No mountain high enough

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Young, short porters from an ethnic H'Mong community in the rugged mountains of Sa Pa prepare the necessities, including food, water, and luggage of their customers, in papooses, for a hike to the top of the 3,143-meter tall Fansipan, Indochina's highest mountain

Today Cheo A Linh, 17, a short porter from an ethnic H'Mong community in the rugged mountains of Sa Pa, has only one customer.

However, the sack on his back weighs 15 kilograms, including food and water for the pair's trip to the top of the 3,143-meter tall Fansipan, Indochina's highest mountain, located in this remote part of the northwestern province of Lao Cai. A Linh is also carrying his luggage, as well as that of Binh, his customer.

A Linh is taking the shortest and easiest path to the roof of Indochina, which begins at Tram Ton Village some 1,900 meters into the clouds. It's already raining hard and strong winds are making the hike all the more difficult.

The rocks along the mountain look like thousands of roofs creeping in zigzag fashion from the valleys below to the horizon. The rivers below are filled with spring water as clear as crystal and everything has the earthy, fresh scent of fallen leaves.

Suddenly, a shout from nowhere startles Binh, who is busy at taking picture. The sound came from A Linh, who reaches behind his back as fast as possible to snatch his falling backpack. A strap just broke.

A Linh struggles with his footing on the slope and then tumbles to the ground. Years of experience carrying up to 40-kilogram bags to the Fansipan summit kick in and he grabs a handful of root to stop himself from sliding off the edge of the path.

A Linh says that unlike other porters, he pursues this hard, dangerous job not for money, but for his love for the forest and the clear springs here. He loves not only hiking, but also cooking and camping in the woods, and is also adept at first aid. He quickly fixes his backpack, and moves on.

The higher the two travelers climb, the fewer big trees there are. The porter, who earns around VND100,000-150,000 (US$4-7) per day, doesn't rest at the rest stops he gives Binh: instead he crawls around the bushes looking for wild mushrooms to enrich the dinner menu, which already includes rice, beef, bamboo shoots and vegetable.

Once it's time for dinner, A Linh washes the dishes and vegetables in a fresh nearby spring.

Two young ethnic H'Mong porters carrying luggage sometimes weighing as much as 20-50 kilograms

Though Binh is lying inside the tent with a thick blanket covering him from head to toe, A Linh is much more used to the cold weather.

While Binh tosses and turns all night, A Linh lies outside on a large rock, and covers his body with a piece of raincoat so that the dew doesn't get him.

A Linh confesses the next day that this is probably his last journey to the top of Fansipan.

"This job never provides enough to feed my family, and it is dangerous," he says. "God, did I lose my life here?"

The income from doing such risky job is little, but there are many teenage porters wandering around Sa Pa looking for customers who want to conquer the top of Fansipan.

Hang A Lu, a 16-year-old H'Mong porter, who together with his older brothers has worked as a porter for years, described his work simply: "Exhausting."

A Lu, whose shoulders are callous and black due to the strings of jute tightened against his skin from carrying heavy bags, remembers one trip he had to make alone while escorting a group of tourists from Hanoi.

It was dark when the group reached the height of 2,800 meters; however, a member of the group had stomachache after eating wild bamboo shoots. A Lu crossed the forest alone with a flashlight to buy medicine at the foot of the mountain.

"I was so scared during that trip at night alone due to the steep and slippery slope, I fell down several times," said A Lu, who like other local porters, has to travel alone in advance of his customers to prepare food and resting places for them. If a group's rice ever runs out on a trip, porters like A Lu must give up their rice portion to the customers and eat only instant noodles.

There's also another porter named A Lu, but much older - he looks older than his age of 48 after more than 10 years working here with his two elder sons, A Gianh and A Cho, as tour guides and porters. Lu said a porter's income is only VND2 million ($95) per month as they can only take a few trips to Fansipan every month.

"Porters are easily worn out if their customers are slow," said Lu. "When we have to wait for them to take a rest, the waiting soon makes us feel tired in the legs and shoulders, therefore, most porters who are assigned to walk behind a large group are the strongest and most experienced ones."

"The porters are required to be willing to carry not only the luggage, but also their customers on their backs - up and down the mountain - if the customers get too exhausted," added Lu.

Lu says the job can be thankless when travelers disrespect the porters.

"But we are used to it and take it as part of our job."

However, other customers offer porters like Lu their own food, and break the unwritten rule of not inviting porters to eat with the tour groups.

 "We really appreciate it when our customers understand our job."

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