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Blazing new trails

Inspired by Mark Twain’s call to “sail away from safe harbour”, a young Vietnamese entrepreneur quit his day job, opened a cafe and began an adventure travel business. Xuan Hiep reports.

We made it! Two of the trekkers in "soldier pose" at Border Marker 42, the country's second-highest point, a sacred place where soldiers keep watch over the nation's sovereignty.
We made it! Two of the trekkers in “soldier pose” at Border Marker 42, the country’s second-highest point, a sacred place where soldiers keep watch over the nation’s sovereignty.

Early last year, tour guide Ngo Tran Hai An and a group of six men had one goal: reach Lai Chau Province’s Border Marker 42 next to China.

To get there, they had to cross ice-cold streams in their boots, 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,” An says of his trip to the northwestern part of the country in early February.

To begin the journey, An and a friend flew to Ha Noi from HCM City and then took a van to Pa Ve Su Commune in Lai Chau Province’s Muong Te District.

The next day, they left for a three-hour motorbike trip to Sin Ho District. There, they started the trek, accompanied by four border guards familiar with every nook and cranny of the forest.

“Our steps seemed to get slower and slower as we crawled up the seemingly endless slope,” he says.

After four days and three nights, the group reached the border marker, the country’s second-highest point, a sacred place where soldiers keep watch over the nation’s sovereignty.

“Life is a journey. I always learn something meaningful after each trip,” An says.

Comfort food: An and his fellow travellers make a fire to cook dinner in the forest on their way to the Viet Nam – China Border Marker 42.

It was 13 years ago that An, 33, got the travelling bug after driving his motorbike from HCM City to Hoi An, and then to Ha Noi.

Having developed a reputation for taking travellers to areas that few tourists see, An, who has a bachelor’s degree in engineering, has now visited every corner of the country.

One of his favourite areas is the northwestern region, where trekkers can see century-old tea trees in Yen Bai and Lao Cai provinces and cloud-covered mountains in Lao Cai Province’s Bat Xat District.

“I’m truly overwhelmed by the landscapes in the northwest, especially the terraced fields and clouds surrounding the mountains in Y Ty Commune,” he says.

An has also visited serene villages in the south, turquoise beaches along the central coast, and primitive forests in the Central Highlands.

Along the way, he has made many friends.

“A journey is not measured by miles, but by friends,” says An, adding that kind locals have often offered him free accommodations.

“Once, I asked a local, an ethnic man in the northwest, for directions. He was willing to walk with me for three kilometres to make sure that I would not be lost!”

Brrrrrrrrrr: The seven-member group had to cross ice-cold streams in their boots, walk in freezing temperatures, and brave steep slopes during their trek. — Photos courtesy of Ngo Tran Hai An.

For many years, An took travellers on adventure tours for free, but last year, because of demand, he began offering paid tours.

Travellers have a wide choice, from A Pa Chai in Dien Bien Province’s Muong Nhe District, the country’s westernmost point bordering China and Laos, to Viet Nam – Laos Border Marker 4 in the northwest.

Also popular are the Phong Nha, Tu Lan and Son Doong caves in the central province of Quang Binh, An says.

For a destination less than 300 kilometres from the starting point, travellers go by either car or motorbike. For longer trips, they take a van to a certain point and then rent a motorbike.

An’s two- or three-night tours cost VND1.5-2.3 million (US$70-110), depending on the destination.

Each tour typically consists of 25-30 men and women, ranging in age from 19 to 55. Travellers camp in a tent for two nights and spend one night in a guesthouse.

This year, An, who is also a professional photographer, began offering wedding-photo services to couples who book adventure tours. A stylist, make-up artist and assistant accompany An and the couple.

3ackpackers cafe

A year before launching his paid tours, the Lam Dong Province native quit his job at an interior-decor company to open the 3ackpackers cafe in HCM City’s Binh Thanh District.

Nestled in an alley off Phan Xich Long Street, the small coffee shop has become a popular venue for fans of adventure travel.

“I’ve learned so much and made new friends from my trips,” says customer Truong Dang Bao Tram, 19, a second-year student at HCM City’s Foreign Trade University, who has taken three trips with An.

“My most unforgettable trip was to the country’s easternmost point. I think it helped me become more self-reliant and independent,” he adds.

Path less travelled: There was no marked trail or path, but that did not stop An and the group from walking through unfamiliar forested areas.

At the cafe, customers sit on cushions at low Japanese-style wooden tables, and drink and chat.

More than 300 books about travel, history, culture and traditional craft villages line the walls, along with more than 1,000 photos of travellers’ trips.

A TV and DVD player are on hand for customers to show videos of their trips.

“I want to change people’s way of thinking about adventure travel and their attitude toward life. I like the quote by the American writer Mark Twain, who says ‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover’,” An says, reciting a well-known quote that many scholars say has been misattributed to Twain.

Still, whoever may have said it, the inspiration is real. “We should travel to see how beautiful our country is, and how kind people are everywhere,” he says.

“Then, we would open our heart more to other people and become more generous and grateful.”