Semolina-Rye Pizza with Shiraz & Honey-Glazed Roast Pumpkin, Goats Cheese, Caramelised Onion and Sage

A Quick Gourmet Pizza Post

Pizzas are one of my favourite meals to cook, whether it’s en masse while hosting friends for the evening, or as a quick dish to tie together assorted leftover ingredients in the fridge into something delicious. There are too many possible combinations of flavours to list them all here, so here’s just one that’s simple, delicious and uses ingredients that are generally lying around the house. It’s a quick recipe, as quick as 30 minutes start to finish if you’re oven’s up to it, and comes with a bottle of pre-matched wine as an added bonus.

Base

Pizza starts and ends, is made or broken, right here. Pile on all the gourmet ingredients you like, a soggy slab of bread will never make a great pizza. You can have a thick base or thin, but just make sure that it’s not soggy. My preference is for a thin, crispy base, so that’s what this one is. This is a quick recipe, with shorter rise times than you might be used to, but they’re just long enough.

For one large base:

  • Mix 3/4C Rye flour, 1/4C Semolina, a teaspoon of dry yeast and half a teaspoon of salt. If you don’t have either, wholemeal flour will do the job, or plain at a pinch, but the flavour suffers.
  • Stir through warm water until the dough is clumping, but not too sticky (quantity depends on so very many things that even using the same flour every time, I always need a different amount of water). Turn your oven on to 50°C.
  • Start kneading. Rye and semolina make for a stiff dough so kneading is hard work, but it only takes a few minutes to start turning elastic. It’ll never stretch as far as a high-gluten dough, but it does become softer and easier to work. You may need to work more water in if it gets too stiff, which is harder than it sounds but works if you just keep kneading the suddenly slippery blob, or more flour if it’s too sticky, which is dead simple-just spread flour on your hands and the kneading surface. When you’re done, roll the dough into a ball.
  • Get some oil on your hands and use them to oil a bowl and coat your ball of dough. Put it in the bowl, turn off your oven and put it in there to rise while you prepare toppings. 10 minutes or so should do it.

Punch down risen dough before kneading.

Pumpkin

Scoop out the seeds, peel it (Don’t waste the peel! Save it for stock powder.) and dice into 1cm cubes. Toss them in some honey, olive oil and a dash of strong red wine (or balsamic vinegar), grind on some salt and pepper, and spread them in a roasting dish. Take the dough out of the oven, punch it down and put it aside. Crank the oven up to 220°C, turn on the grill and put the pumpkin on an upper shelf. If you have a pizza stone, put that on the bottom shelf now. If you don’t have a pizza stone, seriously consider investing in a cheap terracotta floor tile to use for one. They’re only a few dollars from tile suppliers, and sometimes free if they have any chipped/spare ones from a big job. They work just as well at a fraction of the cost.

Depending on how quickly your oven heats, it’ll take the pumpkin ~10 minutes to be ready. Check after a few minutes, and stir them around the dish to stop the tops from burning. Take them out as soon as they’re done (caramelised outside, still slightly firm in the middle). Overcook them and they’ll either burn or turn to mush.

Caramelised Onion

While the pumpkin cooks, finely slice some red onion (brown works almost as well if that’s what you have. Just sprinkle a little brown sugar on them before you add the wine and they’ll be delicious) and start frying it in some butter. Keep the heat down on medium to stop them from burning. Grate/crush in a couple of cloves or garlic after a few minutes. When the onions have started to darken, pour in a few tablespoons of red wine and a dash of honey. Stir it through, caramelising onto the onions and deglazing the pan. It’ll boil down quickly, so you have to work fast. The moment it turns from bubbling wine into a rich caramel on your onions, turn off the heat and get the onions out of the pan into a bowl before they burn.

Assemble the Delicious

Spread some semolina on your benchtop and roll out the pizza base. Keep flipping and turning it to get it even, until you have a firm base a couple of mm thick. If you have a pizza peel, you can prepare the pizza and use that to transfer it onto the stone. If not (like me), I find it easiest to put the stone on my stove top, and assemble the base directly onto it. Either way, spread the caramelised onion and pumpkin, crumble over some cheese (goats cheese or feta are best, but use whatever leftover end of an interesting cheese you have in the fridge) garnish with chopped sage (if you don’t grow sage in your garden, consider putting in a plant. They’re nigh on invincible and fresh is vastly superior to dry) and a twist of pepper. Put the stone back in the oven and wait.

The thin base and the pizza stone mean it cook fast, and the base’ll be ready by the time the cheese starts to melt. Again, it depends on your oven, but mine takes ~5 minutes to cook a thin pizza.

One pizza, ready to eat.

The pizza base should have crisped enough that you can slide it straight onto a board. Now enjoy with the rest of the wine you opened for the onions and pumpkin.

The strong goats cheese needs a full bodied wine that won't be overpowered, while the sweet pumpkin likes something mellow so that the wine isn't bitter in comparison. A smooth shiraz goes perfectly.

The strong goats cheese needs a full bodied wine that won’t be overpowered, while the sweet pumpkin likes something mellow so that the wine isn’t bitter in comparison. A smooth shiraz goes perfectly.

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Hilleberg Jannu

The first time I heard about Hilleberg tents, I was pretty excited. They looked amazing and one of them was just what I wanted for the hike I was planning. This was the description that so caught my eye:

The Jannu is that rarest of combinations – tremendously strong and exceptionally light. The Jannu is our strongest, ultra-lightweight dome tent model, and is in some respects the ultralight version of the Tarra, but with only one entrance. At the same time, it is very much its own creature. For while it is an Ultralight tent, it is nonetheless ideal for harsh, high altitude use, and both exposed and/or above tree line terrain and protected conditions in all seasons and all weathers. Its compact footprint shines in limited-space sites, such as knife-edge ridges and small ledges, and it is very stable, even in high winds. Yet it is also easily light enough for use on long distance trips where low weight is a high priority. The Jannu’s single entrance and vestibule favor lighter weight over absolute comfort, and its dome design gives it exceptional static strength for handling snow loading. As a result, it is a fine choice both for base camp situations, and for mobile adventures, where you pitch your tent every day. -Hilleberg

A midnight photography session captured a frost-covered Jannu by moonlight.

A midnight photography session captured a frost-covered Jannu by moonlight.

Companies are always saying wonderful things about their products though. But my impression when I first set it up was promising. Now, after using it for a three-week bushwalk and on numerous shorter trips in varying conditions, this is what I think about the Jannu.

A Quick Clarification
The Jannu is a four-season tent. This term gets thrown around a lot, and I want to clarify what I take it to mean before we carry on any further. A lot of products titled as four-season gear are intended only for use in late autumn through winter to early spring; they aren’t suitable for summer usage. Anything like that, I’ll call winter gear because it’s less confusing and far more accurate. If a company claims four-season usability for their gear, its performance in hot weather is as important to me as its ability to withstand a storm.

Pitching the Tent
The first thing I noticed when setting up the Jannu was jut how much space it filled. The footprint is surprisingly narrow, given how roomy the tent is, but it is long. I have never been unable to find a space for it, but on several occasions I have found only a single space long enough to fit its full length. Once a suitable site is found, the rest of the setup is pretty simple; one person can pitch the Jannu in about the time it takes another to put some water on to boil. Most of the guy ropes aren’t needed unless you’re expecting a hurricane but the three attached to the vent’s rain cover are an absolute must; the tent won’t ventilate without them (but more on the vent later). The peg-out points on the vestibule have an adjustable strap on them so that you can put the peg wherever you need to, to avoid rocks and tree roots, and then just adjust the strap to suit. This is a simple, elegant design feature that was greatly appreciated, but I couldn’t for the life of me fathom why it hadn’t been used on all the peg-out points. The tent body attaches to the fly with loop and toggles. These toggles are much smaller than are used for attaching the vent and can come undone while pitching the tent, although they’re secure once it’s erected. This has only happened twice in the 30+ times I’ve put the tent up and it was easily spotted then fixed both times.

Strung out to dry the day after a storm. Normally, only a few guy ropes are required.  Photo: Jessica.

Strung out to dry the day after a storm. Normally, only a few guy ropes are required.
Photo: Jessica.

Summer Storm Performance
Two nights up on an exposed plateau with high wind, driving rain, sleet and hail certainly tested this out. No water got into the main tent, only the vestibule. This came from two sources: opening the zip to go in and out of the tent and part of the vestibule sagging slightly. No matter how level the campsite nor how I adjusted the the guy ropes, this sag was always present. The water ingress was minimal but, as the only leaking part of the tent, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to stop it. The Jannu’s wind performance was outstanding; it can be set up each night according to convenience and space, not prevailing wind direction. The advantage of the semi-geodesic design is that it doesn’t matter whether the wind changes direction. During the windiest conditions I have put it through, the inner tent wall barely moved.

Ducking outside for a quick brew during a brief break in the weather. Photo: Jessica.

Ducking outside for a quick brew during a brief break in the weather.
Photo: Jessica.

Winter Storm Performance
In a recent backcountry ski trip, the campsite was buffeted by winds measured at 80km/h, received over 40cm of snow and dropped to a pleasant -6°C overnight. The Jannu had no problems with the wind, and (unlike another tent in the campsite) didn’t need digging out during the night to prevent it from collapsing beneath the snow. It definitely did need digging out later, and I would have been uncomfortable letting much more snow build up on it, but it coped well. Only in the vestibule did the weight of the snow make much difference, where the usual sag partway along the zip had been exacerbated to the point where half the vestibule was unusable.

The Jannu shed enough snow to stay upright overnight, but it was starting to sag by morning.

The Jannu shed enough snow to stay upright overnight, but it was starting to sag by morning.

Sunny Day Performance
I don’t just camp in storms, and have used the Jannu on several warm days. Provided there was a breeze and I had set up the vent, the tent ventilated effectively and there was no condensation beading its surface come morning. In particularly sheltered campsites, it still ventilated and never became uncomfortably warm, but the difference in temperature was certainly noticeable and condensation started to bead the inner tent wall. Only once have I forgotten to peg out and open the vent (rest assured, I won’t forget again!), and it meant waking up to a tent dripping with condensation. When confident that there wouldn’t be any rain on a particularly still, warm night, I left the vent’s rain cover off and enjoyed a pleasant night with no overheating issues or water droplets on my gear come morning. So the vent works provided there is either wind or no chance of rain.

Sheltered from the wind, but not the sun. The Jannu heated fast during this rest day.

Sheltered from the wind, but not the sun. The Jannu heated fast during this rest day.

Comfort
The Jannu is a roomy tent, easily big enough to fit three people (particularly if you consider how small many “two-man” tents actually are) or two people and the full contents of their packs. While spending a day sheltering from the rain, the Jannu was used as a communal space. Four adults could sit up quite comfortably inside it, playing cards while the back of the tent was devoted to preparing lunch. Regardless of the weather outside the tent, it remained a warm, quiet environment inside.

Not really relevant to the tent quality, but it made for a nice morning view.

Not really relevant to the tent quality, but it made for a nice morning view.

Build Quality
There is no doubt that the Hillebergs are well-made tents. The fabric is second to none, somehow being lighter, stronger and more waterproof than that used for other modern tents I’ve looked at. After a 22 night hike, the Jannu looked as fresh and shiny as it had on day one. The lightweight poles are slightly thicker at the joints, the most common failure point on many tent poles. Tent pegs were easily driven into even the hardest packed rocky soil, while also being easily removed come morning thanks to the simple but wonderful addition of a loop of cord to the end of each one.

Jannu Overview
The Jannu’s semi-geodesic design makes for a very stable, reliable tent. It can be set up according to comfort and convenience rather than having to predict what the prevailing wind direction will be. It is (just) light enough to be used by a single person tent, but the spacious inner can easily fit two people and all their gear; however, the vestibule space is of limited use during rain due to sagging.

BBQ Dog—An experience

There were plenty of foods we had looked forward to trying before embarking on our trip through Vietnam and Laos, and many more we’ve discovered along the way. Some have been excellent (Hanoi style bún chả, for example) while others have been underwhelming (I still can’t get into phở, no matter how many times I try it) and still more have been surprising (who could have guessed that the world’s best bread would come from a chain-bakery in Laos?). But of them all, only one can claim the prize of being the most disturbing and memorable eating experience of the trip, and it wasn’t even the one that gave me food poisoning.

Although we’d hoped to try it on a market tour in Hanoi, we still hadn’t tasted dog by the time we reached Da Lat, barely two weeks before our flights back to Australia. Then we went mountain biking with an entertaining and passionate local guide. Hieu “Black Buffalo” lived up to the high expectations of tour guides we’d formed while trekking in Sapa. Chatting about the animal shelter he runs, he mentioned that he’d stopped eating his favourite meat since spending so much time looking after rescued dogs. He seemed to truly regret having given up eating dog, and told us where the best dish of it was to be found in Da Lat. Excited at the one and only recommendation we’d had for somewhere to buy dog this trip, we got him to write the directions and menu items down on a map.

That night, we walked to the obscure side-street he’d labelled, and ran into a problem. Black Buffalo hadn’t eaten dog in five years, and the directions to one of the places where he used to eat it were understandably vague. But we were faced with not one, but two restaurants adorned with pictures of dogs. Worse, our intended destination’s name was split, with half of it appearing in each sign. Which were we to choose? Someone stepped out of one and beckoned us to enter. Our first response, instilled in Hanoi, was to flee and go elsewhere. So we went into the other restaurant. While they didn’t send someone outside to badger us into entering, the entire group sitting inside did burst out laughing as we stepped inside. This response, of descending into uncontrollable laughter upon the entry of a Westerner, is one we’ve encountered a couple of times before and learned to be an indication that our presence is the punchline of a joke and is otherwise unwelcome. But one of them stood, took our hands for slightly too long, and urged us to sit at a table.

Did the recommended "Thịt Cầy Bắc" refer to "Thịt Chó", or "Cầy Tơ Bắc"?

Did the recommended “Thịt Cầy Bắc” refer to “Thịt Chó”, or “Cầy Tơ Bắc”? Unfortunately, it turned out that “Thịt Chó” had been the wrong choice.

A dog leash attached to one table put us in mind of seafood restaurants where patrons tell their waiter which of the fish on display they want to have killed and served to them.

A dog leash attached to one table put us in mind of seafood restaurants where patrons tell their waiter which of the fish on display they want to have killed and served to them.

Instead of offering a menu, the presumed employee then stood awkwardly beside us, well-inside the bounds of our Western sense of personal space and verging on exceeding the customary Vietnamese equivalent. We showed him the recommendations we had written down, which he peered at for a while before pointing at two of the words in the sentences. He declared “Vietnamese” and walked away. Yes, we knew they were written in Vietnamese, thank you. We glanced at each other. Should we leave? But he already seemed to be laying into a few pieces of meat with a cleaver.

Some time later, our server came over and placed a plate before us bearing two leg bones barbecued within an inch of their lives and went to leave. We, wanting to know which dish this was, tried conveying this question through various gestures toward what we had written down, and toward a faded list of dishes on one wall. He eventually pointed at something on the wall, which included two of the words we had showed him and none of the others… So we had dog thigh, as recommended, but cooked a different way and presumably from the wrong restaurant. We shrugged to ourselves as he wandered aimlessly away; at least we were getting to try dog. He soon returned bearing a plate of rice noodles and a bowl of pungent brown stew, its smell nearly strong enough to overwhelm his pervasive trailing odour of rice wine. We asked how much the dishes were, the first request in Vietnamese or English he seemed to understand, and he scrawled the prices on the back of our map. Then he stayed to watch us add noodles and stew to our bowls (this was far from unusual; many Vietnamese have checked that we know how to eat a dish before leaving us to our own devices, for which we’ve been thankful more than once). No sooner was this achieved than we were interrupted by an “Excuse me!” and a blast of eau de rice wine.

“Excuse me!”

We stopped what we were doing, thinking we had done something terribly wrong. “Excuse me!” he repeated, without elaboration. Jess ventured a “yes?” but was shot down with an even louder “Excuse me!” than before. This continued, our responses and questions only eliciting further identical exclamations from him until, perhaps growing tired of it at last, he wandered away. We tried the stew to discover a distinctly funky taste about it. The meat, when nibbled hesitantly, proved tender and nearly tasteless. The broth in which the chunks of dark meat swam was another story. Trying to wash out the taste with a hefty mouthful of noodles, Jess discovered them to be sour, having fermented with age.

Should we leave? Perhaps it would be for the best to abandon our table before matters grew any worse. But we knew we’d end up paying for the meal, rotten or not; nothing is free in Vietnam, not even “free samples”. So we tried the barbecued dog thigh. It tasted like lamb. The texture and size of the bone were wrong, but I could otherwise believe I was eating a leg of spit-roasted lamb. Our teeth tore chunks of flesh from the dog bones in a vain attempt to cover up the taste of noodles. Our oh-so-helpful server returned, surrounded by an even stronger cloud of exhaled rice wine than before, and started talking to us in Vietnamese before looking at us expectantly. “That was Vietnamese,” Jess said shortly, now tiring of his companionship. He nodded, left and returned with two cans of coke for us.

“Our teeth tore chunks of flesh from the dog bones in a vain attempt to cover up the taste of noodles.”

Shaking our heads and saying “no” to the proffered drinks seemed to have no effect. “Beer?”, he asked. Further refusals followed, as they did again when he pointed at the coke cans, asked about beer, pointed at the coke cans, asked about beer… We gave up eventually, ignoring him in the hope that he would do the same. He left and we dug into the bones again. We were determined to finish them and leave as quickly as possible, tired of our server, the sporadic comments and laughter directed at our backs by his companions, and the lingering odour of both stew and noodles.

We stood and went to pay, at which point our server outdid himself. He pointed at each dish, and the prices he’d written down earlier, before trying to convince us that 70 equals 150. Not particularly wanting to pay for rotten food in the first place, we certainly weren’t paying double for it, and refused. So he pointed at a pristine bowl of herbs at the end of the table. Presumably meant to accompany soups, we hadn’t bothered touching them. He said “one hundred fifty” again. So we went through the prices he’d written down, adding forty, fifteen and fifteen. He agreed with the total of “seventy” before telling us it was only “one hundred twenty”. Unfortunately, we didn’t have exact change to just shove into his hands and flee, but he eventually seemed to realise we weren’t going to pass over any money until he charged closed to the price he’d told us. We ended up paying ninety six thousand, figuring the extra twenty six thousand in change he was holding but not handing over was a reasonable price to pay to leave the combined smell of the stew and the rice wine on his breath. Besides, $5.50 Australian was a small price to pay for the most memorable and educational meal of the entire trip. Now we knew not to bother having noodles the next time we ate dog.

Some may challenge me on this point, but I’ll stand by it on two fronts: I’ve never tried any bread nearly so delicious, with such a perfect crust, as the sesame baguettes from Le Banneton in Vientiane, and (more importantly) “World’s Best” is a title as far reaching and impressive as saying “This Building’s Best”. In fact, I’d be more impressed by a sign saying the latter than I am by the many proclaiming the former.

“Crazy” Canyoning in Da Lat

Sitting in Hanoi back at the start of our trip in November, we decided on a few things that we were definitely going to do in Vietnam. We were going to go kayaking in Ha Long Bay, go trekking through the villages and rice terraces around Sapa, ascend to the peak of Phan Xi Păng, attempt to cross the border into China at Lao Cai, eat street food from Hanoi, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh, and go canyoning in Da Lat. The last was particularly important to me, given my—reasonably newfound—passion for the sport. Of course, it was also going to be the most difficult since all our canyoning gear was back in Australia. We were going to have to book a tour.

A few photos from along the way.

There are dozens of canyoning tour companies in Da Lat, all offering much the same trip through the same canyon for a similar price. So we checked reviews to narrow it down, and then visited each to check out their gear. The three top rated companies (when we visited) were Viet Challenge, Passion Tours and Highland Sport Travel. We were instantly taken by Viet Challenge and Highland Sports when we saw them cleaning their shiny new ropes at day’s end. The dirty ropes worn back to the core we’d seen hanging in a few places had had us worried, so it was a relief to see we wouldn’t have to dangle off rope that should have been retired. There wasn’t much to pick between the two companies, and we ended up picking based on which office we were closest to at the time. Highland Sports it was.

A minivan picked us up the next morning, occupied by other tourists, our guide and his assistant. We had “Bruce” Lee, who greeted us all with his call and response catch-cry of “Don’t be lazy. BE CRAZY!” that was repeated throughout the day whenever he felt we needed bolstering up. We pulled over in the same carpark as every other company, where it was a race to don gear and get to a practice slope first. There we learnt the basics of abseiling Vietnamese-style, which was quite unlike the style we were used to back in Australia. We threaded the rope through figure-8 belay devices, held the tail of the rope behind us with one hand, and gripped above the belay device with our free hand. Once set up, we were taught to take great leaps backwards, paying out rope as we went. The bigger the leap, the better.

“Don’t be lazy… BE CRAZY!

Jess and I are used to all our anchors being a little bit untrustworthy (or extremely untrustworthy), and we avoid shock-loading them at all costs. So big dynamic leaps down the wall are definitely out. Likewise, we hold the rope differently, our spare hand kept free to deflect ourselves off rocks and not get pinned between the rope and the wall if we fall. But the technique we were being taught made sense for these companies, where most participants haven’t canyoned before. Everyone’s instinct when falling, hard to overcome, is to grab onto the rope with the spare hand. But grab the piece of rope in a panic and your fingers are going to get jammed inside the belay device. By making sure we were already holding above the belay device, and having us on a backup rope that would take the load off our device if we fell, the guides were dealing with an instinct they didn’t have the time to teach us to overcome.

The worst anchor I've used, on one of my favourite short canyons.

The worst anchor I’ve used, on one of my favourite short canyons.

In spite of the instructions and trying jumping on their bolted anchors, I couldn’t bring myself to follow the advice regarding my left hand. My mind was too full of the image of fingers smeared between a loaded rope and a rockface. This drew more than a few comments from Bruce Lee, who had never seen anyone abseiling one-handed before. Perhaps it wasn’t carefully considered logic that drove the techniques used, rather the techniques the first Da Lat guides had happened to pass on to their successors years earlier.

The method of rigging the figure-8s was also unconventional, seeming even more like one that had been passed on half-remembered. I personally prefer ATCs for abseiling, so wasn’t familiar enough with figure-8s to re-rig mine during the day, but some quick research after we got back had me seriously disturbed. We were using Petzl gear, so I went to the Petzl website for more information, and found a few diagrams showing what to do, and what not to do.

The different ways to rig a top belay. Photo credit: Petzl.The different ways to rig a figure-8 for abseiling. Photo credit: Petzl.

The top rope rig was set up in a manner labelled with a skull and crossbones by Petzl. The abseiling rig was similar to the recommended canyoning rig, except that that’s only meant to work with a double rope. Once again, it seemed likely that someone had taught the Da Lat guides how to hook in to abseil, but had neglected to reinforce how important it was to use two strands of rope. Between the two parallel inadequate systems, we were reasonably safe, but it did mean we couldn’t trust to either abseiler or “backup” alone.

We made for the first abseil, arriving as the first groups of the day were halfway through. We’d made good time to have so few in front of us. Three other groups were coming through that day from our company alone. Dozens would be making their descents of the section, and were already piling up behind us as we started to abseil. It was a clean and simple abseil to get us started, each of us dropping off the end of our rope into the water at the bottom, where a second guide waited to detach us from the backup rope being let out from above by Bruce Lee. The only complication was being stopped halfway down with a call of “Photo!” to get us looking the right way for the camera looking on. Quite unlike the solitary canyoning we’re used to…

Our group posed beneath a waterfall for a photo, giving the one in front of us time move through a waterslide and the second abseil. Instincts born of years on white water were screaming at me not to stand up in the fast-flowing water, but they kick in during most wet canyons so I was used to their screams already. The second abseil was another simple one, complicated by the instructions from Bruce Lee before we started. We were to attempt to cross the 10m rockface through the middle of it in a single jump, landing with 1m to spare before the water. Only one person in our group managed the feat, which proved more challenging than it looked. Two, three or even four jumps were required by most.

Taking a break from abseiling to go watersliding.

The main abseil followed, a 25m waterfall ending in a 3m freefall into a shallow pool at the bottom. It sounded easy, if a little disturbing. Then we were told to take off our shoes and choose socks from a mismatched pile. They would grip better on the slick wet rock than most people’s shoes. Jess and I were wearing barefoot running shoes that stick well to wet rock, but we complied anyway. When in Rome. I walked out to the middle of the waterfall, holding the safety line between the shore and an anchor bolted mid-flow. It was quick to thread the figure-8 and hook into the safety line. My socked feet gripped surprisingly effectively on the slick rock, but I was careful to lean out of the slope as the flow picked up around them. About halfway down, the waterfall turns from steep slop into cliff, the water spraying out from the rock to become a torrent at face-level. I ducked my head into the flow as instructed, eyes half-lidded against the spray. The gradient changed again, became briefly vertical before an overhang. The call, “Let go!” cuut through the roar of the waterfall in Bruce Lee’s charismatic bellow. I glanced down, sure I was more than 3m up from the bottom. But the rope ran out shortly below my hand so it was drop or drop. No choice.

I lay back flat to slow myself quickly in the shallow water, then let go of the rope and braced for impact. Freefall. Despite the thick lifejacket and the preparation, the impact half-winded me as I sank beneath the waterfall’s flow.

Rolling upright to kick off the bottom, I was pleasantly surprised to find I couldn’t reach it. It was far deeper than the 1m pool we’d been told was awaiting us. So it hadn’t been quite that important to lie horizontal, and wind myself by landing on my back… Maybe it wasn’t a pleasant surprise after all. I swam to shore to sit with the other successful abseilers in watching our companions descend behind us. From there, I could see that the rope ended 5m short of the water when tensioned, not the 3m advertised. No wonder the landing had been so solid. Some of our group struggled when faced with that drop, trying to cling to the last few centimetres of rope before falling awkwardly into the water. Then a group from the competing Phat Tyre started down on a parallel rope and the abseiling turned from entertaining to dangerous.

There was only one good line with solid footing and a wide landing, so it was inevitable that there’d be jostling for position whenever two were on the ropes at once. Unfortunately this happened multiple times, the guides at the top of the waterfall perhaps not seeing the chaos that was obvious down below. That wasn’t what was dangerous. Both companies used a backup line to give a top-belay to the abseilers. When the abseilers reached the end of their rope and dropped, the other rope had to be paid out quickly to avoid swinging them into the cliff. Bruce Lee was good at giving us enough slack that we dropped cleanly into the water, but his neighbouring guide wasn’t so cautious. Of the five from the other group that abseiled down while we watched, two were swung into the cliff. One of them got trapped in the recirculating current behind the waterfall, unable to swim free until rope was paid out from above. Another slipped over and let go of the rope. This shouldn’t have been a problem, given the backup rope, but the aforementioned rigging meant he was left in a rapid, only semi-controlled descent until he hit the water.

Gear alone couldn’t make the canyon safe, and it was a relief to see that our chosen company seemed to have been better trained than others we saw, even if their techniques didn’t meet our standards back in Australia. This was particularly important after we’d taken turns to jump off a cliff and reached our final abseil for the day. It was another waterfall, but instead of a nice wide cliff with the flow spread across its full width, this was a narrow slot into which it all funnelled. When I took my turn on the rope, it was hard to suppress a flutter of nerves. This was not the type of abseiling to which I was accustomed. Instead of abseiling down a clean waterfall, or between confining walls of twisted rock, I would be abseiling between confining walls filled with fast flowing water. It flushed clear, pushing people under and away to safety, and there wasn’t that much flow, but I couldn’t help but remember the abseiler we’d watched being pulled back into a waterfall by his safety line. Above all, I wanted to do this abseil without the backup and with my familiar ATC instead. But that wasn’t the way of commercial canyoning.

Jess at the top of the washing machine. Photo courtesy of Highland Sports Travel.My feet left the overhanging clifftop and I dangled briefly in the open air, descending toward the torrent of water that shot into the slot beneath me. My feet were barely above the water. This was it. I had to drop fast and get through the furious water before it could start swinging me into the rock on either side. I slid down into the water, felt it pummelling into my body, and let go of the end of the rope.

I plunged immediately, forced into the depths by the flow. My arm scraped against rock. My back bumped into another. The backup rope tugged at my harness. Was it pulling me up to the surface, or backwards into the waterfall? In the depths, I couldn’t tell.

The water cleared around me and I broke through the surface. How long had it been? Probably only a couple of seconds. But in those confusing tumbling waters, it had felt like much longer.

I swam to the bank and joined the others. We retreated back around to the top of the washing machine, to have lunch around the fire our guides had built. We felt triumphant, like we’d earned the meal, and watched on with experienced eyes as other groups passed our chosen spot to test themselves against washing machine. We were separated only by a few minutes, but those minutes would soon mean a lot to those who followed.

Drones and Dynamite atop Indochina

Having completed an excellent trek through Sapa’s rice terraces and surrounding villages, we still had two spare days of clear weather until our planned day spent cooking a Christmas feast. Coincidentally, and quite conveniently, two days is exactly how long we’d planned to spend trekking up to the peak of Phan Xi Păng (Mt Fansipan), the highest mountain in Indochina. Tourists aren’t allowed to walk up Phan Xi Păng except by booking through a tour company or hiring a local guide. Travelers often post travel plans online, saying they’re going to bribe the trailhead guards, and promise to update everyone on how to do the same afterwards.

Follow-up posts never seem to materialise. A tourist attempting to summit Phan Xi Păng solo, and getting lost along the way, prompted the Vietnamese government to tighten their control of access to the mountain. Given that search and rescue is non-existent here, a local accompanying every group of tourists is the only semblance of safety that can be provided.

We had no intention of pushing our luck with the guards, or the mountain. There was limited information available about the hike, we were trying to ascend the highest peak in the region in winter, and we didn’t have a tent or sleeping gear with us. Guided tours are readily available in Sapa, ranging from large group tours with an array of porters and a trained guide, through to solo or small-group private treks with just a guide and porter. We’d thoroughly enjoyed our experience trekking with a knowledgeable local guide, but couldn’t quite justify booking another private trek. Instead, we booked ourselves onto a group trek with an English-speaking guide, the provided meals and sleeping gear. At least, that’s what we were told when paying $65 for the two of us. The reality turned out to be quite different.

Kenpas. Photo courtesy of Jessica @ Words and Wilds.We rocked up to the desk of the Kenpas outdoor gear shop on the morning of our hike, our daypacks laden with a few unnecessary extras but still lighter by far than what I carry with me on a daywalk in Australia. The first warning sign that all wasn’t as it should be was when our “bus” arrived, a small taxi that could barely fit the two of us and our bags. Our “English-speaking guide” was the man sitting in the passenger seat, the staff at Kenpas assured us. We withheld our questions about the others in our group; we could always just ask the guide. Were we meeting everyone else at the trail head, we wondered as we squeezed into the car. Two minutes into the drive and it was clear that our guide spoke only a few words of English. It seemed more likely he was one of the group’s porters instead of a guide.

Our taxi sped past the base of “Silver Waterfall”, which is actually the not-so-impressive spillway of a hydro scheme, but don’t tell everyone paying for a ticket to take a photo in front of it. We were dropped at Trạm Tôn pass, with no sign of any other hikers.

Welcome to the trail head.

Our porter donned a pack made from woven cane, passed us some bottles of water, and gestured for us to follow. “Where are the others in our group?” we asked. He pointed up at the slopes rising above us. Were we running late? The taxi hadn’t picked us up quite on time, but nothing in Vietnam ever runs to schedule so we’d thought nothing of it. Perhaps it was late enough that everyone else had already started walking. We had to settle for that much of an explanation. He took off without further comment, leaving us to either follow or be left behind. We followed.

Sponsored track markers.Most of the track toward Phan Xi Păng clearly wasn’t maintained, being nothing but a channel worn through the vegetation into the clay below. But it was easy walking, and skirted around the steepest rock faces as it dove into a small valley, skirted along the bank of a river and climbed back out. After some time, a rhythmic noise started intruding on the quiet forest. It grew steadily as we walked until, nearly an hour later, it resolved into a concrete mixer chugging away in the trees near the path.

Workers seemed to be building something, but it was nowhere near the existing track. Was it a new track? We would have asked our porter, but he’d already vanished around the bend ahead of us. Instead we turned our minds back to the conundrum our situation represented. Had there been others on our trip, who had pulled out at the last minute? Was that why we had only a porter and no guide, as had been promised when we booked?

The track emerged into a clearing filled with builders and no sign of our porter. Foundation rings rose from the soil. Chickens ran everywhere. A man carrying a dog by its ears tried to stuff it into a bin. We stared. Everyone around us seemed to think it normal, and made no comment when he eventually let the dog go and it followed him away with tail wagging.

Construction site.

Our porter re-emerged, and offered us a plate of sliced salad, two baguettes and some fruit. “Lunch” he told us, gesturing for us to eat in an A-frame corrugated iron structure. It was stiflingly warm inside, and we weren’t nearly hungry enough by 10am to eat, so we assembled the rolls, bagged them up and stashed them in our packs for later.

From the clearing, the trail grew steeper. Parts of it were my favourite type of walking, using hands to scramble up wet clay banks by grabbing exposed roots. I find scrambling up these far steeper slopes much easier and less tiring than just trudging up a hill. We passed a series of small building sites, each accompanied by a long tarpaulin shelter that housed the workers. Each building site was the same, a square pit being dug deep into the ground. They obviously weren’t building a new track, but our guide around the villages at Sapa had mentioned plans to build a gondola to the peak of Phan Xi Păng. Perhaps these were foundations for its pylons.

We had our lunch when we stopped for a particularly impressive view of the valley below. Kicking myself for leaving my polariser behind, I grew desperate enough to try using my sunglasses as a substitute. They worked well enough to quell my frustration, but not well enough to take good photos of the scenery laid out below us. The valleys were spectacular, overlooking by craggy peaks while a haze slowly filled them beneath our feet. But the skies above were completely clear, and the harsh light didn’t sit well with my camera.

The harsh light also wasn’t sitting well with our doxycycline-dosed UV-sensitive skin. We kept our arms covered with long sleeves, and were in severe danger of over-heating as we set off up a section of exposed ridgeline. The thick pants we’d bought in Sapa, not to mention our merino thermals we’d carried from Australia, were starting to seem like overkill.

We reached camp in the early afternoon: a terraced amphitheater of old tent sites surrounding a new building. By then, it was clear we were the only ones on our hike, and there was no guide ahead of us who we could ask for information. We were shown to a room with a sleeping platform, and given our “good sleeping gear”, which turned out to be a 1mm thick closed cell sleeping mat each, and the lightest weight sleeping bags I had ever seen. The sleeping bags were little more than light cloth sacks with a zip down one side, and certainly didn’t contain any insulation. Maybe we’d be using all that warm clothing after all.

After a few minutes of sitting around, wondering what to do with ourselves, we tracked down our porter in a tarpaulin tent filled with other local guides and porters, a firepit at its centre. With three and a half hours of daylight left, and only a two hour round-trip to the peak, we wanted to make a dash for the summit. Once we managed to convey the message in a mix of English, our bare handful of Vietnamese words, and no small amount of sign language, he seemed happy enough with the prospect. We grabbed water and warm clothes (just in case) and set off.

The day was still warm, but it was clear that the night was going to be cold. Above the campsite at 2800m, large stretches of the path were frozen solid or coated with a thick layer of crushed ice. We passed another construction site (a particularly large pit dug into the bedrock) and saw Phan Xi Păng’s peak for the first time. A valley separated it from us, across which workers were tensioning a 400m long steel cable using a hand winch.

The path followed the path of the cable, with a whole lot more vertical included. It dove down into the valley between the peaks, and rose up a scree slope on the far side. Our porter ushered us through the scree slope, watching above the whole time. I could see why; a barrier presumably meant to protect the path from rockfalls formed a line of twisted broken metal across the slope, with fragments of its posts and mesh caught up in the scree strewn down the slope below.

A continuous line of construction works stretched to a plateau below the peak, where the land had been stripped of vegetation and the bedrock was being smashed apart and carted away. The area looked no wilder than any city building site, and was at odds with the rough track we’d had to walk to get there. We stepped around a drilling rig, stopped to let some workers carry a water tank past us and wove between their various accommodation structures (ranging from tarpaulin shelters to a prefabricated insulated building) to the final stretch up to peak.

The view from the top was spectacular. Craggy mountain peaks emerged from the spreading haze below, that stretched out to merge into the sky without ever becoming a horizon. The golden afternoon light cast its shallow rays across it all, throwing valleys and cliffs into sharp relief on the flanks of each peak.

View from the top of Phan Xi Păng.

Our cameras emerged and worked furiously as we shuffled settings to try to capture what our eyes could see. Unfortunately my eyes were giving some mountains a beautiful clarity by filtering out the reflected light with sunglasses. Once again, I tried taking photos through the lenses with mixed success. The air was still and surprisingly warm, given a forecast that had put it at less than 10°C. We might have stayed there until sunset, trusting in our ability to walk and navigate using headtorches, but our porter became increasingly agitated as the sun dropped. So we took a few final photos and started back down.

The construction site below was still alive with people, although most of the workers seemed to be taking a smoko further from the path than they had been. Without the stream of people bustling past carrying building materials or tools, Jess took the opportunity to take a few photos of the building works. Waiting for her, I stopped to examine the ground where a drill had been boring into the path as we ascended. The drill was gone, and thin wires now emerged from each of a line of holes beneath our feet.

Suddenly, the workers’ distance from the path, and our porter’s agitation, took on a new cast. The path beneath our feet was laced with explosives.

Detonation wires. Photo courtesy of Jessica @ Words and Wilds.

“Jess,” I called, trying to remain calm; surely they wouldn’t detonate it while we were standing there “we might want to keep going.” This provoked little response; and indeed there was still ample sunlight left to reach camp so there seemed little need to hurry.

“Jess,” I called again, noting how few people were still in the area, “You’re standing on explosives.” That caught her attention, and we were soon fleeing down the slope. We were as keen as our porter to get past the scree and on to the stable ground beyond before anyone detonated those charges. The slope hadn’t looked particularly stable as it was.

Someone approached us along the path, laying a cable out behind him. It led to one of the foundation pits, right above the scree slope, now sprouting wires from dozens more holes. Would they wait for us to get clear? Or should we wait and cross the scree slope after they’d detonated the various batches of explosives. Our porter made the decision for us, harrying us on to the precariously balanced (and poorly attached) ladders that led the way down.

We took our time crossing the unstable rock and gravel. The surface shifted alarmingly beneath each step, sending cascades of pebbles tumbling down the slope. We crossed safely though, descending a final ladder held in place with a couple of tack-welds to reach the comparative safety beyond. A shout echoed behind us, and we turned to see someone silhouetted at the top of the ridge. Two minutes later, a distant thump and the sound of tumbling rock signalled the detonation of one batch of explosives.

Explosion's dust cloud. Photo courtesy of Jessica @ Words and Wilds.As we started to ascend toward the opposite peak, a deafening sound pressed into us, felt throughout our bodies. It was slightly painful to the ear despite the distance separating us from its source. We turned and saw a cloud of dust rising from the ridgeline. The scree slope below was alive with a wave of tumbling rocks and gravel.

From there, our walk back to camp was comparatively mundane. No further explosions shook the air. The path beneath our feet was marked only be ice, without a trace of detonation wires to be seen. We had no particular fear for our lives. It was all a bit too tame, really.

Sunset over the camp.

A good dinner.The campsite had filled in our absence, many of the building’s rooms now occupied. Food was served to each group in their respective rooms, so that we were all isolated from the other walkers. A few groups of Vietnamese gathered in the room beside ours, but Westerners all retired to their own cold rooms in silence. And the rooms were cold.

The Vietnamese use insulation and double-glazing almost as rarely as do Australians, and the high-ceilinged building quickly took on a chill air as night descended. We tried wrapping ourselves in the thin sleeping bags for warmth, but heat leaked out through them as easily as it did through the sleeping mats into the air cavity beneath them. Ultimately it would be our thick, daggy pants and merino tops that kept us warm through the night.

Dawn arrived unspectacularly, little colour accompanying it. I packed up the camera and went back inside. We had noodle soup for breakfast, packed our bags and set out for the summit again. Our porter let us head off on our own, seemingly satisfied that we’d be able to find our way there and back without assistance. Plus, if something were to go wrong, there was no shortage of other groups ahead of us.

Just the two of us to set the pace, not wanting to keep our porter waiting too long in camp, we pushed for the peak. Legs still sore from their unaccustomed effort the previous day, we nevertheless passed a few other groups before the summit. The path had moved in places, weaving around a few tumbles of broken rock that it had crossed intact the previous evening. Workers were already laying into the piles to clear the way for the next round of demolition, cutting the foundations of a building through from one side of the mountain to the other.

The view from the top lacked the glorious golden light of the previous evening. Instead, bright sunlight bounced off a blanket of white clouds beneath us. Occasional peaks broke through the cover, islands rising from a white sea. Sitting and taking in the view, we watched a group of researchers from Hanoi launching a drone from the peak. They were looking into deforestation by ethnic villages in the region, although we were fairly sure they were just launching the drone for fun while they were there.

Sea of clouds from Phan Xi Păng.

We waited until they completed its short flight, then returned to camp for the long walk back. We passed lines of porters going the other way, all carrying bags of cement and lengths of reinforcing iron for the construction works at the peak. One thing was for sure, Phan Xi Păng’s peak was going to be unrecognisable to us if we ever returned.

For more photographs and her own tales of travel and adventure, check out Jessicas blog, Word and Wilds.

Laos and the pursuit of happiness

After a month spent exploring Hanoi and northern Vietnam, it was time for us to move on. We could have stayed longer in Sapa, walking to villages and mountains beyond the necessarily easily accessed ones of our short stay, just as we could have spent longer walking, climbing and kayaking around Cat Ba, or exploring the secrets down Hanoi alleyways. We could have stayed, but we’d never been to Southeast Asia before; how would we know the treasures we were neglecting unless we journeyed onwards? Far from a direct route. So, with Sapa’s hidden gems joining the growing list of “next time” trips, we packed our bags and boarded a bus headed for Điện Biên Phủ. A mere 130km separates these two Vietnamese towns, but the road meanders through some 277km of tight bends, high passes and deep valleys that would take our bus 10 hours to traverse.

We were on a good sleeper bus, not quite as luxuriously appointed as the bus from Hanoi to Sapa but the stacked beds promised a half-decent place to sleep, and ten hours sleep would be be more than enough for someone used to cutting back to four when study demands it. Unfortunately I’m accustomed to keeping late evenings, and rising accordingly. Setting off at 7pm, sleep eluded me for many hours as we dodged and swerved our way through the mountains. When it finally arrived, sleep was not destined to be long-lived. The bus had no toilet, and instead made stops at late-night eateries or quiet stretches of road every few hours. Even when more inclined to curl up beneath a blanket, the light and noise of an entire bus disembarking past my head proved ample distraction to disrupt my already broken sleep. I was put in mind of Starship Troopers, the latest book I’d read from NPR’s list of the top 100 Sci Fi & Fantasy novels, and the line “Happiness consists in getting enough sleep. Just that, nothing more.” Right then, I’d have been ecstatic with nothing more or less than a few hours’ solid sleep.

Happiness consists in getting enough sleep. Just that, nothing more.

When we pulled up in Điện Biên Phủ around 5am, I was utterly exhausted, and this was not our destination. We were ushered off the bus and onto a small shuttle bus that (we foolishly believed) was taking us to the nearby border crossing to meet the connecting bus we’d booked. I haven’t had great experiences with buses in Vietnam, and it was telling that only Westerners were boarding this second bus. All the locals, including some we knew to be aimed for the same destination, vanished. They, it turned out, knew the difference between the buses, and not to trust the drivers happy to accept the more expensive ticket on a cheap bus. Our bus was filled behind us as we waited, a solid wall of freight slowly spreading forward from the back row. When it was behind our heads and under our feet, it moved out the windows and spread across the roof. The bus set off at 7am, and stop-started its way between freight pickup points (who knew we still had space?) for an hour until we reached the Vietnam-Laos border 16km away, collected us again on the far side of immigration, and started its delivery run. We were due to arrive in Luang Prabang at 6pm, but that was on the bus we had booked, not the one we’d been loaded onto. This bus took detours, stopping every few kilometres along the already winding indirect road to offload everything from personal parcels to sheets of fibre-cement roofing, replacing them with more cargo bound for destinations vaguely along our route. Sleeping while all this took place around us, and the music blared to keep the drivers awake, was not an option.

At 8pm, about halfway to Luang Prabang, we stopped in a small town for dinner. Our vague plans of exploring the twilit city on arrival had been abandoned and we dug into what turned out to be the best bowl of Phở we’d had so far this trip (strange that it was only after we’d left it’s home country that we found a good example of the dish).We hadn't changed enough Kip at the border to have meat with our Laos pho. There we discovered something about Laos. Kip, the local currency, is worth about 2.5 times the Vietnamese Dong, but ATM fees if you withdraw money and the actual exchange rates you can get put the value at 3 Dong to the Kip. The numbers on menus didn’t reflect this and were the same in Laos as they had been in Vietnam. So everything cost three times as much there as it had in Vietnam (and that wasn’t counting the bribes, which can be sizeable). The bus sped up as it closed on the city, with all the remaining cargo apparently meant for our destination. So it was only 11pm when we were dumped on a random street, far from the bus station, by a driver who refused to point out on our map where we were. We asked another passsenger who’d been left there (a Luang Prabang local), and discovered something else about Laos. They don’t use maps. She was quite capable of using the proffered tablet, but eventually just pointed triumphantly at the name “Luang Prabang” in one corner of the map. Yes, we knew which city we were in. We asked another local at the only shop still open. She, too, used the tablet confidently to scroll and zoom on the map, before declaring “Luang Prabang”. Fortunately, our rambling footsteps soon brought us to a distinctively shaped intersection, enough of a clue to find the suburb in which we’d booked accommodation (they hadn’t been willing to give us more details than that in advance), then a sign pointing toward the guesthouse, and finally to a locked gate that someone thankfully opened soon after we arrived to wheel their motorbike through. Relieved, we collapsed onto something vaguely reminiscent of a mattress. Unfortunately someone had clearly heard that mattresses contain springs, and knew that springs are made of wire. So they had made a grid of widely-spaced wires, covered with a thin sheet. We didn’t even care… much.

Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a great deal of sleep to be had on our wire torture instrument, since it cut off circulation to whichever parts of the body were touching it. So I failed to regain the lost sleep from the bus before the day’s growing heat forced us out of the stuffy room and onto the streets. The streets of Luang Prabang provided an amazing baguette and some godawful coffee that set us to rights, and we started figuring out what we were going to do with ourselves during our short stay. The Royal Palace Museum was our first stop, and proved worthy of the half-day we spent there. Its architecture was as interesting and spectacular as the numerous temples around it but, after looking at several gold- and red-painted buildings, I found that my sleep deprived mind couldn’t really tell them apart. Only one really stood out, atop the small peak of Phou Si rising from the centre of the city. From the narrow terrace surrounding it, we (and every single one of the other few thousand Westerners visiting the city that day) watched the sun setting over Luang Prabang. Despite an entry fee, the temple is crowded come sunset. Photo credit: Jessica@Words and Wilds. The streets below filled with the nightly handicraft markets, and we meandered our way through them upon our return to ground level. A side-alley provided what would turn out to be our sole cheap meal in Laos, where you pay only 15,000 Kip (2 USD) for a large bowl piled full of all the types of dumplings, noodles, rice and vegetable stirfries you can fit. We also, suckered in by the smell, tried a bag of different kinds of marinated BBQ meat, the small handful of them costing more than the huge bowl. Then, exhausted and looking forward to the more mattress-like mattress in the room we’d changed to that morning, we once again tried for some sleep.

Dawn found us long-gone from our room, to join throngs of others trying to be surreptitious while watching the daily alms giving ceremony. This tradition sees the young Buddhist monks from the temples strewn throughout Luang Prabang taking to the streets each morning. There they accept donations of sticky rice and fruit, some of which is shared with poor children as they walk, and the rest of which makes up their meal for the day. We’d read the strict rules posted in every public building, cafe and tourist guide, on how Westerners were to act while viewing the ceremony. So it was painful to watch how a few of those who watched seemed determined to find ways to disrupt what is a highly sacred ritual. A few people with camera flashes, getting their children to offer a donation just out of reach so that the monks would wait, and standing between the alms givers and the monks for a better view, all detracted from what is otherwise a beautifully symbolic ritual. Somewhat subdued, and still sleep-deprived, we spent the rest of the morning (and there was so much of it left after a ritual that finished before dawn) in the UNESCO listed peninsula of Luang Prabang. The afternoon was spent contemplating a toilet bowl as one of the pieces of BBQ meat from the previous evening had its revenge on me. Jess, unafflicted, spent the rest of her New Year’s Eve studying (unlike me and my undergrad summer freedom, she has only a four week holiday, so has to spend some of her days working as we travel from place to place). My stomach settled enough by day’s end to contemplate a bus to Phonsavan for the following morning, but it did not make for a comfortable night’s sleep.

We had to rise early to catch our bus, the kilometres separating us from the bus station not lying along a normal tuk tuk route. But we made it to the bus, and my stomach wasn’t the one that rebelled as we wove our way south. We had heard (without quite believing) that locals in Vietnam and Laos don’t cope well with buses on winding roads. We’d doubted this, since they have nothing but winding roads, and would surely be used to them. But that bus trip confirmed every story we’d heard. Most people had brought a few bags with them, prepared to spend a few hours being constantly sick (although the driver still had to hose down the side of the bus partway along the journey; presumably someone ran out of bags and used the window). After emptying their stomachs, they would spend ten minutes or so hacking up astounding quantities of follow-up phlegm at incredible volumes. What with the noise and wafting smells, there was to be no catching up on sleep as we wended our way to Phonsavan. Instead, I sincerely hoped, I’d be able to have an early night when we arrived. Pretty much on schedule, we pulled into the bus station and got a minivan the last few kilometres into town. My attempt to eat some local food proved in vain, for my stomach nearly rebelled at every mouthful, so I retired to our guesthouse. We had outdone ourselves with the cheapest accommodation yet this trip (Sabaidee Guesthouse), which had a half-decent bed, and I collapsed for the first semi-solid sleep I’d seen since Vietnam. We would have to get up early for a tour the next day, but that was still hours away.

The Plain of Jars is remarkable for remaining a complete mystery, kept that way by a combination of factors. There is a huge disparity between what little is known about the vast stone urns (carved from everything from limestone to granite, and containing fragments of ancient human remains) and the local oral-traditions about them (fired from mixed salt, sand and leather, and used to distill rice wine), which suggests that the civilization that left them behind had no contact with the ancestors of the current occupants. Archaeological examination of the site didn’t occur until a brief study in the 1930s removed every artefact of significance from where they had been preserved from the elements in a nearby cave, and wasn’t followed up until 1994, after a significant event had taken place. The Plain of Jars was heavily bombed by the United States from 1964 to 1973, as part of their campaign to convince the neutral country of Laos that communism was evil and that they should hate the Vietnamese. The highly suspect logic behind the bombings aside, the area now holds the dubious honour of being the most heavily bombed place in the world. Quite apart from damaging many of the jars, it means that most sites are still inaccessible for researchers, since forty years has only seen seven of the ninety sites successfully cleared of the cluster munitions that failed to detonate on impact. Even at Site 1, the most heavily frequented by tourists, there were clear markers showing where to walk. The 127 pieces of UXO cleared from the site came from small areas around each cluster of jars, connected by narrow pathways. The vast majority of the site remains off-limits.

We stayed only a single day in Phonsavan, realising how little time we had left before we were due back in Australia. We caught an overnight bus to Vientiane the same afternoon we explored the Plain of Jars. Two overnight buses left two hours apart. Not wanting to sit in the bus terminal for two hours, we caught the earlier one. Any regained sleep was lost once more. This sleeper bus was not what we’d hoped for, severely lacking when it came to reclined beds and long stretches of restful silence. Instead, it had hard vertical seats, painfully loud music (I do actually worry for my hearing while taking some of these buses) to keep the driver awake, and stopped every 2-3 minutes from Phonsavan to Vientiane to exchange cargo. Pulling into Vientiane’s bus station at 5am, we snuck through a cracked door into a deserted building to try to catch an hour’s nap in the deserted building. Yes, it was gloomy with only a flickering lightbulb in one corridor for illumination. Yes, there was something alive down one corridor, its snarls interspersed with the sound of something heavy being dragged along the floor. Yes, we suspected we’d get robbed, knifed or eaten by zombies. No, we didn’t care. Alas, our sleep was interrupted not by the groaning creature, but by someone switching on the lights two minutes later. On to the city then, and hope we found a bed early.

Wifi, so abundant and unsecured across Vietnam, is rare and encrypted in Vientiane. So we wandered the city (or 5.6km of it, anyway) until we found a cafe with internet to await word from a Couchsurfer we’d arranged to stay with. There, we discovered a form of happiness that wasn’t sleep, but was instead deliciously decadent Western comfort food. Our chosen cafe’s cheapest (and best, in my opinion) food was a baguette, split lengthways and topped with bacon, caramelised onion, roast vegetables, and lashings of grilled cheese. It wasn’t sleep, but melted cheese kept us going through a day of quiet writing. When we heard from our host, we made at once for his workplace, a French bar we’d checked out several hours before it had opened that morning. Chatting with him before the evening rush began, we discovered the horrors of what the French do to their wine in Laos.

Happiness is melted cheese on French bread.

Australian wine ranges from astoundingly good to abominably bad, with only a slight correlation between its price and quality. The Australian wine palette is still developing, and (I had thought) lags behind its French counterpart. The French understand wine. It’s part of their culture. They knew how to serve it. They don’t send bottles of tangy red specially from France to Southeast Asia, store them at 2°C, open them and leave them sitting uncorked for a week while slowly selling them one near-frozen glass at a time. And yet, our expat French bartender served us a glass of icy imported red wine under the supervision of his expat French manager in his French bar aimed at expat Frenchmen. We also tried some of their house red, a South African cask wine rating somewhere below Aussie Sunnyvale (the source of countless adolescent hangovers), that was so cold it hurt my teeth to drink it. Perhaps I’d had the French figured wrong all along.

But if their taste in wine was now under suspicion, it was clear that the expat French living in Vientiane still knew their cheese. Seeing us sitting and drinking wine, one bar patron insisted on sharing some of what turned out to be the standout best camembert I’d ever tasted. Its skin barely stopped the soft, ripe cheese from flowing across the plate. Or maybe that was just the joy of runny cheese again…

From the bar, we made our way to our hosting couchsurfer’s house, a villa that plays constant host to passing tourists in exchange for stories. One such visitor just needed a minute to move some stuff off a spare bed and use the attached shower (rather than one of the house’s other two showers) and we could get our first sleep in two days. Three hours of not-so-subtle hints later, approaching midnight, the lingering happiness of camembert and melted cheese had long-since faded in favour of simmering resentment. Only sleep, when it did finally arrive, could cure all. A fresh day, nearly a week after reaching the country, and we were finally ready to visit Laos.

Patuxai (victory monument). by night.

Trekking Sapa – Villages of the Black H’Mong

Having made our way to Sapa, and with three days of glorious weather predicted, we spent our first day in Sapa planning a trip down into the valley. The information centre1 had a good topo map for sale, better by far than the free ones thrust upon us at various hotels, and we bought one to get a feel for the area and to follow our upcoming trek as it progressed. Trekking around Sapa without a guide is allowed in some areas (although not in most), but the cost of homestays and various valley and village entry fees—not to mention the advantages of having a knowledgeable local guide—meant we were planning to do it with a company. The decision was a better one than we could possibly have known.

Sapa O’Chau is a trekking company, café and ethnic handicraft store. Local guides take tourists around the Black H’Mong and Red Dzao communities that blend modern technology and Western religions with traditional clothes and shamanism. In the evenings, tours retire to homestays that each cook their own versions of the traditional Black H’Mong meals. The proceeds from the company fund a boarding school in Sapa for children from remote Black H’Mong villages, who are otherwise unable to attend school due to the commuting distance or cost. Short- and long-term visiting Westerners volunteer to teach the courses that can’t be taught by locals, in exchange for accommodation in the boarding house and meals prepared by the students.

Black H'Mong weaving and dyes.

We had heard of Sapa O’Chau when I was looking for volunteer teaching positions in Sapa and, ‘though they had no need of short-term teachers while we were planning to be in the area, they still sounded like an organisation worth supporting. As it happened, their three-day trek through the local villages with a private guide was a similar cost to the group trips offered by other companies. We could be both socially-aware and budget-conscious? Perfect. We booked their hardest village trek (with light packs and houses to stay in, we wanted it to be at least a little bit challenging) for the next morning.

We met our guide after breakfast, a woman called Txuv whose house would be our first night’s accommodation, and she sketched out the plan on one of the plentiful photocopied maps that float around town. Not once did our plan take us along a trail marked on the rough map. Checking later, we would find that our route avoided the trails from our own detailed map as well. We set off, soon collecting a pair of trailing handicraft sellers introducing themselves as “hellowhereyoufrom”. They followed us for a kilometre through town before peeling off to be replaced by another pair as we left the streets for a steep muddy track. Perhaps they have assigned territories. Passing another group some time later, we could see that they had two followers of their own.

We passed a tea plantation on the edge of Sapa. Without Txuv to point it out, it would have passed utterly unnoticed, the low shrubs barely visible between the straight trees they neighboured. Sapa soon dwindled below and behind us and Txuv stopped by a bush to pick some of the “pot fruits”, a mildly flavoured fruit eaten by Black H’Mong mothers if they’re not producing enough milk for their newborns. It was the first of many impromptu lessons on local traditional medicines and plants. She showed us herbs used to treat sore feet, the differences between bamboo whose shoots could be eaten and bamboo for construction. Many of the latter, marked by small cuts along their length, had been harvested for silkworm larvae to be fried and so that the bamboo would grow straight.

Debating whether or not to bring boots with us to Vietnam and carry them around for months, we’d both opted to bring pairs at the end of their lives, their tread worn almost smooth. If they were destroyed, lost, stolen or abandoned as too heavy, they wouldn’t be a great loss. This meant we had comfortable, worn-in waterproof boots, but had to be careful of our footing on the steep, wet clay. We rarely followed marked trails and more than once while being led around buffalo on narrow tracks or balancing on the unstable soft clay edges of rice terraces, I felt my heart jump at the feeling of slipping from the slick soles. But carrying our own boots through Vietnam, worn out as they were, was still worthwhile.

Shops resembling outdoor gear stores are rife in Sapa, where you can buy everything you need for a trek. Boots are common, but at a similar price to genuine overpriced gear back in Australia, I would be disinclined to believe that their Goretex labels were any more genuine than those on the pairs of loose-knit gloves or poorly stitched “Deuter” packs beside them. We did have to buy some gear, having both brought good merino tops, but somehow neglecting the accompanying thermal pants. These, it turned out, are not a thing in Vietnam, and we found only two possible substitutes: possibly-wool-but-probably-not-really women’s tights, or thick fleece pants. The latter, at $8 a pair, were the cheapest and warmest cladding for our legs that we could find. Actually, they were the only warm pants we found anywhere in Sapa. They came from the one semi-genuine gear shop (appropriately called “The Real Outdoor Gear Shop”) we found amid all the others on Cầu Mây. Although they sold a lot of the same fake gear as everyone else, they also sold merino thermals, warned us which pieces of gear would actually serve their stated purpose, and rented out thick, warm, waterproof jackets for those attempting to summit Phan Xi Păng, the highest peak in Indochina. We were glad to have the reassuring presence of warm pants in our packs and solid boots on our feet as we walked the winter-bound valley.

Our warm pants turned out to be unnecessary as we sat around the fireplace watching Txuv cook traditional H’Mong meals on our first evening, unnecessary but still comfortable. The various dishes of fried chicken, fried potatoes, stirfries and stewed tomato were all based on the same mixture of garlic, shallots, lemongrass and MSG, with the odd dash of smoked chilli for intense flavour. Herbs, so abundant in Hanoi’s street food, were virtually absent but for the rare sprig of coriander. Lacking the sophistication of the coastal dishes, they were hearty and warming meals from a people long-used to living in the mountains. But for all that the first snow had not yet reached the valley and the rain held off for the whole walk, the meals Txuv prepared and shared with us were exactly what we wanted as the sunny days cooled into chill clear night.

Txuv wasn’t just an excellent cook able to navigate the most obscure of unmapped trails; she also had a wealth of stories that she shared as we walked. They ranged from the purely practical to local legends and folklore. Pausing by a plant with poisonous leaves, she told us the tale that her grandfather had passed on to her. Anyone who ate one of the leaves was sure to die, their soul captured within the plant. There it would remain, trapped until someone else ate a leaf from the same plant. Only then could the trapped soul escape, the new victim’s soul captured in its place. This and many other stories were described as if they’d come from a previous era, one now starting to fade. While shamanism is still practiced extensively among the Black H’Mong, an increasingly large number of the villagers are converting to Christianity. We saw churches in several villages, indiscernible from the other buildings but for the empty space around them not filled with vegetables. A few kilometres off our path was the sole catholic church in the valley. Its stark white steeple stood out clearly against the brown buildings and green bamboo as we walked over the following days, ‘though we never approached it.

The valley was changing all around us, in other ways unnoticed by us and every other tourist present. It was from our guide that we learned about the arrival of electricity into the valley only a few years earlier. Muddy tracks were being paved, horses had vanished in favour of motorbikes and, unnoticed, much of the valley’s forest had vanished. A steady stream of tourists were bringing in money and the villages were expanding from isolated communities into small towns filled with souvenir shops, cafes and bars. The uprooted trees had made way for new rice terraces to support the growing populations. Tourists came for the terraces, and their presence was driving their construction. But was the creation of new rice terraces what tourists wanted to see, or was it for an inner ideal of a people living in equilibrium with their environment?

1 Information centres in Vietnam are not the helpful, free, government-funded services Westerners expect. They are businesses that represent a group of local companies with whom they’ll book tours, but about whom they know next to know nothing. When asked, the large and well-appointed centre in central Sapa couldn’t tell us about the gear or guides provided by different tour companies, and quoted a price 45% higher than the company itself advertised on their door barely 50m away. These centres are useful for general information, inspiration and maps, but take any and all advice they give you with a hefty dose of MSG.

PS. I’ve tried not to wax too lyrical about our guide, ‘though Jess has admitted that she’s happy to do so in my place after their wide-ranging discussions broke all the taboos of conversation (sex, politics and religion all featured heavily).