the Degree Confluence Project


6.5 km (4.0 miles) NNW of Na Sai, Lai Châu, Vietnam
Approx. altitude: 1382 m (4534 ft)
([?] maps: Google MapQuest OpenStreetMap ConfluenceNavigator)
Antipode: 22°S 77°W

Accuracy: 16 m (52 ft)
Quality: good

Click on any of the images for the full-sized picture.

#2: North view #3: East view #4: South view #5: West view #6: Coordinates on GPS device #7: Satellite image of the area #8: Climbing a slippery rock wall with running spring water #9: Chu and Cho on a typical steep climb #10: Uncle Dai on a mountainside slope #11: From left: Chu, Uncle Dai, Thach, Thai & Cho. On top of the mountain, in vicinity of the confluence #12: Thach enjoyed thuoc lao, a strong tobacco, commonly found in Vietnam, smoked using a bamboo... bong

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  22°N 103°E (visit #2)  

#1: The general area at 22°S 103°E confluence

(visited by Thai Hoang Dang, Duc Thach Nguyen, Van Dai Lu, Chu Ly and Cho Ha)

06-Apr-2024 -- Muong Tung, Dien Bien

This is the first time for everyone in our group to successfully visit a virgin confluence. This is also the westernmost confluence of Viet Nam and the last unvisited one in Northern Vietnam. It is located in a remote mountainous jungle of Muong Cha District, Dien Bien Province. (Confluence data listed the confluence in Lai Chau. Dien Bien was the southern half of Lai Chau Province, established as a new province in 2004. The confluence is located only 3.14 km from the administrative boundaries of Lai Chau.)

There was an unsuccessful attempt in 2012 by Greg Michaels and Nataliya Vladimirova. Greg Michaels is a professional American mountaineer and confluence hunter who also completed the first confluence in Vietnam back in 2002. But he failed, which means this confluence is no easy feast. After carefully studying his valuable experience and recent satellite map, I realized that there is a little bit of hope that we can achieve this point. However, not just by myself.

I summoned my acquaintance, a middle-aged high school literature teacher named Nguyễn Đức Thạch. He lives in Ninh Thuan on the South-Central Coast of the country but happens to fall in love with the mountains of Northwestern Vietnam. He is extremely skinny but very resilient and skillful in trekking. He had climbed numerous mountains in the North. He would be an excellent companion since the challenge this time is an uncertain location in the middle of a jungle, up a mountainside without any path. Moreover, he is interested in the idea of visiting the unknown.

Since I was living in Australia and Thach was 1780 km away from the confluence, all we can do is study the satellite images as much as possible since online digital maps in Vietnam are almost non-existent. The printed maps I found do not mention any mountain, village or even road name in the area! There is, however, a place on Google Maps with a few tin sheds next to a big creek/river named “Thủy điện Mường Tùng” (Muong Tung Hydropower Plant). This sparks a concern that a reservoir could be in the process of being constructed, but aslo a beacon of hope that a road must be constructed for the trucks and machinery to get in. Thanks to the reasonably quick development in rural Vietnam, there is a pretty new dirt road appears to come up from there to about 2.2 km as the crow flies to the east of the confluence. It seems like we will have to ford this creek to get to that dirt road. A plan was agreed for early April 2024, before the start of the rainy season, Easter break for me, and very busy end of schoolyear for Teacher Thach.

Thach arrived in Muong Lay 1 day before me. The father of the lady who owns Homestay Muong Lay, Uncle Dai, a middle-aged fisherman, was also attracted by the adventure, and decided to join Thach to form an advance party, scouting for the “unnamed’’ outpost village. They rode the motorbike toward the “hydropower plant”, 29 km from Muong Lay township, on a reasonably paved road, in search of intelligence. Luckily, they found 2 young men of Hmong (Mông) ethnicity named Ly Chứ and Hạ Chớ, from the village who agreed to casually work as guides for the mountain trip. The Mông people often live from 800m above sea level, are masters of mountaineering skills who often (literally) run on mountain slopes by jumping on rocks and trees. Assessing the extreme steepness of the mountain slopes, Thach decided to hire these local boys since they roughly knew the area and the ways around which will increase the success rate and reduce the risk of getting lost or injured. We couldn’t be any luckier because there is a brand spanking new concrete bridge built across the creek. There is also a power cable connected to the 3 villages on the other side as recent as 2022. We believed that we could go to the confluence and get back in one day, so we packed as light as possible.

We set out at break of day on the 6th of April. Arrived at the creek crossing point around 7.15 am, and I met Chu and Cho for the first time. They are smart and confident, both finished Year 9 in school so can speak and understand Vietnamese pretty well. I and Thach moved to the pillion seats so the two men could take charge of the motorbikes on the dirt road. The bikes moved up and down some hair-rising slopes and hills that kept me holding tight on the bike’s frame. They are constructing the road, and digging into the hillside so we stopped once for the excavator and the truck to finish their load. Surprisingly, the latter half of the road is completed with shiny concrete. I signaled Cho to stop when we were roughly on the same latitude with the confluence, and there were some fields cleared for farming up the hills.

We started to ascend from there. At first, there were some curious Mong female farmers and children looking at us, possibly wondering what the hell were we doing going past their farm. Then the path keeps going up and up and up, steeper and steeper. It’s narrow, but it is a path, about 1 foot wide, meandering around the hills and heading up. The path disappeared after 500m, then there was some sort of a trail that Uncle Dai called the ‘’buffalo trail’’, which sometimes you can see the buffalo hoofs’ marks left on the ground where it went uphill with the farmers. After 1 hour (1km) the trail also finished or may go to another direction rather than our target. We decided to follow a spring, that does not have much water at this time of the year, to climb straight on the rocky spring bed. It was dry but the rock is still slippery and sometimes we encountered a steep, smooth rock wall to which my Columbia hiking shoes struggled to adhere on the surface. Everyone else wore cheap PVC plastic shoes, but they worked. Thach wore a pair of army rubber sandals the type produced in the war for soldiers who trekked for months on the Ho Chi Minh trail. However, some rock walls were too slippery and steep that Chu and Cho had to take their shoes off and climb with bare feet. Then they would drop a stick or branches down for us to hold on, and then they pulled up. I called it the ‘’escalator fuelled by rice’’.

All paths and trails and tracks stopped at a massive rock about 400m from the confluence. This the the source of the spring, a tiny stream of springwater came out from under the boulder. We stopped to fill up all the empty bottles and have snacks to supply calories. I brought some chlorine tablet all the way from Australia, just in case needed to disinfect natural water, but no one cared to put in the water since it is pretty pure! From there on, it is a constant climb sub-vertically like an indoor rock-climbing session with some differences: there is no shortfall and the rocks you touch can fall off anytime. Sometimes there wasn’t any rock then I had to hold on to vines and lianas which can not support my weight anyway, so every step is a gamble. I slipped three times. It hurt the thighs’ muscles. The bushes up high didn’t help since they were getting more and more spiky, even on the vines’s bark. I was hanging on the cliffs once and both my hands were scratched. The last 200m feels like forever. The guides patiently waited for me, standing on branches like Tarzan since… I was the only one who knew where to go with my compass, and acted as a backup for the GPS. Chu had to pull me up a few times, and Thach had to offer his foot for me to step on twice.

The air was getting warmer, the rock I touched felt very warm, and we saw sun rays. The end is near. The top of the mountain is a tiny bit away. Then all we cared about was getting to the top first, and confluence second. Because we definitely were within 100m of the confluence.

Everyone was tired. We sat down on the top ridge, stretching our legs and smiling at each other for accomplishing the difficult half of the journey. It was almost 1 pm, we constantly hiked for 5 hours. We had lunch with steamed sticky rice and some minced pork, a strange combination if it was sold down the cities. I bought the meals from a hawker at the market around 5.30 am this morning. While chewing, I pulled out my GPS and it indicated that the confluence is… 30m away to the northwest! Thach couldn’t believe his ears. He dropped his meal and grabbed the tracker. He ran toward the point and performed the “confluence dance’’ to get all the zeros. I slowly stand up despite the legs screaming to protest and join him for the final chase. We managed to get 22°00’00’’ and 103°00’00.7’’. Thach was not happy with the 0.7 second, he wanted to climb down the western slope a few more meters to get all zeros but I had to persuade him to stop. The western slope is also 70 degrees steep, full of slippery dried leaves, our legs were weak, in conclusion, not worth it. He listened to me that day but holds a grudge against me until today.


The descent is another story. Chu and Cho could then position where we were and said that there is another way down with a trail, so we wouldn’t have to climb. We followed the ridge south for 800 m, up and down through a rocky track, then Chu pointed to the bush out of nowhere on the east: “Here is the way down”. I looked at the steep drop-down without any clear path and surrendered. I and Thach agreed to either keep following the ridge for another 4 km to the bitumen road or sleep here. We were not only exhausted but also did not want to put ourselves at risk. Uncle Dai is in a much better condition, he decided to try the path with Chu. Cho stayed with us. We split into two groups.

Our group continued for another 700m, then the ridge was suddenly blocked with boulders after boulders. It doesn’t seem like there is any room to pass (21.9883137, 103.0030288). It was 3.30 pm. We saw a shed with a white tin roof on a field straight down. Google Maps on my phone measured 900m (as the crow flies) to the shed. We stuck. I gave up and quickly derived a plan: Cho would get down to the farm (and possibly his village somehow because he refused to stay up here) and early tomorrow morning, he and Chu would go up here to lead us down. We need a night to recover our legs’ muscles and rest to prepare for the steep descent. Thach hesitantly agreed. Cho agreed and disappeared down the mountainside after 10 minutes of looking around. The only flaw in my plan is Chu and Uncle Dai carried the full water bottle down in their backpack. I and Thach, we both have about 200 ml of water left for our long night in the jungle, on the rocky mountain top under 38°C afternoon sun. The boiled eggs left in our backpack became inedible without water. On the other hand, we didn’t have any phone service on the way up, but on top there I managed to have 1 bar of phone signal plus a full portable power bank. I called the homestay to find out that Uncle Dai is on the way home and let them know that we had to cancel our dinner party (to celebrate the confluence) that night!

I was calm but still couldn’t hide my happiness when I heard the "jungle call" of Chu around 7.45 am the next morning from somewhere in the foggy forest. Breakfast includes water, bread, and fresh papaya. We slowly and carefully trod, toddled, and sometimes crawled down the so-called ‘’path’’. Yes, it was a path consisting of rocks placed one after another, but in constant descent along a near-vertical slope. Cho said: “It took me 30 minutes yesterday to get down”. It took us 2.5 hours to get down that 1 km straight line on the map. But this time, fields and fields appeared in front of us, under the scorching sun of early summer. Our bikes were parked there (21.9939210, 103.014440), roasting under the sun. I had to chuck water on the seats to cool them down before our bums got burnt. Our boys took us down these bike tracks which are 1.5 feet wide and 120% sloped through the jungle, back on the dirt road that we entered yesterday.

Thach was exhausted by the time we crossed the creek, and out on to the bitumen road. We paid each of our guides 1 million VND (45 USD, a large sum of money for local villagers) for 2 days, shook hands, and thanked them for the service. I told them that whoever comes in the future in search of this confluence will find them. I then rode the bike with Thach in the pillion seat, headed toward Muong Lay to savor our victory.

 All pictures
#1: The general area at 22°S 103°E confluence
#2: North view
#3: East view
#4: South view
#5: West view
#6: Coordinates on GPS device
#7: Satellite image of the area
#8: Climbing a slippery rock wall with running spring water
#9: Chu and Cho on a typical steep climb
#10: Uncle Dai on a mountainside slope
#11: From left: Chu, Uncle Dai, Thach, Thai & Cho. On top of the mountain, in vicinity of the confluence
#12: Thach enjoyed thuoc lao, a strong tobacco, commonly found in Vietnam, smoked using a bamboo... bong
ALL: All pictures on one page