This is exactly what my journey is all about. Remote communities. Big mountains.
I was staying in a place called Sapa, far north Vietnam, at the base of the short, steep and forested Fansipan range. At 6am a few days ago I got a ride up from the village to the trailhead for Fansipan mountain. There, at 1900m on a bleak mountain pass, I was squarely turned away by a stern park ranger. 'No permit. No guide,' he said. I didn't know either of which was required.
With no way onto the trail, I was forced to hitchhike the 10 miles back to Sapa (thanking the driver with a bag of sweets). After a few hours being directed around the village to speak to various people, I managed to make arrangements to climb the mountain the next day.
6am again. I had to climb through a narrow window to escape from my locked up hostel in order to meet my chauffeur (an 11 year old boy on a scooter). Around an hour later I made it to the trailhead to meet my guide: Ji is a young man from the local Hmong tribe.
The park ranger this time let us pass and Ji made off at a jog. The pace didn't relent during what was a lung-busting trek. We ascended sharply through slick rainforest trails, then out onto windswept ridges lined by micro-bamboo. At 1pm we made it to the summit of Fansipan (3143m), the highest mountain in Vietnam and the entire indochinese subcontinent. Ji prepared a simple picnic despite shivering with cold - he wouldn't accept a spare jacket - and through sign language and broken English I managed to learn a little about his culture.
We descended, and the fog lifted for the first time in days, giving me my first glimpse of Vietnam's spectacular highest mountains. I thought back to my old day job as I took in the view, and I couldn't help but smile. This is what it's all about. We journeyed blind through the jungle after nightfall to reach the trailhead, some 11 hours after setting out. Awesome day in the mountains.