“Are those strangle marks?” I hissed to my companions, Scott and Liz, in what I suspected was far from a discrete decibel. The three of us stared intently at Chai’s neck, for what can only be described as a socially unacceptable amount of time.
If he noticed us leering he didn’t let on – but it was undeniable – the marks down his neck looked highly suspicious.
“Well, at least he’s a survivor” Scott suddenly said brightly. We all nodded with a new found respect. This seemed a perfectly acceptable conclusion to our worries.
Chai would be our guide as we trekked up Mt Fansipan, the highest peak in Indochina. He was a quiet young man. His cheeks flushed with a crimson that comes with living at high altitude. He carried a shy, nervous smile he let brake across his face only occasionally – apart from that he remained serious. His English was simple and slow as he ushered us out of the hotel, and into the waiting minibus. Our porter, who we suspected was his brother, slipped silently in behind us.
The word ‘porter’ brings dreadful images to mind of the rich white man striding freely up a mountain, while some poor local, being paid some disgraceful amount, staggers up behind with the heavily laden bags. I find it shamefully colonial. Carry your own fucking bag – lazy bastard. Needless to say – we did.
It was market day in Sapa. The narrow streets swarming with villagers from the surrounding areas who had converged on the town and now jostled for position. Almost exclusively women, all dressed colorfully and flamboyantly in traditional dress, always accompanied by a wicker basket bursting with their many treasures – often gnawing at a strip of sugar cane like a demented beaver. The minibus slowly inched its way through the throng, and crept out into the heavy mist that had cloaked Sapa all morning.
The road ahead climbed steeply, past shimmering rice fields. A glorious array of chaotic patchworks that filled every conceivable inch of land, and even some that seemed downright ludicrous – then tumbled to the valley floor – where they concluded in a strangely organized, yet hypnotic frenzied mess.
The minibus came to a stop at Tram Ton Pass – the highest in Vietnam. Four days earlier we had biked the same road in four, sometimes hellish, hours – we had just done it in 20 minutes.
Stepping out, we were quickly consumed by the mist and shouldered our backpacks. Our eyes straining up towards where we assumed the mountain to be – there was of course, nothing.
The path initially fell downwards through soggy rainforests. The mist clung to everything around us, creating a heavy shimmer to our world. As we began to climb, the first rays of sunshine began to reach us through the haze – then at one point I looked up, and could see nothing but blue sky. The dampness was quickly replaced by dryer forests, criss-crossed by beautifully calm streams. Our porter who had not said a word so far, and had began well behind us, now over took us with an almost embarrassing ease considering the huge basket he was burdened with. His flimsy plastic sandals making an absolute mockery or our hiking boots.
Our lunch site was shared with two dogs chained to a nearby fence. They barked ferociously for an hour while we ate our simple lunch of egg fried rice and slices of ham – with an orange for dessert. We talked excitedly and often peered to our right; where the trail again disappeared tantalizingly into the trees.
Ten minutes after lunch, we burst onto a plateau and were greeted by the thunderous sight of what the French had dubbed – ‘the Tonkinese Alps’ . In almost every direction mountains rose majestically, and as if magically out of the mist; craning upwards in a desperate race to the heavens. Our guide suddenly stopped; his eyes glued to the sky. A finger slowly joined his gaze.
“Fansipan,” he announced in a wonderfully off-the-cuff, yet brilliantly cinematic moment. This was why we were here. We surged on. The terrain had become arid, almost desert like. The ground was a dirty sand like color. I half expected to see cacti around every corner.
Chai began to annoy me. He would arrive a steep decline, littered with what I considered treacherous looking rocks. He would take one glance at them, then skip down; his feet touching each rock for the faintest of seconds. I would stand open mouthed behind him, mumble something obscene, and begin lumbering ungainly down – this was his world.
On one of our many water breaks. I could just about make out the slivering snake of a route heading up the ridge in front of us and disappearing over the top. There was no denying it; things were about to go vertical. The path climbed brutally – at times forcing us to scramble almost on our chest. Our shoulders began to mimic the pulsing burning pain in the legs. The backpack seemed to weigh more with every step.
The night camp, was greeted with relief. It consisted of long shed building, the bedroom. A smaller half tent, half shed that was the kitchen; and a tiny hut – with a hole – where I assumed they flung the rotting corpses of plague victims – but actually turned out to be the toilet.
As the last evidence of sunlight disappeared over the peaks above us, the temperature plummeted. In response; we donned every available item of clothing and took refuge in the kitchen; where we warmed ourselves over the fire. Our guide and porter put on a wonderful double of act of bickering while concocting a delicious noodle dish under the simplest, most primal condition.
The night was filled with the noise of the wind battering our tiny world. The door repeatedly crashed open and shut. The floor was painfully bare and cold. The Vietnamese group at the other end of the shed insisted on playing the most mind numbing, screeching TV show on their laptop. The kind of show I assumed was reserved for low budget bus journeys. Eventually I fell asleep, happily dreaming of beating them to death with their laptop. I was woken in the middle of the night by the snores of a dying moose of a human being. It was the kind of nasal gagging that really warrants being put down at birth. How can snorers live with themselves? Eventually I fell asleep – happily dreaming of beating him to death with the laptop. It was a bleak night sleep.
Our torches battled against the early morning fog, which had completely enveloped the camp. The breakfast of noodle soup was wolfed down appreciatively, as if it was our last. As we left, the darkness was in retreat; but the fog stubbornly held its ground. The route to the summit was steep but our excitement kept us speeding along. The terrain was once again been transformed – we now climbed through haunting, misty tunnels of bamboo; their tops bending secretly inwards. Every time the path dipped and plunged down rather than up, the brain began to argue with itself at an alarming rate; making unhelpful comments like:
“Why the fuck are we going down!”. This would continue like a skipping CD until the path again began to climb. The brain would then rebuke itself for being stupid. Then argue with itself for rebuking itself – until you’re quite, you’re on the brink of insanity.
After an hour and a half we began to see a break in the trees ahead of us. We sped up in excitement. And then suddenly, there was nothing – quite literally. We had reached the summit. Not only was there nothing else ahead of us, but it appeared the entire world around us had also disappeared – wave after wave of impenetrable nothingness.
We staggered to the very summit and were greeted by a howling icy wind that tore into every available crack in our clothing. I was sure at any moment the wind would tear us off and spit us out into the oblivion below – but we stood triumphantly, at the top; next to the small metal pyramid – which simply read: Fansipan – 3180m.