HCM City-based photographer Ngo Tran Hai An has a passion for backpacking trips. His footprints have fallen upon every nook and cranny in the country. He was the first traveller to trek to the highest border landmark in Viet Nam and Ta Chi Nhu Mountain in the northern province of Yen Bai. Duong Mai Thanh spoke with An about his backpacking experiences.
Inner Sanctum: Do you remember your first backpacking trips? Was it your intention or just by accident to travel by backpack?
The first trip was made after I failed my college examination. I felt pressure from my family and I escaped to my uncle's house in Nha Trang City in the central province of Khanh Hoa.
I stayed there two months and tramped across every corner there. I began to develop feelings of being a backpacker.
In 2001, I joined a group of new friends and we started a journey from the ancient town of Hoi An in the central province of Quang Nam. We hitchhiked, travelling to Sa Pa in the northern province of Lao Cai.
I was very impressed by this trip because of the unexpected situations. When we hitchhiked across Hai Van Pass we did not know that the taxi driver and his assistant were drug addicts. At midnight, they mainlined drugs and we were so scared. We dared not sleep. Thank God nothing happened to us.
Anyway, the trip inspired me with its imposing landscapes at the northwest of the country. I wanted to discover this area by backpacking. But I thought I lacked knowledge about the northwestern area, and about backpacking, as well.
To prepare for trips to the northwest area I spent seven years backpacking, to discover different places in the Central Highlands, as well as the central and southern provinces, which were much closer than the northwest.
Inner Sanctum: You spent about 14 years going to destinations that are remote and the highest in Viet Nam, what experience could you offer new backpackers?
The biggest thing is to ensure your safety. I see many young backpackers who are not well prepared. It is necessary to study about destinations through the Internet and meet people who have gone there and seek information.
Also, it is not a waste of money to buy special-in-use clothing, because it is very dangerous to be without warm clothes in winter.
The most important is what to know by yourself. Normally, when going to new destinations that are very unique, backpackers should have GPS, be followed by local people and keep in touch with family.
I know many backpackers who became lost in forests or in mountains, and they were rescued by local residents.
Inner Sanctum: What do you get from the trips ?
At the beginning, I wanted to view beautiful landscapes throughout the whole country. But now, I think these trips make me more mature and more confident. Going to the northwest, I meet people who are strange, but very kind, offering me free accommodation. They offer me a lesson about life. It is really meaningful for my personal growth.
Not only myself, but almost all backpackers turn into different people who are more open and selfless. We are ready to help others and are interested in charity work.
Now, I'm firm and steady when overcoming hazardous circumstances.
Inner Sanctum: What has backpacking meant to you ?
Frankly, I know the word "backpacking" thanks to my joining tourism forums on the Internet. For many people, backpacking means adventures with danger to unique destinations. But for me, backpacking is setting up a trip to discover new places in my own way. Backpacking trips help me have more experiences, get to know the world and to learn how to listen and share.
Inner Sanctum: Why did you want to conquer the four poles and one peak in Viet Nam ?
It is interesting to know that almost all backpackers dream to conquer these places. I was not the exception. I created a plan to turn the dream into something real. I reached Mount Fansipan - the peak of three countries in former Indochina, comprising Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range.
Step by step I went to the four poles of Viet Nam.
The west pole in A Pa Chai, Dien Bien Province is a unique location. It is located right at the border T-junction of three countries: Viet Nam - Laos - China. So if you stand there and scream, three countries can hear you.
Inner Sanctum: Have you ever had to be rescued because you were in danger?
Last Lunar New Year, I went to the real north pole of Viet Nam. Everybody says Lung Cu in Ha Giang Province is the north pole, but it is not. From Lung Cu and going straight to the north about 1,7km, the north pole is in the middle of the Nho Que River.
I asked permission from the border guards while I was going there. But we were lost. We had to slide on the grass because there was no other way. Then we lost each other. Luckily, one of us had a GPS handphone and he called the border guards.
The trip to Border Marker 42 in Pa Ve Su Commune, Lai Chau Province's Muong Te District - the second highest point in the country -- is also the most remarkable. To get there it took four days. I and the border guards had to cross ice-cold streams, trek in freezing temperatures and brave steep slopes.
There was no marked trail or path, but that didn't stop us from walking through the forest.
Our steps seemed to get slower and slower as we crawled up the seemingly endless slope. After four days and three nights, we reached the border marker, a sacred place where soldiers keep watch over the nation's sovereignty.
Inner Sanctum: What valuable lessons have you learned from these trips ?
I remember mostly the trip to Muong Te in the northern province of Lai Chau. While we were driving up the mountain the car ran out of petrol. We met an ethnic person who was driving. He gestured to us, but we did not understand. We were afraid that he wanted to refill our car and ask us for a lot of money.
After communicating with gestures for a while, he refilled our car and we could go. We offered him money, but he wouldn't take it.
In that case, we behaved as city people and thought that everything should be paid with money. We learned a life lesson from that man.
Inner Sanctum: Did you find your love and your work as a photographer thanks to your backpacking hobby?
I met my love by chance in 2008. She was fragile before she met and loved me. But she became my good fellow-traveller. As a teacher, she is transmitting not only knowledge, but also practical experiences that she receives from backpacking trips to her students. — VNS