of hiking, rapelling, swimming, and sliding down the falls!

OK, the answer to question #1 , for me, is "No." I do not have the kind of adrenaline that compels me over cliffs. But K answers "yes" to that question, and since she organized the trip, I just go with it. Oftentimes, I seem to just "go with it." For example, during last year's InStep class (I got to teach an outdoor education class which included hiking, camping and a trip to Costa Rica with my partner Chris Brown for the entire spring quarter-highlight of my teaching career), we just happened, one day, to arrive at a (300 ft...5,000 ft - which was it, Chris?) cliff in Granite Falls, and, as usual, I just went with it - or, over it. Chris really didn't talk much about the details (I guess he doesn't feel that "We're going over a 5,000 ft. cliff tomorrow" is such an important thing to know as we practice down a wee little slope in West Seattle). My elbow had a battle with the cliff that day and it didn't completely lose...but I still have a scar from it. It's one of those experiences that, after having done it, I could just cross off the list, show my scar every once in a while, and tell people, casually, about "rapelling." Like jumping out of an airplane. Glad I got to experience it, but don't need to do it again.

So when we begin this canyoning adventure and I look at a waterfall and see that our two very competent, relaxed guides, Ro and Thanh, are preparing the ropes for us to rappel over it, I say, "Is that what we're doing? We're going right over it? IN the waterfall?" or "We are dropping into THAT?" --each time my question is met with a casual nod. Yes, we are going over the waterfalls and dropping into that. Here is the description of the advanced route (yes, K booked the advanced route) (which, by the way, I did not have a chance to read prior to going).

The advanced route is for those in moderately good physical condition, looking for a more extreme challenge. This route follows the moderate route through the first rappel and skips over the second rappel to the third rappel before the water slides and lunch. After lunch the rappels are more technical and are wet drops as opposed to dry. This means you are in the waterfall as opposed to next to it. The last and most difficult rappel is affectionately known as The Washing Machine.

So, yes, we are IN the waterfalls. See the picture at the top, meant to catch your attention? That is not me; that's K. For you Insteppers reading this, you will "get" this better than anyone: that was a dragon I did not need to slay. I see two others get their faces battered and noses full of rushing water, so I casually walk down the cliff to take pictures of everyone else getting their faces battered and noses full of water. I do, however, do the "Washing Machine" (I don't have any pictures of that, unfortunately.) We drop down a waterfall into a whirlpool and are sucked under, then spit out again. I don't enjoy it. I don't like water up my nose, and I don't like the feeling that I am drowning, because, when you are under the water, you are sure you didn't do something right and that you are never coming up again...

My favorite parts of our "canyoning" day: the scenery, the hiking, the moments we float on our backs down the river, and the natural waterslides (pictured here). The calm moments. Those are my moments. The rest of the time, I am just going with it, or over it.

The next day, we have booked a motorbike trip with Rot, pictured here, starting at 7:00 am (so we can catch our 2:00 pm bus back to Saigon). I am so excited, because I get my own bike today, and it's a Yamaha 110 Nuovo, very similar to my Yamaha 125 Vino (still sitting in Dennis' basement in Seattle). Rot is charming and speaks excellent English. He has a degree in tourism and presents his trip without any pressure at all...but how can we resist it when he tells us that he does the "untouristy" view of Dalat? We won't see the Lake of Love or the Chicken Village, but he will take us to his family's coffee farm, about 60 kilometers out of Dalat, and we will meet his friends, part of the K'ha indigenous people. It is an amazing day. Dalat could really be a town in the French Alps...the temperature is moderate, the countryside is hilly and the architecture tends toward chalet; at times I think that if you remove the palm trees, I could be in Snohomish Valley. K and I keep saying to each other, "We are cool, almost cold!" and it just feels so nice. In the morning, I wear Rot's high school uniform sweater: a blue, heavily knit, handmade sweater. (One of Dalat's themes is "Heavily Knit Hand-Made Sweaters"--we see them all over the Saturday night market).
It is so great, again, to be away from the city and in nature. S rides on the back of Rot's bike and K rides on the back of M's bike, but I have my own. Here I am coming up on a herd of cattle:

Rot is an excellent tour guide. Our first stop is a tiny silk factory in a tiny, tiny little town. He walks us through the whole silk-making process, from worms to fabric, and we get to meet the women who are boiling the cocoons and spooling the thread and threading the machines to make the fabric. They are happy to show us...such a fascinating process that I could devote an entire blog to it...but instead, I will just leave you with one "nugget" -- not one part of the cocoon is wasted. When the worm is boiled out of it for the silk, the worms are washed and sold at the local market. They are great when they are stir-fried with garlic and green onions, says Rot.
We move on to hike down to the mighty waterfall pictured behind Rot (and a scary hike, too) while Rot gets his flat tire fixed (while this is happening, three of us ride on my motorbike). Then we are off to his village.

Rot explains that his family used to be one of only five Vietnamese families living among the K'ha people in this valley. They bought their coffee farm there, and so Rot went to school with the neighboring K'ha kids until he was fifteen, when he went to live with his aunt at The Pink House. He brings maybe two tourist groups out to his parents' house each week, and every time, he takes his group to meet a different K'ha family. "That way they are happy to keep doing it," he explains.
The family we get to meet lives in this house behind Rot's...they own the tiny plot for the house, but they sold their land a long time ago to pay bills. Rot went to school with the beautiful woman in the picture, Klar. She is very happy to see him, because he has not brought anyone by for six months now.

The five of us enter their hut and sit on wooden benches that are no more than three inches off the ground. Rot introduces us to the family (eight to ten live in these tiny homes) and explains the differences between the K'ha and the Vietnamese:
Vietnamese women are "bought" by families. When a Vietnamese girl marries, she goes with her husband's family and they are responsible for her; they compensate her family. It is opposite with the K'ha people; their sons are "bought" by the woman's family. In Klar's case, she and her first husband fell in love, but Klar's family was too poor...they could not afford to pay in buffalo or stones. So they lived together in secret (how that happend in this little house I do not know). When "his" family found out, Klar and her husband told them they were so sorry, etc, etc., but that they were in love and could they, perhaps, just have a few years to try to pay for the son? The son's parents agreed. But after five years and no buffalo or stones, they came and took their son back and remarried him to someone else. They left the kids, a normal practice. They have nothing more to do with the family. This has happened to Klar three times, so she raises her children with her parents.

See the necklace she wears? Her brother married into money and gave her that necklace, made of rare flint. It is worth a ton. Klar plans to keep it for her daughter, so her daughter can buy a good husband someday.

They are an extremely gracious family. Klar is embarrassed because she has just killed a wild boar and pork is sitting on the roof, drying (you can see it in the picture). At the end of the hour, Rot invites us to take pictures, but it feels really awkward until we show the kids how to take them and then let them see themselves on the display. They laugh and laugh. We buy a few of this woman's blankets, which take her a week to make (can you imagine her ab muscles after sitting like that her whole life?)

Rot then walks us through his coffee farm and shows us their avocado, star fruit, curry, jackfruit, custard apple, egg apple and orange trees. He tells us to knock on the door of his sister's house: the person who opens the door is dressed in a greyish blue robe and her head is shaved. She is stunning...a practicing Buddhist nun her whole life.
Then we return to Rot's house, where his mother has made us the most delicious pepper pork noodles for lunch. After lunch, he gives us a tour of his house and we stop in their Buddha room where he tells us some government secrets and ghost stories (which, actually, go together). Honestly, even though he said, "Shhhh...don't tell anyone..." I planned to tell all of you. If I had gotten more sleep in the past few days, maybe I would still tell you. But I am exhausted, so you aren't going to hear the secrets. Many lives will be saved because of my lack of sleep, for sure, since the secret involves blessings and safety for travelers.
Our way home is filled with more Rot education at an elephant ear mushroom farm, where it begins to pour down rain, almost hail. We slip on our raincoats, but when we start again, I must lean my head back and open my mouth so that the rain doesn't hurt my face. We are drenched. We have a bus to catch in 40 minutes; it will take twenty minutes to get back to the hotel, where we must then catch a small bus to the big bus. Suddenly, we realize that M and K are nowhere to be seen. They have run out of gas. Rot to the rescue, but to make a long story short, we arrive to our HCMC bus with just moments to spare.
The seven hours back is long. But when K and I get off the bus to walk back to the castle, guess what we are talking about?? "Where should we go on our next night bus weekend trip...?"
p.s. InSteppers, Costa Rica trippers: This weekend reminded me of our spring every single step of the way. From hiking through rivers, swimming under waterfalls, visiting with indigenous people, rappeling and also just the scenery, it was Costa Rica, Costa Rica, northwest hikes -- a combination between the two. And I kept thinking about slaying dragons...or not!
p.p.s By the way, this entire weekend, from bus ticket to hotel to rappeling to motorbiking, cost just over $100.


kumma said...

Wow - another amazing adventure. I've said it before, I'll say it again: I love living through your life!

Michelle said...

I am so happy to read your blog entry today. As a self prescribed “worry-wart,” I told Chris that I was concerned you were going on such a strenuous trip feeling tired with Halloween, grades and the election! What a fun relief to read of your most recent adventure. It sounds like a fantastic time!

The Norris Clan said...

What an amazing weekend. I have never heard of waterfall repelling. I am so proud of you for trying it! The "washing machine" sounds horrible. And what a beautiful story about Klar. I am so glad you are having such rich human experiences. It's what it's all about!

Megan said...

That waterfall stuff sounds like it would be so fun! But mostly the Washing Machine..... weeee!!!! But I can tell why you would not like it, water up the nose is not the funnest thing in the world, but if you live in this family and live under this house with your crazy dad who is stull going wakeboarding in November, you kinda, just learn to go with it. I have been talking with Georgina, baut she has not been e-mailing me back..... I wish that I could be flying through waterfalls with you!!!!! But unfortunatly,I have school and all that jaz. Miss you!

Anonymous said...

Elementary?! CANADA?! No no no no....just a little off!

Amy T. said...

It's that boy... the one next to the sketch on the door. I like him. Thank you for sharing him with us.

Brian Bowker said...

You have the most amazing adventures, Marjie! I mean, really, just unbelievably amazing!

Tell the truth; You're really at an all-inclusive resort in Florida just making all this up, aren't you?

Cecilie said...

Wow, what an exciting trip! And how brave that woman you met is, to raise all her kids on her own! I could never do what she does!