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Tuesday 22th of June 2021 22:02:04 PM (Vietnam)
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Sa Pa springs a mountain of surprises

The chance to sample exotic cultures, chiefly from the bar, while chain-smoking cheap local cigarettes and indulging in a host of other dubious practices.

Sa Pa springs a mountain of surprises

Shrouded in mystery: Sa Pa lures tourists with its romantic natural scene and local ethnic life style. — VNA/VNS Photo Do Duc Cam

by Jak Phillips

For an Englishman at least, time spent abroad or on a gap year is supposed to be a period for debauchery and enlightenment.

The chance to sample exotic cultures, chiefly from the bar, while chain-smoking cheap local cigarettes and indulging in a host of other dubious practices.

So when I agreed to travel to Sa Pa, with the understanding that a stroll up its famous Fansipan mountain would be exactly that, I packed light and assured myself that a pair of converse would suffice for this gentle mountain walk followed by a bar crawl staggering around its base.

How wrong I was.

It was only as I bedded down for the night after our first day of climbing - shivering in sub-zero temperatures with just a flimsy sheet of plastic for shelter and my feet oozeing more blood than a Russian ballerina's - that I realised I may have underestimated this 3,143m behemoth.

But I'm rambling here and there's plenty of that to come (along with better jokes I hope), so let's go back to the beginning and establish how this debacle came about.

Having spent several months spluttering through the Ha Noi smog, my friend suggested I join her group of American scholars on what was promised to be a relaxing trip to Sa Pa. A chance to fill our lungs with mountain air and explore Viet Nam's endless natural beauty.

Being a sucker for both of the above, I readily agreed and before you could say "wrap up warm" we were travelling on a sleeper train - a novelty for the child trapped inside my two-metre frame – up to Lao Cai Province.

We were met at the station shortly before dawn by our cheery mountain guide, whose combination of a trilby and climbing boots put him in an unusual position on the fashion spectrum, somewhere between Pete Doherty and Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

As the guide (still cheerily) told us that we would embark on our ascent a day earlier due to weather conditions, it soon dawned on our weary heads that we'd better pull our climbing boots on.

Luckily my Converse were already in place.

We started off at 9am in high spirits and managed to maintain them until around lunch - the point at which we realised our two and a half hours of hard climbing had taken us less than a quarter of the way to the summit.

Our morale gradually ebbed away as the afternoon wore on, eroded (ironically enough) by the ever-steepening rock faces and the plummeting temperatures.

Fansipan it seemed, and so it later proved, was a cruel mistress.

With my American companions' conversation covering topics I was less than familiar with – Fro-Yo, college majors and the best places in New York to urinate for free – I turned to our guide for kinship.

What I actually got from him were acrid plumes of Vinatab smoke in my face and a laugh so maniacal it would make Dr Evil double-take.

Unperturbed, I decided to make friends with Mother Nature and was richly-rewarded.

It's well documented that the views from Sa Pa are awe-inspiring, but being a born sceptic, it was nice to see for myself.

All along our scramble we were blessed with faultless vistas of the green-carpeted canyon below, while at eye-level we were treated to salubrious swirls of clouds that caressed and cascaded the surrounding peaks.

But metrological foreplay aside, I feel duty bound to re-iterate that our climb was a bloody nightmare!

The novelty of Action Man-esque ascents up sheer rock faces quickly evaporated as the water marks on our shoes crept chillingly higher up our trousers.


Building bridges: The number of tourists, especially foreign visitors who arrive inSa Pa to study local ethnic culture and lifestyle has increased year on year. — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Ha

By the time we reached base camp at 4:30pm for the aforementioned night of 'rest', our spirits had evaporated along with all hopes of a session in Sa Pa.

Instead I had to make do with our guide's dubious rice wine which I gratefully glugged in the hope of numbing my weather-beaten senses.

As ten of us squeezed under the tiny-tarpaulin, I lay there wondering if we were inadvertently setting a new Guinness World Record for the biggest ever chain of human spoons.

But with a new day brings new hope and as the early-morning sun attempted to thaw the icicles that had formed on my eyelashes, we set off at 6 – YES 6! – AM to begin our final push for the summit.

I've already done my obligatory reference to the views so I won't exhaust my limited supply of superlatives, but I will say that the top of Fansipan makes quite the pretty picture.

Anyone who ever tells you that it's about the journey and not the destination is: a) a new age idiot and b) a Fansipan virgin. The overwhelming sense of relief I felt at conquering this gargantuan method of torture is right up there with the day I heard Piers Morgan was moving to America and my joy manifested itself by transforning me into a human hug dispenser to anyone within a 10-metre radius.

The descent was perhaps the most blissful comedown I have ever experienced, but when the high point of your climb has been discovering a dry sock on the floor of your sleeping quarters with only two holes in it then any direction is surely an improvement.

Having recovered the power of thought, I was quickly subjected to shame by the realisation that the small elderly ladies who served as porters carrying supplies up to base camp had managed to lap us on the mountain twice. To add insult to injury, the girls, who looked old enough to play Yoda's stunt double, had achieved the feat wearing flip-flops!

By the time we eventually returned to the bottom late on the second day, there was a sense of great achievement among the group.

We feeble, cosseted westerners had managed to conquer all 50km of the treacherous trek up Fansipan and back. And it had only cost us US$200 each - plus in my case a pint of blood.

As we stumbled the final step back down to terra firma, I grabbed an overpriced beer from the cunningly opportunistic vendor and collapsed in a heap, spilling half of said beer in the process.

But as I gazed down at my shell-shocked corpse, I was treated to one more the sight of one more minor miracle.

My trusty Converse were still fully-intact. It truly was a team effort. — VNS

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