—The Short Version—
Last week, Daniel and I were invited for a six-person hike from the town Sa Pa to the village Ta Phin. I looked it up on the map. The route seemed to take us on an easy two-hour walk into the valley on a mostly paved road.
We came prepared for that hike: sneakers, shorts, a heavy backpack stocked for an overnight stay. But we went on a different hike instead. Same destination, yet on this route we had a mountain to cross.
The taxi drove us out of town and dropped us in the middle of nowhere. We began to climb. Mud and buffalo shit hindered us from the start, whether we used a walking stick or not. Should we turn around? No, we wouldn’t give up that easily, even though it worried me that according to my map, we had achieved only a third of the track after three hours.
The view was amazing at the top. We all agreed. So we paused for a well-deserved late picnic lunch with gin tonics. Not too long, of course, because we saw the clouds moving in and knew that three hours from now, it would be pitch dark.
The descent was relaxed at first, perhaps due to the gin tonics. We talked about music and life until it began to rain. The already slippery mud turned evil. We fell on our butts, against rocks, into bramble. We fell and slid down a slope. Sometimes, when we saw the person in front of us tumble, we simply sat down and tried to control our glide. Believe it or not, we kept laughing.
Inevitably, fatigue set in. Our muscles became harder to manage. We trusted our steps less and less, yet had to keep going. Whoever stood still for too long fell prey to leeches that were quick to crawl up a shoe and latch onto your flesh.
Darkness came next. One of us was a local who could walk without falling, a super power we all admired. She was literally our shining light. With an umbrella in one hand and her phone in the other, she guided us down the mountain.
We kept falling, of course. Light doesn’t improve balance. But we broke no bones. We barely broke skin. And we kept our heads unharmed.
As if rain, mud, fatigue, shit, leeches, darkness, and bruises weren’t enough, we encountered several stray dogs along the way. They were keen on attacking us, and we saw no other way but to intimidate them with our walking sticks raised in the air.
How did we survive? Had there been snakes or spiders hiding in the mud, and Vietnam is known to have many, we would have likely been lost. As it happened, we reached the village about two hours after darkness fell and found our way to the homestay, where the family had waited for us with dinner prepared on the table. Chicken and rice wine never tasted better.
I was in awe that night of the power with which my legs had carried me. I felt like a marathon runner beat up by thugs. But my body had not abandoned me when I had needed it most. Triumph replaced fear. Sleepless in the dark, I cheered for life.
P.S. I’m working on a longer version that will deal with the psychology of this experience. How and why did we walk into danger?