Trekking Sapa, Northern Vietnam
Hello, What’s Your Name?
A three week adventure around Vietnam.
I was beaten, destroyed to the core and past the point of no return. I was exhausted, shattered, cracked, smashed, distort, deranged, confused, broken, in pain and ruined – and that’s just the travellers diarrhea! I haven’t even started to tell you about the way I felt after an obscenely long hike through Sapa’s remote wilderness. The day before, Nic and I had talked with the hostel manager and booked a day hike through remote villages and wilderness. Before his recommendation on which tour we should do, he simply asked “are you fit?” I strongly responded in my gladiator stance “I’m fit enough to carry a small ox”, he must of been in awe at my sheer adventure man attitude that he didn’t hear Niki say “no, not really, I just want a easy walk through some local villages and rice paddies”. 15kms into our intense 28km trek the next day, Niki flopped onto a rock, her eyes confirming that our marriage was being tested for the first time. I didn’t dare tell her that I just confirmed with our guide that with the exception of climbing Mt Fansipan, this is the hardest trek in the region. I was going to kill the hostel owner if I ever saw him again!
Trekking, we started the morning meeting our Hmong guide, a young lady by the name of Xo. After the introductions our motorbikes arrived and we jumped on and started our day’s tour. We weaved high up into the mountains on this chilly wet morning, the wind in our hair, cascading waterfalls in the distance and a happy wife, I felt raw adventure pumping through my veins. This was what I wanted, no mass tours or well trodden paths, a real off the beaten experience. After 20mins we arrived into the mighty Tram Ton Pass, also known as Heavens Gate. Unfortunately though, heaven had blanketed the whole area with fog to keep the secret from us. So after a disappointing start we headed back down the pass to the Silver Waterfalls. With recent rains the waterfalls were flowing at full strength whilst falling from an incredible height. Getting a few romantic photographs in our wet weather gear, Nic then wandered off to find a bathroom – she would come back a changed women, never able to bring the strength to talk about her experience with the toilet, she has since developed a nervous twitch in her left eye when approaching an Asian bathroom.
After the Silver Waterfalls we headed to the starting point of our hike – the local rubbish tip! Arriving here I was a little shocked, this wasn’t exactly the perfect picturesque start I thought of, the second thought was we were about to be murdered and our dead bodies dumped here. We jumped off our bikes and watched our riders ride off in the distance. We then watched our guide simply walk to the edge of the ridge we were on and simply disappear down a very steep track leading down a rivine – game on! The first part of our trek was 2 hours straight down the side of the ridge. The track was slippery, muddy, incredibly steep and full of leaches. Climbing through prickly plants, over logs and fending of giant lost in time mosquitoes. As we hiked Xo explained the various plant varieties and what the Hmong traditionally used them for; from medicinal reasons to cooking. It was an amazing ecotourism experience. When the first leach of the day took hold of Xo’s ankle she gave a mighty squeal, even the strongest people have their weakness. This wouldn’t be last of the little blood suckers. We passed slowly down the mountainside, passing buffalo, livestock and local village children playing or working. At one point we came across six kids just sitting on buffalo and herding cows. At which point I turned to Xo and asked one of the dumbest questions I have ever asked anyone in my life – “What’s the difference between a cow and a buffalo?” She gave me a look of are you kidding me and Niki adding to it “Peter, are you serious? Can’t you tell?” Xo simply said whilst laughing, “Horns”. Hmmm that wasn’t the best impression I could give her of Australians.
We stopped at a small waterfall for lunch at the bottom of the mountain. Niki was showing tiredness from the hard walk, however was still full of optimism. After we finished, Xo pointed to a long winding road up the side of a tall mountain in the distance, this was where we were heading. Niki gulped and then made the most fatal mistake of any trekker, she asked how much longer? When Xo responded “about 4 hours, with 3 hours going continually up “, I saw her optimism fall, it wasn’t til about 3 minutes later when she realised that she couldn’t turn back that I saw the last bit of hope leave her body. She was in it for the long haul and there was no going back, no matter how hard she tried to escape from the inevidable climb ahead. I could see in her eyes, this wasn’t want she expected when she said “I want an easy walk”. I could see in eyes that she was going to find away to blame me for this.
The next three hours was a gruelling climb following ridge after ridge after ridge. We passed the most amazing views of wide deep valleys, with dotted corn crops and chiseled rice paddies. We hiked through small villages with basic infrastructure and charming people. It felt like spring, with baby pigs, puppies, calves and chickens everywhere. The piglets were easily our favourite. Half way through our trip we came across a stranded calf calling for its mother, however she was no where to be seen. It was saddening to know this calf would die if help didn’t arrive. About 10 minutes down the track we came across an incredible site, a child on a buffalo calling to the calf and getting a response. The small boy was communicating with his animals, it was a touching moment. After 2 hours and intense sun, Niki finally hit her wall. She sat down on her rock and rested. On the edge of her physical limits, it was all down to her will to go on. She had asked earlier on the day “who would help me if I hurt myself?” the response “no help, don’t hurt yourself”. My beloved wife knew she had to keep going, so after a random piece of cucumber for energy, she got back up and kept on trotting.
Rule No. 5 of being married – Don’t take your wife on a 28km hike for your honeymoon, its not considered romantic.
We finally climbed down the final ridge into the village of Ta Phin. Not before passing through an area that Xo said “move quickly I smell snake”, there was no need to tell me twice. We arrived in this quaint village destroyed, sore and limping as if we had just done a 14 day trek. Ta Phin was stunning! We passed other tourist who had arrived by car into the village, they gave us one of two looks; the first one of ultimate awe that we had hiked this far or secondly, why would you do that you sadistic people? On arrival into a small Dzao home, a relaxing warm medicinal bath was waiting for us in barrels. The saviour for our aching muscles. After the cool down, we jumped back on our bikes and headed back to Sapa. Our hostel manager was eagerly waiting out front for our return, I was ready to explain to him the difference of an easy hike and a bloody hard hike, instead Nic and I both got off our bikes and told him that was one of the best hikes we had ever done. His response “That’s great, I can now sell it to other travellers. Your the first tourists to do that trek since it was reopened, it’s been closed for a long time due to dangerous political issues”. With that, we thanked Xo for her excellent guiding, shook our heads at our manager, then went and downed a large local beer.
This post is part of the “Hello, What’s Your Name” blog series.