An abandoned waterfall in the Central Highlands, Bo Bla comes to life after dark. Lanterns, floating in the mist, are lit by ghostly theme-park attendants, and the transparent forms of spirits and apparitions flood in from the jungle to indulge in a night of bathing and cleansing in the mineral-rich waters of the cascade.
At least, that's what I'd like to think happens at this beautiful but decaying waterfall-tourist-park in Lam Dong Province south-west of Nha Trang. In my imagination, Bo Bla is the nightly scene of Vietnam's own Spirited Away-style bathhouse.
An Ancient History
Not long ago, Bo Bla Waterfall was a major draw for domestic tourists. But, for several years now, it's been left to decay, and the site is rapidly being reclaimed by the jungle. Crashing 50 metres over a rocky ledge, splitting a coffee plantation in two and falling into a misty abyss where ancient gnarled trees reach up as if trying to catch a breath, it is one of the prettiest and most impressive cascades in the Central Highlands.
But the tacky tourist infrastructure, once built to accommodate and entertain the crowds, has been abandoned.
"Two more kilometres on the right", says a kindly older woman when I stop to ask for directions. "One hundred metres on the right", says a young man, cigarette dangling from his mouth. "It's back that way, about two minutes", says a girl in blue uniform on her way home from school. That's the thing about Bo Bla Waterfall: everyone knows where it is, but no one actually seems to go there anymore.
The entrance to Bo Bla, when I eventually find it, is an overgrown parking lot by the side of National Highway 20, the main road between Saigon and Dalat, near the town of Di Linh. In fact, there's a sign in big capital letters announcing 'BOBLA', but it's hidden behind weeds and epiphytes that have formed a web of roots around the lettering.
Off the Beaten Track
Many of the waterfalls in Lam Dong Province, especially those close to Dalat, have been turned into kitsch, heavily commercialised tourist attractions, overrun with visitors and trinket shops. Bo Bla, however, which is a good 90-minute drive southwest of Dalat, is one of the most attractive cascades in the region, and, although it was turned into a Disneyfied tourist attraction, it's now been completely abandoned and left to decay. And this, in my opinion, is a good thing.
The abandoned theme-park feel adds to its appeal: there’s something of the magic and mystery of Spirited Away about this place, and all the kitsch decorations look much better with age and neglect.
The concrete elephants, for example, bathing in the pools of water at the bottom of the falls, cease to be tasteless man-made additions; they are, in fact, petrified gods, turned to stone (well, concrete) during the daylight hours, only to come alive again during the nights: like Bilbo's three trolls in Tolkien's The Hobbit.
At one time, the parking lot would have been full of coaches, disgorging hundreds of visitors; now it's home to a healthy population of birds, frogs and cicadas. A brick-and-concrete kiosk, designed to look like a log cabin, lies empty, full of broken glass and bat guano. Some half-hearted attempts at graffiti decorate the walls. Beyond the entrance gate (entrance is free these days) a moss-covered pathway of paving stones leads under a dense canopy of tropical trees.
"Drink some rice wine with us!" shout a couple of teenagers smoking and drinking under the trees. I decline, saying I'm headed for the falls, and they point me down the path into the valley. Along the way, I encounter several other groups of local teens, all crouching in quiet, secluded corners. Bo Bla's state of abandonment appears to have made it popular for Di Linh's bored youth, getting kicks from their drug of choice or ‘courting’ in the bushes.
The pathway, strewn with fallen leaves and streaked with mud, drops steeply down through a long tunnel of foliage. It’s so unkempt that the path often appears to peter out completely into the jungle. Spray from the falls lifts up from the valley floor, making the humidity unbearable. Walking in my old flip-flops I may as well be wearing skates, and it's not long before I fall on my backside in the mud. The waterfall, not yet visible, is already audible.
According to Legend
Many centuries ago, this region was part of the Kingdom of Champa. The Cham officials demanded local people pay tribute to the king. Forest commodities, such as exotic woods, wild animals and rhino horn, were gathered to pay this royal tax. Most precious of all was elephant ivory.
One day, a local man came across a pair of enormous ivory tusks at the top of the falls. The Cham king was so impressed that he named the waterfall “Bo Bla”, meaning 'elephant ivory' in the local K'Ho dialect. Many of Vietnam's natural attractions have folktales related to them and tend to be a mixture of history and myth. Each time the story was told to me, people prefaced it by saying, ‘Người ta nói…..’ ('People say.....').
Spurred on by the dramatic noise of the waterfall thundering in the valley below, I walk faster, ignoring the perils of wet mud, and trying not to notice the carelessly discarded picnic trash strewn over the pathway and left on the stone tabletops dotted among the trees.
But even the litter is starting to fade back into the jungle as nature reclaims this scenic area. And it's easy to forget the trash when you see the waterfall: a perfect, vertical ribbon of white water flowing over the top of a small opening in the foliage and falling in velvety streaks into a circular lake below, creating a blizzard of white spray that hangs in the lush valley. A wide pool at the base of the falls is good for bathing, watched over by the surreal concrete elephants, some with broken tusks.
The dilapidation of the tourist infrastructure here is in stark contrast to the vitality of the falls themselves, which pound the volcanic rocks on the riverbed as they have done for millennia.
Bo Bla waterfall is on National Highway QL20. It's 6km west of Di Linh, 80km southwest of Dalat, and 215 km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon-Dalat buses can drop you at the entrance to the falls. Or, if coming from Dalat, take one of the Dalat-Di Linh-Bao Loc local buses. From Di Linh you can find a xe ôm to take you the last 6km to the falls. Excellent-value accommodation is nearby in the form of the secluded and peaceful Juliet's Villa Resort ($20 a night).
About the Author
Tom is the author of independent travel website Vietnam Coracle. Drawing on 11 years’ experience travelling all over the country, his free online guides aim to give travellers the confidence to explore Vietnam independently, without joining a package tour. He focuses on less-trodden areas, encouraging readers to go beyond the destinations that make up most of the standard south-north itineraries. You can read more about the places mentioned in this article at www.VietnamCoracle.com