The sharp, splintered rocks at the bottom of the cliff are much further down than the pictures promised. It was touch and go for what felt like an hour, shuffling my feet down the vertical rock face and leaning reluctantly against the tension of a single rope and thin air.
Depending on who you ask in Vietnam, the city of Dalat is one of two things: a romantic honeymoon destination where newly weds rarely leave their hotel room, or a thrilling natural wonderland.
Hanging suspended halfway down a 25-meter waterfall at Datanla Falls, six kilometres from Dalat’s city centre, I couldn’t help but side with the latter.
Moments earlier, we were moved quickly passed the pine forests and tucked away deep within the dense, lush broadleaf evergreens, leaving all sightseeing tourists far behind.
Staring down the first vertical abseiling point of the day, our moods quickly shifted from bewilderment to an uneasy trepidation.
Our guide, Thuan, confidently pointed in my direction making me group guinea pig; the first of the newbies to rappel the 25-metre drop. Like a muscular magician, Thuan tied a complex knot through my harness and leaned in closer to offer some words of encouragement.
“Everyone’s watching you do this, but don’t panic,” he said with a cheeky smile.
Placing extreme confidence in the rope, harness and what little athletic ability I have, Thuan raised his voice to overcome the sound of the crashing waterfall underneath me.
“Lean back! Further, further!”
With my back to the drop, I shuffled my feet towards the cliff’s edge and reclined to a 90-degree angle against the vertical rock face. The cool breeze of the waterfall’s mist ran over the back of my neck as our guides prompted me to put my practice to the test and jump down.
With my feet flat, knees bent and nerves high, I squat jumped off the smooth wall and let the rope run through my hands, falling fast until the tension of the rope pulled me back into the cliff for my knees to absorb.
With the stinging spray from the turbulent water pelting my goose bump-covered skin, I wore an enormous grin and threw my hands up in self-admiring celebration, only to realize I had conquered the first, and easiest, of five abseils of the day.
A long-haul trip through Vietnam is not complete without a rappel-infused adventure in Dalat.
The charming South-Central Highland town, whose name translates into “city of thousands of pine trees”, has been blessed with an adrenaline junkie’s dream landscape. Cut right out of the bush, crushing waterfalls and flat vertical rock faces are commonplace in the mountainous surroundings.
For the more tame tourist, Dalat’s surroundings also offer a wealth of trekking and cycling trails close to the cascading waterfalls to simply marvel at while breathing in the fresh mountain air.
From the outset, the beautiful sequence of narrow waterfalls that forge through the towering tree canopy are a calming contrast to the perpetual motion of most Vietnamese cities.
Just 308 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City, Dalat also makes for a welcome respite from the otherwise fierce tropical climate of Vietnam. Standing 1,500-metres above sea level in the Central Highlands, Dalat’s temperature wavers between 15-24 degrees Celsius, making it a popular vacation destination for both domestic and foreign tourists.
Nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring or, more commonly, the City of Love, Dalat’s wealth of charm doesn’t stop on the outskirts either. On the surface, the city centre itself is a kaleidoscopic collage of the bright French colonial architecture mixed with the traditional Vietnamese market place.
Once you dive a little bit deeper, the city takes on an elegance and almost literary appeal.
But the most adventurous travellers who come to seek a secluded but daring experience will for the hills.
Everything in Dalat has a strong French influence, dating back to the early 20th Century, when Dalat was created as a resort town for the colonialists to escape the warmer weather and hunt for peacocks, black bear, tigers and elephants in the game-rich forests.
Just as the big-game hunters would have done in the sultry rainforest, our crew served us a platter of big crusty French baguettes and croissants with fresh cold cuts, cheese, fruit and homemade jams for a much-needed refuel to see us through the cliffs to come.
Now that the majority of exotic wildlife is extinct and no longer hunted, scaling the waterfalls is the biggest challenge you will find in the forests.
Our last rappel was down a chaotic sequence of violent falls, appropriately named the Washing Machine for its tendency to grab you out of mid-air, pull you into a violent swirling current, clean your body and then spit you out down the river after being submerged for multiple seconds.
One of the girls in our group, who up until that point had shown confidence and poise in her rappels, broke down into tears of panic while hanging in free fall suspension. Our group unanimously erupted into chants of encouragement, which ever so slowly propelled her down into the rapids.
A few seconds later, she emerged from the wash with a victorious smile and incessant laughter. Everyone’s arms shot up in a congratulatory cheer, praising her for shattering through her comfort zone.
Just as travelling through any part of Vietnam will test your comfort zone, canyoning through Dalat’s unpredictable landscape will push you past whatever limits you think you have.
Our small group had clearly formed a much stronger bond by the end of our daring descent down Datanla Falls, almost like a sports team after a do-or-die game.
With a great sense of elation, we climbed up a steep natural staircase of thick tree roots and dense mud steps, grabbing at every branch we could find until we reached a dirt road. Our van sat idly by waiting to return us to the comforting romantic town in the hills, where we would get out feet firmly back on the flat ground again.