It’s 10pm, dark and raining. Four friends and I huddle on the cracked leather of an ancient sofa, playing cards. A few beer cans sit on the table and our muddy, rain-sodden clothes of the day hang dripping from the ceiling. The ground is so saturated from the monsoon that our guides have decided that it is best to pitch our tents on the small covered wooden platform rather than outside in the forest. The growl of the generator grinds to a halt and almost immediately the single light-bulb overhead crackles and expires, plunging us into opaque darkness.
We are half-way through a two day trek through the pine forests and mountainous jungle terrain of Dalat in Vietnam’s central highlands and have discovered that once the sun drops below the horizon at exactly 6.30pm there is very little to do.
I have already written about Vietnam’s busy cities and beautiful beaches but there are times when you need to escape the blistering heat and Dalat’s temperate climate offers the perfect respite. And so with the aim of enjoying Vietnam’s great outdoors we booked ourselves onto a week-long adventure trip that would include mountain biking and trekking. The tour was booked through Phat Tire Ventures, Vietnam and we had selected the moderate two-day ‘Jungle Fever’ trek as none of our party had much experience with trekking, particularly in tropical climates.
Our guides for the tour were Phuc and Lam who were experts in the local area, spoke good English and had received extensive training for their job. We chose Phat Tire on recommendations from a number of the International schools in Ho Chi Minh City that use them for school trips, and because their safety record is impeccable. Phuc and Lam proved to be knowledgeable, friendly and equipped for any situation as we discovered when they handed out vaseline to coat our boots with to deter leeches.
During our trek Phuc and Lam explained that their families and friends struggled to understand what they did for a living as it is rather un-Vietnamese to mountainbike or hike. In fact I soon learned that many Vietnamese were surprised if you wanted to walk 5 minutes down the road to the closest shop. They said that their friends could not understand why so many western tourists would want to climb to the top of a mountain or cycle down the mountain highways from Dalat to popular beach destination Mui Ne or Nha Trang and that they often asked Phuc and Lam what they actually do all day every day. One thing is for sure, these guys are incredibly fit, never once seeming out of energy or showing signs of heat exhaustion.
The trek began early in the morning when Phuc and Lam arrived to pick us up from our hotel to take us by car to the starting point. The first day would take us through pine forests to a viewing point that at 1,700 metres offers stunning views of Dalat and Langbian mountain. As we climbed, dark clouds rolled in, thunder rumbled overhead and rain lashed down. It was at this point that we realised October may not have been the best choice for our trip as this is still rainy season in the Central Highlands. At lunch time Phuc and Lam produced bread, cheese, ham, salads and candies from their backpacks. They even produced a pineapple, expertly carved and sliced it for us. We crouched down under umbrellas to enjoy our veritable feast.
Eventually we reached our destination for the night; a small campsite at the side of a lake. The campsite was basic; comprising of a large wooden structure with a small sofa and a few tables, a cabin which in season holds a small shop (unfortunately for us it was not season and so was closed) and a brick building where we could find toilets. There was no running water and so the toilets, which of course were the squat-style asian toilet, were to be flushed by sluicing them from a bucket of water drawn from the well outside. The toilet block had no electricity and so the delicate balancing act of an asian squat toilet had to be perfomed in the pitch-dark. The campsite had a few kayaks which would have been fun if the weather wasn’t quite so grey and dismal – although Sam and Kitti did head out to the lake whilst the rest of us entertained ourselves by playing cards.
A few hours later we were amazed when Phuc and Lam announced that it was time for dinner and produced a feast of hot rice, chicken, fish, soup and fresh fruit. It seemed unbelievable that a basic campsite could have the facilities to provide such good food and we devoured it hungrily. Our evening was cut short by the expiry of the generator but after 6 hours of trekking we were tired and needed to refresh ourselves for the following day’s trek through the jungle.
I did not sleep as well as I would have hoped, the main problem being that after a day of trekking in the rain I was cold and could not warm up. I shivered all night and as soon as the sun rose I gave up and got up in the hope that the weak sun’s rays might warm me and begin to dry my damp clothes. The view of the lake in the early morning was simply stunning and a great way to start the day, especially as it was followed by a simply delicious breakfast of bread and fried eggs.
During day two of the trek pine forest made way to dense jungle, at times leading us through grasses that towered over our heads. Phuc and Lam cut a path through the tangled foliage, making us feel like true intrepid explorers; a feeling enhanced by the rain that continued to pour and the lightning that flashed wildly overhead. Our final challenge was to walk down the mountainside following a dried-out river bed. This would have presented no problem had the weather been dry but thanks to weeks of continuous rain, the red clay of the river-bed had turned to a thick and very slippery mud. We laughed and shouted as one after the other slipped and fell in the red paste. Alex, who did not enjoy this part of the experience at all constantly shouted out a four-letter word that caused our guide Phuc to keep turning around quizzically to see what he wanted – much to the amusement of the rest of us!
I have never enjoyed a shower as luxurious as the one I had back at the hotel where I was able to finally wash off two days of encrusted mud, sweat and leeches as well as feel the comforting heat of warm water on my aching muscles. After our showers we wrapped ourselves up in thick, fluffy bathrobes and ordered sparkling wine on room service to toast our achievement.
If you are in Vietnam you should definitely make the trip to Dalat for some off-road adventure. Just give the guys at Phat Tire Ventures a call and you know you’ll be in safe hands 🙂