Alex in Vietnam - blogpost

A series of blogs from northern Vietnam, following a collaborative three week expedition between four UK botanic gardens (RBGE, Kew, Glasgow and Cambridge University) and the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources (IEBR), Hanoi.
Showing Hoang Lien Mountain Range, northwest Vietnam. Image: worldatlas.comShowing Hoang Lien Mountain Range, northwest Vietnam. Image:
Over the coming weeks team 'BGUK' will complete (and blog about) four extended trips into the Hoang Lien Mountain region to collect plant material and record the flora along altitudinal gradients. Subtropical evergreen forests on the lower slopes will be replaced by temperate and montane forests as they climb to altitudes exceeding 3000 metres.


Post 5: Scaling new heights - Bach Moc Luong Tu – 30 October to 02 November

The trip to Bach Moc Luong Tu was much discussed during our preparations for the expedition. The area is little known to people outside the region and its highest peak was measured for the first time only four years ago. It may have come as a surprise to some in 2012 when the mountain range was declared the fourth largest in Vietnam at 3,045 m. It was speculated by members of our group that only a handful of botanist have visited the montane landscapes on the western perimeter of the Lao Cai province and there was much potential for a rich diversity of plants. During the final preparations for the trip it became obvious that there was a sense of excitement at the prospect of surveying rarely explored forests and new discoveries. As we threw our final bags, chickens and other essentials into the back of the van we all were looking forward to an exciting, yet challenging, four days in the field.

Sunday is market day in Vietnam, so as we headed into the hills each of the towns and villages we passed through were hives of activities, rich in colours, sounds and smells from the woks (…and livestock). The only thing that was dampening the market-goers spirits was the driving rain and thick fog. Each mountain pass that our driver skilfully negotiated would have framed some spectacular views across the Hoang Lien Son mountains had it not been for the atrocious conditions. As the gradient increased and the bus slowed you could occasionally see figures walking along the sides of the road through the dense fog, usually with cut sugar canes in hand.

As I dozed in the back of the van, I was suddenly awoken when we jolted then stopped in a small hamlet on a steep mountainside. A thorough discussion between our driver, members of our party and villagers had been initiated. I, and my fellow horticulturalists from the UK didn’t fully comprehend why we had stopped at this point, due to our limited understand of Vietnamese, Hmong or the expressive hand gestures being used. We later came to understand that the road was deemed unsuitable for the van and that we were walking. And it wasn’t going to be a short walk either.

The high humidity made our jaunt to the starting point of our ascent in the Ky Quan San village a hot and sweaty affair. As much as we enjoyed observing the cannas, bananas and rice that was growing in the fields, we were losing both energy and time. The initial trail was punishingly steep. We tried to stay together but it soon became apparent that, even at this early stage, that the walk was going to difficult. Alex and I, who were trying to keep a good pace at the front, were starting to observe some new plants, previously unseen during expedition so far.

By 1,500 m we were starting to see Gelsemium, a plant rarely used in cultivation but well known to our Vietnamese colleagues due to its poisonous properties. After a further 150 m of climbing we were starting to see the vegetation change, the cooler mountain air was helping to support a lush mixture of herbaceous perennials, trees, and to my delight, tree ferns. It may come as no surprise but as our attentions turned to the plants around us, our sense of direction and timekeeping became secondary. After a slight detour (approximately 2 km) we got back on track and hiked for a further 5 hours, arriving at our camp just before dark.

The following morning we woke at first light and the peak of Bach Moc Luong Tu was clear, a good sign for the day ahead. I have come to learn however that such clear views are rare in northern Vietnam and by the time we had finished our morning bowl of fried rice, the clouds had rolled in and the peak was barely visible. The initial stage of our ascent to the peak was dominated by a landscape of wintergreen (Gaultheria sp.), bamboo (Sinarundinaria sp.), rhododendrons and the occasional Schefflera sp. standing tall amongst the dense thickets. The highly degraded landscape was characterised by the remains of burnt out mature trees. There were obvious signs of fire damage and forest clearing, a concerning sight in such a biodiversity rich area. When we did reach the fragmented sections of forest, there was much to see (see images).

Once we had arisen out from the clouds the landscape changed once more. The moist soils of the forest seen previous were now replaced by a dry and sparse landscape hosting species with alpine-like tendencies. We again came across many interesting plants by meticulously surveying the paths and areas adjacent to them. Sometimes however, the best finds come at the most unexpected times. After taking a well-deserved chocolate and water break the tired silence was broken by Alex exclaiming ‘Oh look, a Rhododendron Richard’. We had become well used to seeing Richard in the bushes inspecting a Rhododendron at close quarters by this point in the trip, but this time he seemed particularly excited. The aforementioned specimen turned out to be a species which had the characteristics of the subsection Edgeworthii, a type of Rhododendron previously unrecorded in Vietnam. Further verification will be required at RBGE upon our return but an exciting find nonetheless!

By the time we had reached an elevation of 2,900 m the day was getting late and we had made the decision to turn back. The decision was prompted not only by time but also the poor condition of the summit. Once more, fire damage and suspected human intervention had resulted in a landscape dominated by primary vegetation such as thick stands of bamboo and, the admittedly very ornamental, Rubus lineatus.

During our final days on Bach Moc Luong Tu we stayed at or below the elevation of 2,000 m. In some wet and slippery conditions we were able to navigated through the forest fragments and add to or collections. Some of the plants we encountered can be seen in the images on the right.

It was a privilege for our party to be some of the few to explore the Bach Moc Luong Tu range, the natural beauty of the area is undeniable. Further botanical surveys in subsequent springs and autumns would uncover further diversity and new discoveries, I am sure. We were successful in collecting a good sample of the flora and those plants, herbarium specimens and DNA samples will be an asset in years to come, particularly if habitat fragmentation continues at its current rate. The trip was a positive one, but there were many reminders that Vietnam’s flora and fauna are vulnerable and we should continue to work with our colleagues in the country to support conservation.

Will Ritchie, Curator, Glasgow BG

To read earlier expedition posts, click on the links to the left.

Team 'BGUK':
Alex Summers, Glasshouse Supervisor, CUBG
Richard Baines, Curator, Logan BG (RBGE)
Will Ritchie, Curator, Glasgow BG
Andrew Luke, Supervisor of Order Beds, Grass Garden & Woodland Garden, RBG Kew

These blogposts originally appeared in Botanic Stories
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