Sunday, February 22, 2009

Vietnam - SAPA and Fan Si Pan

In the northern part of Vietnam, and bordering with China is the province of Lao Cai. And SaPa is the more prominent city of this province with its mountainous landscape with the ethnic tribes still living there. SaPa also means Sand Bank in the local language.

Forming the mountainous region of SaPa is the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, stretching from China Yunnan Highland to Vietnam Hoa Binh Province. And of the various peaks, Fan Si Pan (Fan Xi Pan) standing at 3,143 m is the highest. It is also the highest mountain in Indo-China (comprising Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos).

This is the mountain that we chose to trek after hearing so much about SaPa and the famous steps rice fields.

One ofthe prominent scene in SaPa is the cloud and mist, on the day of our arrival, it was misty and wet, and definitely not ideal for climbing, but the weather turned for the better the following days.

SaPa was discovered by the French (who was the earlier colonial master) in the early 20th Century. Looking for a place to escape from the hot and humid lowland of Vietnam, and at the same time for a quiet resort for the various government officials, soldiers and merchants, SaPa was found to be ideal, and many of the houses that can be seen there possess French architecture design.

There are 54 ethnic groups living in Vietnam, and the majority tribe is the Kinh (Viet) forming about 87% of the total population in Vietnam, but in SaPa, the Hmong forms the majority, follow by the Dao and Tay. At first it was difficult for first timer to differentiate them, till one learns to recognize their costume and headgears.

The Hmong came from Southern China, and the most recent exodus happened only about 100 years ago. Being late comers to the region, they ended up on the hilly sides of the mountain range, but gifted with agriculture skill, they have developed the side of the mountain slopes into steps, so that rice can be grown. In a way, it takes more effort to plant rice, but from the perspective of optimization of land, they have found the ideal solution. Water from the upper steps, flow to the next lower level, and continue until it reaches the stream or valley below.

The Hmong’s costume in particular is recognized by their black dressing and different colours headgears which further break down the Hmong into the Black, Red, White, Green Hmongs. For our trip, we saw mostly the Black Hmong with their typical cylindrical black headgear. The embroidery and pattern on their costumes especially on the sleeves signify different family grouping, and therefore to the Hmong, they can easily tell who is who just by looking at the pattern of the clothing. The black colour that we see is actually deep purple, the dye is derived from the Indigo flower which can be seen in most of the household.
The flower is soaked in water, and for the first 24 hours, the colour produced will be black, and by second day, it will be purple. Indigo and dyeing is so important to this tribe, that most of the time, you can see the Hmongs hands are purple in colour, demonstrating the fact that they have been soaking their hand in the dyes.

From their costumes, these 3 Black Hmong ladies came from the same tribe and apparently from different family, as the pattern on their sleeves are very different.

In this area, the woman folks are extremely hardworking, as they are responsible for looking after their siblings when they are young, and the household when they are married. Beside the rice fields, children, cooking, they also have to weave and with the many tourists into SaPa, selling souvenirs to tourists. How to they multi-tasks, well they have hemps wrapped around their necks, and while waiting for tourists, they will be busied working on the hemps. For some, they will be carrying an infant on their back otherwise a basket backpack which will be filled with goods that they will be selling in the market, or goods that they have purchased! For the manfolks, beside going into the forest to hunt, they may be working in the fields, and of course indulged in the favourite past time of consuming rice wine.

The yonger Hmongs are now more priviledge as they get to attend school. These 2 young Hmong girls have just finished their school, and on their way home.
The typical Hmong's home is usually deprived of fridge, and most foods are usually smoked by being placed just above the fire place.

The display of corns and meats are good indication of the wealth of the family.

Overlooking Sin Chai Village (this will be our starting point of our climb). The prominent building is a primary school.

Long before the advent of electricity, automation was mechanical with the water wheel carrying water and depositing to a special trough where a "see-saw" mechanism is used to pound grain out of its husks.

In the Cat Cat Village where the Black Hmong lives, there are many waterfall and streams. In this case, this beautiful fall is near to their cultural centre.

Our objective for this trip was to climb Fan Si Pan, and there are various routes to climb to the peak, for this trip we have chosen to take 1.5 days to go up, and another 1.5 days to come down.

At 3,143 m, the manifestation of High Altitude Sickness is not pronounce, and Camp 1 was only at 2,200 m which was a comfortable height to rest.
Day 1 – From Xin Chia (Sin Chia) Village to Camp 1
Taking a leisurely stroll, we started at about 09:30 hrs from Sin Chia Village.

A curious glance from a Hmong lady looking after her charge.

In most village, livestock mingled with the population.

We passed a primary school where it so happened that recess was in session, and the children were out at play. Looking at them, and recalling our own, we realized we were very fortunate. These children were attending school with the most basic attire. Looking at a pair of siblings, the younger one was naked from the bottom half, including footwear! We were touched by their sincerity, and managed to share some of our provisions with the children, nuts, raisins, biscuits, chocolate. Though these children lacked in basic needs, they have something that we can see in their eyes, joy and happiness which we rarely see in our own students, with study pressure!

How many of our students have to look after their sibling, and attend school at the same time!

Found this house to be of interest, as it is below the water level of the rice field. One wonders what will happen if the dyke breaks!

Our walk to Camp 1 required us to go through winding roads and tracks.

We passed this river, and saw this rock that has been beautifully carved out by pebbles and water.

The initial track lead us to small villages and abode of the Hmong.

Another primary school in Sin Chai, much smaller than the earlier one. Just one small building.

The tracks took us through bamboo groves, and occasionally we crossed bridges over streams and rivers. In fact, it was a most wonderful walk, though we have on many occasions were required to go up, and then down, to follow by more ups and again down. In many places of the tracks, we come across droppings from the bovine kind, huge and black, and emitting the typical dung smell. We avoided them, and as we climbed higher, these “landmines” markedly diminished.
Along the way, we came across villagers who have been out cutting bamboos, and the only way to bring back the goods, is to bring them back on their shoulders or back.

Zoom our 2nd Guide, also double up as cook. Now what is that KrisFlyer doing there!

Though we were climbing up, there were many downs. And down means more up!

In such windy and cold environment, most plants do not grow very tall, and for flowering plants they tend to hug the ground, like this one.

The track leads to beautiful forest glade.

Final approach to Camp 1

We reached Camp 1 at about 16:30 hr, with plenty of time to settle in. Camp 1 was located in a valley, and this forms a nice channel for the wind to flow through, and if one understand the venture effect, the constriction of the cross sectional area will speed up the wind flow, and this place was really windy, and cold.

Dinner was eaten in the open, which land a nice ambiance with the stars above our head. Our Guides double up as Cook, and occasionally as Porter. We were bless with Zoom, who happened to learn cooking from his father, and was a very good cook beside an assistant guide.

Zoom our guide was going to be getting married at the end of Feb 2009, and in the tradition of the tribal marriage, Zoom’s family will have to give a dowry of

− Vietnam Dong 10,000,000 equivalent to US$750
− 100 litres of Rice Win
− 1 Buffalow or 3 Pigs
− And couple more items
To the family of the Bride.

Day 2 – Camp 1 to the Summit and back

Started our climb at 08:00 hr, this part of the climb was tougher than the 1st day, as there are many places where ascends can only be made with the helps of ladders, and in other places bamboo provided good holding support in order for us to climb up.

Our makeshift kitchen was next to a stream which also double up as our makeshift basin. We have to be careful when we draw our water, otherwise our water will be filled with Colgate taste!

Camp 1 - with the various tentages for us. Now there is that KrisFlyer again. Now SIA really goes places!
For reason which I cannot explain, there were alot of dead trees in Camp 1. Was there fire in the past that killed these trees, or was it the invasion from the North in the eighties. I have no idea.

The journey became more precarious, and the cameraman has no choice but to store the camera, as it was knocking against the rock face.

Fan Si Pan lies on the Hoang Lien Son range, and from the picture it looks like the spine of a serpentine animal, which the people here believe to be that of the dragon. As one approaches the peak, the wind becomes stronger, and bitingly cold. As such, it is always comfortable to walk into the bamboo forest, when the wind is less strong, but there are many places on this trail that simply provides no shelter from the wind, and we simply have to brave through the high gale wind to reach the summit.

Going to the summit, will require us to walk on the ridge. To prevent us from falling over, the Park has build in concrete fence in the shape of bamboo.

The spine of Fan Si Pan

Bamboo grove provides shelter from the strong wind.

Finally the Summit is just there!
We reached the summit at 13:30 hr, and rest here for lunch for about half an hour.

This Steel Pyramid marks the summit.
The summit at 3,143 m was extremely windy, but the views from here were superb. To the north, one can see China, and to the west, it was Laos.

Though we were told it will take 4 hours to reach the summit from Camp 1, we took almost 5.5 hours, and realized that we are going to walk in the dark on our way down! Most of us did not bring our flash light with us, as we believe we can return to Camp 1 before 17:00 hr.

True to our prediction, the sun set early in the February month, and by 17:30 hr, the sun has set. Even in the dark (but not pitch black), the guides and porters have no problem finding their ways and footings to Camp 1. It was during this moment of walking in the dark that we caught whiff of dung smell that somehow smell good news to us, in that we were reaching our Camp.

Thankfully, all 13 of us managed to reach Camp 1 with the last group trailing in at 19:00 hr.

Exhausted but exhilarated with our ascend, we retired to our tents. Looking at the clouds, indeed it was like a sign that said “ZZZZZZZ”.

This night, the wind was extremely strong – it was difficult to sleep, as we struggled to keep the wind out of our tentage. Just as we dozed off at about 01:00 hr, suddenly we were able to see stars! Our tent has been blown away, and with it some of our bags which held our warm clothing. It was going to be a fun night!

By morning, when we surveyed the damage, only 3 tents were left standing, but barely. Couple of 2-man tents have collapsed, and some of our supplies were strewn all over the area. We seek adventure by coming to Fan Si Pan, and gotten more than the adventure to the summit.

Day 3 – Camp 1 to Hoang Lien Son National Park HQ
A 2 hours walk, and again with some ups and downs. Otherwise the walk was pleasant.
Soon we reached the Park HQ where our transport was waiting for us.

After walking to the summit, this portion of the walk is like a "walk in the park".

The end of our walk - the Hoang Lien Son National Park HQ

We have climbed various mountains, and if I have to describe Fan Si Pan, I will have to say that it is a most enjoyable climb as you get to

a. see mountain ranges, the mountain you are climbing is adjacent to other mountains
b. interact with the local tribal people, and appreciate their strength. We were fully geared with warm clothing and footwear, but the local wore their traditional costumes and wore slippers!
c. enjoy the forested areas with bamboo groves, and other fauna
d. have high success of reaching the peak as it is not very high
e. offer enough challenges of slippery, vertical, rocky slopes
f. partaking of hot meal, even up at the summit

But more importantly, the guides and porters are extremely helpful and friendly. We would not have succeed if not for them.