While en route to SaPa from Ha Giang, the four of us had hastily changed our game plan to finish our time together in Vietnam. Perhaps it was the diversity of what had been seen at higher elevations of the NE combined in equal parts of simply wanting to witness another part of the country; in any event, Scott, Ozzie and Andrew decided to drive with Uoc to examine possible future areas of examination, while it was decided I would hike up the north side of Fan Xi Phan over two days, on a route I had never done previously. I was more than happy to put my boots on again and hit the trail. And while I had seen the NW of the country in 2006 during an extended trip here, I had never seen this side of Vietnam’s highest mountain during my many visits here.
The four of us left our lodgings in the early morning at about the same time. The skies were lucid with no portent of change in the weather. Other than a glitch in translation at the trail head between my guide and myself ( his six words in English vs. my four words in Vietnamese) our porter, he and I were hiking on familiar ground by 8am.
To have said that I had not been this way before on Fan Xi Phan is quite dishonest. In 1999, this was no man’s land with no decipherable trail system; Bleddyn Wynn-Jones and I had wandered these very same slopes, in an erratic fashion. In 2005 and 2006, I had penetrated deeper into the mountain and hiked along the river drainages that abound here. In 2010, Scott, Ozzie and I began at the same trailhead, though we split from the trail at mid day on a more southerly route to the top, in pounding rain. Today, the weather was resplendent and I was buoyant with the hopes of seeing new territory and new plants.
In 2010, we had stopped for lunch fully drenched at what we referred to, at that time, as Camp Dismal. It had been cold and very wet, and we had huddled under a tarp covered structure for a bowl of hot noodles and instant coffee. Today, though warm and with no need to sit inside the hut, there was outside the troubling ordeal of a slaughter of a dog, so I again retreated as far as I could into this redoubt. ( the locals taste for dog tends to zenith during the new moon of October, as this was) For one with an enormous affinity to all things canine, it was not pleasant, however I realize the need to transfer such emotions to another cultural plane. I took the extra moments before we left after lunch to provide affection to two additional dogs on short chains near the camp, and give them the excess from my copious quantities food.
The forests here were remarkable and recognizable. At 7500′, the lower elevation forms of Schefflera hoi ( hardy in the PNW ) were prevalent, as were numerous species of Magnolia, Oaks, Begonia and members of the Ginger Family ( Zingiberidaceae). Camellias, as well as their close relatives, Eurya, Cleyera and Polyspora, were common as were many members of the Erica family; Rhododendron, Gaultheria, Lyonias, Pieris and Vaccinium.
The going got predictably more challenging as we broke away from our 2010 route and began to head up a series of ridges that would take me to the top of the mountain. This is no longer an uncommon route to the top of the ‘Rooftop of Indochina’- in fact, it was the height of trekking season here with too many ill-equipeed, unconditioned tourists that had perhaps been sold on the easiness of the experience by guiding companies eager for the trade. I met up with more than one party hastily retreating due to various and sundry reasons.
As we gained in altitude, towards 9,000′, the plants became increasingly exciting, just as the oxygen began to diminish. Our first large leaved Rhododondron, R. sino-falconeri, became prevalent, with leathery foliage to 12″ in length. One of the hardiest of the Schefflera, S. alpinia, became common, while even denizens of upper altitudes- Streptopus, Maianthemum and Primula, became commonplace. In just over a thousand feet, I had traveled, botanically speaking, from Louisiana to northern British Columbia.
My guide and porter stopped my progress at just over 9,000 feet. The light had diminished, the air had cooled and a new moon rose in the eastern sky. My guide, porter and I shared a wonderful meal prepared by them, of fried spring rolls, chicken, fried morning glory vine and rice; I was satiated and quite cold and was fast asleep in my tent by 7:30pm. A midnight call took me outside of my tent to a hyper-chilled infinity of stars and planets and those streaks and stripes across the sky that had once been stars or planets or will become them again.
By prearrangement, or ostensibly so, I was to be awoken by 5:30 am for a cup of coffee and a quickened push up the final 1400′ to the summit. My wakeup time and light breakfast was lost in translation, as a platter of delicious crepes with honey and banana in sufficient quantity to feed a sizeable Russian assault force was brought to my tent in darkness.
Only Zin, our porter, and I set off for the peak, leaving our camp at 6:45 am, leaving behind my guide. Though I was irritated to have been leaving later than I had anticipated, had I been hiking with my headlight only, I would have missed much of the very truncated bands of numerous species that quickly came and departed along the route. Short stops were made to observe superb specimens of Rhodoendron, Lindera and Schefflera. Especially exciting, a species of a bold foliaged Senecio were observed along the way towards the top and one that I feel deserves greater trial.
We lingered only shortly at the peak; the weather and views were splendid however I had eight hours of hiking ahead of me, over an hour’s drive to my accommodation, and hours of extricating the collections from my bags and applying accurate collection data. In truth, I believe I irritated my guide and porter by my pace down slope, who were collectively relieved when I saw a plant that deserved greater inspection, allowing them a breather from the pace. How gratifying it is to make someone more youthful than one’s self actually feel resentment…. Yet, I knew the work ahead and our imminent departure from SaPa the following evening for the night train to Ha Noi.
With stars and moons, lovely souls and a fantastic intact flora, this will remain in my memory one of the best hikes I have experienced during my numerous trips to northern Vietnam. Andrew, Scott and Ozzie, bone shaken and dust covered from roads and new hydro projects under construction that had imploded their efforts to get to elevation, and I reconnoitered the following morning to share our collective experiences.
Our eyes were upon our departure the following evening, and fully realizing precisely how much work we had to accomplish before our farewell to this remarkable country.