To celebrate the New Year, Paul and I took a weekend trip to Da Lat, the largest city in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Da Lat is just a 40 minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City, but because it’s 5,000 feet above sea level, the air is cool and unpolluted. Da Lat is famous for its mountains, waterfalls, and strawberries; it was the perfect place to celebrate the start of 2021.
After a year spent in various stretches of isolation and quarantine, Paul and I were also excited to simply go outside and walk. The streets of Ho Chi Minh City don’t lend themselves to casual strolling due to the heat, traffic, and pollution. So when we heard that Da Lat was host to tree-lined mountains, we were determined to make good use of them. We had heard good reviews of the hike to Lang Biang Peak and were assured that the hike couldn’t possibly take us longer than three hours. Somebody lied.
Because the trailhead is simply a board lying across a dusty ditch, it took us a few tries to find the actual path. So first, we took the scenic detour through the industrial greenhouse-filled countryside.
We eventually found the trailhead and started off on what promised to be a rustic adventure.
The hike was quite steep so we were feeling rather sporty, albeit a bit winded. But there were trees! And breeze! And pine needles!
The first part of the hike was quite popular. There were fit Europeans jogging up the trails with water-filled backpacks, groups of Vietnamese girl scouts carrying sleeping bags and lip gloss, athleisure-laden trendsetters with Bluetooth speakers, and these two, who were enjoying the people watching:
After about two hours, we reached a map that said the peak was just around the corner. So we continued on, leaving most of our fellow hikers behind. As we got higher, we met the clouds and the hike became quiet and misty.
The mist, while pretty, also turned the dirt path to mud. We slipped and slid from tree to tree, sure that the peak must be just a few hundred meters away. We laughed at the signs that seemed to indicate danger.
We once again started gaining elevation, and huffed and puffed our way up slippery, muddy slopes. We started to realize that we hadn’t seen another hiker in well over an hour.
The muddy slopes turned into muddy stairs. As we got higher, the stairs became steeper. We eventually reached a stair that was shoulder-high. Giving up all hope of keeping my white sweatshirt white, I flung myself against the muddy wall, fueled only by the hope that there was an alternate route down the mountain. IF ONLY WE COULD REACH THE TOP.
Several stairs had washed out; a muddy rope tied to a tree was the only means by which we could drag ourselves up the mountain. I began to fear that without an alternate route down from the peak, we would have to somehow slide down this same mudslide. Luckily, my new hiking shoes were indeed waterproof, as advertised.
Another sign gave a clear warning, but offered no helpful suggestions or advice.
The trees eventually give way to tall grass and a windy peak. We collapsed into the grass and huddled together to keep warm while we enjoyed our panoramic cloud views. Someone had said something about sweeping views of the mountain countryside? We broke into our lunch with frosted fingers and shared our remaining half a water bottle. There was not an alternate route down the mountain. A young boy behind us sulked sullenly away from his parents, clearly voicing his refusal to climb back down the mountain. I feel ya, kid. They can’t leave us up here forever, right?
Eventually, Paul convinced me to stand and hand-in-hand, we slid back down the mountain thinking only of full water bottles and warm showers. After an hour and a half spent slipping down muddy slopes, precariously clinging to the edge of cliffs, we intersected a road that led us back to safety.
We fell into massage chairs set up at the bottom of the mountain (which now seemed much less random), more than happy to spend the $0.50 for six minutes. Despite having encountered a few tough hikes in my day, this one was by far the hardest. Paul and I were immensely proud of ourselves for surviving and rewarded ourselves by ordering German food for dinner and cancelling all our plans for the next morning.
By the next afternoon we were able to stand again and decided to take a much more leisurely means of transportation to our next stop: Datanla Falls. Here, you can take a self-controlled roller coaster down to the falls and more importantly, back up to the parking lot.
We also spent a morning at Pongour Falls, which was well-worth the hour’s drive from Da Lat. According to legend, Pongour Falls is the resting spot of the woman, Kanai, who tamed dangerous animals. When she died, her four rhinoceroses laid down with her. After her death, her hair became the waterfall and the rhinoceroses became the ridges upon which the waterfall flowed, symbolizing the connection between humans and nature.
Even during the dry season, the waterfalls are stunning. And while we did have to tackle some stairs to get to the base of the waterfall, we were entertained by the extravagant photoshoots of the Vietnamese Instagrammers, who found that the base of a busy waterfall was the perfect spot for a well-documented yoga session.
Da Lat was a lovely break from the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City. The air was crisp and green and the city was surrounded by mountains, rivers, and pine trees. Rather wistful, we were reminded of home and of friends and family half a world away. In the reminiscent spirit that accompanies a new year, Paul and I found ourselves sitting together in a hidden garden on New Year’s Eve, watching the sun set over a twinkling city that was celebrating both the memories of 2020 and the potential of 2021. Cheers to a new year!