When did I get pounded in the face by a thousand gallons of water while dangling horizontal on a thin rope? When I abseiled over a 25 meter waterfall in Dalat, Vietnam.
One of Vietnam’s hidden treasures, Dalat is home to the only “canyoning” event I’ve discovered so far in Southeast Asia.
After getting spoon fed by a singing Vietnamese woman surrounded by a circle of twenty hungry travelers at Dalat Family Hostel (highly recommended!), I signed up for “canyoning” purely because the picture looked good and I had no idea what it was. I left my friend Smokey back in Ho Chi Minh City and was out on the backpacking trail alone for the first time. As beginners luck would have it, I chose to do one of the most extraordinary things I’ve done so far along my journey.
What is canyoning? It’s exactly what your imagination says it is. Three young Vietnamese guys tied me to a tree by a tether and said, “One, Two, Three, Jump!” I jumped down the decline about a meter. “Good. Lean back more later. Next.” And that was my abseiling training. My skills showed when, at the first cliff, I jumped, dropped my legs, and smashed face first into the cliff side.
We hiked through the jungle, a misty rain creating a mystique, like I was Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider, looking for some hidden temple or lost treasure. Instead we were just looking for the “Water Slide”.
The river, layered with plump rocks and roaring rapids provided a mesmerizing scene. I didn’t realize it wasn’t just for looking at. At the top of a cascade of hidden boulders, a guide shoved me into the water and yelled, “Hold nose! Hold head!” I scrambled to follow directions as the man grabbed the collar of my life jacket and tossed me headlong over rock falls. I slid, like I imagine otters do in such situations, seemingly guided by some magic force, on, over, around, and in between boulders. I emptied out into the river with a Sploosh! and floated downstream. Eventually, a guide jumped from behind some jungle bushes and beckoned me to swim ashore before I reached, what I later found out was, a more deadly version of the rocks I just slipped through unscathed.
We jumped from 11 meter cliffs into deep water pools. And yes, we abseiled over high and mighty waterfalls, getting pummeled by hundreds of liters of gushing river water. But by and by I remained unharmed, so when we reached what they called “The Washing Machine”, I had good faith in my tour guides that they were going to lead me to the jungle’s end without harm.
I volunteered to go first at “The Washing Machine”, which appeared as just a cliff next to a waterfall, not a hurling whirlpool of doom. The explanation was, “Go down. When you get to the bottom, let go.” Everyone heard it the same way.
I repelled over the cliff until the waterfall was pounding my back. I reached for more rope, but no rope remained, and my toes barely touched the water. I wasn’t at the bottom of anything, I was just dangling uncomfortably as the waterfall pushed me into the cliff side. From somewhere above I heard someone yell, Let go! So I did.
Immediately, the water sucked me under, bouncing me off of rocks like a pinball. I was upside down, pulled, pushed, squashed, stretched, and spun. Disoriented, I couldn’t have told you which way the surface was or how far or if I had any arms left to try to get there. I remember wishing my family a fond farewell, giving quiet goodbyes to all my friends, kicking myself for regrets, patting myself on the back for my achievements, and getting ready to give my old pal Joe a swift high-five saying – Hey, at least I went to Asia, right? Hours went by. My brothers great-grand children had children and I still tumbled about in the water.
Finally, a divine hand reached down from above, grabbed my life preserver, and heaved me out of the river and onto a rock. “Good?” a hazy, smiling face asked me with a thumbs up. Wearily and with a fake smile, I struggled to point my thumb upwards.
The next person descended the cliff, fell the same way I did, and was grabbed out of the river not three seconds later with the same bewildered, life-flashed-before-my-eyes expression. I burst out laughing.