Travel

New heights in land of old Saigon

The great outdoors has always intimidated me. Although I played some football in college and even cashed a few NFL checks, I always was in awe of people who climbed rocks, biked mountains and rode river rapids.

Getting hit by a linebacker is one thing. Running into a snake is another. But here I was having the time of my life on top of a Vietnamese mountain thick with tall pine trees. "This isn't the Vietnam I expected," I told my wife, Kimberly, as we took in the spectacular view of Da Lat, a mountain town surrounded by rolling hills of orchards and fields of green. "I feel so safe here. Safer here than I've ever felt outside the U.S."

The beauty and clean high-altitude air quickly made us forget about the brutal two-hour climb up the mountain. Instead of thinking about my burning lungs and heavy legs, I stared at a world I never knew existed.

The Super Bowl, which was played just two days earlier, was the furthest thing from my mind.

As a New Year's resolution, Kim and I made a pact to be more exploratory in our outdoor activities. We decided to spend a week in Vietnam, visiting before the SARS outbreak earlier this year. (The World Health Organization declared the outbreak contained worldwide in July.)

Vietnam offers a wealth of outdoor adventures. We enjoyed hiking and biking and learned that the country has moved on beyond the war. With about two-thirds of its population younger than 30, it is renewing itself and building for the future.

Because we vacationed during late January and early February, we found ourselves traveling during Tet, the celebration of the lunar New Year in Vietnam. That only added to our experience because Tet is a time to be with family, and much of the nation was on vacation with us. That was evident in the baby-filled flights we took during our 27-hour journey from Southern California to Da Lat to begin our three-city trip. We later learned there's a 30% increase in international travelers during the Tet holiday period and a 12% rise among Asian tourists.

Da Lat is in the central highlands of Vietnam about 200 miles from Ho Chi Minh City. The region — filled with lakes, waterfalls, evergreen forests and gardens — is popular with newlyweds, among others. Although we were seeking adventure on this trip, I wanted a little luxury too, meaning I didn't want to stay in hotels or rooming houses that catered to backpackers. So I talked Kim into staying at the Sofitel Da Lat Palace, which recently celebrated its 80th anniversary. It was a good decision.

The hotel, with more than 500 works of art adorning its walls, has large rooms with fireplaces and balconies. It is just a few yards from Xuan Huong Lake in the center of the city. The Palace Golf Club has an 18-hole course run by Jeff Puchalski, a former pro at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles. Bao Dai, the country's last emperor, once used the course.

We had looked up a couple of local outdoor adventure companies on the Internet before arrival, but we still weren't sure what we wanted to do. So we asked hotel manager Antoine Sirot for advice. He suggested Phat Tire Ventures. Soon we were meeting with Brian Vierra, the company's operations director, who grew up in Hawaii and started Phat Tire with his wife, Kim. Vierra described various activities in detail.

Once he started talking about rock climbing and canyoning, which in Da Lat means going down a series of waterfalls, I began to sweat. I kept visualizing Kim and me falling thousands of feet.

So we passed on the dangerous sports and decided to limit our adventure to mountain biking and hiking.

We agreed to meet Vierra early the next morning for a hike near the Quang Trung Reservoir. Vierra, along with his aide, Hoc, led us up a rock-hard dirt path on the side of Tuyen Lam Lake. We saw vegetable gardens, coffee bean plants and rows of rice fields.

For the first 30 minutes, we felt pretty good. But that quickly changed when Vierra left the trail, turning up the steepest side of the mountain, over jagged rocks and around trees. An hour later, my lungs felt as though they were about to burst. Then, just when I thought I was going to have to sit down and take a nap in the dirt, we reached the top. What an awesome feeling.

Stress on wheelsGiven the calories we'd worked off, we felt justified in indulging our appetites that night. We tried the Sofitel restaurant, Le Rabelais, which featured Vietnamese food with a French flair, including the best French bread we'd tasted. And the cost? Our five-course dinners totaled about $30.

The next day, it was on to mountain biking. And it was so traumatic it turned out to be a true bonding experience. We met Vierra at the Phat Tire offices in the heart of Da Lat for a three-hour ride. Maneuvering around streets jammed with motorbikes can add serious stress to your life. Only eight of our nine-person bike group made it to the foothills of the Langbian Mountains; one Indonesian cyclist was hit by car. Fortunately, he wasn't injured badly.

The next biker to go down was Kim, who took a nasty fall. At first I thought our day was over, but Kim didn't let her scraped knees and arm stop her. She kept on biking and told me to stop babying her. All I could do was smile.

An hour into our journey, we found ourselves walking our bikes up steep hills and down suicidal ones. At one point, my legs felt like jelly, but I kept going. Near the Valley of Love, we saw stunning green terrain and brightly colored flowers.

After our bike experience, Kim and I walked to the city's outdoor market, which was in full holiday flow. One elderly woman asked us in perfect English if we were married and wished us well. It was touching.

We found great bargains at the market, but the key was finding the right size. Before buying a lined nylon coat for $12 — it would have cost at least $60 in the United States — I must have tried on every "XL" and "L" coat in the shop. After I found one that fit, the shop owner called me Mike Tyson.

That night, we experienced Tet at its Vietnamese best. After banning fireworks, the Vietnamese government took over the practice of hosting New Year's Eve fireworks shows around the country. Da Lat's fireworks show was held over Xuan Huong Lake. I don't know if it was the magnitude of the show or its length (25 minutes), but it was the best fireworks display I've witnessed.

The next morning, we moved on to Phan Thiet, a small coastal city in southeast Vietnam known for its seafood and nuoc mam (fish sauce). Because three-quarters of the country consists of mountains and hills, the four-hour downhill drive from the mountains and hills of the Da Lat area was breathtaking. Phan Thiet is one of Vietnam's fastest-growing tourist areas because of its combination of beautiful beaches and golfing. But it has more to offer.

Finding a resort or hotel in the city is not difficult; we chose the Novotel Coralia Ocean Dunes, next to the Ocean Dunes Golf Course. Our room had a large balcony that overlooked the ocean. We walked around the grounds and along the beach, where we picked up seashells and watched children play.

We signed up for a guided tour of the area's sites and received a treat — a chance to watch a parade and other festivities — because of the Tet holiday. But first, we went touring with our guide, Phuong, who took us 20 miles north to a group of Poshanu Cham towers at Phu Hai commune. The three towers, built as Hindu temples at the end of the 13th century, feature the incredible brick architecture of the Kingdom of Champa (the Chams), which flourished from the 2nd to the 15th centuries.

Our next stop was Mui Ne Beach, where we walked on the enormous sand dunes, a favorite site for Vietnamese photographers, who sometimes sit for hours in the hot sand waiting for the wind to sculpt the dunes into a one-of-a-kind picture. Children offered to sell postcards and plastic slide boards. One boy showed us how to slide down a dune on a slide board, but it looked too risky to me.

After leaving the dunes, Phuong took us to downtown Phan Thiet for the city's Tet festival and longboat races. The mood was festive as people watched teenage boys walk the streets in a dra- gon dance for children. Red-clad dancers wiggled under red, blue, green and yellow dragons. Next came the longboat races, with an estimated 50,000 people crowding the Ca Ty River to watch 11 area towns compete. It was like the Penn Relays, March Madness and the Super Bowl combined, with a strong dose of hometown fanaticism thrown in for good measure.

People hung over bridges, railings and balconies to cheer their towns. Some came dressed in their best outfits, while others wore clothes they didn't mind getting wet, standing in the river for a better view. Phuong, whose hometown successfully defended its crown, got so excited that he took us to a friend's boat hovering under the bridge at the halfway point of the races. The boat was filled with giggling girls and mischievous boys who seemed happy to see us join them in the festivities.

We finished our day with an awesome dinner at Cay Bang, also known as the Crab Shack. We joined two people we met at the hotel who suggested the outdoor seafood cafe. My wife and I shared fresh crab and Vietnamese lobster and drank beer with the sound of ocean waves in the background.

The next day, we headed inland on a three-hour drive through several vibrant towns to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, to spend a night before traveling back to Los Angeles. Although most businesses were closed because of Tet, it was easy to see that Ho Chi Minh City is an entirely different beast, larger and much more cosmopolitan than the places we visited earlier.

I felt safe walking around in its downtown as we looked around. We visited a couple of markets that seemed to have as many pig heads as vegetables, then had an excellent lunch downtown on top of the Rex Hotel. Again, the price was less than $30, including drinks and dessert.

It was time to leave, but I was sure I would visit Vietnam again. The people of the country exude self-determination. There was hope on the faces of young and old alike, a refreshing sight in a nation once torn by war.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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