3

Conquering Mt. Fansipan

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Labor Day long weekend represents the end of Summer in America, but here is Hanoi temperatures are still warm and the humidity is unrelenting – although endless rain is dampening any summery feel. Zack and I were happy to take advantage of the holiday and retreat to the more temperate weather of Vietnam’s north-eastern mountains. Just a “quick” eight hour night train later and we were our of Hanoi’s noise and pollution and into the clean mountain air, relaxing in silence on a mountain top; 45 minutes from the small town of Sapa.

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Tourists flock to Sapa to take in the breathtaking views, hike amongst rice paddies, and interact with the many minority tribes that live in the region.

ImageBut as enjoyable as these activities were, we were on a mission…  to conquer Mt. Fansipan.  Towering over the surrounding hills at over 3000 meters, the mountain is the highest in Indochina and a challenge we couldn’t pass up.

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What I could pass up, however, was a night in a camp surrounded by mud, trash, and rats. So, in defiance of local advice, we attempted, and only just succeeded, in climbing the mountain in one day. A feat, according to our guide, only attempted by Australians and a few Europeans… Never by Vietnamese. We were warned that it would be an eleven hour slog up a seemingly endless slippery slope, decorated with mossy boulders, creeks, and tricky tree roots. The constant mud was just part of the fun. Feeling pretty confident in our hiking abilities we really didn’t give this much thought, perhaps we should have. After eleven and a half hours we limped out of the forest, muddy, bloody and bruised, from a trek that could have been spectacular if it wasn’t for the impenetrable cloud.

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ImageDespite the turmoil of the hike we did in enjoy the challenge… in retrospect. We slept well that night, in a our beautiful eco-lodge, happy in the knowledge that we had made it. The next day we barely moved.

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Sunset at the lodge

6

Corsica

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The lack of blogging in the past couple of weeks has been due to my preoccupation with how to best scramble down the cliff in front of me without serious injury. No, I am not attempting to be metaphorical… I have literally been scrambling up and down the rocky slopes of Corsica.  I abandoned Zack in Hanoi for two weeks while my parents and I ventured off to attempt the GR20 Nord – “the hardest walk in Europe” and a challenge my dad couldn’t resist.

Before I left, my friend Maddy very thoughtfully sent me this link from Garance Dore’s blog about enjoying the beaches, shopping, food and life on the island… well, I think it is safe to say that my Corsican family holiday was not so much like this! However, the scenery was stunning and there were enjoyable moments between sliding down rocky scree slopes, hauling ourselves over boulders and slipping across snowy drifts.

So until I have a chance to write a new Hanoi blog, here are a couple of photos from Corsica…

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1

Travels around Mai Chau and Ninh Binh

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trek down to the Muong home-stay on the shore

After the third time Zack pulled me out of the mud and I attempted to scape off the 5 pound load of clay I was involuntarily carrying on my sneakers, I began to wish we’d been more persistent about doing something else.

We were on day two of a four day hiking, biking, boating trip around Mai Châu and Ninh Bình, 3 hours south-west of Hà Nội. The past two days had been full of pretty scenery, friendly people, good food and a fair amount of confusion. This began the moment our driver – who we thought would be with us for the four days – pulled over and announced that we were to take our bags (veges for that night’s dinner included) and walk for the next three hours to our home-stay. He then turned the car around and promptly drove back to Hà Nội.  So there we were; Zack, myself, two backpacks, four plastic bags of groceries and our guide, Em Cư… a young woman who was simultaneously very lovely and very vague.

The next two nights were spent with families in their homes; stilt houses built from local timber and bamboo. This is what we had signed up for and using our very limited Vietnamese we passed two enjoyable and slightly awkward evenings in broken conversation over wonderful food and homemade rice wine before hunkering down on straw mats next to the rest of the family

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Biking through the valley

Night one we were hosted by a Muong family on the banks of the Black river (actually a beautiful shade of blue) which has been dammed for hydro electricity. The evening light on limestone hills rising steeply out of the water was beautiful and well worth the trek down the hill. The second day found us kayaking on the river and biking through rice paddies in the morning then covered in sticky clay by the evening. Lunch was complimented by the rumbles of thunder and a sudden downpour. Upon a long discussion with the guide about the possible options for avoiding a 10km hike in the rain we finally settled on a 10km hike in the rain. After about 30 minutes of talking we realized that the option was… no option; Despite what the travel agency had promised, it turned out that the options for activities were already set in stone, or bogged down in mud so to say. The walk was very pretty and the trail wound through rainforest and over a pass into the neighboring valley. Although the hike turned out to be only about 6km, Em Cư kindly forgot to mention the 3km mudslide into the next village. Upon slipping and sliding into the home of a White Thai family, Zack and I were introduced ourselves in bad Vietnamese, dripping (from rain and sweat) and covered in mud. Em Cư, by the way, looked cool, calm and collected. The weather was hot, sticky and (when it wasn’t rainy) sunny, I thought I’d developed a tan on my legs until I stood under the tap and watched the colour run into the drain.

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The White Thai home-stay

We commenced days three and four in what we now considered the general state of ambiguity. After a 3 hour hike from the White Thai family, a car appeared to take us to Ninh Binh – an unexpected 5 hour drive along a narrow road in a general state of disrepair. Ninh Binh is a dusty, industrial town surrounded by limestone hills and concrete mines. We stayed in a small guesthouse in what I suppose could be called the “suburbs”. Although it was in the middle of the rice paddies. We were there to experience (unbeknown to us) Tam Cốc, a series of three caves only accessible by a small stream, we were under the false impression that we were headed to the nearby Cuc Phuong National Park. Nowhere, thus far, has felt touristy and we saw very few people other than the locals. Tam Cốc, however, which hosts thousands of Vietnamese and Chinese tour groups, was a completely different (although still enjoyable) experience.

In the caves

In the caves

We organized this private tour with a recommended company called Ethnic Travel and all in all we had a really great time.  Em Cư was very nice and tried to be as helpful as possible, we stayed in small farming villages and we enjoyed the activities (mud exempted). Although we would have liked more details and flexibility perhaps this is just part of life in Việt Nam? Go with the flow!