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Footsteps in Vietnam

04-03-2018

The door to the grey dented mini-van slid open and dozens of local women dressed in traditional clothing bounded towards the open space, holding baskets of jewelry and crafts.

Though I couldn’t understand a word they were shouting, I wore a smile from ear to ear so large it seemed to consume my face. I had arrived in the Lào Cai Province of Vietnam and was en route to begin the two day hike to the summit of Mt. Fansipan. Standing at 10,312 feet, it is the tallest mountain in Indochina and what awaited me was a journey that would prove to be one of the most challenging and rewarding of my life.

I walked into the train station in Hanoi, Vietnam at 8:30 P.M. and was asked to wait for a few minutes before my voucher was exchanged for a ticket. I grabbed my ticket and took a seat next to a group of teenagers. The televisions in the waiting area blared scenes of karaoke performances. About 20 minutes later people began moving towards a door that led to the tracks and instinctively, I followed. The scene getting to the train was something out of a movie: dozens of people dragging suitcases, bags, food, and the like along dimly lit tracks as a train honking its horn approached. It was misty and muggy out, which added to the portrait before me. I found my train car and walked into the four person berth. I had an upper bunk and after finding my footing, hopped up. I quickly made friends with the person across from me, a middle-aged woman from Brazil currently living in Hong Kong. As luck would have it, on the train back we would also end up in the same cabin. We chatted for a bit, and after a few hours, were asleep. Before we knew it, it was 7 A.M. We had arrived in the town of Lao Cai, approximately 50km from the starting point of the hike. I exited the train platform in search of the person who was to provide my transfer.

As I scanned the crowds of people waving for loved ones, I saw a woman holding a sign that read “Mesinia Eliza.” I assumed that was for me. She asked me to stand aside as she was waiting for one other person. The individual never showed and eventually it was time to go. She turned to me and said, “you pay money now.” Cocking my head to the side, I let out a puzzled sigh. She said it again and I told her I had already paid for the trip and that this was included in my fee. She looked at me pensively for a moment and begrudgingly said okay. I was then escorted to a van with ten others and we drove for an hour, stopping randomly to pick up and drop people off until we finally reached Sapa.

I was the last person in the van and it seemed the driver had no idea where to take me. He stopped at a random tour agency to ask a question and came back out looking more confused than when he exited. He finally turned onto a street and told me to get out at a place that appeared to have no one inside. I hesitantly walked in and upon not seeing anyone, turned back to the van. He must’ve seen the concern on my face because he ran into the house, screamed a few things in Vietnamese, and told me I would be fine before he sped away. A young girl appeared in the doorway and approached me. I tried to explain who I was and what I was there for but she did not speak English. She directed me to a room and just repeatedly said, “shower.” So I did what any normal person would do in a situation like this, I showered.

After the five minute polar plunge, I reorganized my things and walked back out trying to explain to the girl who I was. She had no idea what I was saying so she asked me to follow her across the street to a guiding agency that doubled as a cafe. A young man who spoke English tried to help. He asked me multiple questions about who I was, what I was there for, and what was going on. He chuckled a few times which didn’t help the unease lingering in my stomach. He waved his hands a bit and then walked away. I sat for about 10 minutes unsure of what to do. I had no phone or internet so I couldn’t contact anyone and I didn’t actually know who I was supposed to be meeting. I decided to give it a few more minutes. I had come this far and there was no way I was returning without touching this mountain.

Shortly after, a man pulled up on a motorbike. He asked my name and led me back into the place I had just been. He asked me if I would like to take a shower and I said I had already done so but had not yet eaten and had no idea what was going on. He said he would make breakfast and so he did, noodle soup with vegetables. When in Rome right? As I ate, my guide arrived: Su, a delightful 17 year old boy, wearing only a long sleeve blue shirt, a pair of shorts, camouflage army rain boots and carrying a small pack. I was handed a helmet and told that we would ride up to the base of the mountain on the motorbikes and start the hike.

Off we went, zooming past some of the most beautiful scenery I had seen to date. Suddenly we stopped. Ahead of us lay a dozen or so motorbikes, some police, and what appeared to be a land slide. A bulldozer was in the middle of the road moving dirt as were a few individuals with shovels. We waited until enough dirt was cleared that people could “safely” drive over, and drive over it we did. When we reached the place to start the climb, Su and I talked for a few minutes before descending down some steps to start the trek.

It was drizzling and incredibly foggy. We would spend the next two hours walking through ankle deep mud, puddles, small lakes, climbing ladders, scrambling over wet rocks, and walking across logs to cross rivers. Though the weather didn’t allow much visibility, there seemed to be something mysterious and exciting about the dense layer of haze. After that initial two hours, we reached the lunch site. It was an A shaped shelter, with just two by fours laid on the inside and bamboo mats on top. I walked in, sat, and Su said he would bring me lunch shortly. There were a few other people in the shelter, two of which I would end up making friends with. Lunch consisted of pork, a container of multicolored sticky rice with chopped peanuts for dipping, bananas, and fruit that I do not know the name of. I devoured even Su’s share. A half hour later we were back on the trail.

The next three hours challenged me in a way I had never experienced before. I had to stop and catch my breath, it seemed, nearly every 20 minutes. The majority of the route was an upward scramble, where I had to use my physical strength to pull myself up. The mud was so deep I had remnants of it up to my knees. My boots were soaked making my feet incredibly wet. I was lifting my legs waist high to climb up and over something every few minutes. Due to the weather, at some points we could barely see in front of us. We passed some wildlife, including a few goats and a horse. We passed a girl on her descent. I beamed, and asked how it was. With a serious face she simply said, “It’s foggy. You can’t see anything. I’m soaked. Ask me in a few days after I’ve had a chance to process everything. Maybe I’ll have something different to say.” Promising.

Su kept asking if I wanted him to carry my bag, I said no. At one point he was chatting with three porters and they kept pointing at me. I decided to ask him later what they had been saying. He turned to me and said, “You carry your own bag and it looks very heavy. They said you are a very, very strong woman!” As silly as that comment was, it provided me with enough drive to finish the first day. Around 3:15 P.M. we reached the end of day one and the place we would settle in for the night. I was the first hiker to arrive.

Camp was a shelter exactly like the lunch stop. Su laid my sleeping bag down, a bag he had carried in a plastic bag in his hands the entire way. I sat and began to take off and hang the wet layers. 30 minutes later one of the friends I made earlier, Faye, arrived. We congratulated each other, asked the guys to exit the shelter so we could change, and put some dry clothes on. Faye’s companion finally made it and the three of us toasted with warm beers. They were exquisite.
Su and their porter, who turned out to be Su’s uncle, made us dinner that was honestly a feast fit for kings. The spread before us included rice, vegetables, pork, chicken, beef, noodles, fruit, and more. Everything was laid out and we ate while enjoying some homemade rice wine. A few of the guides and porters spoke English and we talked about their families, their work, and their lives in Vietnam. They were incredibly humble and kind, bashfully bowing their heads when I complimented them on their English skills. Su spoke so fondly of his siblings, repeatedly mentioning a brother he knew was going to do great things. My heart was warmed in such a way that I wondered if they could feel it.

Around 9 P.M. a party of about 10 Malaysians arrived and they spent the next two to three hours cooking and making far too much noise. I climbed into my sleeping bag as Su kindly asked a man to move so a woman could sleep next to me. I closed my eyes and slept on and off for the next four hours.

At 4:30 A.M., I got redressed inside my sleeping bag and around 5 A.M., Su brought in pancakes with fresh honey and bananas for breakfast. We started the hike to the summit at 6 A.M. It was to be roughly two hours to the top. Su and I made it in an hour and twenty minutes.

The last hour was difficult but with so much adrenaline and finally some sunshine, I was determined to get up there while there was a view. Su kept asking if I wanted to stop and take a break but I was so excited I couldn’t even think about halting my feet. When we hit the summit, the sky was mostly clear and the view was stupendous. Somewhere I wanted to scream and cry. Su and I high-fived and three people who had summited just a minute before us, were popping champagne. Incredible! I took endless photos and sat for a bit, enjoying the view of the clouds, mountains, and lush green valleys below me. I was blown away and so happy I had made the decision to do this trek. The view alone was worth every aching pain in my back, hips, and legs. After filling my senses, I looked at Su and said, “Let’s finish this.”

We made quick work of the descent and were back down at the sleeping shelter within an hour. Su asked if I wanted to have lunch and I told him I would rather wait until we reached the next camp. We continued on and it was another brutal hike. It had rained so much more during the night that the mud was even worse than the day before. At one point I lost my footing walking on the edge of a rock and slipped, one leg headed in one direction and the other leg in another. I practically did a split on the edge of a boulder and threw my hands in front of me to stop my face from crashing into the rock. Su quickly turned around and ran to me, grabbing my pack. I took a few minutes to just lay there to look at what had happened. I could’ve fallen off the side of the cliff or seriously wounded my face.
Close call.
After my near death experience, I was a bit more careful and around 11:15 A.M. we reached the next camp. Su made my lunch and I fell asleep in a sitting position waiting for the meal. It came and I ate quickly and told Su we had to keep going because I was so physically exhausted.

The next three hours included so much mud you could no longer tell I was wearing shoes. Instead, they looked like caked blocks. I had torn the bottom of my pant legs, which were now completely brown. My hands were filthy and I was ready to drop. At 2:30 P.M. I saw the steps leading up to the road and wanted to kiss the ground. Once those final strides were completed, Su and I hugged and snapped a photo. Fansipan was done. I felt so accomplished. Two motorbikes came to get us and we rode in the rain back to town. I hugged Su one last time and he gave me his card. I promised to email him. Later that evening, I boarded an overnight train back to Hanoi.

The hike to the summit of Mt. Fansipan pushed me to my limits. I’m not sure if it was the weather or the mud, but it was one of the most physically demanding hikes I’d ever done. The beauty of the trail, indescribable view from the top, and the camaraderie experienced with the guides, porters, and other hikers easily made the grueling journey worth every second. There is no doubt in my mind that I will carry the memories from this adventure for years to come.

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