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New heights in land of old Saigon

A former football player combines an outdoor adventure with luxury hotels.

November 09, 2003

Da Lat, Vietnam — 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 wheels

Given 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.

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