After our adventures in Hà Giang, the next morning we made the 6-hour drive to Sa Pa town in Lao Cai province. I was returning to familiar territory here though this country is so vast there is always something new to discover. As before we lodged with Uoc in his Mountaineer Hotel for the duration of our stay here. We settled in, relaxed and began preparing kit for our planned 2-day trek to Ngu Chi Son or as we say in English ,Five Finger Mountain, at 2858m a stiff enough proposition.
Up at 0530 for some final adjustments to the packing, the trick is to travel light but not to omit essentials and then a lovely Asian breakfast with some excellent coffee to fortify me for the trail conditions. The ascent was a full day trek, botanising and climbing along the way as there was a plethora of plants to enjoy. The diversity was huge and again our shared pool of knowledge was severely challenged. However, I am confident that we all learned lots from each other, not least the value of the conservation work we were engaged in. However the trek was very challenging for every one of us, a very tough climb, walking through Luculia and Hypericum flowers at the lower levels, before entering the forest. It was reminiscent of Kells Bay as the mist descended around us. Thankfully we had 5 porters carrying enough food for a couple of days. The weather was excellent for hiking, cool, dry, and overcast. Sadly, the recurrent buzz of chainsaw in the distance was a reminder of the different values placed on our arboreal heritage. We also heard several rock-breaking explosions. Even in the far reaches, the pace of change is accelerating rapidly.
I stopped to take some photos of a Brassaiopsis dumicola with Thanh beside me. Suddenly he started shouting excitedly at me. I had no idea what the problem was until he pointed to it. Directly in front of me, only inches away on the Brassaiopsis tree, was a snake. What a beautiful animal, and I was extremely grateful it wasn’t hungry! A privileged encounter and I’m sure the snake was happy to meet me too. Eventually, after almost 8 hours of unrelenting difficult and at times dangerous climbing, we reached our destination. As you see from the photos, the rewards such as the tranquility, the views, the plants, and the feeling of contentment are close at hand and tangible. Unfortunately, the nagging feeling that our species disregard for the environment will shorten its lifespan is a recurring thought. But let no one fool you, these treks though hugely rewarding, are at the same time extremely physically challenging and dangerous. We were fortunate to avoid the rains on our walks, as this immediately greatly increases the risk.
A great evening was had around a Vietnamese hot pot in our hut. The 2 live chickens which had accompanied us on the ascent would only had one-way tickets. As the chicken legs were used as stock I became vegetarian for that night. The local corn wine, along with some beers were recommended by the resident sommelier to wash down the hot pot. With fourteen people squeezed into a small hut, a sense of accomplishment after our climb, and full bellies a very convivial evening was had with a sharing of stories across cultures and much mutual apprecdiation. Then we repaired to bed. Goodnight John-boy. It wasn’t quite the Waltons with 14 of us competing for very limited space.. Not much of a sleep for me, the snoring, the snoring, did I mention the snoring!!!
But on the starriest of starry nights, it was a rare privilege to be sleeping on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, far from civilisation.
Plant of the day – Brassaiopsis dumicola
Snake of the day! Trimeresurus jerdonii, a very rare snake, commonly as Jerdon’s pitviper, the yellow-speckled pit viper, is a species of venomous snake. Identified by Prof. Truong in IEBR, Hà Nội.
Early to rise as always, I was thankful that the coffee pot was brewing nicely! Beautiful to sit, surrounded by nature watching sunrise stealing slowly over the mountains. After the obligatory noodle soup, and the packing we were back on the road. As always the descent, just as hard on the bodyfame and potentially more dangerous, is a lot quicker than the ascent. There was also less time spent botanising, as we had spotted most of the plants along the climb the previous day.
Plant of the day – Daphniphyllum longipetiola
Our last day trekking in Sa Pa was to see the Aesculus wangii (horse-chestnut) in its threatened habitat. After 2 hours of a wild goose chase through hillsides of Cardamom plantings we saw nothing and insisted to our guide that we turn back. We eventually arrived back to the roadside and there were a small number of this endangered tree to be seen! They are being felled by the cardamom farmers at an alarming rate to allow further expansion of their cash crop.
Plant of the day – Aesculus wangii (it had to be!)
A short distance,17km from Sa Pa at 2,200m is the Sapa Glass Bridge. As tourist attractions go it is quite impressive though much of the structure is in poor condition and a bit shabby. It is obviously a large project that became financially challenged. The main attraction is the glass walkway, hundreds of feet high emerging from the sheer face of a cliff, you enter a tunnel through rock before getting a lift up to the Glass Bridge. If is funny to watch as everyone, and I mean everyone is scared when walking on clear glass with a vertical drop of hundreds of feet directly below. There is a great natural forest to the back of the Glass Bridge, very rich in mature trees, Schefflera, Magnolia, Daphniphyllum, Quercus, Acer etc. I spent a few hours botanising here before returning to the lift back down.
Plant of the day: Schefflera hoi and Magnolia sapaensis
At 3,147 metres, Fansipan the highest mountain in the Indochinese Peninsula, is a must do if in Sa Pa. As I was a bit pressed for time, I didn’t go up it this trip, but having climbed it 3 times I would highly recommend it. On my first time here in 2014, I climbed it over an amazing 3 day / 2-night trek. Now there is a 15-minute cable car to the top so depending on your joy of nature or love of trekking perhaps the best option is to take the cable car up and walk down. N.B. It is still a long full day trek, and do not do it alone, make sure to have a guide with you. The weather in and around Sa Pa is extremely unpredictable, the mists can descend at any time and visibility is only a few metres. If possible don’t do Fansipan in bad weather. All the walks in the surrounding mountains are recommended, but please remember they are challenging, and the locals will assume you are up to the challenge.
On our return to Hà Nội we stayed in a nice hotel at the edge of the Old Quarter in the French Quarter. I found this to be the perfect place to stay without the mayhem of the Old Quarter but just beside it for walks. We were joined by Peter Zale of Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. He is another veteran of many plant trips in the region. We had our goodbye dinner in Lục Thủy Restaurant beside the Hoàn Kiếm Lake, and from there we went our various ways.