“Happy Birthday to you, Lily!” says a message that pops onto my cell phone screen while jogging in Putrajaya on a beautiful Saturday morning. Not sure who it was, I pressed the button to check it out. To my surprise, the name that appeared on the phone was- KHOO SWEE CHIOW. For those who don’t know, Swee Chiow is a well-known adventurer, author and motivational speaker whom can be read about from many Google searches. He is the first South East Asian person and the fourth person in the world to complete The Explorers Grand Slam, which is a trek that reaches the South Pole, the North Pole and the Seven Summits. I was stunned for a few minutes and thought about how to respond to this great man.
I had a short moment of flash back of how we first met in the Fire & Ice Restaurant in Kathmandu, Nepal. I was introduced by one of my trekking friends to this tall man with the conversation going something like this, “Lily is the captain of our Langtang trekking trip…” I felt so ashamed of being introduced in this way, and felt so nervous at the fact that I was to sit in front of him. Trekking and mountaineering is a different game altogether. There are many words such as “expedition”, “camp 1, 2, 3” and these are just too big for me. Fortunately, Mr Khoo is gentle enough to lead us into some mountain topics, after he had ordered a cup of his favourite ice cream for dessert.
And same with the situation now, I am equally caught up with the way to respond to Mr Khoo. Shall I just say “thank you” and leave the conversation as that or continue to chat with him as if I blend into his world. I eventually decided to let it flow naturally. After some conversation, I started to ask Mr. Khoo about the mountains which were fit for my level. And off he went as we started to talk about the Fansipan Mountain, situated in Vietnam.
Train from Hanoi to Sapa
Fansipan Mountain, is the highest mountain in the area and is dubbed as “the Roof of Indochina” (Indochina – comprising of Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia) at 3,143m in height. This trip consists of 13 members from Singapore, Malaysia & Thailand. I do not know any of them, but decided to catch the last train together with my girlfriend, Pink.It is a 3D2N trek, therefore the itinerary is quite simple in a way:-
- Day 1. Hanoi – Lao Cai by overnight train arriving in Hanoi. Transfer to train station for 8.30pm departure to Lao Cai;
- Day 2. Sapa (2,800m)–On arrival at Lao Cai at 4.30am, transfer to Sapa for breakfast. After breakfast, 30-minute drive to start of trail. 3-4 hours of hiking to campsite at 2,200m for lunch. After lunch, continue 3 hours towards the 2nd campsite. Arrive at the 2,800m campsite in the late afternoon. Relax and enjoy dinner;
- Day 3. 2,800m – Summit – 2,200m –After breakfast, climb 3-4 hours to the summit (3,143m). Enjoy the view. Return to campsite for lunch. After lunch, pack and descend to the 2200m campsite;
- Day 4. 2,200m – Sin Chai – Sapa – After breakfast, trek to trailhead for lunch. After lunch, transfer back to Sapa. Hot shower at the café. Transfer to Lao Cai train station. Dinner at Sapa at a restaurant nearby the train station. Train departure 7.30pm;
- Day 5. Arrive in Hanoi, depart for home Arrival in Hanoi Railway Station at 4.30am. Transfer to airport.
Night train enjoying chatting in the cabin
The first day when we reached Hanoi, we were so excited, and could not wait to meet other team mates and to tell others about ourselves, as before this, we only talk to each other via a WhatsApp’s chatroom. It was fun, I must admit. Members are nice despite the fact that we are from different backgrounds and different countries. Of course, we spent our half day in Hanoi for a winter walk, and ate some local food as our dinner. After that, we were rushing to the train station to catch the midnight train to Lao Cai (a town located on the border with Yunnan, China).
The terrain of Fansipan Mountain is rugged, wet, moist and cold, and our shoes were filled with mud. It took us 3-4 hours to trek through the jungles and across many landscapes to reach the first campsite at a height of 2,200m for lunch. I was so happy to see the triangle hut structure, that I once saw from the internet. After lunch, we were required to continue the trek towards the second campsite for approximately 3 hours. There was a lot of undulation in the terrains and some sections required us to do scrambling or climbing. The main flora found were bamboo, which showed that the botanical spread is quite different from our local forest in Malaysia.
Lunch at Campsite I with the Triangle Structure behind as a landmark
Despite crossing the mountain from one side to another, walking up and down, down and up, we were quite happy with the natural view, especially the sunset scenery. It somehow reminded me of the popular movie about Vietnam – “Heaven & Earth”, showing how a Vietnamese girl survives her life of suffering and hardship during and after the Vietnam War. All of my impressions of Vietnam’s people, background, and culture was learned from this movie. While recalling, I never realised we had reached the second campsite at 2,800m. Awaiting us at this campsite, was a newly built big triangle wooden hut, we were pleased that at least we did not need to do outdoor camping on that cold winter night. Due to exhaustion, no one was in the mood to take a shower, but were enjoying ourselves with the local food as our dinner. This is how we spent our first night at the campsite.
During the night, it was extremely cold until a few male members couldn’t continue their sleep and decided to wake up; female members were squeezed together to share body heat from each other; dogs were barking outside to ask for our kindness in letting them into our room too. We had underestimated the coldness at this height level. And a week after our trek, we read from the news that there was a heavy snow storm on the Fansipan Mountain! The lesson learned was – never under estimate a mountain no matter how high or how low is it.
Feeding a doggy when we reached Campsite II
The second morning after having a simple breakfast, we got ourselves ready to climb for 3-4 hours to the summit. To me, it is annoying to start the climb before warming up our bodies and minds in the early morning. I am not sure about the rest of the members, perhaps they were excited with the summit, but I rather choose to walk last, or rather not to walk at all. Oh yes, these were my emotions kicking in. ha! ha!
Frost on the leaves due to Winter
To climb to the summit, it is not a simple mathematic calculation of 3,143m (summit figure) minus 2,800m (campsite figure) equals the remainder figure of 343m for us to accomplish. I started to worry when after ascending for a while, we started to walk down and down until we reach the bottom of the valley. Oh my God, we need to climb up again to another mountain with a height equivalent to what we just descended; in order to reach the peak. Now I understand why some of the website comments said that we should be in good shape to complete all of these steep terrains. It was upsetting that we had to let go of our past efforts that morning! Knowing nothing else we could do, I calmed myself down and started to enjoy this strenuous climbing. There are many beautiful things to see along the climb – the frost on the leaves and the ice on the trail due to the cold weather the night before.
The forest is damaged making way for the construction of a cable car
While climbing with internal dialogue to myself, I was stopped by my members in front as we are having difficulties crossing a slope that is damaged due to the construction of a cable car. Big rocks may fall from uphill anytime we were told. Mr Khoo was standing there, and he asked me in a calm voice, “Lily, is this the part where you mentioned about the cable car project?” in a rush crossing the slope, I answered, “yes, this is the place.” And continue my ascending climb. A few months later, I read from Mr Khoo’s Facebook that this place was a forest last year,now it has been damaged due to making way for the development. In sadness, he decided this will be his last trek to Fansipan Mountain.
Everyone made it to the top
Not long after this crossing, we had finally reached the highest peak of Fansipan Mountain at 3,143m.a.s.l “Wuhooo!!!!!” Despite strong wind on top, and the fact that we were so tired, we were excited to take as many photos as possible on the top of the highest peak of the Indochina mountains. All of us made it, which is the best part. Everyone laughed while making their victory face, and we enjoyed the stunning view with good weather very much. Mr Yeo is the most excited one amongst the rest, and he took loads of photos together with his son, another small Yeo, beside the peak monument for so long, until I pushed him away for my turn to take my own individual victory shot. We were proud of Rita as she finally reached the summit despite that she has suffered from Acute Mountain Sickness. After an hour, it was time to descend, and return to the campsite for lunch, no matter if we wanted to or not.
The memory of the trek is always blurred and hardly can be recalled, I can only remember with reluctance to the part when we packed and descended to another 2,200m campsite after lunch. Along descending, we purposely slowed down our steps to admire the round shaped mountains, until we reached the campsite. At night, we were lucky enough to have Uncle Hoong play the harmonica to pass our night with some entertainment. This night indeed was relaxing as we all had accomplished our mission. Surrounding the firewood, under the sky, full of twinkling stars, we enjoyed our bad jokes with Dr Khoo, Caddie, and basically everyone, except for Dr Fred who unfortunately suffered from a stomach upset. Before we went into the tent, we were scouted out by Mr Phang to go to an opened toilet in the dark.
Final Group Photo taken with “Dare To Dream” Team and the local Guide &Porter
The fourth day, I shall consider it as the last day. After breakfast, we trekked down to the trailhead for a group photo before we ended the trip. The intention of joining this Fansipan trekking trip was never about the challenge or about the figure competition. My pure intention was to get to know more people and open myself up. Fortunately, I have met a group of humble seniors. They are successful leaders in their respective industry, yet they are humble in sharing their experiences around. “Humility is the true key to success. Humility halts the arrogance and self-indulging trap. Humble people share the credit and wealth, remaining focused and hungry to continue the journey of success.” – Rick Pitino. Even today, we still keep in touch with each other. I am thankful, and want to give cheers to Phan Xi Păng!
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