HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Roof of Indochina Part 3 - Descent

Visibility began to worsen as we made our way back to camp from the summit. I've said it over and over, but I can't stress just how wet and muddy the trail was. 3,143 meters isn't that high in comparison to some of the world's great mountains, but when almost every step is hindered by mud, and every rock or tree branch is covered in slick moss, it feels a lot higher. It took huge amounts of concentration to keep balance, given the treacherous footing.
Even though we were going down at first, we knew we had a tough hike back up ahead of us at some point, since there had been a steep descent earlier in the morning. We reached it about 30 minutes after departing the summit, and it was a doozy. One thing I did like about going up was that I was able to use some of the strength I've built up from rock climbing weekly in Saigon since January - at some points you had to yank yourself up slick boulders with the tall bamboo stalks lining the trail. This was tough work, but we made good progress and were at the camp around 11am. We ate a big lunch of eggs, veggies, potatoes, and pears, and then prepared to trek down to the second camp, 600 meters in altitude down the mountain.

We ran into the two women we had seen on the summit as we were leaving the camp, and they asked how I had stayed so clean. I thought I was rather dirty, especially from the waist down, but they said a big group of British climbers that had passed us as we came down from the summit had asked them if they had seen "the clean guy in sneakers." (I haven't mentioned this yet, but I wasn't wearing hiking boots.) Surprised that I was apparently the talk of the mountain, I replied that I didn't know how I had stayed clean, and wished them luck on the rest of their trek.

After slipping and sliding down more damp rocks for a while, we emerged onto the more open section of trail that had a railing running alongside it. We seemed to be making slow progress; so slow in fact, that during one of our breaks Su, one of the porters, decided to fashion a bong out of a discarded water bottle and a length of bamboo, from which he smoked some strong Vietnamese tobacco. He started laughing a lot more after that. I should mention that Su, as well as Bao, the other porter, had scampered up and down the trail with the same ease and efficiency as the family of mountain goats we had seen the first day. Bao was wearing a pair of Converse hi-tops, while Su was wearing sandals; and they always seemed thoroughly nonplussed by our slow, clumsy progress, though I think I gained a measure of begrudging respect by drinking some noxious rice wine with them both nights. I was starting to get an idea of why the U.S. lost the war here: if the soldiers of the VC and the NVA were even half as skilled at traversing difficult terrain as these guys, it's no wonder they came out victorious in the end.

The skies were starting to clear again, and the next time we took a break we were confronted with simply staggering views. We had stopped at the same spot on our way up, and this had been the scene:
Now, we could see this:
We had no idea what we had been missing the day before.

The road to Lai Chau
Absolutely incredible. A jagged row of peaks ended abruptly in a broad valley, on the other side of which a twisty road was carved into more mountains. Everything was carpeted in green, the sun was shining, and the trail was drying out, at least a little bit.

Surprisingly, we had actually been making very good time. It was only 2:30, and we were already just a half hour away from the second camp. I wondered if we could just push through and make it all the way to the bottom that day, but Bao said (through Tin's translation) that he wasn't sure if we would have enough time before the sun set. So, we simply hung out for a while, enjoying the landscape, and getting sunburned.

A short while after resuming the hike, we heard a distant braying. At first I thought it was the goats we had seen the day before, but then we spotted three water buffaloes - two adults and a baby - high up on a vibrantly green ridge. They sounded distressed, but there was obviously nothing we could do, so we continued on.

Soon after that we hit the last flat stretch of trail before the final drop down to camp. Once again, we had to step around huge piles of buffalo shit, but the views to the right were completely worth it. The Fansipan massif towered above, in a panoramic view of gorgeous geology. The three pictures below form one view - top to bottom is left to right.

We were in camp by 3:45, after a short but steep descent from the exposed ridge. Darkness was still a couple hours away, so we laid our filthy shoes and pants out in the sun, hoping that they would dry out a bit in the damp atmosphere. I sat down on a rock and began to write down my notes and thoughts on the trek so far. Bao looked over my shoulder as I wrote - he and Su had also watched me type out a couple text messages earlier on the trip. I wondered why, and Tin informed me that H'mong has no written script; it is a completely oral language. They were clearly intrigued by written text.

A little later, as I was reading by the entrance to the shelter in the dwindling sunlight, the cat we had seen the day before ambled in, rubbed along my arm, and climbed onto my lap. I'm not a fan of cats, and most cats in Vietnam are mangy, filthy vermin, but this was one was shockingly clean, and friendly to boot. He simply lay there purring until food arrived, when we had to chase him off. Unfortunately, many Vietnamese people don't treat animals very well, so the cat and the dog at the camp took to us quickly, simply because we showed a small amount of affection.

this dog was only fed rice
We ate dinner after relaxing for a while and considered buying some beer from the kitchen, but the large group of British climbers that arrived at the camp after us had purchased all of it. So, the four of us sat in the shelter and had a frank discussion about the differences between American and British sex slang and cursing. For example: Is it worse to call a person from the UK a twat or a wanker? and, How do you correctly use the various grammatical forms of douchebag in the U.S.? There was an older Singaporean couple sharing the tent with us, and they spoke decent English, so this conversation probably shocked them.

Meanwhile, outside, the other Brits were boisterously singing drunken versions of "God Save the Queen", "Old Macdonald Had a Farm", and a bunch of other nursery rhymes, while their porters sang equally drunken versions of the Vietnamese national anthem. A luminous full moon presided over the the whole vulgar, multinational scene, and the last thing I heard before falling asleep was a Brit shouting "Have ya got anymore hooch!?".
I'll close the book on Fansipan in my next post, since we experienced something really special as we finished the descent the next day.

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