Monday, June 28, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different

When I first got the invite to come down to Singapore to participate in the grand opening of a new hotel/resort, I thought, “Sure, why not?” I would need to do a visa run within 30 days time anyway and this trip out of Vietnam wouldn’t cost me anything.

Initially I was asked to help with logistics of safety for the climbers and be the go-between for riggers of ropes and helpers on the ground. But, as the days ticked down to my flight I got the message that they would need me to step in and climb for the Canadian team. Apparently Will Gadd, a very famous Canadian extreme sports athlete and an old friend, had a conflict and would not be able to attend.

Here I am with Will's medal!

OK. I now get to climb. Great! But I’d have to also compete in a speed climbing contest? Yikes!

Those of you who know my climbing style would never describe me as being fast going up anything. Methodical and calculating yes but not fast.

So there I was at about 4:30 pm local Singapore time last Monday, hanging out on the west side of the brand new Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore cursing my climbing past-the one that got me here because at one time I was somewhat known and the more recent one that did not allow me proper fitness for such an endeavor because Hanoi has been so stinking hot. 300 feet off the ground laybacking against slick glass and pulling myself up on steel fins, I was dead. The tropical heat and sun reflecting off the glass building was killing me. “How the heck am I going to be competitive in this physical state?” I was thinking as sweat poured from my nose and chin while I looked down hundreds of feet to the ground.  It took me over 40 minutes to climb the 600 foot route. I was slow and I felt dejected at the top.

This was my first practice though. And as the competition neared I got stronger because the heat began to lower.

All the while, all of us climbers were being housed within this 5 star resort. My room had a 50” TV, a big beautiful bathtub and view southeast to the bay. The meals were completely paid for and we were granted full use of the facilities from the spa to the fitness rooms. We were treated like kings and queens.

We, if I can back up a little, are a group of 21 climbers-some famous and a few not as famous, from all over the world. China, Taiwan, Thailand, Canada, The US, England, Spain, Poland, Bulgaria, New Zealand, Australia and of course Singapore were all represented. It was a mix mash of nationalities placed on regional teams- Team Commonwealth, Team China, Team Singapore, Team Asia, Team Europe, Team Canada and Team USA.

Each team had three members and each member would climb one of the towers. A “tag” relay would provide the dynamic element to showcase the three towers. Also ending the event in the pool up at the Sands Skypark represented the climax.  You can see this as a great big ship sitting on top of the three towers.

We climbers provided the opening act to the entire ceremony. And as the first place Team Singapore rang the finishing bell a squadron of sky divers descended over the Skypark down to the waters of the Marina west and below the hotel. Only then was it official that the celebration could begin.

And celebrate is what we climbers did.

You see this was no easy task. From the fittest to the weakest. From the new hot shots to the old veterans. We were all really nervous for a few days. The climb was long. The conditions went from stiflingly hot to soaking rain to blasting wind. Every few hours leading up the live climb would pose a new challenge from new equipment requirements to new timing on the ques.

It was a great relief when our first and only trial run as a coordinated group turned out well without any glitches. This was on Tuesday afternoon. But, four hours before the live broadcast the next day the Singapore skies darkened and blasted the area with rain.

“I told the hotel that climbers are perfectly capable of performing in the rain.” Said Matt Robertson, the climbing event organizer hired by the resort and our personal contact to hotel management. I vividly remembered asking him, “We can? Wouldn’t that be really slick with the glass and the wet railings?” He didn’t know. Nobody knew. It hadn’t rained on anyone yet during all the practice runs.

Eventually we all found out what it was like to climb these features wet. An hour before the live start we had to get ourselves in place, get up to just above midway, and the bottom third was wet enough to make moving up at least 50% harder. But luckily the higher we climbed the dryer it became for the top of the wall overhangs beyond vertical.

We started up midway because we had to get high enough to finish as a team under 15 minutes, the time allotted by ESPN. From the video of the live footage you can see us just hanging out.

Be it adrenaline, the cameras or just rising up to the occasion, but we all pretty much smoked the climb. Doing it all without a hitch.  I felt the best I had felt all week and was glad to join in the festivities at the top in the pool.

But this over the top adventure didn’t end here. Shortly after our climb I had an appointment with the Vietnamese news media, flown in, like almost every other country in the world, to cover the event.

Then there was a big gala dinner thrown. It was originally a black tie affair but the management was gracious enough to make an exception for us climbers.  There we were sitting along side famous gamblers-the resort of course has a casino, brand managers of all the boutique stores from the hotel’s mall and famous celebrities. The dinner was great-decorative dishes that tasted international. But the entertainment was over the top.

During appetizers a live orchestra serenaded us with classical music. Just before our main dish arrived several singers from the musical Jersey Boys sang Frankie Vally songs from their hit Broadway show. And when we finished our main course Dianna Ross came out on the stage and wowed us with her still great voice and energy. None of us thought that our day would end thusly, dancing along with the rich and famous to old Motown hits.

I guess we deserved all this pampering after such a stressful week, a week completely different than my normal ones in Hanoi.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Nine, The Last Day

We slept in this morning knowing that the time back to Hanoi would only be five hours on the road. We ate a lazy breakfast and began packing when a big group of Hanoian students converged on our little guesthouse of serenity. They had booked to have lunch here.

There is nothing worse than a group of Vietnamese in any form to scare me away. (I’ll tell you more about this at another time.) So before we knew it we were on our bikes riding out of Mai Châu valley, back onto highway 6 towards Hanoi.

It was another sunny and warm day. The road wound its way down south out of the mountains before heading east. And just as it began to head east I noticed familiar roads. I had ridden these very same roads, in reverse direction, last fall when going down to Cúc Phương National Park. And just as I remembered it the scenery was again beautiful-nice country roads void of cars, twisting and turning over streams and thru rice fields.

Another crop grown in these parts is sugar cane. This variety is dark brown in color with bright green headdresses for tops. Of course when we stopped to get something to drink and the shop owner said the he didn’t have any “nước mía đá”, iced sugar cane juice, we moved on. He was nice enough though to tell us that there were a few places up the road that sells these…..

….the best ever nước mía đá!

I think we each had two glasses. I’m sure the sugar cane came from the backyard or the neighbor’s yard. I wished that all sugar cane juice was this good.

As it so often happens in Vietnam, the young girl who greeted us stumbled with the cane press and called for help. Then from across the street came scampering an older woman ready to take charge.

This woman also told us we were right in asking for lime and that she would be right back with some, for she had forgotten to get them earlier at the local market. “Don’t you think this is the best mía đá?” She said, as she trotted away again.

So, there we were about 60 km’s from Hanoi enjoying refreshing drinks and savoring our last little bit of the tour.

This was the very last day of the trip. We were looking forward to getting back to our home in Hanoi but knew that after some time we’d be wishing for the road again. Such is the case with traveling, whether it be by plane, train, automobile or in this case motorbikes.

Another thing that travel conjures up are these scenes of indescribable beauty.

On my computer screen are a small handful of pictures that I couldn’t find places for within the prior postings. And it is because they are each so unique as to require their own stories or so unique as to leave a lasting impression.

Have a look.

“Oh my God. Here’s that pig with the largest balls!” Cried Kay when we drove off from Ph Rang to Lào Cai. “I have to take a picture of it.”

“Honey. I think we have to dispose of your melon.” I said when fruit flies began gathering around our unofficial mascot in our hotel room in Sa Pa. Mandy had purchased this somewhere near Ba Bể                                         . And in its travels all the way here, it survived rain, fog and a very scary skirmish with the pavement while riding along with Kay. Like Kay it too suffered a few scrapes and bruises.

This is another picture of our mascot, here complicit with Charlies’ H’Mong Angels.

“Uh, Luke. Can you give me shove?” Need I say more?

If I had a MyFace account, this would be my profile picture. This was taken by Daria a person who would seem-from other pictures she has taken of me, to be my personal photographer.

Another great photographer on this trip is Kristi. Riding on the back of Luke…..ah hum…she was free to snap away and was able to capture some great images. This one is a gem.

See what I mean by indescribable?

Just like this trip has been indescribable, although I’ve worked hard at expressing as much as I can remember. Still, there was just too much to recount and ideas and concepts that were to hard to put down into words.

To get a real sense of Northern Vietnam-your own real sense of Northern Vietnam, you’ll have to take the tour yourselves. Feel the road underneath your wheels. Eat the local food. And chat with the local people. 

*Photographs courtesy of Kay Okamoto, Daria Hagemann and Kristi Cruz.