Today was one of the most beautiful drives of the whole trip. Instead of just monotonous green rice paddies, we cruised past rich earthy plots of land. Enormous mountains loomed ahead and grew with every kilometer closer. Soon, we were actually in the mountains climbing higher and higher, twisting around hairpin turns with sheer drops below. Waterfalls trickled down the face of the rock and into the dense valley of trees. There were several tourists on the road, but in varying levels of intensity. First, there were westerners on the back of the Vietnamese tour guide’s motorcycles, just happy to be along for the ride. Next, came out type of rider, still comfortable on a motorcycle but, at least we were navigating the roads ourselves. The most intense were the groups of cyclists racing around with their spandex shorts and lightweight bicycles, using just their muscles to power up the hill.
The jungle foliage changed to towering evergreens and suddenly we were driving through quaint timber towns with reddish brown dirt and wooden shacks. I could smell the pine needles and reveled in the fact that we were in the woods, just like home, sort of.
We rounded a bend and crossed over a small stream before starting the ascent up another mountain. A backpacker was pushing his Honda Win motorcycle up the mountain, and looked like he might need some help. Just as two other backpackers on motorcycles zoomed past us, we pulled over to see what the deal was. Florian was thirty-five years old, from Germany, and traveling Vietnam in similar fashion to us. He started the bike to demonstrate the problem and all we heard was a variety of clicks, crunches, and clanks. It was clear this bike wasn’t going to make it to Dalat, and the nearest town was still kilometers away, uphill. We offered to take him and his pack on our bikes to Dalat so he could sort out the bike with a mechanic in town. He decided “to hell with it” and kicked the bike over into the gully and started ripping off the license plate, having decided that he had gotten all he wanted from the bike and didn’t want the hassle of reviving it from the dead. Our bikes groaned a bit with the weight–mine with two bags and Byron’s with one bag and the two men sitting as far apart as the bike would allow.
Florian had us drop him off at Dalat Backpackers Hostel, and we figured this would be good enough for us to stay as well. Giving him the ride really paid off because of the camaraderie and hospitality of the hostel. The rooftop patio was cramped, but it encouraged friendships, laughter, drinking, and story telling. The owner, Vu, spoke impeccable English, and made sure we were aware of this fact. He invited everyone who checked in that day to enjoy a family-style “welcome dinner”. He gathered us around a carpet on the floor of the lobby and proceeded to set a bowl and chopsticks for each person, along with heaping plates of rice, spring rolls, tofu, and more. We all sat down, amazed at the hospitality, and started chatting and having a grand old time. I even met a few girls that also drove Honda Wins in Vietnam, which was awesome because this whole time I hadn’t seen a single female rider. Girl Power ?
All of us were eager to go canyoning, which is basically repelling down cliffs, and Dalat is known for this. Dalat is the outdoor adventure capital of the country, with mountain biking, abseiling, white water rafting, trekking and kayaking. Earlier, Vu told us the government was going to cancel all canyoning and close the river dam tomorrow. After a few hours, he told us that he made some calls to some people and he would be the only tour company offering canyoning the next day, but we all had to stay mum on the topic or he could get in trouble. Apparently he had to bribe the government to look the other way when we arrived the next day after the guards did their river patrol. Sketchy, but we all signed up in excitement.
The party continued up to the roof patio and more people started filing in until we were packed in like sardines having a great time. Someone brought out speakers, and the night continued on with travel stories, chatting, and meeting some incredibly interesting people from all over the world–Canadians, Dutch, German, British, and Russian.
We’d been staying in hotels this entire trip because they were just as cheap as hostels. However, that night I learned a valuable lesson: a hotel is NOT always better than a hostel.