The Eagles Nest on Fansipan

As we walked the short journey, crossing the bridge into Vietnam, the world began to change. We could see China back across the Red River; so close, yet it felt like another universe. We faced a new language, a different currency, changed menu choices, a differing approach to almost everything … and I swear it felt hotter and more humid on this side of the bridge in Lao Cai. Our first hour of people experience in Vietnam, yielded more noisy emotion than the past month of travelling amoungst the discreet and respectful quietness of the Chinese. All around us, we could hear loud high-tension arguments and negotiations, joke telling and raucous laughter. People here, seemed to live in the moment … with passion.

After several interesting attempts at procuring a cab at the recommended price, we eventually headed to the hill town of Sa Pa, a little out-of-pocket, but thankfully, in air-conditioned comfort.

After a pleasant scenic drive, we checked into the Mountain View Lodge, then spent the afternoon strolling the streets, helplessly bargaining with the local tribeswomen, for little knick knacks and cotton bracelets. I mean … how many of these items do you need? We also received news that our friend Tija, just gave birth to a beautiful and healthy baby girl, which she and her husband Jay named, Amber. Brilliant!

Buying Nik Naks in Sapa

Buying nik naks in Sapa

After a comfortable night’s sleep we awoke to a stunning vista of mist covered mountains and lush green, fertile valleys. What a relief to partake of a splendid early breakfast on the terrace, of our aptly named twenty-five dollar a night hotel and feel the cool of the mountains on our faces.

So, feeling refreshed and eager, we headed out with Ching, our mountain guide, to begin the trek to Fansipan; Vietnam’s highest mountain at 3,143m. The trek appeared to be reasonably easy in the beginning, as it wound its way through varied landscapes, including rivers and fast running streams, bamboo forests with cardamom and ginger growing in great profusion, and a dense canopy of temperate rainforest. As we proceeded, the gradient began steepening; at times forcing us to use our hands to scamper up the rocks. At around midday, an A-framed tin hut materialised out of the mist, which meant lunch and a welcomed rest with several other trekkers – Alex from Holland, and Brett and Dane from South Australia.

Misty Views - Fansipan, Sapa

Misty Views – Fansipan, Sapa

After lunch we continued climbing through the steep landscape, passing herds of goats and water buffalo; the latter leaving several calling cards that needed to be carefully avoided! From here, we climbed and scrambled our way up slippery rock faces, having to negotiate our way over a lot of difficult muddy track, with mossy wet boulders and a constant tangle of tree roots. Eventually, we arrived at our digs for the night at 2,800 metres, with only one mishap. This particular cranky Cobra, didn’t want to share his patch of track; forcing us to not only dive out of his way, but to be ultra-focused on our footsteps from then on.

I couldn’t quite determine whether Katie felt elated or annoyed, at having to share a tin shack for the night with ten other men. She seemed to be the only woman crazy enough to be on the mountain at the time. Later that evening, our crew prepared a delicious meal, accompanied by a spirit akin to petrol. Every time anyone took a sip, the entire group raised their blue plastic cups with a shout of “Jyoh”. The sharing of the drink and the story telling made for a wonderful evening. The strong liquor also helped ward off the cold, but only for a while. Once the sun disappeared the heat went with it. Even wearing all of our clothing, including a beanie and gloves inside our sleeping bags, we shivered! It seemed a long wait for the dawn, as neither of us slept a great deal.

The next day we climbed even more steeply over moss and fern covered boulders, to the summit of Fansipan. Wow … We felt like we could see the entire world from up here. We sat there for a while feeling well pleased with our achievement, despite our joints aching from the knee hugging night and the climb; our bodies feeling unaccustomed to days of attempting to ascend hip-high boulders. With a ‘groan’ we both realised that our descent could feel a lot worse. After our short rest on the summit we headed back down the mountain, where several Red-Faced Monkeys rewarded us with a clear viewing of their antics. They crashed their way through the bamboo and down the steep terrain, screeching and calling as they went. It seemed like a quick and painless way of getting off the mountain and I felt a sudden urge to follow them. That is, until I got closer to the edge of the ridge. If I happened to misjudge even one swing between bamboo poles, then my intended Tarzan experience would definitely end in grief. I decided to leave the tree jumping to the monkeys. All in all, despite the rain, the cold, our agonised bodies and the fear of falling into the abyss, we really enjoyed this fabulous trek and all of the people we met along the way.

Fishing in Vietnam

Fishing in Vietnam

Contrasts always seem to heighten our experiences, so it felt good to hand our wet, muddy clothes over to the staff of the hotel, have a very long, hot shower and enjoy the comforts of our accommodation.

For the next two days we explored the environs of Sa Pa, shopping for friends and family, and trying out a range of massage to ease our tired muscles. Katie even treated herself to a local herbal bath. It looked to me like torture. They crammed her into half a wine barrel filled with warm soapy herbal water; leaving her trapped there for twenty minutes. Later, we found ourselves confronted by competing groups of women and children from several of the local hill tribes, who never allowed us a moment, without their constant sales pitch. With three large groups following us back to the hotel, I decided to try a different approach. I retrieved an old shirt from my pack and attempted to sell it to them. Somewhere, through the course of our negotiations, we all began to enjoy the banter, especially when a proposal of marriage seemed to be on the table. Thirty women seemed like a good sized harem and my counter offer to marry them all, caused an eruption of laughter and shared fun. Unfortunately, all my proposals of matrimony and attempts at retail selling failed, but we all enjoyed the interaction.

Friendly, Sa Pa, with its lovely people and great dining … is a rare gem. If you love shopping, garden walks around scenic lakes and exploring and finding exotic culture in colourful markets and hidden laneways, then this is a noisy heaven not to be missed. And … how could we ever forget the pain and the glory of its majestic mountains …

Our next stop … Hanoi on the overnight train from Lao Cai. It sounded like a simple enough trip to organise; bus it back to Lao Cai and pick up our tickets at the office next to the train station. Easy, right? Wrong … After a lot of arguments and strange directions, we finally found our ticket office, which turned out to be a guy on a little plastic stool, crammed in beside the station entrance. We eventually found him amougst the crowd, half hidden by a local street vendor, with a pile of papers in his lap! Despite all the noise and drama, we felt a high level of expectation and excitement. The famed Vietnamese capital awaited.


Boiling Borderline Eagles

After leaving the sublime village of Dali, we arrived in busy Kunming city at 4.30am, after absolutely no sleep, feeling gravel-eyed, grumpy and with Katie unwell. To make things worse, every taxi that went by ignored us. What a stark contrast to Dali. After finally getting to our hotel and waiting on the reception couch for five long hours, we checked in; moving ever-so-slowly, like a pair of unoiled robots. We spent the next twenty-four hours in our hotel room in recovery mode. It turned out that Kunming had one great positive left to enthral us. The carpet in the lift, displayed the current day of the week in English. Yes … yes … yes. I just can’t envisage how we could have managed without this wonderful service.

Graffiti in Dali

Graffiti in Dali

The next day we boarded a bus to the border town of Hekou; glad to be clear of Kunming’s answer to Faulty Towers. As soon as we climbed the steps and took our seat, we met Monique, a journalist from Holland; the only other English speaking person on the bus. It’s amazing how people of all kinds gravitate to a common language and the chance to communicate, so … we quickly became friends. Together we braved a trip brim-full of adventures!

Very early in the journey, we became confronted by an overturned truck, which looked like a dead cow with its legs in the air. The traffic began to backup, so our driver attempted a very precarious U-turn, involving deep gutter drop-offs on each side of the road and at least twenty agonising turns before we faced the opposite direction. We then took a back road to avoid the blockage. The detour road initially seemed quaint … In this I mean narrow, rutted and that ‘airborne’ kind of bumpy. At one point, I think we may have left most of the gear box on a rock in the middle of the road, but the villages and scenery looked picture-postcard and shone out above our little drama.

Hekou Map

Hekou Map

As we approached the border, the mountains grew in beauty and height, and it seemed impossible that a freeway could exist in such a vertical environment. How could people climb up amongst these crags and create such a network of tunnels and bridges? I remember shaking my head with wonder, when the bus pulled off the freeway into a border guard station. Here my good vibes abruptly ended. The guards looked angry and fierce, so when they demanded passports from all who weren’t Chinese nationals, we quickly handed them over. When it came time to return the passports, Katie’s had somehow disappeared! An angry argument ensued. We pretended to be mightily important and arrogantly offended by their affront, while they continued to sneer and threaten. A few, long, panicky minutes later, a surly looking guard magically retrieved it from his back pocket, thinking it highly amusing. After that a strange silence existed in the bus for many kilometres.

Apart from the sweltering heat and humidity, we enjoyed our brief stay in the colourfully lit city of Hekou; liking the outdoor dumpling shops, while we got to know our gorgeous new friend, Monique, who we nicknamed ‘Duchy’. The next morning, dripping with perspiration, we squelched our way across the border into Vietnam, crossing the bridge over the Red River, through two sets of customs procedures. It seemed tiresome filling in all the forms and being scrutinised either side, although the border control personnel in each case were professional and pleasant. The process took nearly forty-five minutes and all the time I felt excitement at the thought of a new country to experience, yet at the same time, sad at the thought of leaving China and its beautiful people. A month earlier, I entered China, highly influenced by the conditioning of my childhood and a lifetime of prejudice. I left impressed.

Crossing the Border

Crossing the Border

Eagles on the Rocks

We returned to Dali from Tiger Leaping Gorge and decided to go out for one more rock climb before leaving China for Vietnam. So, full of excitement, we set off the next morning in perfect sunshine with the opportunity of a glorious day’s climb, not expecting any of the little disasters that awaited us.

Before leaving the main township, we required a diversion from our destination; stopping for a brief moment to pick up a package. After a five minute wait, we all dived back into the car, put on our seat belts, and waited eagerly as the key turned in the ignition, but … nothing happened … The car’s battery held no charge.

Katie Rock Climbing in Dali

It took a further hour to find jumper leads and someone willing to jump start us and then … after having to turn around at a road block of bogged vehicles and find another route, Adam, the rock climbing guy from the US, gave us the ‘I think you’re cursed look’, followed by a condescending, or perhaps even a fatalistic shake of his head, but to his credit, he continued to the cliff-face anyway. Despite his concerns, we managed many climbs over the course of the day and we both felt good on the rock. We even made the wild bumpy ride back to town without further incident; feeling terrific about our day’s achievements.

Once back in Dali, we continued to discover more of the amazing little lanes and alleys of the old town; streets that would instantly attract a law suit in Australia, seemed quaint and interesting here. We also found a great little German Bakery called Café 88. Katrina the owner, treated us like a pair of old friends, as we indulged in a cheese platter and some very acceptable Italian red wine! We had almost forgotten what a good red tasted like, after a month of abstinence.

Dali Town

The next day, Katie discovered and participated in a one-on-one calligraphy class, run by a master named Ying; one of those rare individuals who radiate love and gentleness, despite communication difficulties. Together they produced a beautiful scroll that we mailed to Australia to adorn our home.

That afternoon we set out to kayak on ‘Er Hai Lake’, although it took more energy to get the heavy Canadian Kayak into the water and back out again through the swamp, than we could muster for a prolonged paddle. Nonetheless, it felt good being out on the water with the local fisherman and the rather large jumping fish that occasionally thudded into the sides of our craft.

Dali Town

That night we headed back out into the alleys to sample the great variety of dumplings and a hot pot indulgence featuring a wide range of local produce. It seemed like a fitting way to say goodbye to charming Dali; one of the lesser known gems of the world and a place we had come to love. We both felt real sadness watching the town, the lake and the mountains recede from our view and having to leave our friends at Sleepy Fish behind, but because of Visa requirements our time in China was almost at an end. Soon we would be heading across the border to Vietnam.