Exploring Dalat with Dalat Adventure Tours

With no competition, Dalat was my favorite city in Vietnam. The colonial style city is found north of Saigon up in the mountains and has a uniquely beautiful culture and climate that you won’t find anywhere else in the country. 

The weather is cooler, the hostels incredible and dirt cheap (we stayed at Wolfpack and would highly recommend it), it’s not too crowded, and there’s no shortage of adventures you can go on to explore the surrounding wilderness. 

I went up there with one of our friends while MJ caught a plane to Taipei with her friend Anna. Sim and I filled our days with jungle treks, canyoning, and family dinners at Wolfpack Hostel and had an absolute blast for four days. Here’s a taste of what it’s like exploring the more adventurous side of Dalat.

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Canyoning

Canyoning has been on my bucket list for years. I’ve never had the opportunity to do it, either because of time or money, so I jumped at the chance to try it in Dalat. Our hostel recommended Dalat Adventure Tours, which had great reviews, and for only $50 per person for a whole day of canyoning, I wasn’t going to look elsewhere.

So what exactly is “canyoning”? The tour company explains it as “white water rafting without the raft,” which is actually a perfect way to describe it. We spent the whole day navigating an enormous river as it twisted and poured itself through the mountains in Dalat. Sometimes you swim, sometimes you hike, sometimes you rappel down a waterfall. 

Sounds cool? You’re damn right it does.

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The tour guides at Dalat Adventure Tours speak amazing English and were incredibly friendly throughout the whole day. They first teach everyone the basics, which, in this case, includes rappelling down the side of a small, slanted wall. It took some people (me..) a few tries to get it right, but they’re very patient and make sure everyone is comfortable before heading out.

We hit the trail and had the most epic day. In total, we rappelled three times (actually much easier to do down a cliff than down the wall), hiked a solid few miles, cliff jumped over a waterfall (the highest point is 11m - SO much fun), and even threw ourselves down a natural waterslide. 

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The guides are amazing. They work hard to make it an enjoyable, safe day for everyone and even take professional pictures for you all day, free of charge. Our day was wrapped up with a delicious picnic lunch of banh mi sandwiches on the side of the river.

It’s definitely a strenuous day, so be ready for that, but you can’t ask for a more adventurous experience in Dalat and I highly, highly recommend it. 

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Jungle Trekking

Oh boy, my legs were hurting after this one. 

Disclaimer: I am NOT a hiker. I occasionally will be seen making the odd attempt at hiking a reasonably sized mountain/hill, but that’s rare. For the most part I’m dragged/coerced up a mountain and halfway to the top, when it’s just a little too late to turn back, I curse myself, the nature, and whoever’s idea it was because it probably wasn’t mine.

Turns out jungle trekking is just hiking through a jungle. Go figure. So this was a long day for me, but absolutely worth it. Sim and I were the only ones booked to go on this tour on the day we went, so we got the chance to go at our own pace and grill the guides with all the questions we could think of. 

 

This was my second tour with Dalat Adventure Tours and it was every bit as wonderful as the first. One of the guides who took me canyoning came again with us on this trek through the jungle. Both he and the other guide were patient, friendly, and funny. 

The day started in a small village in Dalat called Lat Village, or Chicken Village. You’ll understand why they call it that when you get there. As you take a deceptively easy stroll through the picturesque coffee plantation, the guides will explain the local tribes and customs of the locals in Dalat, as well as how they make their famous weasel coffee. I’ll leave it to them to describe that delicious process…

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After a while you start heading up into the jungle and the mountains. You’ll pass through an enormous pine forest that looks and smells exactly like Cape Cod, MA. You’ll make your way across rivers and up steep climbs into the thick of the forest. When you arrive, sweaty and out of breath, at the top of the climb, you’re treated to an amazing picnic lunch that’ll have you thinking, “they hiked this whole way with that in their packs?”

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The climb down is always easier, I find, than the way I up. Maybe because the end is in sight? I told you, I’m not a hiker. 

Here you start to see some really incredible views of Dalat and the surrounding landscape. We wound our way down through the jungle and even saw elephant prints deep in the mud as we crossed yet another river. The trail concludes near a private resort/camp that’s right on the water and, oh, what a beautiful place it is. The property has a number of horses stomping around and, if you’re lucky like we were, you’ll catch them as they go down to the water for a drink.

The trek costs around $30 per person, which, for what you get out of it, is nothing. We arrived back to Wolfpack, sweaty, exhausted, and grinning ear to ear.

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Other Options

While we only had enough time for a day of canyoning and another of trekking, but after those two days we were absolutely beat. 

Dalat Adventure Tours offers a number of other itineraries, from white water rafting to bike tours to multi-day excursions. There’s no shortage of ways to explore this amazing city and countryside. 

If you’re looking to hop around Dalat on your own, it’s easy to rent a scooter or bike and go from there! If you’re interested in hiking the jungle, however, you’re probably best off with a guide. Some of the trails are very narrow and tricky to follow and that would be an awful place to get lost.

Happy exploring!

Exploring Phong-Nha National Park with Oxalis Adventures

Phong Nha-Khe Bang National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Vietnam protected as one of the largest karst formation zones in the world. The park, situated in the middle of Vietnamese jungle, is known for its exceptionally high level of biodiversity. The intricate system of caves, grottos, and underground rivers that makes up the park continues to be majorly uncharted and unknown to the public. 

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Son Doong Cave, one of the parks many features, is regarded as the largest cave in the world. However any cave in the park is unique and worthwhile to experience. We chose to explore the park with Oxalis for a multi-night trek, but there are other options too! Check out our other post for ideas on how to explore the magnificent caves without sleeping among the creatures of the jungle.

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Oxalis

Oxalis is an internationally accredited adventure company that receives glowing reviews year after year. The Oxalis team of local guides and international managers are very fluent in English, French, and even German. They offer a variety of tours ranging in intensity, from full day adventures to 4-day trekking expeditions.

We opted for the Hang Tien Exploration to enjoy multiple days in the jungle. It was nice to spend a couple of nights camping in the national park. Check out their website for info on their other tours!

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Hang Tien Exploration

Rated as one of their Level 4 options, the Hang Tien tour is designed for active lovers of the outdoors to spend a few days immersed in the jungle of the park. We covered 22km in 3 days, with multiple river crossings and mountain climbs per day.

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Caves

Secret Cave - cave pearls, sparkly curtains, great introduction to cave environments.

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Hung Ton Cave - epic river swim through that empties into a beautiful lagoon for lunch.

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Tien 1 Cave - massive cavernous opening, boundary lines, "flying fox” zipline across a dark canyon.

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Tien 2 Cave - another massive cavern with a beautiful open space where you have the opportunity to experience the true darkness of a cave.

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Gear to Bring

First we’ll start with things they provide for you, so don’t bother bringing:

  • a tent, a sleeping bag, or a sleeping mat

  • a special flashy red backpack for trekking during the day

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  • a headlamp

  • protective gloves for when you climb sharp cave rocks

  • mess kits and food items

 

In terms of clothes, you’ll want to bring:

  • personal essentials (take the toothbrush, leave the face mask - you won’t even have access to showers)

  • 2-3 long sleeve shirts even though it’s hot, there are a lot of thorny plants in the jungle

  • 1-2 long pants, again, it’s thorny jungle

  • as many undies as you’ll want - that number’s up to you

  • at least 3 pairs of non-cotton socks - they will get wet and dirty from river crossings and muddy terrain. Do yourself a favor and pack a fresh pair for each day.

  • a swimsuit for floating through the river cave and relaxing at the camp watering hole

  • an extra layer for when the sun goes down

  • a raincoat - you might not need it, and if you do, it might not even help... bring it anyway

 

Things you might want to bring, but don’t need to

  • a lightweight, quick-dry towel

  • a book for down time at camp

  • flip flops, crocs, or birkenstocks for walking around camp

  • deodorant - plan on smelling bad no matter what you do

 

Hiking shoes, here’s the deal -

You will be crossing at least one river at the beginning of each day. You have to leave your shoes on, so they will be waterlogged for the rest of the trek. Plus, the terrain is unbelievably muddy. So much mud. Drowning in mud.

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SO, if you opt to use your own shoes, make sure:

  1. they are not gortex, waterproofed, special at all kind of boots, and

  2. you don’t give a shit if they get absolutely destroyed

Otherwise, Oxalis lends out shoes you can guiltlessly destroy. They’re basically camouflaged converse high-tops with unnecessarily long shoestrings. They have exceptionally horrible support, so you may want to pluck the insoles from your own shoes and slip them into your combats for the trip. Just don’t forget to take them out before leaving Phong Nha.

You really only need to bring your personal essentials. If you’re already in the middle of Vietnam before you realize you don’t have enough socks or need an extra pair of pants, Oxalis offers last-minute gear you can buy before hitting the trailhead. Packing light is the name of the game. The porters take your gear for you, so don’t pack any bricks. Other than that, don’t worry about it! All your stuff will show up at camp before you do!

 

Camping

An expedition inherently requires sleeping in a tent, there's no getting around it. Oxalis has a series of camps throughout the national park, and depending on what tour you embark on, you’ll get to sleep in some really amazing places.

La Ken Camp - Right next to a little babling brook. You'll get there later in the day, so expect to be pretty exhausted. The chefs cook an amazing dinner, and you'll sit around the smoky fire all night waiting for your clothes to dry.

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Tien Camp - This is a bigger camp, and it's next to a much bigger river. There's an unreal swimming hole next to a massive rock face where the water seeps out seemingly out of nowhere. You'll get into camp during the early afternoon, so you have the rest of the day to float around in the creamy blue water. Wake up early for a morning dip if you don’t mind hiking with wet hair.

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Food

Amazing. No chance of going hungry. Every meal is a feast.

Breakfast is a bowl of instant noodles with a fried egg on top. Plus pancakes and fruit! AND coffee! Instant coffee, but coffee.

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Lunch comes from a massive bin of fried rice. Vegetarians have their own box, while everyone else gets some chicken or shrimp chopped up in theirs.

Dinner is where the feasting happens. Morning glory, potato carrot curry, barbecue chicken, tomato-y tofu, lots of rice, some kind of salty soup, garlicky green beans, salted peanuts, and of course - rice wine. Choco pies and oreos for dessert!

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Transport

An Oxalis van will pick you up and drop you off at your accommodation in Phong Nha town. They even provide a congratulatory beer for the ride home! Be sure to tip your guides and porters before heading out if you appreciated their hard work! And don’t be afraid to drop them another glowing review on TripAdvisor...

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More Pictures!

 

 

 

Railay Beach

Railay Beach, best known for its iconic karst cliffs, is an awesome spot to spend a few days before or after the southern Thai islands (i.e. Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, etc.). Railay’s got climbing, kayaking, swimming, caving, and just all around general exploring for any type of adventurer!

Getting to Railay

Contrary to popular belief, Railay beach isn’t that close to Krabi. We took a ferry from Koh Phi Phi to Krabi, which runs multiple times per day. However, Krabi is an expensive 30-minute drive from Ao Nang, which is where you want to be staying.

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Ao Nang is the beach just next to Railay. There are loads of accommodation options, and it’s easy to catch a long tail next-door for the day. Plus, most tours include pick up from your accommodation. We stayed in a chill hostel called The Moment, just a few minutes walk from the beach.

Rock Climbing

If you enjoy climbing even a little bit, or are looking for a good opportunity to start, THIS IS THE PLACE! The Krabi region is world renowned for its beautiful cliff landscapes, so grab a harness and get sendy.

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There are tons of companies that will take beginners and professionals alike to the best spots around Railay. DO some research before choosing what company to book with, and read their reviews. Experienced climbers have reported that not all routes in Railay are well-maintained, and some companies have been using worn-out, unsafe equipment. As such, we went with King Climbers, one of the oldest and most trusted companies in the area. We opted for a morning package, but there’s also an afternoon package, or full day for the brave-hearted.

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Beaches

Catching a long tail from Ao Nang beach is the easiest way to get to Railay. They will take you any time of the day, and all you have to do is buy a ticket at the window downtown. A boat driver will take you to his boat, fill it with other people, and zip you around the cliffs and onto West Railay beach.

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There are tons of activities to keep you occupied all day on Railay. We rented some kayaks and paddled around the cliffs for two hours.

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Check out Govinda’s at the Beach for some AMAZING veggie wraps! And stop by next door at Choop Coffee Break for some ice cream too!

Pranang Cave Shrine (Princess Cave)

It’s a penis shrine. A cave full of penises of all shapes, sizes, and colors. A penis shrine. Right at the end of the beach. You’ll see it.

Nearby Activities

We didn’t have enough time to really delve into the adventures in and around Railay, but here’s a list of recommendations we didn’t get to:

  • Sa Phra Nang (Hidden Lagoon), and the Railay Viewpoint on the way!

  • Tham Phra Nang Nai (Diamond Cave)

  • Monkey Trail - easy walk with great views and monkeys!

  • Any of the day tours to islands off the coast!

Hiking Mount Batur for Sunrise

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Getting to Mount Batur

Sort of a touchy subject for us… but it's really not that bad!! Unlike most other backpackers, we were staying with family on the very north shore of Bali. As such, we had to take a very remote, very windy, very dangerous road through the mountains in the dark. We planned to leave a bit earlier than we need in order to account for rural driving conditions, so we left for the mountain at 1:30am. Long story short, we were rescued from a treacherous situation by some local guides who were actually on their way to Mount Batur. We trustingly followed them to the base of the mountain (which we never would’ve found on our own), and promptly requested our new friend Jordan to be our guide. 

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Important note: if you’re traveling from Ubud, Seminyak, or anywhere on the central/south part of the island, you will not have this much trouble getting there. You can also probably book a tour that includes your transport. We just had to drive ourselves and were coming from the less traveled side of the mountains. 

If you have a car, you can actually drive the first third of the “hike” to a farther up parking lot. It cuts out about an hour, and doesn’t change your experience at all. Otherwise, park yo mopeds at the bottom and get walkin’.

Hiring a Guide

You don’t have to hire a guide, but keep this in mind - it’s dark, the trails aren’t always that clear, and if there was a heavy rain recently, the trails will be super washed out and unstable. The guides have hiked Mount Batur literally hundreds of times. They’re there every morning with enthusiasm, and bring lots of eager tourists to the top with a smile on their face. It’s their job, and their main source of income. Support the local tourism industry and hire a cheery guide! Otherwise, you’ll be heckled the whole way up anyway. 

Climbing Mount Batur

It’s definitely not the Long Trail in Vermont. Expect unclear paths with multiple ways up, very loose, gravely ground, and very steep switchbacks all the way to the top. After about an hour and a half, you get to a little hut with a bench and some nice viewing platforms to watch the sunrise. There’s still another 20-30 minutes to the summit, but this is a great place to watch the magic unfold if you don’t feel compelled to continue the steep climb, or you just won’t make it in time. 

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Sunrise at the Summit

If you continue through the final push, you’ll be welcomed onto the the small summit with smiles from a bunch of other people who beat you up there. Given that we left unreasonably early, we were the first ones up there at 4:30am. The next folks showed up just before 5am, and then it started to get crowded around 5:30. If you’re waiting for a while, you can grab a hot drink from the hut at the very top. If you come with a tour, it will probably include a hot drink and breakfast (a hard-boiled egg and a piece of toast) at the top.

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It takes a long time for the sun to rise, but even from the very beginning of the orange streaks behind Lombok in the distance, it’s an unreal landscape to take in. If the lighting is right, you can even see the smoke coming out of the active volcano of Mount Agung across Lake Batur.

Snap as many pictures as you can - you’ll only want to do this once. Anyone on the summit will be happy to take some for you, so have a go at all your jumping, laughing, hand-standing, or straight-cheesin shots. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll even witness a heart-jerking proposal like we did! 

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On the way down, be sure to grab a pic of the cheeky monkeys hanging around. They’re cute, but be careful because they will try to snatch your snacks and shiny things! 

North Island, New Zealand Road Trip

Highlighting alternative routes for the ultimate vehicle-based experience.

 

Why Road Trip?

It’s just fun. Plus, New Zealand’s tourism industry is modeled around the assumption that most tourists are getting around via car rental. Most attractions are pretty far apart, and buses don’t run very frequently. The country is too small (only 5 million people!) to invest in an extensive and inexpensive transportation system to connect two islands with insanely varying terrain. As such, car rentals are the most reasonable and reliable method of transport. 

New Zealand is world renowned for its breath-taking landscapes and plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities. So we brought camping gear, and bookmarked tons of secret spots for camping. (They’re not actually very secret. There’s a great app called CamperMate that shows you all the local camping options on a map.) Having a car just makes it easier for us to explore some of the more remote treasures. Plus, camping helps us save money on accommodation. which in turn helps fund the cost of the car! Full circle!

The Department of Conservation, mainly referred to as DOC (as in, waddup doc!), is absolutely phenomenal here in New Zealand. Most areas have an i-Site and/or DOC visitor centre dedicated to helping tourists plan their visit around the local area. So many pamphlets. So many maps. So much support. 

 

Renting a Car

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to rental cars and campervans. JUCY is the most popular - and iconic - choice here in New Zealand. They make a whole line of vehicle options, including the infamous purple and green campercan. A lot of people opt for campervans because they’re well equipped and easy to maintain here in NZ, but being that we already have an outstanding backpacking tent and two mediocre sleeping bags, we chose to downsize to the “el cheapo” option. For 40 days, this little cherry hyundai would be home.

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Unfortunately, you can’t get around the fact that you constantly need to buy gas. It takes 91 unleaded, which isn’t cheap compared to prices in the States, but luckily el cheapo’s are relatively fuel efficient. Much more efficient than a campervan would be.

Also it’s weird, but you pay for gas after you pump it. We learned that the awkward way our first time at the pump. Apparently they “trust people” here. Also it’s called petrol, not gas.

 

Driving on the Other Side of the Road

It’s not actually that weird. It really only takes a day or two to get used to. As always, never drive distracted, and it’s totally fine. At first, turning is the trickiest part. Roundabouts, too. While they’re super efficient for traffic control and emission reduction, they’re definitely less straightforward than a 4-way intersection.

Only complaint: windshield wipers. Every time we go for the blinkers, our wipers start wiping. RIGHT HAND for indicating, not the left. 

 

Our Route

Most people go the most direct route from Auckland to Wellington, stopping in Waitomo, Hamilton, Matamata, Rotorua, Taupo, Tongariro, and finally Wellington. That’s pretty much the most basic way to go through the North Island, hitting some of its top attractions.

However, we took a very different route, expanding out to other regions of the North Island and cruising roads less travelled. We started in Auckland, and immediately shot north to the Bay of Islands, where we stayed at a friend’s place in Russell. Then we revisited Auckland briefly before heading down to EcoQuest on the Firth of Thames, and around to the Coromandel Peninsula where we stopped along Hahei Beach and the town of Coromandel. Afterwards, we wandered around Waikato, Matamata, Tauranga/Maunganui, and Rotorua. After that, our plans got a little jumbled, but we headed down past Wai-o-tapu to Taupo, and then back up to Ohope to take the East Coast Road to Gisborne and Napier. Finally, we took route 2 through the mountains to the North Island’s southernmost city, Wellington.

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If you’re wondering why we doubled back from Taupo, read this post.

 

Road to Russell

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Dome Forest trail, off SH1 leaving Auckland

Dome Forest trail, off SH1 leaving Auckland

Rockman trail, off SH 1 leaving Auckland

Rockman trail, off SH 1 leaving Auckland

Kauri Grove Trail, Russell Whakapara Road

Kauri Grove Trail, Russell Whakapara Road

 

Coromandel Peninsula - the 309 Road and the Pacific Coast Highway

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Waiau Falls, the 309 Road

Waiau Falls, the 309 Road

Stuart and the Pigs, the 309 Road

Stuart and the Pigs, the 309 Road

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

Pohutukawa trees along the Pacific Coast Highway

Pohutukawa trees along the Pacific Coast Highway

 

Southern Waikato

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Limestone rocks poking out of farm hillsides in Southern Waikato

Limestone rocks poking out of farm hillsides in Southern Waikato

Surprise rainbow over the farms along the Waikato River

Surprise rainbow over the farms along the Waikato River

Rainbow over the limestone rocks

Rainbow over the limestone rocks

 

East Coast Road (Tauranga-Gisborne-Napier)

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The East Coast Road climbs and falls through the mountains right up against the ocean

The East Coast Road climbs and falls through the mountains right up against the ocean

Blue and purple rivers wander out to the ocean under the overpasses of the highway

Blue and purple rivers wander out to the ocean under the overpasses of the highway

The East Coast is known for the "old time" feel, where townspeople still ride horses from place to place

The East Coast is known for the "old time" feel, where townspeople still ride horses from place to place

Churches dot the coastline

Churches dot the coastline

 

And of course, no matter where you go:

Sheep

Sheep