One afternoon while I was procrastinating on Facebook, I saw a friend’s paragliding video. Thank god for procrastination. I eagerly asked her how, where, how much? She directed me to the Hanoi Paragliding Club, who fly around Hanoi on Sundays when the weather is suitable. The cost? A very reasonable VND800,000. I immediately contacted the group and started planning a tandem flight.
From then all I could think about were the great photos I would take from up in the clouds, while trying to ignore my notorious fear of heights.
My first Sunday, I went to the meeting point in Hanoi at 7am to go to Dong Cao, in Bac Giang Province. People slowly arrived; they showed each other their newly-bought flying equipment while waiting for latecomers.
As everybody loaded their gliders into the trunks of three big four-wheel drive vehicles, the sky warned of non-flying condition rains. After three hours of driving and 30 minutes of hiking, there wasn’t any rain — but there was no wind either and that’s a bigger problem.
For tandem flyers like I was hoping to be, flying wasn’t possible. The most experienced pilots still tried to fly, unsuccessfully for some, successfully for others. The trainees practiced taking off, but besides that there wasn’t much to do but enjoy each other’s company.
Tom, an Austrian pilot, joked that the club’s secret name is the Hanoi Picnic Club. It is not uncommon to come to a spot and be stood up by the wind. It’s a friendly community, and even on the ground we enjoyed our time together.
After waiting all day for improved conditions that never came, we headed back to Hanoi through Hai Phong, stopping off for a great seafood dinner. I arrived home around 1am.
Take two comes on Sunday, Oct. 12. This time we head to Doi Bu Mountain, in Luong Son, Hoa Binh Province — 50km southwest of Hanoi. The weather conditions are more than ideal, sunny, cool and just windy enough. Autumn is the best paragliding season.
The takeoff spot is on top of the mountain and accessible by car, which means no hiking, a relief to me. Lots of people are there already. Another paragliding club — Vietwings Hanoi — is there as well.
As I am looking at all the pilots taking off, tension builds. At some point there are up to 10 gliders up in the air. I am taking some photos when Chuan, my pilot, asks if I am ready. I’m not, really.
My palms are sweaty, and my heartbeat quickens as two people help me put on the harness and fix the GoPro onto my helmet. Chuan gets ready as well. He is 31 years old, and has flown more than 200 times, half on tandem flights. He is one of the most experienced pilots in the group.
The glider is laid down on the floor; a couple of people help Chuan untangle the ropes. These very thin ropes are the ones that link us to the glider and keep us alive. I am told to run when he says “run” and sit when he says “okay”. Nothing else, it’s that easy. My heart is pounding, I don’t think I am ready but I have no choice but to go. What am I doing? Did I really think this through?
When Chuan says “run!” I run, when he says “okay!” we are already in the air, I have to pull on the harness straps to sit into it. I am not screaming, surprisingly, but a few French curse words slip out.
I am trying to take photos to counter my fear of heights, but with the harness it isn’t so easy — which is probably why everyone uses GoPros.
The view is outstanding, amazing — I am in continuous awe. In the distance I can see karst mountains, roads, plains, fields and rivers. Some pilots fly for hours when conditions are right. I can see the appeal. Up in the air on your own, with your thoughts, you can take time to step back and reflect.
“We can fly for as long as I want,” Chuan tells me. It’s up to me; the wind conditions are really good. It’s like surfing the wind and the mountain, and it’s brilliant.
I start to find the sitting position not so confortable after all, but I have to use a lot of my nonexistent abdominal muscles to stay in position. It takes me a good five minutes to realise it’s not how it’s supposed to feel. My muscles won’t hold much longer. I gather my strength and finally pull myself all the way into the harness, it’s way better.
As we are gaining more and more altitude, I start to have a too-familiar feeling of motion sickness. No way! I didn’t realise I could get sick while paragliding!
I am holding on to the harness and trying to power through, to enjoy the amazing view, the experience, to look far ahead, straight, to breathe slowly, to not look down… My head starts to hurt, to feel heavy. My muscles are weakening, just like my stomach. I ask Chuan if he knows of any cases of people getting sick and throwing up; he confirms, it has happened to him once before. This isn’t reassuring.
“Hold on tight, power through, enjoy the amazing view, the experience, look far ahead, straight, breathe slowly, don’t look down” — this is my new mantra.
The glider moves up and down, right and left. Five, 10 minutes. My stomach isn’t following the glider’s movements, I feel sicker, I can’t hold myself on the harness, I feel too weak. I can’t do it anymore.
I tell Chuan we need to land now. Hearing my voice, he tries to be as quick as he can But we need to lose altitude slowly. Chuan talks to me to distract my nausea. He has to take a couple of tight turns. I think that’s the end of me; I won’t be able to hold it anymore. I try to anticipate how this is going to happen, I fear for my camera. Breathe deeply and slowly, deeply, slowly.
We finally land, it’s not as smooth as Chuan hoped, but he knew it had to happen fast rather than smooth. As I am back with the group, everyone can see my very pale face, and with a smile some ask me how it was. I got sick. Sad face. They laugh. Next time I will take my motion sickness pills with me.
Paragliding was introduced in Vietnam by foreign tourists in Dalat around 1994. The Hanoi Paragliding Club estimates that around 200 Vietnamese pilots have been trained since.
There are five paragliding clubs in Vietnam: Hanoi PG, Danang PG, Nha Trang PG, Saigon PG and Vietwings Hanoi. Tandem flights are usually between VND700,000 and VND800,000, plus transport and food.