Tuesday, 6 March 2012

041 chasing waterfalls

Dalat is where the French went to escape the heat of the coastal regions. Nowadays its a nice refreshing mountain town with a certain European feel to it.
I am here because I read you can do rock climbing here. But after one of the tour operators I visit tells me that they don't do rock climbing now because it is rainy season and the water makes climbing too dangerous, I resolve not to brake my neck and opt for an activity that is wet all year round: canyoning.

The next morning a van picks me up. I meet my fellow climbers for the day: two girls from Korea, a girl from Vietnam itself, a Polish guy who is a gym instructor on the Isle of Man, and our two guides. One speaks good English, the other one is mental in every language, but in a good way. They will be taking us down a nearby mountain stream using professional climbing gear. We start with a couple of "dry drops" where we abseil down a rock face.

I have done abseiling (rappelling) before, and I like it. You step over the edge yourself, you give out more rope to descend yourself, you jump down the vertical path, you reach the ground.
But then we come to the first waterfall. Climbing down with a wall of water falling down on you is a whole new ball game. The rock is slippery, and I loose my footing a couple of times. No problem, that's why the rope is there. But when you struggle against the water to get to your feet again, you do realize the power behind all this water.
But this climb has an extra complication. After you've climbed down to four meters above the surface of the pool below, you have to jump off the vertical wall, let go of the rope, and fall into the water. The rope is shorter than the length of the rapids you're going down.
When I was twelve years old, I was afraid of heights. It started when I was standing on a viewing platform with my parents and brothers, somewhere above a forest in the east of the Netherlands. I had climbed up the metal and wood construction like everybody else had, but once I reached the top I suddenly got scared and wanted to go down again as soon as possible. My acrophobia lasted about three years, and then it somehow disappeared.
I thought.

Hanging in that waterfall, securely tied in my harness, my left hand on the tight rope going up, my right hand behind my back securing the line, and hundreds of liters of water pounding my helmet, I couldn't move myself to jump into the murky waters below. I hung there, trying to convince myself to let go, with the other climbers that had already gone down cheering me on.
To climb up high rocks with a rope to secure me: no problem.
To climb down with a rope: no problem.
To stand right at the edge of a ravine to look down: no problem.
To hang safely on a rope, and then having to relinquish that security, to trade it in for the pull of gravity and a dive in the nontransparent waters below: apparently a bit of an obstacle.

It wasn't panic, or even downright fear of heights as such that kept me in suspense. It was just that while I hung there, my arms and legs slowly getting tired, that I found myself waiting for the right moment to let go, and the moment wasn't coming. 
But I was standing in the middle of a straight waterfall, at the end of my rope, water pulling me down with force. No option was left but jumping or falling. For what felt like a century or two, I hung there. And then I did jump.

After some more climbing and another jump down another waterfall, we went back to town where I met with a local Couch Surfer who told me about living in this mountain town, which is famous for its strawberries and wine.
From Dalat, I went back to the coast, to a town that is known as Vietnam's number one beach town, Na Thrang. I ended up staying only one night there, and I filled the day with walking down the well maintained boulevard, watching the old men playing a board game on the sidewalk that looked like a strange version of checkers. I also spend time wondering why almost every tourist I see here is from Russia. It was really astonishing, I hadn't met any Russian in Vietnam up to now, and suddenly the whole town seemed to speak Russian. Even the restaurants have menu's with Cyrillic script, and the diving shops were advertising with weird lettering as well.

In the evening I board the night train that noisily but efficiently brings me to Danang. From there I board a bus to Hoi An.
This bus is run by some funny people. I know that the ride is supposed to cost around 15.000 Dong. I also read in in my guidebook that in the remote areas "overcharging is rampant". Although I board the bus in one of the country's biggest cities, it must me remote enough. The busboys practically drag me into the vehicle, the door closes, and we're off. I board along the route, so all the seats are taken an there is a big pile of luggage in the aisle. I add my backpack to it and turn around to pay. The guy looks at me and says "fifty". I say "fifteen?" and he repeats "fifty". That seems a bit much. Not in euro's, but I don't like being ripped off. So I tell him I think the quoted price is a bit on the high side. And then he pulls off a good trick. One of the old ladies sitting right next to him gives him a 50.000 Dong bill, holding it demonstratively so it is easy for me to see it is indeed the red 50 note, undoubtedly one the busboy just gave her for this purpose when I wasn't paying attention. The guy looks at me as if to say "Why, sir, you see, all the noble passengers of this bus are charged this fair and equal amount, so if you would be so kind as to oblige, we can continue this journey in an orderly manner". He waits expectantly for me to give in and give up.
In the next moment, a man who came into the bus after me decides to pay. He is obviously not in on the scheme, and decides to help me out. He also holds his money so I can count it easily. He is paying with his own money, not with a bill that the busboy just gave him to mislead the gullible foreigner, so he hands over only 15.000 Dong. Having found a way out of my predicament, I loudly proclaim "that seems more like it", and hand over two tenners in the general direction of the busboy. seeing the game is almost over, he accepts partial defeat and takes the cash. In a halfhearted attempt to regain ground, he points at my backpack an mumbles that it is big and justifies an increased price, but when I counter that he doesn't even have a seat for me to sit down, he gives up. Check mate.

When I get of the bus only an hour later, it feels like I have just traveled a whole lot closer towards the Arctic circle. What is this, it is cold here! In Hoi An it even rains a bit, and since my jacket parted ways with me back in Laos when my backpack was stolen, I buy a new one here. I walk around around in this famous town feeling not altogether warm, but dry. This place is known for its UNESCO preserved old town. It is solidly on every tourist's itinerary, and the buildings are certainly impressive. It is just a pity that every single building is a restaurant or a souvenir shop, with proprietors coming out to yell that you should come in. The omnipresent signs and colorful souvenirs streaming out onto the pavement are loud enough to distract even the most hardcore historian from the undoubtedly impressive but overshadowed and overscreamed architecture.

No comments: