Constructing the Roof of Indochina

The roof of Indochina – the last foothill of the Himalayas before the ocean and the highest peak of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – is a construction site.

Construction atop Fansipan, close

By the time you read these words, these images from Christmas Eve of 2014 will be almost irrelevant. The speed of change and the appetite for construction in Vietnam are both relentless, and the results are palpable alterations to the landscape.

This is particularly interesting in these northern mountains of the country, where travellers seek the rice terraces and traditional arts of a minority peoples who do not even consider themselves Vietnamese. Cultivating the land to an altitude of around 2,200 meters are the ethnic minorities the lowland Vietnamese generically call ‘Meo’ – savages – and above them looms the bulk of Hua Xi Pan: “giant protruding rock”. Phan Xi Phan (in Vietnamese), and Anglicised as Fansipan, does indeed protrude mightily above a horizon-wide ocean of cloud, and her pelt bristles with activity. The Vietnamese government is building up this mountain the world’s longest three-wire cable car, able to carry 2,000 people an hour: the same number of visitors that Fansipan saw over the entirety of 2013. The UK Rough Guide’s Magazine has named this area one of the nine new tourist attractions of 2015 in response to this massive change in accessibility, and work on the cable car furiously progresses towards opening by Vietnamese National Day in September.

At the base of the mountain, only the morning previous, we two Australians know nothing of this. We’ve heard rumour of a cable car, but hadn’t really considered it much, being more concerned with picking the balance between being exploited by the locals in paying too much for a guide, and exploiting the locals by paying too little. There was once a time when people were allowed to trek Fansipan without a guide at all, but when a student was lost in poor weather this was curtailed. Information about the hike is scarce on the web and non-existent at the local Sapa Information Centre, and all we knew was that we needed to pay entry for Hoang Lien Son National Park, and that our map did not show most of the trails in the area. Since refusing to support local people by hiring a guide seemed unnecessary, and guiding ourselves seemed a logistical and rebellious challenge, we were willing to part with US$65 each for the two day hike.

So it was that we met our guide for Fansipan, a Black H’Mong man by the name of Zee. A local to the area… is about all we knew about him, although his grin was broad and his pace was good, so we happily dogged his trail when he amiably said “up.” We’d read horror stories of this trek all over the Internet: bone-aching fatigue, impassable tracks, altitude sickness, terrible cold. Being winter, the tourist hub of Sapa – a relic of French colonisation, all crumbling mansions of the once-resort and modern hotels thrown up for modern tourism in between – had been cold itself, and sitting at 1500m we could only fear the chill of the peak at 3,143 metres. It turned out that buying supplementary gear in Sapa was easy, what with every second shop front selling North Face, Gore-Tex, Thinsulate, sometimes with all three brands on the same knitted item. Further searching led us to the appropriately named “Real Outdoor Gear Shop,” which stocked equipment with labels on the correct item, but also cost what you would expect for real outdoor gear. Happily burdened with an extra pair of thick wool thermal pants, we congratulated ourselves on bringing our own worn hiking boots (a strong recommendation), and mentally prepared ourselves for the worst the mountain could throw at us.

Fansipan morning panorama

As it turned out, the trek is actually relatively straightforward. A single track unwinds itself up from Tram Ton Pass (1,900 metres), itself reached by taxi or bus, and the hike begins by pleasantly meandering through rainforest as it ascends. It was at the lunch stop at 2,200 metres that we first began to get an idea of the extent of the construction. This lunch stop was in the midst of transforming from a single shelter to a complex of buildings, and half-built walls and abandoned cables filled the dirt clearing between the trees. The ubiquitous dog of Vietnam, sharing a common ancestor and appearance with the dingo, was already here too, in the form of two half-grown pups following the construction workers around the site.

More forest followed on from this stop. The Vietnamese tourists prefer to visit during February to March, when the flowers of the mountain are in bloom, although the weather is less predictable and often clouded in. Australian tourists such as ourselves tended to visit over our Christmas break, the time of year most free from the heavy rains that plague Fansipan, and on this occasion we were indeed blessed with a warm and clear day. To our surprise, this turned into an almost too-warm day when we emerged onto the ridge, and our path took us through the head high bamboo forest along the ridgeline. Some minor scrambling across roots and rocks was the only serious hurdle, and suddenly we found ourselves at the camp at 2,800 metres, with several hours of daylight left.

Amiable Zee sighed when we pointed in the direction of Fansipan peak, but softened it with a grin before leading us up from the camp to the summit. We passed a generator humming at a deafening tone and intermittently spluttering diesel onto the path, and then a camp made of tarps and a crackling fire, tended by a waving worker. Our ascent was interrupted by a saddle that we needed to cross, and here we truly saw the cable car construction in progress. Teams on either side of the saddle were in the process of hoisting up a cable across the divide, dragging in the slack of a chain as we passed them. Patches of ice from a snowfall almost forgotten by the mountain made the shadow of the saddle trickier, but this was a confident path in comparison with crossing a section of scree. Explosions from the construction obviously regularly sent waves of debris cascading down the slope, and flimsy fence barriers put up to separate this threat from the tourists crossing the slope had bowed and bent under the onslaught of boulders, providing no comfort to us, let alone protection. We crossed this scree slope as quickly as possible, and found a pit at the top full of workers breaking up the rock bed. This construction work increased ever more as we gained further height, until we were standing in the middle of the building site, wheelbarrows and pipes and jackhammers chasing each other across the path. Temporary tarps were giving way to more permanent lodgings, with flags flapping and men washing their heads in buckets of water giving a sense that this site was truly lived in. As suddenly as we had come across this mass of buildings, workers and civilisation it ended, and we were alone for the final ascent to the summit.

With the sun bathing down late afternoon light, we stood on the rocky peak of The Roof of Indochina. Below us spread the foothills of the Himalayas, blanketed with rainforest and the first tendrils of fog. From here the sounds and sights of the construction were so removed that we could almost forget them – until Zee indicated that it was time to return. Wanting photos of this liminal state of the mountain, I paused in the midst of the working site, examining through my lens the change wrought upon this corner of the world. That is, until I was interrupted by my partner Nick, who – with a great deal of calm – informed me that I was standing across wired explosives. Removing the camera from my eye, I realised that the workers had removed all their equipment, leaving in its stead trails of wires leading to charged explosives, and were waiting for us to pass before detonating. To confirm this, Zee more insistently indicated we continue our downward progress, and we followed eagerly.

At the pit atop the scree slope we saw the same scene, with one worker unravelling wires across the bedrock as we came into view. As we passed from it, we heard him yell back upwards, meaning that our safe passage was ensured not by radio communications but by words literally thrown to the wind. Scrambling down the scree slope, we’d barely cleared the snow at the base of the shadow when we heard the first explosion.

“That wasn’t so impressive,” I mused to Nick as we continued up the far side of the saddle, climbing ladders of uncertain age or origin, and even more uncertain safety. Then the second detonation from above the scree slope boomed massively into a show of echoing explosions and flying dirt, and I retracted my comment.

Sunset panorama

We arrived back into camp as the sun finished setting, and were shuffled into our room by Zee. This building was evidently a new installment, being a large shelter divided into separate sleeping rooms, though it seemed to lack insulation completely, and half the toilets were already blocked and fermenting their human waste. Zee joined the other guides in their tarpaulin-covered shelter to make our dinner, a typical mountain fare of rice served with tofu, chicken sections and fried and boiled vegetables. The sleeping bags that we’d been given would have been laughable if we hadn’t been forced to use them, and as it was we recorded their flimsiness with a photo of our headlight shining straight through the poor excuse for padding before we curled up for sleep.

Hours later, it seemed that we must have survived the night, for we were awoken by the sounds of the other groups being fed breakfast. Our own was nowhere to be seen, but then, it was pre-dawn, and so we set to rolling up the foam mats while we waited. These mats had achieved a careful balance between being so thin that they disintegrated, and holding together enough to pretend that they were performing the function of keeping us above the sleeping pallet. The other groups by this point were leaving the hut and heading towards the summit. When Zee did emerge at dawn, he seemed surprised when we pointed up towards Fansipan, and worriedly asked, “You go, me… stay?” We assured him that we’d be fine on our own, and he seemed relieved, so after a wolfed-down breakfast of broth we started up after the other groups, an hour since the last one had left. The return trip had taken us over three hours the previous evening, but fuelled by the fear that without a guide we might be literally blown off the mountain we thrashed our unwilling legs to catch the other groups. We collapsed at the crowded summit with relief, and after taking a moment of respite we admired the very different morning vista.

Instead of a horizon of mountains, we had an ocean of cloud, with the peaks rising above the impenetrable white as islands. As on the previous evening, it gave the impression of being at a remove from the rest of the world, separated by this unnavigable ocean that marked the boundary between urbanisation and wilderness. Of course, this impression was entirely false, for even The Roof of Indochina is being roped into the progress of the twenty-first century. The Vietnamese newspapers proudly announce the superlatives: this is the first three-wire cable car system in Asia, it uses the longest, highest and most complex three-wire cables in the world, and it spans the seven kilometres from Sapa to the highest peak in Vietnam and all the Indochinese peninsula.

While cable car plans for Mount Wellington in Hobart have been fought tooth and nail for decades, here in Vietnam many people are pleased with the sense of progress.We’ve noticed this unselfconscious desire to dress up or sell everything earlier in our trip, with figures of Confucius lit by neon lights, and markets purporting to sell local handicrafts riddled with cheaper Chinese imports. To Western tastes, this undercuts the authenticity of the items, whose very authenticity is the ostensible appeal. Yet to the Communist Vietnamese, who reverently take off their shoes to enter places of worship before snapping a selfie before a statue, business is a proud and necessary part of life. Their prayers consistently call for prosperity and good fortune, and talk of the future is intrinsically tied to good business.

For many of the local ethnic minorities, the cable car is simply irrelevant. Ms Dzung from Sapa O’Chau (a charitable trekking and schooling group set up for and by Black H’Mong people) said that not only are most of these people disconnected by education and even language from the developments of the mountain, but that they are more concerned with making sure they have enough food every day. Although she sees the cable car as an opportunity for some entrepreneurial locals to challenge themselves in catering for the growing tourist market, by far and large these people are subsistence farmers, and their concerns are too caught up in that to bother much about what happens on Fansipan.

Other people, however, are concerned with the cable car. Bird watchers and biologists, both domestic and international, have raised concerns about doing irreparable damage to what is not only Vietnam’s most biologically diverse region, but one that is fragile and already threatened by deforestation. Pointing to the literal changes in topography caused by such heavy development, as well as the increase in tourist numbers when the trip is changed from a two or three day trek to a fifteen minute ride, Vietnam Bird News concludes that cable cars have their place in places other than Fansipan. Similarly, another trekking company called Sapa Sisters fears that this development appeals to a different sort of tourist than the current market, and that littering will inevitably result from the change. “In the end it could lead to more responsible travellers, who are searching for more genuine experiences, to get ‘scared away,’” says Ylva Landoff Lindberg, the organiser at Sapa Sisters.

But change is already here, and the ocean of cloud separating this mountain from the rest of the world is dissipating. For better or worse, the cable car is being constructed on Fansipan. Yet, in that post-dawn moment, laughing with some university students from Hanoi who are flying their quadcopter from the peak, I wonder whether this place could ever lose its magic. The world is shrinking, but The Roof of Indochina remains a special place, the last giant protruding rock of the Himalayas before the sea.

Moving supplies up the cable

Originally published on the Wild Magazine website, 1 April 2015.

For more photos, see my Flickr album.


2 thoughts on “Constructing the Roof of Indochina

  1. Excellent work, Jessica! You’re a great writer. Funny anecdotes about the sleeping bag, and interesting cultural observations about progress. I’m obviously in the “better places for a cable car” camp.

    Isn’t it Ironic that places like Hobart and Squamish protest cable cars, when places like this have a lot more to lose? (I expect it will obliterate the current local trekking industry, and I don’t know if bus loads of tourists cabling to the top are actually going to spend more in total)

    P.S. Do you earn money from such articles, or just write for fun?

    • Thanks Mike! I write for the pleasure of writing something other than my PhD – it makes both writing better to vary my style. Having said that, I’m getting an article about climate change/Aussie ski industry/Tasmanian ski resorts published in Wild magazine soon, so that’ll be pretty awesome.

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