The tallest mountain in southern Vietnam isn’t really a mountain at all, but a 986m dead volcano in Tay Ninh. If you do a Google search for 'Black Virgin Mountain' (Nui Ba Den) you’ll get a history lesson on the female monk who ran away from an arranged marriage and disappeared — although they supposedly later found “a section of her leg in a stone cavern” — for whom the volcano is named and a bunch of stuff about its military significance during the American War.
The elevation offered by a volcanic cone rising up from the otherwise flat Mekong Delta made it a prized position in wartime, and the place was constantly fought over — changing hands between US troops and the Viet Cong as if it were a chip in a card game. When you drive south and find yourself standing at the foot of the mountain you’ll find farmers squatting next to big ziggurats of custard apples, street hawkers selling meats on sticks, thick banh canh noodles (a speciality of the province), lots of dusty unpaved roads and the locals calling it Ba Den (Black Virgin) — “Ba Den, Ba Den” like a mantra, as if the word ‘nui’ (mountain) is made irrelevant by the imposing shadow of it hanging over the valley.
In actuality there is no clear trail that people hike to the summit. You can push and make your own path across the formidable boulders, red ants and biting beetles. You can navigate around vegetation that’d make you think you were in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. My girlfriend and I took a three-day trip to the Black Virgin Mountain over Tet to attempt all of these things. If this intro didn’t hook you in and you’re not going to read any further, then please remember this: don’t believe everything you read on people’s travel blogs. And certainly don’t visit Black Virgin Mountain during Tet.
Day 1: Day of Derision
A tent city of food stands and parking areas sprouts up around the entrance to the gondola ride. Further down is the main entrance peppered with more parking areas, more food and plastic toy hawkers, a big display for some kind of mountain-grown rejuvenating pine oil, paved roads rolling through more food and plastic toy stands, confused-looking monkeys in tiny cages, people sprawled out on blankets and trash everywhere. No joke — there are some areas where you can literally wade ankle-deep in plastic bags and paper wrappers.
The blog I’d read said that to climb the bouldered slopes you need to climb to the top of the steps, pass the temple and then jump the fence. This is false. The 500-plus steps to the top are just past the gondola ride and lined with the same hawker stalls, the same garbage strewn over every inch of ground.
The ground litter (and litterbugs) were astonishingly unapologetic — to the point where you’d think that littering was secretly encouraged. Sights like boys racing empty Coca-Cola cans down the rocky slopes didn’t even wrinkle a brow on this holy mountain. The whole place seemed less like a temple and more like a Buddhist-themed carnival where the carnies and barkers had taken over. All that was lacking were the ball-toss and Skee-Ball machines.
At the top was the main pagoda and a bunch of signs telling you not to jump the fence. After jumping the fence anyway we were stopped by a steep ravine that blocked access to the rest of the mountain. Girlfriend took my hand and said, “Let’s go.”
The high point of Day 1 was taking the newly-installed Speed Coaster — just think of a bobsled with a hand brake and security guys blowing their whistles at you the whole way down — for a well-spent VND80,000 to the bottom, getting buzzed on sweet 333 and finally stumbling around to the well-hidden back entrance of the park from where real rock-hopping is actually possible. We scurried up about 400m as daylight began to fade then made a pact to get more beer, pass out early and come back early the next morning for a second ascent.
Day 2: The Scramble
The back entrance of the park is behind the car park, well before the main gate and essentially to the left if you’re walking down the main thoroughfare towards the entrance. Pay VND12,000 at the ticket booth and hand your ticket to the security guards who might possibly have the easiest security gig in the country.
At 50m in you’ll see some log cabins with mango trees behind them and a clear path up the bouldered slope of Nui Ba Den. While it starts out easy, the climb quickly turns into a Class 3 scramble with some small bits of jungle on the rocks that require crab-walking and/or crawling through.
Despite the sounds of V-pop and sirens floating up from the ruckus below this really is a beautiful hike, with lots of hidden caverns, songbirds and the occasional wild monkey hooting in the distance. Build plenty of cairns (markers) along the way as you’ll be slipping and twisting through caves and across big boulders, which can make a trail misleading when it comes time to head down.
Looking down from the highest point at the festival-goers and pumpkin fields stretched out like peppercorn men tossed out across the greenest of tapestries, we realise we couldn’t have made it to that point sans machete. The highway we’d taken ran one way and the AH-1 we would take back ran the other — their point of convergence just out of sight.
Later that night found us back in Saigon at The Observatory, where I drank three beers, crossed my socks and tried to picture how small this little dot of a city would look from above.