Our 12 night train from Ha Noi to Sa Pa carried four travel wearied souls with our gear to within a mile of the Chinese border on Thursday after a brief reconnoiter at the Asia Star hotel, our perennial but clean and friendly 1 star accommodation in the old quarter of the city. Andrew Bunting, president of the International Magnolia Society, had flown from Philadelphia via Seoul, Ozzie Johnson had flown from Atlanta via Narita, Scott McMahan from Atlanta via Bangkok and I to Hanoi via San Francisco; miraculously, we had all arrived perfectly in sync.
Rather than burning a day nursing our collective needs to recover, we hurriedly repacked out gear at 7am, consumed a quick breakfast of steamed rice cake and set off to Seomity, a hill tribe settlement of mostly H’mong people. I was curious to check on the status of an old specimen of a rare deciduous conifer, Glyptostrobus pencilis, I had seen here in 2006 during my fourth trip to northern Vietnam.
After a two hour drive over absurdly bad roads, we witnessed the profound sadness of an entire forest gone missing. Adding insult to injury, the clear cut areas ( a process accomplished entirely by axe and brute strength ) had then been used for grazing of water buffalo that had churned the soil and undergrowth into a churn of mud and manure. The Glyptostrobus was long gone, though we found remnant individuals of the beautiful evergreen Magnolia foveolata, a stunning species of maple- Acer heptaphlebium- as well as sensational species within the Laurel family.
An early night and a gratifying good sleep has had me up at 6:00 am refreshed and ready for our first trek into the fantastic mountain range near Ban Koang, an hour’s drive south and east of Sa Pa. Our route will take us up and over a razor back ridge of high peaks following hunter’s tracks rather than proper trails. The surrounding mountains this morning are beautiful cloaked in a shroud of translucent silver gray mist, promising a clear day ahead to witness the mysteries and majesty of the geology, flora and fauna of northern Vietnam. As this is new territory for me, I am excited as well as a wee bit apprehensive; my chronic acrophobia will assuredly be reawakened during the next three days as we labor our way up the steep ridges and back down again the other side; yet the plants that we will see will assuredly assuage any of the irrational fears of open exposed sites that I harbor.