There are many incredible opportunities for trekking in South East Asia, from Malaysia’s mighty Kinabalu to Indonesia’s steaming volcanoes. English backpacker, Selena Black climbs to the wild peak of Vietnam’s highest mountain, the rugged Mount Fansipan, and lives to tell the tale…
With a brief look at the wonderful world of Hanoi, we vowed to be back in a few days and hurriedly made tracks (literally) settled semi-comfortably on a hard-sleeper night train chugging its way to Sapa.
The cute little cabins on the Fansipan Express to Sapa
The chilling cold was not a welcome surprise at the other end, as we sleepily endured another lunatic drive to Sapa town. The surrounding mist made for zero visibility, but as to be expected on Vietnamese buses, nothing would slow our lead-footed driver down, and we spent the trip white-knuckled, uttering nervous sighs of relief whenever we made it through each blind-overtaking cliff-corner manoeuvre.
Jumping shakily off the van straight into a quick and cheap deal with a local hotel owner, secured us a 2-day, 1-night trek up Mount Fansipan, starting within the hour. Hastily layering with every piece of clothing we had, we were all geared up to go!
Being the stingy back-packing types, we had opted for the ‘carry your own supplies’ option, and after cramming everything from 2 dozen eggs, to a raw chicken, to sleeping bags into one pack, some of us (me in particular) were somewhat regretting our decision. We had not spoken to anyone along the tourist trail who had attempted the mountain, and going in with mindless oblivion was probably for the best.
The bag was easily heavier than anything I’d ever carried before and if I had known the almost vertical incline of the track we were about to undertake, I probably would have backed out then and there.
Wrapped up warm for the climb up Mount Fansipan
The mighty peak of Mount Fansipan!
Posing for some ‘before’ photos in front of the ominous looking mountain range, our young spritely guide Muon gave us a brief itinerary of the trek. Mostly uphill was the general gist of things. Throughout the first morning, we kept a fairly steady pace, over small undulating bush covered hills and rock-hopping over clean trickling streams via natural bridges, the path nothing more than an animal’s trail.
The afternoon proved to be more challenging, earlier obstacles of overgrown roots replaced by entire trees and waist height boulders, in addition to a near vertical trail that had us cursing with every few meters. We took turns in carrying the pack, its weight dragging us off balance with every upwards haul, a few times having us teetering dangerously on rock edges.
The windy, wooded trail up Mount Fansipan
A guide for this trail is absolutely essential, as the track disappears into the afternoon, replaced by a wall of rocks and trees. Natural ladders had been carved into tree trunks to help us in our attempts, these only found by our little guide who knew the mountains like the back of his hand.
Exhausted, but exhilarated, we wearily dragged our legs into the clearing to be our camp for the night. Our guide, Muon, expertly cooked our raw chicken into a delicious array of simple dishes and we hunkered down in our sleeping bags for a few torch lit card games.
Cosy sleeping mats and pillows (that we had been secretly hoping the guide was carrying) were non-existent, thus our bed for the night, situated in a large non-wind proof hut, was uneven wooden boards. It was safe to say that with the minus degree temperatures, the wind whistling past our noses, and the rock-solid sleeping surface, no-one got a wink of sleep.
Arising tired and grumpy, and after devouring a welcome bowl of steaming noodles, we left our bags (thankfully!) at the camp and started the 3-hour upward climb to the summit.
Views of Vietnam’s wild countryside from the Fansipan trail
The trail was incredible, ranging from glistening bamboo forests that clicked and clacked as the freezing wind prevailed, to views of the surrounding mountain ranges curled with mist. The tiny town of Sapa could be seen nestled far in the distance, but apart from that it was just us and nature at its best. As we broke through the line of trees, the bare terrain had us in its windy grasp, and finally, the peak looked reachable.
A few more minutes of persistent scrambling, and we were there, greeted by an unbelievable panoramic of jaggedly clustered mountains, and of course a triangular plaque as proof we had reached our destination. Mount Fansipan: 3143meters. Not the highest we have been, but definitely the toughest trip to the top.
Finally, on the peak of Mount Fansipan!
Jumping for joy to have reached Vietnam’s highest peak!
Silently we took a breath-recovering minute to take in the sights. The mountain range lay huge and dormant, wisps of cloud clinging like delicate cotton wool to their jungle covered cliffs. We were lucky we had hit a perfectly clear day, and although the sun’s rays had no hope of warming us against the wind, the blue sky made for a jaw-dropping backdrop.
Incredible views of mountain ranges covered in mist
17km and eight hours later, no-one had slipped down that same steep path that we had struggled up the day before, and we were sitting awkwardly on red kindy stools at the tracks entrance. Flushed faces glowing in our accomplishments, we sipped the Vietnamese sweet tea forced upon us by the friendly local ladies who took pity on our sorry looking selves.
Our muscles ached in places that they’ve never ached before, and it was bliss to be able to have a long hot shower and collapse into a semi-comatose sleep. For days afterwards we hobbled around like geriatrics, but to see that view and claim the title of having reached Indochina’s highest peak was well worth it. For those who wish to attempt Mount Fansipan, prepare for a hard slog, but unbeatable views of Vietnam’s pristine wilderness.
BACKPACKER TIP: Our choice to wait until we reached Sapa to book the Fansipan Trip was the best decision we made, as tours from Hanoi (train inclusive) were well-over-priced.
Note: There’s now a 6km-long cable car that climbs nearly 1,500 metres and takes you more than halfway there, then there are another 600 metres to reach the top.