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We did not visit Vietnam on this trip, but we had already spent 3 weeks in this country in 2000. What follows is a letter sent home after climbing Fan Si Pan near SaPa. I'd like to think I am a lot tougher now.

We are now staying in a wonderful French colonial hotel in SaPa. The hotel is really amazing and leaves you wanting nothing. We feel that we have earned this measure of luxury after our grueling four day trek up Fan Si Pan - more of that later.

SaPa is a magical village right on the edge of civilization . It is surrounded by majestic mountains, half hidden in a veil of constantly changing mist. Brilliant rays of sunlight protrude from the skyline, lighting up selected peaks and cliffs. A short 30 minute walk down the road has one at one of the the 15 or more minority tribes that subsistance farm in this area. The hills are cut away with tiny rice paddies, and streams used to mill rice.

We arrived on the night train from Hanoi on Thursday. The train journey really started us feeling part of Vietnam as their was no concessions made for Western tastes. We shared a hot sleeper cabin with 4 locals and had a hard bench on which to lay. None-the-less we feel the 10 hour journey to be well worth it, however I am not looking forward to the return journey tonight.

On the day we arrived in SaPa we booked our trek (guide, cook and porters) for the climb u p Fan Si Pan. We chose the most expensive company as they managed to instill in us a sense of confidence. We would later be glad we paid the premium.

Friday we started the trek with a little trepidation (if we had known what was ahead of us it would have been out-right fear). We also felt a little embarrassed at the number of people we had supporting just the two of us - one guide, one cook and three porters. Once we were half an hour out of SaPa, and truly in the Rain Forest did the climb begin. The entire rest of that day blurs into pumping hearts and hoarse lungs. For the first time it dawned on us that this wasn't a hill we were walking but a mountain we were climbing! A little rain latter that day slowed us, forcing us to make camp early. Regardless of the tough day we were in high spirits and tucked into the magnificent meal and rice wine presented by our cook. It was amazing what he could cook over a wood fire. On the first night we had chips (hand made, then and there), chicken soup, rice and port stir fry.

Having had a good night sleep in our tent we woke with some enthusiasm and a little hope that perhaps the worst was behind. Unfortunately this was not he case and the climb steepened. we struggled on at a slower pace, as our bodies ran out of energy reserves. Any view of the country side below, that may have diverted our attention from our burning thighs, was obscured by the jungle or cold clouds that swept over us. We camped that night and I was feeling slightly peaky. We washed in the stream and I realised that I was running a fever. Feeling rotten, I ate little and went straight to bed (figuratively).

The next day I informed our guide of my condition and that I didn't think I would make the summit and that I thought we should descend. This was not to be as we were at the point of no return - where it would take longer to turn back than to summit and descend a different route. What was more, it had just started to rain. My choices were to continue with the aid of dubious quantities of painkillers, stay another night (however, our guide informed me that the camp would not survive a downpour) or be helicoptered our (stetchering wasn't an option as the jungles was too thick. With a heavy heart I felt the decision to soldier on had been made for me.

What followed had to be one of the toughest and most miserable day of my life. For three hours, though rain, soaking wet, we bulldozed our way through the undergrowth. The last hour up we had to force our way through young bamboo, which pushed us backwards. I had to stop every twenty meters for breath. every step hut as our trusty boots went up to their heals in sucking mud, and still the rain came. As we forced foot after foot up, what appeared to be a never ending slope, our burning muscles over heated, and as soon as we stopped the rain and the mist froze us, making us shiver.

Sometime after midday we summitted, clearing the cursed bamboo at last, our exhaustion nearly canceling the exhilaration we should have felt. We stopped there to eat some biscuits until the sweeping clouds (which obscured the view of China and Vietnam we should have had) started our teath chattering. We started our descent and the rain came harder than ever. Out boots, which had done so well till then, started to leak. Four hours we descended, slipping and hammering our legs down into the quagmire. Lunch was an apple as it was impossible to stop for any time. Barbara had to give her jumper to one of the porters who was shivering uncontrollably at this stage.

We spent the night desperately trying to dry our clothes over the little fire our porters managed to light. Luckily I seemed to have broken through the my fever during the day and felt well enough to enjoy diner, which was great despite the appalling conditions. The rain kept up for the night and our tent was unable to keep all the water out, so we spent a damp night, sleeping in akward positions.

The next day was fabulous, the sun shone and we got fantastic views as we descended. By two o'clock in the afternoon we had made it to a remote village and we caught a motorbike (myself, Barbara, our luggage and a driver on the one) back to SaPa. We were due to take the night train back to Hanoi that night but we were feeling too broken and decided to stay the night in somewhere nice, which is how we ended up staying in this place.

Anyway I think I'll go have a swim and then maybe some freshly baked pasteries. Easy to tell this is an ex-French colony rather than a British one, as the food is great.

Pictures - click to enlarge