Dalat Jungle Trek

Getting there - Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat

We left Ho Chi Minh City as we came - slowly through the traffic-filled streets in a bus, this time heading north-west away from the flat delta country and towards the central highlands. It took us more than 7 hours, including the obligatory "rest" stops. Once we had left the main highway, we started to enter a different and interesting landscape; passing by rubber plantations and orchards, skirting the edge of Lake as the countryside became distinctively hilly. The mix of religions here was also intriguing, seeming to be a patchwork of buddhism and catholicism, rather than a blend. In one town, we passed six large churches in as many kilometres, while every second house had a statue of the madonna on its balcony (the epicentre of catholicism in Vietnam??), while at another place, an enormous buddha perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the local catholic church - a curious sight.

Soon the bus was winding slowly up steep green-clad hills, whose large basaltic rocks gave away their volcanic origins to reach the Di Linh plateau. We crossed the rolling countryside covered with tea and coffee plantations and other horticultural crops, passing through town with coffee beans spread out and drying in front of every second house (a bit of trivia that we learnt - Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world after Brazil).

Dropping down to pass beneath the wall of a large reservoir, we reached the hills of Dalat, once again winding upwards around pine-topped hills to suddenly emerge in the city itself. Sitting at 1475m with undulating streets and surrounded by hills, it was a welcome change from the flat urbanisations of the delta. The temperature too was several degrees cooler .

Dalat is very different from what we had seen so far of Vietnam and it was clear why the French colonials chose this as their retreat from the hot humid summers of Saigon. We were looking forward to stretching our legs and explore the landscape more closely.

Dalat skyline with 2169m Lang Bian Mountain in the background

Day 1 - in the pine forests (11.5 km - 480m ascent - 620m descent)

We were picked up at our hotel by our guide, Khôi and his offsider, Anh, and, after picking up a French couple, headed off to the outskirts of Dalat to begin our walk. It was a perfect day; cool sunshine and clear blue skies. We started out on a quiet road that looked back over the city to the 2169m peaks of Lang Bian Mountain. Soon, Khôi turned onto a small dirt track and led us up into the pine-clad hills that surround Dalat.

The track became a footpath leading us deeper into the pines, planted by the French in the 1920s, but looking strangely as though they were a natural part of the landscape. Through the trees we could glimpse the hazy hills and distant mountains and, with birds singing above, for the first time in Vietnam our surrounds felt peaceful.


The group sets off through the pine forests of Dalat



Descending down a steep orange-clay path, we emerged at a sealed road leading up to Thien Vien Trúc Lâm, a recently built buddhist monastery and meditation centre. We followed it up to visit the buildings, striking orange and yellow pagodas set in immaculate gardens amongst the pine trees; an incredibly serene setting with the soft gong of the prayer bell ringing periodically.

In the grounds of Trúc Lâm

Ringing the gong at Trúc Lâm Monastery

The zen retreat of Trúc Lâm

Purple grass and pines

From the terrace you could look out across Tuyen Lam Lake to our destination, the steep slopes of Pinhatt Mountain. We descended to reach the lake shore, crossing the dam wall that holds it back, wandered around its shoreline, past small coffee plantations and an experimental salmon farm.

Tuyen Lam Lake and Elephant Mountain

Eventually Khôi led us onto a dirt road leading away from the lake and gradually climbing back into the pine forest, with anomalous patches of bananas and pineapples growing within it. With this and orchids colonising their trunks, the pines were starting to look a little bit more alien.

Floating ball water feature at the monastery

View over Tuyen Lam Lake to Bian Lang

Reaching a bend in the road, we saw in front of us a narrow footpath heading straight up a 30-45° slope; our first challenge - the 250m direct ascent of Pinhatt Mountain was about to start. As we climbed steadily and sweatily upwards, the views behind us opened out to reveal the expanse of the lake, distant Dalat and even more distant Lang Bian Mountain.

We were thankful for the shade of the pines as we crested Pinhatt in time for a well-earned lunch in the shade of one particularly large tree. When Khôi and Anh unpacked the lunch our mouths began to water; fresh bread rolls, cheese, pork, salad, bananas, pineapple, mangos, dragon fruit and longans. It was no wonder that we needed a siesta listening to the birds twitter and the wind sigh through the pine needles above in the languid warmth of a Dalat autumn day.

Panorama of Tuyen Lam Lake and distant Dalat

Starting the climb up Pinhatt

Gourmet lunch in the shade of the pines

Three symbols of life in Dalat

Descending the scrubby slope of Pinhatt

Looking back up the western side of Pinhatt

When tired of walking take an elephant!

Eventually we had to make a move and found ourselves descending the mountain as steeply as we had come up. After a while, the slope flattened somewhat and headed back toward the lake before dropping down one last steep hillside to its shore. Here we were greeted by three elephants, two made of stone and one real; we had arrived at a popular lakeside cafe / picnic area where elephant rides were on offer - we didn't take it up.

The area was also one where, 40 years ago (is it that long already), Viet Cong guerillas found refuge in the caves and forests, while the South Vietnamese army held the fort in the city nearby. Dalat and surrounds, however, were spared any fighting during the war by tacit agreement between both sides who apparently appreciated its therapeutic values for rest and recreation.

Lakeside rest stop

Stone man watching over the lake - shades of Easter Island

Our thatched hut for the night

Our French friends, who were only doing a day-walk, departed with Anh, while the fair Nello and I shared a beer in the cafe with Khôi, a former teacher, listening to interesting stories about the education system, minority tribes and culture in Vietnam today - fascinating stuff!

Dinner is served - Khoi and the fair Nello

View from our hut

By now it was getting late and the afternoon clouds had begun to roll in, as is their wont here, so we left for one final push around the lake shore to reach our campsite for the night, a series of thatched huts set on a small peninsula; the campsite was operated by K'ho Chil tribespeople. As evening fell and the songs of birds was replaced by the croaking of frogs, we sat down to a candlelight dinner of Chil-style barbecued pork and venison with watercress soup. Today had been the perfect introduction to trekking in Vietnam.

Day 2 - in the jungle (10.5 km - 280m ascent - 600m descent)

Another sunny morning greeted us as we set out, heading through denser grass beneath the pines to round a swampy flat on the lake shore. Two enormous piles of dried dung gave a clue to who was creating the paths through the grass and not long after, we met the perpetrator. An Asian elephant was ambling slowly down the track with its K'ho-driver on top, off to the campsite for another days work giving tourists their "I've ridden an elephant" thrill.

We waved and headed on, picking our way through the thick grass to reach the verge of the rain forest and a sluggish stream blocking our way. Khôi picked his way along the edge until he found a crossing point on a small wooden log. We were at the start of a long and steady climb up the appropriately named Elephant Mountain. The track led us through a succession of jungle thickets and clearings of dense tall grass (porcupine habitat) before we finally entered the rain forest proper.


Elephant mountain is that way!

The track entered the forest verge ...

... to skirt by a sluggish stream ...

.... before crossing thick grass clearings ...

... and eventually reach the dense rainforest

In the dark world of the rain forest

As the track climbed steadily, winding past giant buttress-rooted or aerial-rooted trees we walked in a shady world of vines, shrubs, ferns and fungi. The rain forest world is defined by the great variety of leave shape and shade, the texture of moss- and epiphyte-covered trunks, the rich moist scent of the soil and decaying vegetation and the play of light in the canopies, a dark, green world enlivened by the occasional flash of colour or the delicate form of a mushroom.

A forest giant

The rain forest canopy, with its shades of green ....

.... and rare flash of colour

As we climbed slowly upwards, Khôi was always on the look out for specimens to talk about the different plants and their usage, the trees and their timber and the relationship of hill tribes and the forest - fascinating as always. It was a silent place though; broken by the occasional piping of a bird in the canopy, the distant hooting of a gibbon, scurrying in the branches above as we disturbed a group of squirrels, a soft shuffle in the litter where a vole sought shelter, or the loud chattering of a group of Australian schoolkids whose path we crossed on their way out from an overnight camp in the jungle (they didn't do things like that when I was at school!)

Rain forest clearing - let the sun shine in

Large buttress-rooted tree

Shortly after we reached a ridge below the summit of Elephant Mountain and began our descent, steeply at first, but becoming gradually gentler to finally emerge from the rainforest as we crossed a small stream.

Natural bridge across the stream

This area was still densely vegetated, but had been partly cleared by K'ho Chil tribespeople for their vegetable/fruit gardens. At present it was overgrown with shrubs and was superb butterfly habitat. Species of many sizes and hues flitted by; small yellow, medium brown-orange, black and white, greyish-blue and the superb but elusive giant black and blue ulysses.

K'ho hut and hillside orchard

Coffee anyone?

Mountain stream

We now followed the K'ho pathway down and soon were following one of their irrigation channels past the small houses and hillside gardens. Beyond lay a panoramic view of the valley ahead with its villages and small farm plots. A steep descent through the red earth fields to cross another stream by wooden log brought us to a pleasant lunch spot in the shade, looking over the rich tapestry of hills, forest and garden plots. After lunch, we wandered on past different crops - coffee, corn, rice, sweet potatoes, gladiolus for the flower market - along laneways lined with lantana.

Overlooking the gardens of the K'ho hill tribe people

Market garden panorama on the valley floor

The market gardens of Langh Din An

Crossing the highway, we cut across the flat valley floor, its rich red soil covered in channel-irrigated market gardens, to reach Langh Din An (aka Chicken Village), so named for the giant concrete chicken that adorns its centre (which would feel at home anywhere in giant-object loving Australia).

The Giant Chicken marked the end of our walk and our vehicle was waiting to take us back to Dalat and a soak in the spa of Dreams Hotel, run by the famously friendly Madame Dung followed by dinner with a celebratory drop of Lang Bian Red - for me, one of the better Dalat vintages.

The Giant Chicken (now there lies a tale!)

Thanks, Khôi, for being such a fountain of knowledge about the people, places and habitats of this area - we not only had a very good trek, but now have much better understanding of the way of life in Dalat.

PS For those still marvelling at the presence of a giant chicken in a small village in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, it is linked to a K'ho legend of unrequited love. If you want to know more you'd better come and visit.