When initial planning for this expedition started the aim was to provide cadets with the environment to develop personal and team skills and to take them out of their “comfort zone”. With the emphasis being on Adventure Training one of the goals would be the reaching the top of Mount Fansipan (3143m), the highest mountain in Indo-China.. The A/T activities would be mentally and physically challenging and, combined with the experience of visiting a totally different country and culture, would hopefully create life changing experiences for all.
So it was on 15th October 2014 the team of cadets and staff from 2391 (Parkstone) Squadron ATC set off on what was to be an extremely varied and energetic expedition to Vietnam.
After a long flight, the team arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and hit the ground running. With the obligatory visits to the Re-Unification Hall and museums giving the Vietnamese view of the “American War” taking up most of our first day in Vietnam we were all ready to head out into the Mekong Delta for the start of our more strenuous activities.
Our next two days were spent joining the locals canoeing and cycling around the Mekong, visiting floating markets and crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war. The tunnels proved that the Vietnamese, while being small in stature, are extremely fit with our team unable to keep up with them and suffering for trying.
Five days in South Vietnam and it was time to move to the North and prepare for the more strenuous part of the expedition. We were met at the airport by our interpreter and guide who had arranged for us to visit the Mausoleum and also the home of the founder of modern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh.
To get to the highest mountain in Indo-China, Mount Fansipan in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, requires an overnight adventure on an old French railway system from Hanoi to Lao Cai and then bus ride to Sa Pa, an old French colonial town near the base of the mountain. The town of Sa Pa lies at an altitude of about 1500 meters (4921 feet) above sea level and is a perfect base to acclimatise before the three day trek up Fansipan.
When the time came for the ascent of “the mountain” there was some trepidation amongst the team as only two of the members had been on this sort of trip before. As the sun came up the team headed out of Sa Pa to meet up with our mountain guide and porters carrying all of our food, cooking facilities and camping equipment.
The start of the climb was fairly easy and by lunchtime we were at 2200m having moved through streams and rivers, over extremely large boulders and through tropical bamboo forests. We had another 500m to climb by nightfall so it was only a short stop. As the team were becoming more acclimatised to the altitude we were able to move fairly quickly on the easier sections of the route but unfortunately sections of the route were becoming more difficult and then it started to rain! With the light failing fast we were just able to make the 2900m camp site before total darkness. Everyone was cold and wet but all had plenty of dry clothing and after a very substantial meal everyone was in bed and asleep before 2000hrs.
Next morning we were up at daylight and after breakfast were ready for the final ascent to the summit. With only 350m to climb we were hoping for a less strenuous climb than the day before. Unfortunately an hour into the climb we were hit by the remnants of a typhoon that had hit South East Asia the previous week and suddenly we were in monsoon weather. The track became flooded and the mud deeper. After a quick assessment of the conditions underfoot it was decided that unless conditions got any worse we would attempt the last short distance to the top. We made it!
Unfortunately the peak was in the clouds and visibility was minimal so we quickly took some team photos and headed back down. With two of the cadets suffering from mild AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) we had to be very careful on the descent and superb teamwork kicked in with everyone making that extra effort to make sure everyone was safe.
We arrived back at the next overnight stop at 2800m as darkness descended. Time to change into our last dry clothes, check out the casualties (all okay) and then another early night; all in bed by 1930hrs.
Next morning we were given the option of the hard or easy route! We took the easy route wondering afterwards how difficult the other route may have been, and finding out later that we were right to get down the way we did as the weather deteriorated again. We arrived back in Sa Pa just after lunchtime and all headed for hot showers and warm drinks feeling highly elated that we had completed the ascent of Fansipan in the most atrocious and trying conditions.
By the following morning everyone had recovered enough to visit some of the local villages and markets before taking another overnight train journey back to Hanoi. We arrived back in Hanoi at 0500hrs and spent the next hour walking round an almost deserted city. After a very welcome breakfast we headed to Ha Long Bay for a few days kayaking and swimming around the South China Sea. We finally landed on Cat Ba Island the largest island in Ha Long Bay where we spent time trekking across the National Park as well as visiting ruins of old French military emplacements and a North Vietnamese underground hospital. A morning was also spent rock climbing on some some Grade 4 and 5 climbs that proved challenging but satisfying. There was also time for some R&R, mainly water sports and shopping.
The time came where we had to leave Vietnam and return home. After 16 days of Vietnamese food it was good to finally have some European food again.
The team have much to remember. They have the Mekong, the mountains, Ha Long Bay, the people, the culture and much more. They have all learned a lot about themselves and each other as well as the people and culture of what is really a Third World country.
The most important skill that came from this expedition was teamwork. It was at times inspiring to see how individuals supported each other throughout the expedition. It wasn’t all plain sailing though, with individuals fighting their own personal challenges too. The whole experience of visiting a different country and culture was eye opening for most of the cadets and also some of the staff, and realising how the quality of life is so much better here in the UK. Hopefully some if not all of the cadets will now have a desire to travel and experience life around the world.
Our thanks must go to the Ulysses Trust and the RAF Charitable Trust as well as the Connaught Trust, the Scarman Foundation and John Thornton Young Achievers Foundation for help and support in funding this trip.