Surrounding peaks drifted in and out of clouds like the subject of a camera lens struggling to find its focal point.
I had spent the morning climbing to this point in a group of seven but only six of us were panting. Thomas, our guide, was rattling off information about the landscape surrounding Lang Biang. “This is Vietnam’s second highest point and the highest overall in the south” he chattered as the rest of us snatched for water bottles before looking around.
I had always found putting one foot in front of the other therapeutic.
And with every uphill struggle I had endured that morning, another small slice of the heaving mass of Ho Chi Ming City had fallen away. Roaring engines replaced with squelching mud. Bright lights with dappled daylight and the towering museums that showcased decades of war and suffering, with navy mountains that held their histories more subtly.
We had started early: A rude awakening by rattling minibus from Dalat that I didn’t mind. I was ready for a slice of green amid the backdrop of Asia’s cities. Sometimes, a weary traveller only needs fresh air and a pause to gain perspective.
Rolling hills dotted with farms reminded me more of Wales than Asia but once we started walking, that fallacy quickly faded. We passed a kitsch sign bearing the mountain’s name before hitting pine forest. The slopes were shallow and the foliage sparse at first, like following the curves of a balding man’s head.
It lulled me into a false sense of security so well, that when the trail suddenly narrowed and steepened, I was shocked to see a jungle-like canopy above me that barely let any daylight through. The ground, a bouncy carpet of pine needles only moments before, now slipped underfoot as rich, gloopy clay, sucking at my boots like a powerful hoover. The going got really tough.
For the visitors anyway. Thomas dived up the mountain. A whippet let out of the starting gates after a long and excitable wait. He listed plant names and their medicinal properties as he sprung from foothold to sure foothold, waiting every ten minutes for his flock and our belching boots to catch up. For a local, he was still so passionate about the adventure to be had on his doorstep.
The slog was real but as always with mountain hiking, worth it. After a few minutes at the peak I regained my composure. The view was impressive but it was the sensory experience of simply being there that had my attention. The humid air clung to the tiny hairs on my arms like dew on petals, my lungs felt large and full and my head clear.
Within three weeks of leaving the UK I had come quite a way. Thomas was still going and interrupted my thoughts. “Of course, the highest mountain is very far north of here in Sapa, beyond Hanoi.” Hanoi, still seemed distant from that misty mountain top but I would arrive there in less than ten days.
Perspective gained. And back at Lang Biang’s base a few hours later, I had the north in my sights.