How we made it

Vietnamese flag flies atop Mount Everest

On May 22, 2008, at 6:00 a.m. Nepal time, Vietnam’s red and yellow national flag began flying on top of Everest, one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Bui Van Ngoi wit national flag on Everest top at 6 a.m. on May 22, 2008. Beside Ngoi, Everest top was fully covered with five different color flags with  blue, white, red, green and yellow representative of the “five basic elements” of Middle Asian Buddhism (sky, wind, fire, water, and land). – Photo by Lasta Company.

The flag was placed at an elevation of 8,850 meters (29,029 ft) above sea level on the earth’s highest mountain after being conquered by three young men: Bui Van Ngoi, 24; Phan Thanh Nhien, 23; and Nguyen Mau Linh, 31.

During this exploit, the climbers wrote their names in Everest history when they became the first ever Vietnamese persons to successfully conquer “the world roof-top.”

That night, no one slept in Everest Base Camp.

On May 21, 2008 at 9:10 p.m. Bradley Clement, the high-altitude cameraman for the Vietnam expedition, called from Camp 4, located at 7,925 meters, and announced that the three Vietnamese athletes just departed on their final ascent. He stated that their itinerary anticipated conquering the top within the next ten hours.  Bradley promised to call the Everest Base Camp as soon as they reached the top successfully.

Three different weather news companies (West Coast Weather from the USA, British Satellite Weather, and Swiss Weather) were meticulously monitored during the climb because the weather can change instantly at Everest. Based on reports, a window from May 19 to 25 appeared to be the most favorable (weather-wise) to conquer the top.

However, things suddenly changed and during the night of May 21, the weather at base camp grew very cold with strong winds pushing in. The Vietnamese support team at base camp paced back and forth, anxious for their colleagues and unable to sleep.

The Vietnamese team on the way to Camp 2. Photo by Lasta Company

At 5:15 a.m. we heard shouting coming from the tent of Indian delegation. They had two groups of climbers conquering Everest this season, and ten of their mountain-climbers already stood on top of the world.

The more they shouted, the more anxious our Vietnamese contingent began to feel.

Expedition leader Huynh Van Van wouldn’t let his Thuraya satellite telephone out of his hand.

The weather mirrored the emotional rollercoaster at base camp.  At 6:00 a.m. it was somewhat calmer with the sun peeking through fast-moving clouds, but an hour later the wind was howling and our tent shook violently.

In the distance near the top of Everest, the snow on Mt. Nuptse (7,900m) was being blasted off the ridge in one direction. A fog rapidly descended on base camp and dense snow began to fall. All the sudden, we couldn’t see a thing- this was the worst weather we had in a month and our team was out there somewhere, we hoped above the clouds.

At 9:00 a.m. the Indian team announced that all of their athletes conquered the peak successfully, while expedition leader Huynh Van Van still had no signal on his satellite phone. The fire was burning in everyone’s heart as the hours slowly creeped by: 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m., but the telephone remained silent. Our team members in the base camp looked each other and worried, but no one spoke of such thoughts.  They just tried to keep busy and continued trying to reach Bradley- more than a hundred times without results.

They remained at Camp 2 for two nights in order to rest and adapt to the altitude.  On the third day, it took seven hours more for them to climb the sometimes vertical ice slopes and arrive at Camp 3. Photo by Lasta Company

Suddenly at 12:30 p.m. a member of Indian delegation came running into our base-camp and gave us the word: “The Vietnamese delegation successfully conquered! Three athletes made it to the top!”

Really? Really? The questions were raised while the heavy weight and worry on everyone’s chest was lifted. The Indian friend expressed his sympathy for the lack of contact and worry.  He stated that he was contacted by the tour guides and that Vietnamese athletes were present at the peak.

However, it took hours after receiving this joyful news from the Indian delegation to get Bradley’s official confirmation call.   According to Bradley, the weather on the top was so severe, his satellite phone failed to operate. After descending back to Camp 4 (at 1:30 a.m. Vietnamese time) he was finally able to make contact.

The itinerary of conquering “the world roof-top”

Due to unstable psychology and health, on April 30, athlete Le Ba Cong requested to opt out after completing two stages of training at Khumbu ice falls and  Camp 2.

Hence, only three athletes, Ngoi, Nhien and Linh continued towards the peak of Everest after a miserable month training at Everest Base Camp (Nepal) that included progressive stages of adapting to the height and lack of oxygen in Camp 1 (5,950m), Camp 2 (6,500m), and Camp 3(7,300m).  The mountaineering motto is “climb high, sleep low;” they would climb increasingly higher to let the body adapt to the lower oxygen, but then return lower to recover.

Mt. Everest climbing route. Source from

Approximately 4,000 people have attempted to climb Mt. Everest, the 60- million- year- old wonder of the world, yet only 660 have stood on the top.  That is a minute 16.5% success rate, of which more than 200 have lost their lives trying; many of which failed in the final assault on the mountain.

Accompanying the Vietnamese athletes were two high-altitude cameramen and Sherpa guides.

According to cameraman Bradley, it took five hours for them to overcome the Khumbu ice falls, the area mountain-climbers consider as the most dangerous on the itinerary, and another three hours to reach camp 2. They remained at Camp 2 for two nights in order to rest and adapt to the altitude.  On the third day, it took seven hours more for them to climb the sometimes vertical ice slopes and arrive at Camp 3.

Map of the top of Mt.Everest. Source from

After one night’s rest at Camp 3, they traveled four hours to arrive at Camp 4, which stands at an elevation of 7,925 meters.

At an altitude of 8,000 meters, there is only a third of the amount of oxygen in the air, making every step a battle.  The locals call it the “Death Zone.”  At 9:00 p.m. on May 21 they departed Camp 4 and after over eight hours of overcoming driving snows, shivering temperature of -40 oC, at 6:00 a.m., the Vietnamese red flag with a yellow star was flying high on “the world roof-top.”

Of the more than 200 people who died climbing Mt. Everest, 42 reached the summit and died on the way down.  The return trip is not to be taken for granted, and dangerous weather can sweep in at any time, so the athletes held up in Camp 4 for one night and rested their bodies and recovered their health.  The altitude at Camp 4 requires that they wear oxygen masks in order to sleep.  When they woke the next morning they continued the itinerary of climbing down the mountain.

Phan Thanh Nhien on the top of the world. Photo by Lasta Company.

A Proud Country

Of the more than 200 lives Everest has claimed, 120 of those bodies were never recovered.  During their “world roof-top” ascent, the Vietnamese men saw dead bodies buried in the ice and snow.   They were athletes who started up the mountain with the same goal as theirs but, due to unfortunate circumstances or unpredictable weather, failed and were never seen alive again.  As humans, anyone would feel dispirited witnessing these images firsthand.

One day earlier than anticipated, the Vietnamese climbers arrived at the Everest Base Camp safely on May 24, 2008.  Completely exhausted after the long passage of conquering the earth’s highest peak, they were absolutely touched and changed forever, speaking of having experienced the thrill of life at the summit alongside death, leaving those frozen bodies behind buried in the snow.  Three young men, Bui Van Ngoi, Phan Thanh Nhien, and Nguyen Mau Linh spoke with reporter Nam Nguyen (Tuoi Tre Newspaper) about their Vietnamese “young” proud feelings while raising their national flag on “the world roof-top” on May 22, 2008.

Here is an  interview with the first Vietnamese to summit Mt. Everest, taken when they got back from the mountaintop, including pictures from when they reached the top of the world . Source from YouTube

Q: Congratulations! In addition to myself, all of Vietnam wants to know how you felt and what you were thinking in the first moments you put your feet on the world’s tallest mountain peak?

  – Bui Van Ngoi: From Camp 2 (6,500m) the top, we climbed by rope through vertical icy slopes about 80 to 90 degrees.  On the night of May 21, at approximately 8:00 p.m., we departed from the camp 4 at a height about 7,925m. After over eight hours straight climbing, at about 6:00 a.m. local time (7:15 a.m. Vietnamese time), I put my first step on the 8,850m mountain top. In my mind, at that time, the only thing I could remember was taking the Vietnamese flag out from my chest pocket where I had placed it at the start of our departure from base camp.

With extreme pride, I raised my national flag high for the cameraman to take some pictures. After three, four minutes, I kept calm and shouted loudly “Vietnamese spirit integrated with the world.” At that moment, I only felt happy and calm. I thought about my family and friends for supporting us throughout.

Phan Thanh Nhien: Would you ever believe that there would be a traffic jam like Saigon on the top of Mount Everest? Because this year, China closed the door on climbing the mountain from their side, it forced everyone to climb from Nepal and increased the volume of traffic. Although we departed from Camp 4 making good time, there were also nearly 100 other mountain-climbers who set out to reach the peak that same day. On the trail to the peak, there was only available established rope so we had to wait one by one until  it was our turn.

When coming to Hillary Step, there was only 80m to go in order to reach the top but I had to wait nearly one hour to get my turn.  Finally, I put my feet on the top at approximately 8:00 a.m. Nepal time.  Unlike my past experiences when I conquered previous mountain tops, I did not cry this time but my spirits were high.

– Nguyen Mau Linh: I reached the top about 20 minutes after Nhien. It is very difficult to express my feeling at that time in words because no words seem to do those feelings any justice.  I felt that a huge pressure was released when we conquered together successfully. I know that so many people doubted that we could do it.  They had no faith in us and didn’t believe Vietnamese citizens could conquer Mt. Everest.  At that point, I only wanted to tell something to all of our Vietnamese people.  Our youth can do anything if we have the will, the determination, the teamwork, and the chance.  We proved that today.

Nguyen Mau Linh on the top of Mt. Everest. Photo by Lasta Company

Q: Everest is a glorious but severe peak. Many people left their bodies on this icy peak forever. What did you think about your itinerary?

Bui Van Ngoi: To me, it was the fate of my life. When joining the program “Vietnamese conquer the top of Everest,” I used to think perhaps one of the three of us would leave out body on that mountain forever. Do you know that when we were going from Camp 4 to climb to the top, I witnessed not only one dead body, but three more bodies. They just lied there, peacefully, lodged in the snowy ice. Their clothes were intact and the body was in one place while the head was in another place. My two legs were shaking when the Sherpa guide asked me, “Up or down?” I answered quickly without thinking “Up!”  People have done it before. Why can’t a Vietnamese person do it? And so I continued walking.

Nguyen Mau Linh: We knew Everest was harsh and my last conquering days were long and hard. On May 21, an hour before leaving to go to the top, we sat together and I said, “If all three of use cannot make it to the top, we must try for at least one among the three to make it. There must be at least one Vietnamese person who makes it to the top.”  We had a goal and we were going to make sure it happened.

I can remember that night, when we were climbing from Camp 4 to the top, I daydreamed: “Someone’s head lamp is too bright !” A shivering wind woke me up more, and when looking carefully, I realized it was the moon on my head. On the way back down from the top, after looking at the path we had just climbed up, I couldn’t understand how I had come to the top. They were vertical slopes about 80-90 degrees and there were clouds below my legs.

The line between life and death at this altitude of over 8,000m is thin.  In the front of me a dead body that had been stuck on the trail became suddenly dislodged and fell down in front of me.  I almost left my own body on the mountain when my oxygen cylinder suddenly broke on the descent. Fortunately, I met Nhien and both of us were able to share his oxygen cylinder which saved me.

On the way to Camp 3. Photo by Lasta Company

Phan Thanh Nhien: After nearly a year devoted to this program, there were only three brothers. We united with a common goal to reach the top and we made it. On the way, I was so exhausted that I could hardly keep my eyes open.  My hands were clumsy and numb from rope climbing for over eight hours.  We were so tired, but we knew if we didn’t keep holding on tight, it could cost us our lives.  I had to step aside for five minutes to breathe, but as I did, I thought about everyone’s expectations of me back home and I walked gradually back towards the front. I sometime worried and thought how difficult it was going to be for me to go back down the mountain, but once I placed my feet on the top of Mt. Everest… I seemed to be provided with the strength and courage to go back down.

Q: The long itinerary of conquering the top ends successfully. Where do you go from here?  What other dreams do you have for your life?

– Bui Van Ngoi: For myself, to live life is to have aspirations and to dream. I still have many future plans, but I do not want to reveal them. But I will say that I believe if we have a dream, or a goal, young people like us will remain determined to make it a reality.

– Phan Thanh Nhien: Currently, I plan to continue my education and complete my degree at the university. But in my mind, I currently have a plan for my future career, such as the being a mountain guide to take people to the remote, dangerous mountains in Vietnam. Why not?

– Nguyen Mau Linh: I believe that, in addition to myself, or the three of us, most of the Vietnamese youth want the very best of things for our fatherland.  I want everyone to believe in our young generation; our future.


The Vietnamese Everest expedition in 2008. Photo by Nam Nguyen

Vietnamese smiles 

When seeing Bui Van Ngoi, Phan Thanh Nhien, and Nguyen Mau Linh on the afternoon of May 24 after their descent, their skin was darker and they had lost approximately 5kg of weight, but their smiles were radiant. Smiles made in Vietnam.

While waiting for the three Vietnamese athletes in the Khumbu ice falls, we met many mountain-climbers from other countries that were going back after conquering the top. Upon seeing us, they waved their hands and spoke loudly, “The Vietnamese team is only ten minutes behind!” They laughed, “When we saw the red jackets with the red flag and yellow star and the radiant smiles, we knew it was the Vietnamese!”

Taking off his backpack, Nhien had a big smile: “During the climb up and down, other teams knew well of our team. When we saw them, we just waved our hands and they said immediately, ‘Hello Vietnam team! Congratulations!’  We were very proud of that.”

In this season of mountain-climbing at Mt. Everest, the Vietnam expedition was the  “new-comer.” Our camp was conveniently located in major path through Everest Base Camp, and so almost all climbing teams dropped by once or twice.  Vietnamese food was brought to welcome the guests from many countries, such as America, Australia, Canada and Switzerland.

Mario Merelli, the famous Italian mountain-climber who conquered seven mountains higher than 8,000m without oxygen, said, “I have come to Everest many times, and met many nationalities. In such a snowy, icy and windy place, I wanted to make friends with everyone. But with other delegations, when I just waved my hands and smiled to them, I only received forced nods and their smiles weren’t friendly.  But when I came across the Vietnamese expedition, every single one of them was friendly and welcoming. I would love to visit your country in the future!”

For  more photos of the Vietnamese journey on the way to the top of the world, watch photos gallery below. Source:

Writer: Nam Nguyen


One Response to How we made it

  1. Pingback: Thirsty work for THP’s Tran Qui Thanh – The Trumpiest

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