After living 2 decades in a 5×5 feet corporate cubicle the thought dawned upon me that life was slowly slipping by and I might only remember the daily routine of commuting in traffic and selling my soul to money which scared me profoundly. I had been exploring the tropical jungles of South India for more than a decade as part of the Chennai Trekking Club, a 40 thousand member outdoor community, which I started a decade earlier. I ran thousands of kilometers in the Indian Himalayas trying to make the most out of my sparse annual corporate holidays but I never felt like a free man. There was always the time pressure while running in the mountains to reach my destination soon and crawl right back in that cubicle for the next 6 months. Having experienced the overwhelming natural beauty of the Himalayas and realizing that life on this beautiful planet is short I decided to quit my well paying job and scale down to a minimalist lifestyle. I decided to die with memories, not dreams!
Within a few months of closing down my corporate life I was scanning over topographic maps in South East Asia looking for untouched remote ranges where I could run as a free man for a few months for the first time in my life. I would also run solo for the first time as all my corporate running buddies were chained to their desks. My eye fell on Vietnam – the Northeast bordering China had a vast mountain range covered by dense forest. Spread across I could spot hundreds of remote hamlets which would make perfect stops for food and night stay. I packed up a 15L pack with a thermocol mat and a small tarpaulin (bottom sheet of a tent) to wrap myself up during the cold winter nights. I boarded a flight to Hanoi not speaking a single word of Vietnamese. From the capital I hopped onto an overnight train to Lao Cai, a major town on the border with China. I stepped off the train and started running into the mountains not knowing when I would stop – I felt truly free for the first time in my life.
I had mapped a few thousands of kilometers of trails and dirt tracks across the Northeastern mountain provinces of Lao Cai, Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Tuyen Quang and Bac Kan avoiding district roads and highways. The mountains rise up to an altitude of 2300m and are drained by four major rivers: the Red river, Song Chai, Song Lo and Gam river. Vast beautiful blue-green lakes and lush green bamboo forests would make the perfect setting for my first ultra journey. I stayed far away from the touristic destinations all foreigners usually head to like Sapa in the Northwest. I would eat in small shops in remote villages and drink water from pristine mountain streams along my route. I would start running at sunrise and settle down in an open space or near a hamlet wherever the sun sets down. Little did I know the overwhelming hospitality which I would encounter in these remote unexplored mountains where few outsiders had traveled before me.
The topography of Northern Vietnam has a unique signature – steep smaller hillocks covered by dense forest rise up sharply in the surrounding landscape unlike the smooth gradual rising valleys and ridges formed which we see in most other mountain ranges. Another very unusual occurrence was large streams suddenly vanishing underground beneath a tall mountain rather than flowing down through valleys as if we were on another planet with different laws of physics. Rather than rivers gradually eroding valleys over millions of years here the rock underground appeared soft and sedimentary and water drained through a network of underground caves suddenly reappearing on the other side of the mountain.
The hundreds of small hamlets spread across these mountains have given birth to an equal number of beautiful trails interconnecting these settlements through virgin forest interlaced with beautiful terrace plantations. A runner’s and mountain biking paradise! Even the local villagers transport farm produce on small scooters through these steep dirt tracks fixing a chain on their back tire not to get stuck in the muddy terrain during the rains. Most of the routes are present on Google maps making navigation a breeze without having to gaze over satellite maps for weeks to plan out a thousand kilometers long route. The trails between these remote hamlets pass through valleys sometimes flooded by monsoon streams. With no roads or bridges nearby the best thing to do is wrap up your backpack in a tarpaulin sheet and swim across.
Starting from the major border town of Lao Cai, I set off to the mountains in the Northeast running high above the Song Chay river crossing it further upstream where it originates from China. I continued running in rains through interior parts of the Lao Cai district before entering the Ha Giang province where I climbed up to the highest peak of Kiou Leou Ti at 2300m offering stunning sunrise views on the cloud covered surrounding ranges. From there I ran down into the beautiful Song lo river valley, continuing Northeast along the border with China to enter into an unearthly landscape – countless steep rising hillocks dotting the landscape – a topography which I had not seen on any other continent. Continuing Southeast into the province of Cao Bang I discovered beautiful underground cave systems formed by streams suddenly disappearing beneath the mountains.
Experiencing warm hospitality while searching for shelter late into the cold winter nights in remote tribal settlements deep inside the mountains invited by the locals around a warm campfire in a pitch dark setting, slowly defrosting again after a few shots of locally brewed vodka. Without exception followed by a sumptuous fresh cooked hot meal and a friendly villager inviting me into his simple wooden shelter offering a comfy bed and thick, warm blankets slowly dozing off to the nocturnal sounds from the surrounding forest. Proceeding South to the neighboring district of Bac Kan I passed through the magnificent blue-green Ho Ba Be lake surrounded by pristine evergreen jungles offering some of the best running trails. From there I turned back West descending into the mesmerizing Gam river valley in the interior province of Tuyen Quang using local ferries to cross the wide river.
Now zigzagging East-West along serene interior roads in the lower mountain ranges I finally entered the province of Bac Kan while running into the Vietnamese New Year, the first day of the Lunar calendar, celebrating the arrival of spring. Colorful decorations and family gatherings inviting me into their homes offering special home cooked savories prepared for the festive occasion. Touching 50 days and 2000 km in thorn running shoes I finally ran out of trails while hitting the foothills of the Northeast ranges and jumped into a bus in the district town of Tuyen Quang at the confluence of the mighty Song Lo and Gam rivers returning to the capital of Hanoi. Before returning home to India I could not resist swimming a few days in the beautiful lagoons of Halong Bay in between those island hillocks rising steeply out of the ocean.
Throughout my journey on several occasions I would be interrogated by the Vietnamese police, usually tipped off by a loyal communist party member from the local village suspicious of the intentions of a Westerner roaming these remote (non touristic) locations. After the usual search for the English teacher from the local school to translate I would explain the purpose of my journey showing them photos taken along the way to convince them of being a simple nature loving soul and not a threat to the communist party spreading Western propaganda :). The cops would usually knock on the door of my bamboo hut around midnight in a remote hamlet deep inside the forest where I was sleeping as it would take them hours to reach from the nearby town. Looking at the initial surprise on their face I could usually tell that I was the first outsider to pass through these inner areas.
One day running drenched in the rains I got picked up from the road by the Vietnamese army and interrogated by a 4 star general while running a few kilometers from the Chinese border. After the initial suspicion of my presence in these innermost regions we were soon sharing a friendly conversation over a cup of steaming green tea. During times of prolonged rains the fertile red forest soil would stick to my running shoes as if running on a planet with increased gravity. Most of the Vietnamese farmers live in large wooden homes built on pillars, safe from the monsoon rains. Animals would stay below and people would live in a large room on top used for cooking, dining and sleeping. Vietnamese are pretty much self-sufficient – each home grows a big vegetable garden and breeds chickens, pigs and bufalos. Many have a hand loom and weave their own clothes and blankets. Some use a small turbine to generate electricity from the local stream to charge lights. Living close to nature they seem in no way affected by the ups and downs of the distant global money driven economy.
While running through interior hamlets people would always be very welcoming. They would usually be sipping green tea or locally brewed vodka with neighbors and insist on me joining them while running by. At the end of the day before the sun sets and people move indoors I would usually try to find a suitable shelter for night halt. At least 40 out of 50 days during my journey a friendly villager would invite me into his home for dinner and night stay, mostly being excited seeing the first outsider entering their village. It usually starts with one vodka shot with each member of the family followed by a sumptuous buffet style dinner of local farm produce spread out on the wooden floor.
After running the entire day in the hills and finishing 10 vodka shots with 10 relatives I would usually be knocked over waking up only the next day. In one town my host insisted on celebrating my stay by slaughtering a full grown pig and invited all neighbors to join for a festive dinner. It took exactly one hour to dismember the entire pig, not leaving a single part or organ unused including the blood, brain and intestines. Seeing the photos taken during my 2000 km long journey, they would usually get excited to learn about other places in Vietnam not having traveled much beyond their own neighborhood. Not speaking a word of Vietnamese would usually restrict my interactions to friendly smiles and hand signals except in those places where the omni present Viettel 4G mobile network allowed for a deeper conversation using the voice activated Google Translator. This lead to funny conversations at times as if being inside a Star Trek movie making contact with an alien civilization.
Some days I would not find any host and simply settle down in an empty shelter or a haystack to stay warm at night. One day a farmer found me the next morning and after his initial surprise invited me into his home for a few vodka shots to warm me up from the cold night before starting my run. Some days I would be running on lesser traversed trails through virgin jungles with no human settlements around for the entire day. At times the trail would eventually fade out and I would continue scrambling through the jungle and waist deep streams trying to reach the next trail head shown on the map. In one place I met some locals roaming inside the forest with big knives taken by surprise while suddenly seeing a Western in running shorts passing through ;).
Wildlife appears to be almost nonexistent – even though the abundance of large forested areas – finding little or no footsteps or droppings along the way. Being fervent meat eaters the Vietnamese might have emptied most of the forests… As usual in lower altitude tropical jungles I did come across many snakes along the way. Villagers used to catch these near their homes, chop in pieces, cook on a wood fire and enjoy these as a delicacy. One evening I got tempted to take a bite – the meat tasted a bit like chicken. One rainy day while climbing uphill deep inside a jungle I could spot animal traps laid out not far from a primitive wooden shelter where locals were hunting small animals and birds probably like our forefathers living from the forest before settling down as farmers.
On most days, every couple of hours I would pass through remote villages where I could replenish the lost calories and recharge my phone storying my offline maps used for finding my way. The lady of the house would cook big sheets of rice paste which would then be hung from the ceiling to dry and later on shredded in small strips to make noodles, finally cooked in boiled animal meat and served with many veggies freshly plucked from the garden. A big bowl of freshly prepared soup noodles with meat and full of greens would provide me with the necessary nutrition and energy to continue running the entire day. In some shops they would serve “snake wine” preserving a lively caught reptile inside a big bottle of home made wine. By the time I finished my meal in some remote hamlets I would be surrounded by many kids from the village curious to find out what brought this strange looking man to their remote settlement.
In some valleys my senses got treated on mesmerizing blue lagoon colored lakes surrounded by lush green mountain slopes on all sides. In one place the dirt track on which I was running eventually got submerged into a lake. I initially tried hiking around but when the jungle became too dense I had no option left but to wrap up my backpack in my tarp and swim across the kilometer long pristine water body. Going minimalist and fast has its benefits of being able to float your gears across. A friendly fisherman rowing a small boat with his legs caught me mid-way and dropped me on the other side of the lake. The water in most lakes and streams is pristine and pure due to the absence of human contamination.
The only disappointing experience during my journey happened when my phone got stolen while charging overnight in a local shop hosted by a friendly shopkeeper. Leaving me stranded the next day without my maps, GPS or speaking the local language to find my way across the myriad of trails in these interior mountains. Finally, a kind villager from the nearby town drove me for hours through the night across bumpy tracks to the distant town of Cao Bang suggesting me to log a police complaint. Having little hope to get back my phone I wondered how to continue my journey. A few days later while running through the nearby hills I ran into one of the local police men who told me they had apprehended the thief and retrieved my phone! I was relieved to get back my treasure trove of thousands of beautiful photos and able to continue my planned route again. He called me to the station to log a legal case against the poor local guy chained to the desk whom I remember showing photos on my phone the evening during stay at the shop. Feeling sorry for the local who probably got tempted by the sight of a shining smart phone I requested the police to let him go.
I continued running a full marathon each day in the mountains for 50 continuous days adding up to 2000km criss crossing the 5 Northeastern provinces and climbing approximately 30 thousand meter elevation gain. I mostly ran on dirt tracks, small forest trails, swam through streams and mesmerizing lakes and traversed through many beautiful mountain ranges. I crossed hundreds of small remote settlements which allowed me to run light finding food and recharge electronics along the way. Temperatures would drop below 10 during the winter nights requiring to carry a sleeping bag and tarpaulin sheet to stay warm while camping out. Dry fit clothing and breathable shoes were essential to run comfortably in the humid, tropical climate, rains and swim across water bodies. Hospitality was overwhelming in the remote regions but would fade away whenever passing through bigger cities where people invariably had lost their soul to money. Humanity remains intact only in the mountains close to nature.
Running solo for 2000 km in these remote mountains made it a spiritual journey experiencing inner peacefulness far away from the stress of modern life. Running minimalist through these pristine forests one could almost feel the primal energy that invisibly binds us to nature in which we were born and thrived for millennia before modern civilization enslaved us in concrete cities as global consumers. After this first solo ultra journey I felt – for the first time in life – a free soul roaming in a beautiful natural world untouched by human hand. My past life in corporate cubicle land suddenly appeared like a distant dream to which return was not an option anymore. I realized that life was too short and beautiful and was determined to die with memories instead of dreams…
More photos on: photos.app.goo.gl/rRnbQhxFLLbBvkjH8