Sapa O’Chau: ‘thank you Sapa’ (Hmong)

Another day, another dawn, another trek. With aching limbs and heavy bags, we walked up Sapa’s main street to the Sapa O’Chau Office, where we’d booked another trek – this time, a four day trek through Sapa’s ethnic minority villages. Fansipan was just a warm-up.

Sapa O’Chau, a social enterprise, started with a dream. The dream of a young H’mong woman called Shu Tan who wanted to create a sustainable tourist organisation which was not only economically beneficial to the ethnic minority villages of Sapa but also helped preserve their culture. She began to set up homestays owned by ethnic minority people and founded an ecologically conscious trekking service, employing local guides. Traditionally ethnic minority people, such as the black H’mong or red Dao, had little opportunities beyond farming and selling handicrafts. Shu Tan set up a school to tackle illiteracy and to teach English to the people of the rice-farming villages around Sapa. These days, the grassroots organisation, which now includes a cafe and H’mong handicraft store, thrives and benefits ethnic minority people at every level of society: trekking guides, homestay owners, students, craftswomen and their families. It was on one of these treks, the ‘ultimate trek’ that we were about to embark.

On that first day, we breakfasted at the Sapa O’Chau cafe before we met our guide, Su. Su was from a H’mong village on the outskirts of Sapa. He was nineteen, his English was very good, he had an easy smile , wore trainers and carried a big yellow umbrella. As we left Sapa, we were tailed by a couple of women, wearing heavy silver jewellery and the brightly embroidered bags and sashes of the H’mong people. Su said that they would follow us to try and sell us handicrafts. When we said we may not necessarily buy any, they smiled and said they would just walk with us to their village and continued to press curious questions on us about where we came from in stilted English. It was a sunny day and the views from the edge of Sapa were oustanding. A rare panorama that lives up to the splendour of picture postcards which honestly can’t capture the scale of the spectacle beneath you: rice terraces in neat winding steps, some cracked and muddy, others bright green, some skimmed with a pinkish algae and others fringed with small blue wildflowers.

The first part of the walk was incredibly muddy and without the help of the two ladies in our company, we may not have made it down in one piece. I learnt that the H’mong word for ‘thank you’ was ‘o’chau’ and repeated it like a mantra as one of the ladies repeatedly took me by the hand to help me down the vast majority of the way down the waterfall. We stopped in the valley for a water break and watched two boys stride through a shallow stream on stilts, scattering flapping ducks in alarm. Animals wandered freely along the streets, pigs with piglets, chickens, buffalos, gentle giants despite their large horns. The dogs and cats looked surprisingly healthy (unlike the ones who stole our food in Kiau Nuluh). I asked Su how people knew which buffalo was theirs. He grinned: ‘they always come home at night because they know where the food is.’IMG_7436.jpgimg_7444In the end, we did buy some handicrafts from the ladies who’d held our hands down into the valley when we stopped for lunch. They smiled and pushed bracelets onto our wrists to say thank you: ‘o’chau’. After we’d finished lunch – fried rice with chicken and homegrown cabbage – we said goodbye to them and proceeded to walk to the next village, a H’mong village called Lao Chai. We were welcomed by a tray of tea, took off our walking boots and stretched our legs. Before they stiffened up, we decided to go for a stroll. We wandered slowly up through the village, bright handicrafts and traditional clothes blowing on washing lines, contrasting with dull concrete tracks. Guard dogs lolled with one eye open and ears slightly pricked at each house, cats miowed from unseen hollows and buffalos wandered unchecked next to cherry-pink blossoms and pens of ducks. We walked past ladies making cinnamon incense cones from fine sweet cinnamon powder and past pieces of tarp spread flat with shavings of woody matter left to try in the sun (we asked Su later and discovered it was a type of local medicine). Dinner was made by the daughter of the homestay owner, a Ms Mai who was accompanying another trek group, and we ate with her daughter and son. Towards the end of the meal, the daughter and son went to bed and were replaced by Ms Mai’s husband and two bottles of local rice wine. We drank the rice wine in rounds of shots, which were repeatedly topped up by our host. The shots seemed to never end – we wondered whether it would be impolite to refuse – but eventually we were out of rice wine (we had drunk two litres between four of us!), wished our host goodnight and wound our tipsy way up to our attic bedroom by the light of our Fansipan candle.

After a night of weird dreams, which I attributed to the rice wine, we dressed, repacked our bags and went down for breakfast: amazing thick Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk and also a huge stack of pancakes with banana and honey. About an hour later than we were supposed to leave, our bags were on and we were on the road (Su didn’t seem to mind our lateness – I think he was a tad hungover). We walked the way we’d strolled the previous evening before peeling off to the right (at a place selling opium wine) and going up a straight narrow path past motorbikes making their dangerous-looking way down parallel to a stream where a younger man helped an older man to cut his hair. As we stopped to strip off some layers in the heat, we watched two buffalos fighting on the rice terrace.img_7457img_7461We walked down through a muddy bamboo forest which we managed without the help of our H’mong ladies from the day before. We crossed a bridge and walked up the other side of the valley, which sloped steeply upwards but levelled off when we reached a gravel road. Our stomachs were rumbling and it was another 2km before we reached the town where we ate lunch – coffee, noodles and oranges. The paths weren’t too bad from there, we walked down the valley next to a huge humming hydroelectric pipe at the bottom of which was our homestay in the village of Ban Ho. The owner was of the Tay minority, a man called Mr Dao van Truong, and we were welcomed by his wife who, smiling, brought us tea. We offered to help make dinner but were politely refused and ushered onto little stools just above floor level.

The house was a hive of activity: a toddler toddled round, smiling happily at the strangers sitting in front of the fire; ladies chopped herbs and vegetables, stoking the fire above which was being cooked a stock and strips of pork fat smoking over the fire above that. One of the sons of the homestay owner burnt a hole in a plastic bottle out of which emerged wriggling rice eels (caught in the rice terraces that day). We later watched him kill them, neatly but bloodily, with scissors. We went back inside to sit round a table with people who were growing steadily in numbers – it turned out that the homestay owners had invited a load of their family and friends for our visit. It was great, friendly vibes bouncing round the room, despite us not being able to speak Tay (Su only spoke a few words) and them not being able to speak English. Our host did speak a bit of English and proudly introduced us to everyone and told us all about his family of whom he was very proud. He talked about how one of his sons was a doctor, the other was in the police force and how incredibly lucky he was to have an amazing and beautiful wife. Dinner was hotpot with what seemed like everything: tofu, local mushrooms, tomato, several kinds of greens, pork, fish, beef, turned eggs, rice and the eels (which actually tasted ok; they were just very bony). It wasn’t long before the rice wine came out and we we were all clinking our glasses, cheerily wishing each other ‘chuc mung nam moi!’ (new year never ends here). Mr Dao was hilarious, admiring and complimenting Oscar’s leg hair. A cartoon played in the background for the toddler. The ladies gossiped around the fire. Su, quite tipsy, went to bed early. We stayed up later before eventually retiring, hoping we wouldn’t be hungover for the next day of the trek.

Woke up feeling ok to an incredible breakfast of rice, heart fried crisply, greens and stir-fired pork with lemongrass and vegetables. It was a harder trek day than the others had been – there was more uphill, more sun and more sweat. We stopped for a water break at a primary school where brightly coloured butterflies flitted in the sun and shy children watched us from the classroom, some waving and saying hello. We continued uphill off beaten tracks, balancing along the ledges of the rice terraces, swaying slightly with our arms outstretched to stop us tumbling into the muddy water on one side and off the ledge completely on the other. A bit of a feat with heavy bags and sore legs but definitely an adventure and a beautiful one, the terraces pepped with tiny blue and purple flowers. It was a particularly scenic day, making the uphill worth it, the rice paddies curving their marbled ways around the mountains. We stopped at a Tay household for lunch who cooked us rice with a herby omelette, crispy sausage, homegrown cabbage and fish sauce with chilli.

Our Tay homestay was only down the road from there. Before dinner, we walked down to the stream, where we took off our boots and submerged our feet in the cool mountain water. I felt very peaceful, content to just sit on the rock and think, turning a stone over and over in my hand. Oscar tried to read a bit of his book but was distracted by Su who was eagerly trying to read over his shoulder. We went back to the homestay and helped our hostess (the rest of the family were absent) to bring the food she’d cooked to the table. Everything we ate had been grown (or killed) by the lady we were staying with – none of it had been bought. It was delicious and there was a lot of it: rice with cooked bamboo, cabbage, fatty pork, pork sausage and herby omelette as well as local mushrooms. We proceeded, traditionally, to drink a lot of rice wine, probably the most potent we’d had yet. Su bantered with Oscar and taught us H’mong drinking songs; I showed him pictures of Yorkshire. It was a merry last evening and I was sad it was coming to an end – the trek had been great, the homestays welcoming and Su a legend. We turned all the lights off and went outside to look at the night sky. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars, tiny pinpricks of light bubbling all over the sky so that it almost brimmed over with silver luminescence. Despite our unsuccessful attempts to pick out constellations, just admiring that sea of light was a beautiful experience.

I was woken by the sun shimmering through my mosquito net. We ate egg noodle soup before setting off on the last day of the trek. We bade farewell to our hostess who smiled and wished us good health. Because of the sun of the last few days, the ground wasn’t too slippy as we climbed up through orchards of jackfruit, mangoes and oranges. Su snapped off the branch of a cinnamon tree which didn’t smell of anything but when you nibbled at the tender stalks it tasted really intensely of sweet cinnamon. We took a few twigs to put in tea; Su took the rest of the branch. We walked past a man bottle-feeding a baby horse who explained, Su translating, that the mother had died leaving behind the orphaned foal. The trek ended at a bridge where a car was waiting for us to take us back to the Sapa O’Chau office. Saying goodbye to Su was really sad; he’d been such a great guide and amazing company.

Later that evening, I sat writing my journal on the balcony of our hostel. The sun sank down behind the mountains, turning the sky pink, then lavender before the light began to fade. Lights twinkled from Sapa town in the gathering dusk. The time we had spent here had been among the highlights of Vietnam; the weary victory of Fansipan, the merry night at Mr Dao van Truong’s Tay homestay, the sweeping rice fields beneath our feet, the galactic night sky. All I have to say is Sapa o’chau. Thank you Sapa.

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Mount Fansipan

Dawn has not yet broken when our bus rolls into Sapa. I open an eye blearily and only see pitch darkness, a dark chasm of anonymity. We could be anywhere. Somewhere close looms Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam. We climb it today. I glance at my watch: it reads 4:20am. I sink back into unconsciousness.

I am woken once again at 5.30am by a flashlight being shone into the bus. I squint out into the darkness and see the bright artificial light reflecting off the windows to make out the outline of a mans face. It is, I think, our mountain guide. ‘Is that our guide?’ whispers Oscar. ‘Hope so.’ I whisper back. We wake up Roza, locate our bags in the darkness of the bus and move to get off the bus. The door is locked. Ah. There is no driver; he must have left when the bus arrived in Sapa. We fumble with the door from the inside and our supposed guide looks to see if he can open it from the outside. We stare helplessly at eachother from opposite sides of the glass. The day is not off to a good start. Why did we decide to climb Fansipan straight from the night bus? Eventually Oscar finds some mechanism of some kind, yanks it down and the cold night air takes us by surprise. We are free.

‘Sapa O’Chau?’ I ask the man. ‘Sapa O’Chau,’ he nods. I shake him by the hand; he looks a bit surprised. I introduce myself and he mumbles something back. His English is very basic. If he ever did tell us his name, I cannot remember it. He points towards a car where another man sits behind the wheel. He waves and grins. We wave back. ‘We need to get our backpacks,’ I say. Our guide looks confused. I mime ‘backpacks’ and point to the bus. Our guide looks hesitantly at his friend. The guy behind the wheel gets out of the car. I repeat myself and he understands; his English is better. Thankfully, the storage part of the bus is not locked and we are able to get our bags after, between the five of us, we work out how to open the compartment. Finally we, and our bags, are inside the vehicle and we are driving to the start of the trek, the damp cold mists parting before the car’s headlights.

Our trek started from the entrance to Hoang Lien National Park. We were given a cold baguette for breakfast (Oscar shared his with a dog; I all but force-fed Roza hers) and some snacks for the walk which we put into day bags with other provisions we had bought. We layered up against the cold and donned our walking boots. When we were ready, we set off into a mizzly dawn. To Oscar’s disappointment, the dog did not come with us.

We walked the first part of the walk pretty quickly, storming up through rocky marsh forests, up twisted tangled staircases of entwined roots, occasionally treading on a carpet of soggy pink blossoms. Although it was rainy and cold, we were working up quite a temperature until we stopped, at which point we became shivery cold. It took us about two hours to get to the first rest stop, where we sat shivering but at least out of the rain. We refuelled, before setting off again into the elements, the mist masking the way forward and any possible views we might have had.

We were going slower now and it took us about another hour to get to the second rest stop. We got chatting to a group of Americans who were on their way down – they had opted for the two-day trek. ‘You’re doing it in a day?’ they asked incredulously, watching us shiver pathetically, our breaths white and misty in the cold air. They took pity on us and gave us a candle which, in our state of desperation, we gathered round with hands outstretched, burning our fingers on the flame. I imagine it was a very sorry sight.

It had stopped raining when we moved on, but there still wasn’t a view to be seen as we clambered up a rocky path, icy droplets on the frozen foliage clacking together like wintry castanets. From there, it was about two hours to get to the top. We scrambled up scree slopes, climbed over craggy outcrops, sank into bog and slipped in thick cloying mud. At last, we found ourselves at the bottom of a set of stairs. This is the measly distance you can climb if you opt to get the cable car up. We should have been relieved at this point, but we felt demoralised as we ascended those stairs. Coming down them were a load of Asian tourists, dry, clean, happy, taking photographs of the wet, dirty, miserable British walkers. Those stairs, pathetic as it sounds, were one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We were physically exhausted, feeling the altitude, our hearts and heads pounding and our legs weak. But together, step by step, we made it to the top, feeling triumphant and quite frankly knackered. We collapsed on eachother in a group hug. A team effort.

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While we elbowed our way through fresh, selfie-taking cable-car people, our guide prepared our lunch – sandwiches with cream cheese, pork, cucumber, tomato and herbs followed by apple and banana (or dessert sandwiches with oreos and banana, despite doubtful looks from everyone else – would thoroughly recommend).

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Although we sat down to rest our tired legs, it was impossible to stay sat down as it was just too cold, so I walked around eating my sandwich and admiring the views, such as they were. Despite the fact we couldn’t really see much, there was something wonderful and mysterious about the dark peaks rising out of the cloud. The clouds and the sky were the same shade of white-grey, the line between them indistinguishable so that if felt almost like Fansipan was floating in the sky, a rugged rocky ship sailing through an ocean of thick swirling mist.

We began our descent, which seemed to take an age. We were rewarded, however, by the sun finally making an appearance through the clouds, at which point it became quite warm and I had to take off a layer of clothing. At one point we stopped to rest and, it seemed like just for us, a curtain of cloud was drawn aside to reveal the peaks we’d just come from, the sun caramelising the clouds at the edges and revealing patches of blue sky. And as you soar above that cosmic golden valley of mist you think ‘this is why I climb mountains.’ Then the veil of cloud slowly slid down once again, as if that beautiful vision had never been, and we moved on.

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We walked considerably quicker after that point, our guide urging us on. We stumbled down the rocks while he skipped nimbly from rock to rock, carrying a red stool that he’d found on the way down. We realised that we must have blanked out large parts of the walk on the way up (or perhaps we were half asleep) as we kept walking through scraps of forest we didn’t recognise, every ten minutes thinking we were almost there and each time being disappointed. We heard the sounds of a car and thought we must be almost back at the start but it wasn’t until the arch of national park was right in front of us that we realised we were made it.

After eleven hours of walking, we had climbed and descended Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam. Our legs were aching but our hearts were light, exhilarated, victorious. You haven’t just conquered the mountain but you have conquered yourself. Your weariness feels worthy somehow – you know you will ‘sleep the sleep of the just’ as my mother says. The views may have been fleeting but friendship was not. You have achieved something. This is why we climb mountains.

Halong Bay

Legend tells of a mountain dragon plummeting towards Vietnam’s coastline during a great war, its thrashing tail carving out cavernous crevasses and gaping valleys from the rock. As the mighty beast tumbled into the ocean, an almighty wave engulfed the mountain landscape, leaving only the craggy crests of those ancient peaks.

The karst peaks of Halong Bay are on the front of every travel brochure on Vietnam. Google places to go in South East Asia and, chances are, Halong Bay will make top three. However, it doesn’t take an experienced traveller to realise that the beauty of the places you visit doesn’t often live up to expectations built on Lonely Planet descriptions. I was dreading fleets of tourist boats and pollution choking the much-photographed (and photoshopped) waters of the bay. Refreshingly, Halong Bay is one of the rare cases in which you feel like you’ve stepped into a painting. Even in less-than-optimum weather, Halong Bay was stunning.

That isn’t to say our whole experience was picture-perfect. It was not. The first difficulty was getting there. We mistakenly believed that we would be able to get a direct sleeper bus from Phong Nha – in fact, we had to change in Hanoi. The first forty minutes or so of the journey was spent stopping at every single hostel on Phong Nha’s one street. Why there couldn’t be just one meeting point is beyond me. Vietnam logic. The rest of the ride was uneventful; I slept all the way to Hanoi. Arriving in Hanoi at dawn, we embarked on an unanticipated trek to where we had to catch our next bus; at least it wasn’t as far as several taxi drivers claimed it was, which ranged from seventeen to seventy kilometres (it was about a kilometre). We grabbed a banh mi from a streetside stall while we waited for the second bus which didn’t drop us in Halong City as we’d been told it would.

For those wanting to do a cruise of Halong Bay, book it in Hanoi – the bus and boat will be included and you will be dropped off at the harbour prior to departure. This, I believe, is what most sensible people do. For those that are less sensible book a hostel in Halong City, find yourself at a harbour a good fifteen kilometres away from there and spend a stressful half hour arguing with taxi drivers, all of whom swear blindly that there isn’t a bus and that you must pay an extortionate fare to get to where you want to go. Of course, there is a bus and that’s how we eventually got to the city which is not much to speak of (another reason just to do a cruise).

One positive of being in Halong itself was Bai Tho or Poem Mountain which is in the heart of the city. We shared a taxi there with some French people we had met in our hostel and started the climb together (they had to go back when they realised they’d left a phone in the taxi). Despite the guy in our hostel telling us what a challenging climb the mountain was, it really was more of a hill. We stormed up it, barely breaking a sweat (something to be savoured in South East Asia) and stopped still at the sight that awaited us at the top. The whole bay was spread out beneath us, rocky forest-carpeted crags rising from the ocean, the ones in the distance fading into an ethereal mist. Birds of prey wheeled about the huge limestone mounds, surfing the currents of the winds as they hovered then dove through the rugged valleys of karst seascape. Although the day hadn’t been particularly clear, the clouds parted for a watery sunset, the sun’s pinky light shimmering hazily on the sea. We sat on a rocky outcrop and watched the water turn from green to pink to orange before descending back to the town. Some faith was restored in humanity when we discovered that the French girl had got her phone back from the taxi driver.

 

The next day we commenced our cruise of the bay. My fear of a legion of gridlocked tourist vessels rose again in my chest as we walked through the harbour to find our ship past rows and rows of boats. However, when we got out into the bay, this fear dissipated: although the occasional boat floated past, our only neighbours were the karst cliffs towering above us. We spent the day happily sailing round this mystical landscape, exploring barnacle covered coves of azure water in bamboo boats and climbing up to get to viewpoints of the bay on a couple of islands. It was on these islands that you really realised how many tourists had flocked to the bay, practically having to elbow your way up steep staircases past people who had stopped to rest in the middle of the path only to be assaulted at the top by selfie stick-wielding visitors hell-bent on getting the ‘perfect shot’.  Although the views were good, they weren’t as good as those of Poem Mountain and we were rather relieved to get back on the boat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe other not-so-perfect part of our experience occurred towards the end of the day, when Roza realised she had lost her purse. We had had to change boats halfway through the day and she had assumed she’d left it on the first boat. However, the guy on our boat had radioed back to the first vessel: they had her purse, it was all fine. But then he started to demand money from us alleging that we had not paid for a number of the day’s activities. We had, and gave him the number of our hostel so they could confirm this. He paid no attention and started to blackmail us, stating that he would not give back the purse if we did not pay him. We got back to land, where it transpired the purse was left on the bus we’d caught to the harbour. Two things we learnt from this: firstly to keep valuables on us at all times and secondly that some people won’t hesitate to lie through their teeth if they have something to gain from you. Of course, these people are not in the majority – a number of people helped get the purse back – but it is sadly something to be aware of when travelling. I do not wish to end on this note. Halong Bay is an area of outstanding natural beauty with its emerald topped peaks amidst an cerulean ocean topped with a snaking mist. And we didn’t even see it on a sunny day. I’ll leave you with a story.

Legend tells of a mountain dragon plummeting towards Vietnam’s coastline during a great war, its thrashing tail carving out cavernous crevasses and gaping valleys from the rock. As the mighty beast tumbled into the ocean, an almighty wave engulfed the mountain landscape, leaving only the craggy crests of those ancient peaks. The story is the bay’s namesake, for ‘Halong’ literally translates as ‘where the dragon descends’. Whether the dragon ascended or will ascend once again may be lost in the mists of myth. That would certainly make an original Instagram. Alas, that wasn’t to be on my own visit. For now, the dragon may slumber submerged beneath the surface of the water, tail spikes mistaken for just another jagged pinnacle.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang

Our next stop was Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty and one of important conservation value. A Unesco World Heritage site, Phong Nha boasts natural attractions both above and below ground: karst mountains swathed in pristine rainforest sweep the sky while extensive subterranean cave systems wait to be explored beneath them. In fact, Phong Nha is home to the world’s largest cave – Son Doong, only discovered in 2009 – and the longest underground river. As we arrived in the small village of Son Trach (the only town in the park apart from a number of minority villages), we were excited to do some exploring ourselves.

The area used to be strictly controlled by the Vietnamese military (I believe there’s still a fair amount of unexploded ordinance about) and although it’s much more relaxed now it is still necessary to do a tour with a licensed operator – you can’t really wander off into the hills for a hike alone (as romantic as this sounds). Therefore one of our priorities was to book something for the next day; we booked a day including both Paradise Cave and Dark Cave (amongst other places) which was expensive but we hoped it would be worth it. That afternoon was spent exploring Son Trach which really didn’t take too much exploring – it’s really just one street of guesthouses which gives way to a more local village with buffalos ambling their docile way along. However, you can get to the river and walk along its muddy banks, your feet sinking slightly into the mud and leaving a trail of footprints behind you. To the right, green carpeted limestone mountains loom over the vivid blue river, reflected in the gently rippled water. Bright blue boats bob up and down, a splash of colour in a mystical landscape of green, grey and silver. On one of the boats, a small group of children were playing and shouted out to us as we walked past. To the left, villagers go about their daily lives in wooden houses on stilts, washing blowing on lines in the wind. The interface between right and left is saddening – the muddy shoreline is choked with rubbish, plastic, polystyrene, as far as you can see. Snarled around weeds, sucked into the mud and dancing in a slight breeze, it’s everywhere and it’s sickening. All through Vietnam, we’d noticed that there was a rubbish problem – there are practically no bins anywhere – but in a National Park and one that contains protected animals such as tigers, elephants and saola, you’d really think that regulations would be much stricter or more effort would be made to clear it up. But people here just don’t care and it’s not really fair to say it’s their fault – they are probably unaware of the negative consequences of dropping litter and the environmental pollution that ensues (affecting not just protected animals and plants but people who, at the end of the day, are part of the same ecosystem even if we often feel disconnected from it). It’s only education that is going to make a difference here and unfortunately that is going to take time. We walked back to the village, feeling rather saddened as the light faded from the sky. The evening was spent eating Vietnamese pancakes stuffed with beanspouts and pork  – banh khoai – with a peanut dipping sauce, sat round a crackling fire in the company of two Australian couples, huddled against the surprising cold of the Vietnamese North.

The next day saw us driving off into the depths of the national park, jagged karst mountains rising up from a clingy shawl of emerald forest, a faint mist skimming their peaks. Our first stop was ‘Eight Ladies’ cave. This is the site where eight young volunteers clearing a road sheltered during an American bombing raid. Unfortunately, they were trapped in the cave when a bomb caused it to collapse and their comrades were unable to save them. Now a temple stands here to honour their memories, a fire stoked by men in official uniforms and slowly smoking incense twirling into the area. We stood here in silence for a while, breathing in the heady smell of the incense and listening to the quiet chant of prayer before getting back onto our bus.

We then drove to Paradise Cave, a reportedly beautiful cave that extends into the darknesss for over thirty kilometres. Incredibly expensive six-day treks take you on a subterranean jungle adventure through this system – definitely one for the future if I one day have the money! That day we would only be venturing in about a kilometre. Descending into the darkness as your eyes adjust, you become aware not only of how huge the cave is but how jaw-droppingly beautiful it is. When you think of caves, you often think of dark, damp places but this was not the case with Paradise Cave, a place that actually lives up to the hyperbole of the guidebooks. It is like an underground cathedral, glittering stalagtites hanging like monstrous chandeliers from the ceiling and stalagmite towers rising from the depths. The wooden boardwalk is lit with lots of little lights that twinkle in the darkness, giving the feeling of some kind of magical underground fairy grotto. Beautiful limestone formations, intricate like geological christmas trees, rise up on either side and patches of rose coloured stone shimmer in the light. It is enchanting and unlike anywhere I have ever been. Definitely worth the money so far (also pleased to see rubbish bins outside and signs asking visitors to put their litter in the bins – progress!).

We stopped for lunch outside Dark Cave – a huge banana leaf platter of roll-your-own fresh spring rolls, rice, herbs, vegetables, omlette: delicious! To get to Dark Cave, we had to first zipline 400m across bright blue water, then swim to the entrance of the cave. Then we walked, barefoot, into the cave itself, our headtorches lighting our way in the blackness (true to its name, Dark Cave was incredibly dark!). We went down a passageway that got narrower and narrower and muddier and muddier until we emerged into a tiny cavern that was essentially a mud bath. It was like swimming in chocolate, wallowing around like a hippo, absolutely covered in mud. It was unexpectedly buoyant too; the mud was so thick that you could lie back and your feet would just pop back up again! It reminded me a bit of those nightmares where you try to run but you can’t, but it was real and happening and amazing. The experience was surreal and hilarious – picture it: half naked, laughing your head off in a tiny cave of people you’ve never met but who are your best friends in this almost drunken state of muddiness. All in all a good time (10/10, would recommend to a friend, which we did repeatedly). After attempting to get all of the mud off in a pool at the entrance of the cave (our guide sent me back in again as I hadn’t done a good enougg job), we kayaked back to the other side of the river where we got to go on another zipline before immersing our feet in a tea bath with a glass of Dalat red (not good wine).

That evening we drank beers and shared stories with Irish, Swiss, Dutch, Danish, Austrian…the spectrum of nationalities you meet while travelling, some of whom we’d met further down south in Vietnam and who we kept bumping into for the rest of the time in Phong Nha. This is one of the things I love best about travelling – it’s really funny. You’ll meet someone in Vietnam, for example, then continue to see them in Laos or Cambodia in a variety of random places. It brings a degree of familiarity to a strange place, a feeling of having a friend in a place where everyone is a stranger.

Dalat

Perched in the Southwest highlands of Vietnam, the first thing that strikes you about Dalat as you climb off a cramped bus in the early evening is the cooler temperature. We arrived just as the sky was turning pink and all had jumpers on within about five minutes before making our way to our hostel: Mr Peace’s (a hostel that I’d definitely recommend to anybody staying in Dalat, if only for Mr Peace’s company, which is quite frankly top banter). 
Most activities in Dalat involve biking off on meandering roads through pine-studded hills but there are some things to see in Dalat itself, notably Hang Nga Crazy House, which we went to the day after we arrived. It is one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever been, a twirling concrete mass of turrets and towers, twisting bridges and precipitous walkways with vines and cascading shapes like molten lava. It is like a dark Disneyland on some kind of drug trip, filled with lost tourists, many of whom are taking selfies at every bridge, stairwell and pond. Lots of tourists asked to take photos with us, presumably because we were Western (this happens a lot), and one lady from China gave me a lucky charm, wrapped in tissue paper and covered in Chinese calligraphy, telling me to take it with me for good luck. I’m not sure how much luck it has brought me so far but I still have carried it with me everywhere I’ve been since. On the subject of crazy architecture, another highlight of Dalat was a bar called ‘100 Roofs’, which we went to on our last night. My guide book muses that perhaps there’s something about the cooler mountain air that inspires mad creativity and perhaps that’s true. 100 Roofs is hands down the coolest bar I’ve ever  been to – there are so many floors  of sprawling stairwells and underground it’s a stone labyrinth of stairs and secret passageways and Aztec-like faces grinning down at you in the pitch darkness. Getting lost is inevitable and hilarious. If you go, make sure there’s a light on your phone and also bring your own booze. It’s an unmissable experience.
During the day, we embarked on Mr Peace’s ‘Secret Tour’, a motorbike tour which winds around the hills surrounding Dalat – at the start we weren’t sure exactly where Mr Peace would take us but it had been highly recommended so we decided to have a bit of faith and just do it. Climbing onto the back of a moped for the first time was nerve-wracking – I won’t lie – but I trusted my friend who was driving and, within about 10 minutes of riding, was unbelievably glad I’d done it. We soared round snaking bends through forests of pine and valleys of bright vivid green, our hair streaming back in the wind. Our first stop was a village growing the flowers we’d seen all over Vietnam: roses, lillies, gerberas and sunflowers. Flowers, a main Vietnamese export, of all different shades lay in neat rows under greenhouses introduced by the French during colonial times. Then flying on to a coffee plantation, another big export, surrounded by jasmine trees, their fragrant floral scent filling our nostrils. We were shown the two main types of coffee (Arabica and Robusta) and got to eat a Robusta bean straight from the tree – violet, juicy and sweet on the inside, like a coffee flavoured berry. We learnt how the Vietnamese wasted nothing during the coffee-making process: when the coffee trees no longer produce good quality coffee, the wood is made into furniture or used as fire wood; the coffee husks can be used as fertiliser and the nectar from the flowers feed colonies of bees which produce rare, incredible quality honey. The coffee farm specialised in civet coffee, famous in Indonesia, where the coffee beans are eaten and digested by civet cats, which can then be processed to make amazing-tasting coffee. We saw the civets sleeping curled up in cages next to the cafe where we could try the coffee with beautiful views of the surrounding fields and lakes: it was probably the best one of the best cups of coffee I’d ever had. Next was a cricket farm which also made rice wine – again, the process exemplified how resourceful the Vietnamese people are: nothing is wasted at any stage. Instead it is used as animal fodder to grow pigs for pork (a staple) or as fertiliser. We tried crispy fried crickets with chilli sauce which, surprisingly and somewhat frighteningly, weren’t bad when you didn’t think about what you were eating. I wasn’t much of a fan of the eggcup of rice wine which was passed around our table – a Canadian French woman who was riding pillion with one of the guides put us out of our misery by knocking it back.

Our next stop was the Happy Buddha temple, an impressive building at the top of a set of stone steps with huge statues of gods gilded in gold and surrounded by offerings: flowers and fruits and the swirling smoke of incense sticks. It was quiet apart from the occasional metallic echoing of a gong hit for prayer, some people getting down on their knees in silent meditation. Around the corner of the temple was the Happy Buddha statue which was almost monstrous in size – swollen with happiness, we put our hands on its barrel-sized toes, which we’d been told was lucky. We learnt about the dawn of Buddhism and two of its main principles: ‘hiue’ and ‘tam’. ‘Hiue’ belongs to family, our guide told us. When you survive by hieu you make your parents proud and smile. ‘Tam’ belongs to everyone on the world, and means a ‘willing’ to bring happiness to people. Something about those two words and the spirituality of that place made me think about my own life and how best to live it. Down the road from the temple was Elephant Waterfall, a huge cascade of water tumbling with force into a large pool amidst a jungle of twisting vines and smatterings of purple flowers, sending spray into the rocky canyon we’d climbed through to take a closer look. Grassy mounds rose up from the river below, sparkling in the midday sun with tiny droplets of water. 

After a stop for lunch, we rode on dusty bumpy roads visiting a pepper farm, climbing plants studded with red and green pepper berries, sweet on the tongue until you got to the crunchy centre which was unmistakably peppery spice. We saw cotton plants and mango flowers, a shower of pale yellow blossoms and a 100 year old Catholic church in a deserted rural village. On dirt tracks through fields of flowers we rode, jasmine mixed with the occasional smell of manure, gently sloping mountains silhouetted against a perfect blue sky. Then finally onto Pongour Waterfall, what we were looking forward to most about the ‘secret tour’, which was rumoured to pass by here. Admittedly, the waterfall would have been a better experience if it wasn’t for the swarm of tourists, but despite that it was still beautiful, little rainbows glinting in the spray of lots of little showers of water spread across a wide face of reddish rock. We clambered up to the fall at the top and stood underneath the torrent and dancing spectrums of colour before climbing down to a vast shimmering green pool on the other side of the waterfall where we could swim in the calm cool water, washing off the dust of the day on the bikes. On the way back to Dalat, we stopped off at a lake, where we watched the the sun dip below the hills, the sky a gentle marbled mass of purple and orange clouds, the last specks of blue mirrored in the lake’s rippling surface. The light was fading on the ride back, and the temperature had dropped considerably, but the evening sky was stunning. The moon was a graceful crescent sliver, hanging weightlessly in the sky as if by an invisible silk thread, pink clouds wispy and twirling against a backdrop of violet-indigo. Nobody said much on the way back. We took in the scenery silhouetted against that beautiful highland sky and felt content. With the wind in your hair and the sun on your face, there are few better ways to see the charm of the Vietnamese countryside other than on the back of a bike.

N.b. For avid followers of my blog, you will be pleased to know that my aforementioned purple toetail fell off during my time at the waterfall. As an honest blogger I thought I should inform you.

Mekong Delta

After the madness of Ho Chi Minh City, we thought it would be nice to spend some time in a more peaceful part of the country before we began our journey North. We decided on the Mekong Delta, a landscape carpeted in a thousand shades of green and glittering with a serpentine network of rivers, canals and streams. We took a bus to the city of Ben Tre, Saigon’s urban jungle giving way to trees, water and bright white birds wheeling in a pale blue sky.

Upon arrival, we were immediately greeted by a man trying to sell us a tour of one of the rivers as well as a night in a homestay. This is a regular occurrence in Vietnam – pretty much as soon as a bus stops, it is usually surrounded by people trying to offer their services to travel-weary, naive tourists. This particular tour sounded good, so after we’d checked in to our hotel, we bartered for a good price which included our bus to the next city to go on the trip the next day. By the time we had finished negotiating, we had worked up an appetite, so we set off into the town to find some food. It was quite a walk, but our noodle soup with tofu was hearty and filling. Everyone then left to go back to the hotel apart from two of us who wanted to explore the area a bit. We walked down by the river, past stalls selling all kinds of fruit – oranges and mangoes and rambutans – so colourful and fresh and so much cheaper than the fruit in HCMC. As we walked, the sun started to sink gently into the sky, the light changing from golden to rose to mauve. After we’d walked a fair way, we turned and strolled back the way we’d come, the buzz of the market having quietened down some with people loading flowers into boats and lucky yellow trees onto the backs of bikes. We climbed onto a bridge to see the sun set over the river, a deep pink orb settling into a bed of purple clouds, its violet reflection dancing on the water. On the way back, we started to see the signs of celebration of the lunar new year, the same kind of happiness and energy that we’d seen before in Saigon. We walked past restaurants packed with people who waved to us as we went by, past groups of children playing in the street, some smiling shyly at us while others confidently shouted ‘hello!’ It was then that it struck us that we hadn’t seen any westerners the whole day and that maybe we’d found somewhere where tourists are still somewhat of a novelty. There were several fairgrounds, twinkling lights illuminating smiling faces and street food stalls. We stopped at a corner to order ‘banh trang’, which we weren’t entirely sure what is was, but were glad we did so because it was fantastic – rice noodles and sauce and nuts and egg all mixed up together. Even though the stallholder didn’t really speak English, she came over to the low wall where we were perched eating to see whether we were enjoying it. We grinned and put our thumbs up, our mouths full, and she beamed back.

The next day was our tour on the river. We were met by the guy we’d organised things with the previous day who drove us to where we were met by our guide for the day. His name was Huong, he was in his seventies, face wrinkled with laughter lines, and he was one of the sweetest people ever. He joined us for breakfast – egg sandwiches (a classic) and amazing Vietnamese coffee – pouring us tea (explaining that there were five main teas which Vietnamese people regularly drank and that this was Chinese green tea) and obviously enjoying the chance to speak English. To get to the river, we went with Huong on traditional horse and carts, adorned with flowers and charms and colourful fabrics, driven by women wearing woven triangular hats. Before we got on the boat, we stopped to try some local honey with tea – lovely and mellow and sweet – served with longans, bananas, papaya, jackfruit and pomelo. While we ate, we watched some traditional Vietnamese musicians, skilled old fingers plucking out haunting tunes on stringed instruments, voices quavering and hands clapping.

  

We then got into little boats manoevured skillfully through small channels in a tunnel of greenery, the ladies standing rowing barefoot as they rowed slowly but steadily. It was so tranquil, the sun beaming down sending shimmering reflections into the trees which in turn were mirrored in the water, a canopy of emerald leaves. We then switched to a boat with an engine to tour the river’s islands. We went first to a quiet sleepy island, gardens full of fruit trees, pomelos nestled in cocoons of white net to stop insects from spoiling them. Huong showed us some of the islanders’ graves, colourful and ornate, explaining that you had to be buried on your own land. On the next island we saw keo dua, or coconut candy, being made, tasting the still warm candy from paper plates (we all bought some). We then were taken by boat back to our homestay, where Huong left us, but invited us to cycle over to his house later that afternoon so that we could listen to his stories which we’d begged him to tell. 

Cycling past the little waterways and palm trees and people still celebrating the new year was so peaceful. However the tranquility was broken somewhat by screams of laughter as we realised that one of our friends couldn’t ride a bike at the age of 22 (he said the ride was harder than his masters dissertation). When we arrived at Huong’s house, he showed us some photos of himself as a younger man when he was a translator for an American officer during the Vietnam war. He told us about his life and about the love story between he and his wife who he obviously adored: ‘I told her I’d love her forever’. It was heartbreaking to disover that she was ill and that he prayed for just ten more years with her: ‘when she dies, I will die’. As he spoke, he wrote the odd word down on a blackboard (he teaches the local children some English), pausing on some, relishing the sounds of others and occasionally asking us if we knew the word or whether he was pronouncing it correctly. His wife had prepared us some food, which we didn’t expect at all – sweet and crunchy coconut rice paper, chicken with lemongrass and dried octopus. Their generosity was humbling and we left them a generous tip – how could we not for such kindness? Meeting Huong and his wife, and listening to his story, is a memory that made the Mekong Delta such a special experience for us and one that I don’t think any of us will forget. Huong cycled back to our homestay with us and bade us farewell, asking that we write him letters which we all promised to do. His parting words were ‘good luck to you forever.’  

 

Photo credit: Alena Tromp.

Trek: an uphill climb with beautiful views

Life on trek is like living in a different world.  Although we know that the cogs of everyday life keep turning, we’re so immersed in our little bubble that it seems an odd concept that things like days of the week still exist.  We haven’t seen anyone beyond our team or guides for the last week.  Civilisation seems alien and we have left it behind us.

Our coach dropped us off, literally on the side of the road, with nothing to do except don our walking boots and heavy rucksacks and start our long walk into the waiting arms of the jungle.  It had been sunny back on the road, but underneath the dense canopy of the rainforest and with a sky rapidly clouding over it became darker and more mysterious.  Tendrils of mist snaked around the trees, like something out of a jungle fairy tale.  That very first day, we experienced our first rainstorm on trek.  It started lightly but quickly became torrential and by the time we arrived, slipping and sliding, into our first camp, we were absolutely drenched.  The first evening, after having set up the group kit and our own hammocks, was spent as a whole group, damp and cold, huddled around the fire.  But there was something nice about everyone being together, a tangle of limbs, as everybody vied to get the best spot to dry their feet as the rain hammered down on the tarp overhead.

The camps so far have been pretty variable.  One that stands out, although not necessarily for good reasons, is the infamous ‘mud camp’ which, as its name suggests, was incredibly muddy.  Walking around (if sliding can be called walking) was an absolute nightmare, especially if you were unlucky enough to have your hammock set up on a hill which, by the end of our time there, was more like a mud slide.  My rucksack cover is still covered with the mud from mud camp, lest I forget all the muddy memories.

But for every mud camp, there is a stunning camp with magnificent views or perfect trees or a beautiful river close by.  At ‘mouse deer camp’ there is a place you can walk to where you can find incredible panoramas of the surrounding scenery.  The night we arrived, there was a full moon and we all went down after dinner to have a look.  It was a sight that I don’t think any of us will ever forget.  A perfect full moon hung in the centre of the night sky, bathing all the trees in a pearly glow.  We could see the bold silhouette of Mount Kinabalu standing proudly against a velvet sky, fluffy clouds resting in the valley, glowing softly by the light of the moon.  Other clouds, pale silvery wispy things, skimmed the tops of the ridge and streaks of silver nudged the base of the mountain.  On one side, a huge threatening roll of cloud lit up occasionally with flashes of lightening from a storm, but there was no thunder to break our  semi-stunned silence.  Stars shone out from where the clouds were fewer, signs of a rainless night for our team.  The only evidence of human settlement came from three pinpricks of light; apart from that, there was only soft darkness all around.  We felt so isolated but in a good way.  It kind of felt special that we were the only ones out there in the middle of that massive expanse of Bornean rainforest.

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The rainforest itself has much to offer, which compensates for its slippery paths and huge hills for us to trek up.  We have swam in crystal clear rivers and sat underneath waterfalls, something that is blissful after a long day walking as we let our sore limbs rest in the deliciously cool water.  Rare moments of feeling clean are a definite luxury here in our trek bubble.  Luxury comes also in the form of the food that the jungle provides.  Pretty much all food on trek tastes amazing despite all coming from a can – in our trek delirium, we are all now devoted fans of chicken luncheon meat, something which definitely shows the level of jungle madness that we are all at!  But we have been lucky enough, too, to find fresh food – wild ginger, chillies, long beans – that have elevated our meals to the next level.  Our incredible guides have also cooked us some things, including jungle palm soup and sweet tapioca and milk.  Yesterday we were treated to jungle donuts, which were absolutely phenomenal – the whole team was buzzing, especially after our guide told us that we had achieved the trek record for that particular day.  We had beaten the time taken by all other teams to walk between the two camps by 11 minutes.

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The foreseeable future also looks good, especially on the food front, as we sit in one of the best camps yet alongside a beautiful river waiting for trek resupply (a visit from Fieldbase staff, with our food rations for the rest of the phase). Alpha 5 are feeling positive as we look towards the next nine days, which may be both mentally and physically challenging, but which we hope to cover with long bold strides and a spring in our step.

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Originally published by Raleigh International (02/12/15): https://raleighinternational.org/blog/borneo/trek-an-uphill-climb-with-beautiful-views/