Don’t you just love it when you get paid to go to the mountains for work? Well that’s how I managed to end up visiting the Hoang Lien Mountains (or Tokinese Alps) in Lao Cai Province over the weekend in the northwest tip of Vietnam.
I recently accepted a consultancy to write up the lessons learned from a disaster risk management project in this mountainous province. So I had to go to the area and see the hazard maps used and early warning systems installed to predict the landslides and flash-floods that occur within this area.
Though Lao Cai is 380 kilometres from Hanoi where I live, getting there was relatively easy. From Vietnam’s capital, it was a comfortable nine hour overnight train ride to the provincial capital, a journey I easily slept through. Arriving at 6am at Lao Cai train station, we then climbed for 45 minutes on the road to Sapa, the gateway town to this stunning mountain range. The steep road ascent allowed stunning views over steep valleys dotted with village homesteads. Terraced fields on the near vertical hills permit the people to cultivate this land as well as providing photographical opportunities galore for weekend warrior visitors like me.
Arriving in Sapa, this former French colonial hill station, it is the local people that are the most striking. The mountains are home to Vietnam’s ethnic minorities tribes such as the H’mon, the Dzao and Gia. The women in particular are experts at embroidery, and their distinctive black clothing is adorned with intricate patterns and motifs that they have painstakingly hand sewn. They are also much shorter than the average Vietnamese, making little old me at 5 foot 4 feel like a comparative giant in their midst.
Work started early at 7 am the next day, so I had to get up at 5.30 am to get any sort of run in. Due to Hanoi’s floodplain flatness, it has been months since I’ve had any decent hill run. So I wanted to make the most of the surrounding Sapa landscape and its surrounding and inviting slopes. With few maps or road signs available, I eventually manage to work out that there was a small park called Ham Rong on the mountain right beside the hotel. The park houses the ominous radio tower that sprawls its signal over Sapa. So I decide to do a quick run up and down to the tower and take in the views whilst I am there.
After less than 100 metres of running up the concrete stepped path leading to Ham Rong Park, I come across a set of barriers and a long list of park instructions. The important bits to read are that the park has an entrance fee of 30,000 Vietnamese Dong (just less than 2 US Dollars) and that it opens at 6 am. It is now only 5.50 am, so I have 10 minutes to wait and do some stretches before the warden will arrive.
At the stroke of 6 am, there was still no one at the park gate. This is a highly unusual happening given the propensity for Vietnamese to be up at 5 am and for their usually determined punctuality. I notice that the barrier is open in sections and so easy to sidle through. But the park rules explicitly say that I had to have a ticket or else “there would be serious consequences for tourists”. But I have to run, shower, and pack, all before 7 am. I have to no choice but to illegally enter the park.
Ham Rong Park turns out to be more than a path winding its way to the radio tower peak. The path brings me past pretty gardens, pleasant cafes, childhood playgrounds, and ethnic model villages, all beautifully kept in a pristinely Vietnamese way. But I am more impressed by what I see in the distance, the mountains of Sapa soaring out of the morning mist just as the Asian red sun rises.
The summit is far closer than I expect. It takes me less than 15 minutes to get to the top, making me regret not going farther afield for my run, perhaps towards Cat Cat Waterfall or Ta Phin Village. But it is better to be early back from my run than late, especially when I had work to do. Also, I don’t want to linger too long in case I get caught without a ticket and face some of those “serious consequences”.
With Sapa just an overnight train ride away, it is definitely a destination I will re-visit for a more leisurely break. And what with those mountains housing Vietnam’s highest peak, Fanispan at 3143 metres, there’s all the more reason to return to properly explore this remote, scenic, high-altitude area.