Known as the Roof of Indochina, Mount Fansipan is Vietnam’s tallest peak and the highest mountain in the Indochinese region (also including Laos and Cambodia). Conquering the summit and marvelling at the view spread out far below is a highlight of any visit to northern Vietnam.
With tips and information learned from a recent visit to the mountain, I’ll explain all you need to know about Mount Fansipan, from practical information to top tips and things to see at the peak.
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A Guide to Visiting Mount Fansipan, Vietnam
A Brief Introduction to Mount Fansipan
Mount Fansipan (sometimes spelt Fan Si Pan or Phang Xi Pang) stands at 3,143 metres and is part of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, the most easterly edge of the trail of mountains that runs southeast from the Himalayas.
Situated in the northwest of Vietnam, Fansipan is located in Lao Cai province and sits around 9km southwest of the former French hill station of Sapa (Sa Pa). Its height was measured in 1909 as 3,143m, but today it’s generally agreed that it now stands at 3,147m above sea level.
Somewhat surprisingly, what you’ll find at the summit is not a wild and rugged exposed peak but a compound of tourist attractions, including restaurants, temples and viewing platforms.
While this might not be the landscape you would expect standing at the highest point in Indochina, it is certainly an interesting experience and the views of Sapa and the surrounding mountains are spectacular.
How to Get to Mount Fansipan
Sapa is the gateway to Mount Fansipan. The town is a six-hour bus ride from Hanoi or between five and six hours from Ha Giang. From here, there are two ways of reaching the summit: hiking or by cable car.
Until 2016, a one to two-day trek was the only way to reach the top of the peak, but since the opening of the cable car, it’s now possible to get from Sapa to the top of Vietnam’s tallest mountain in under 30 minutes! The cable car has made the mountain much more accessible so people of all ages and abilities can enjoy the thrill of standing on a mountaintop.
Trekking to the summit is a challenging but exhilarating and rewarding experience. However, it also takes time and money, whereas reaching the peak by cable car is much easier but can see crowds of tourists at peak times.
Hiking to Mount Fansipan
There are three routes up to the summit, and the most popular is the Tram Ton Pass. At 11.2km, this trail can be completed in one day if you are fit and determined enough. If you wish to do the return hike down the mountain, it’s advised to take at least two days to complete the trek, although some hardy trekkers hike up and down in one day. Some choose to hike up the mountain and take the cable car down, allowing for an easier round trip in a single day.
The start of the Tram Ton trail is a 20-minute drive from Sapa, near the entrance to Love Waterfall (altitude 1,900m). The route is suitable for anyone with a reasonably good fitness level but requires a significant physical effort. Some sections involve climbing metal or peg ladders and the decrease in oxygen due to the rising altitude adds to the challenge.
The time to complete the ascent will vary depending on the number and length of rest stops taken and your fitness level, but summiting may take roughly anywhere between six and eight hours. There are two camps along the route, at 2,200m and 2,800m, allowing for an overnight stay if you wish to spend two or three days on the trail.
In recent years, it has become mandatory to hire a guide to trek to the summit. This follows a couple of incidents where independent hikers went missing on the trail. Nowadays, it is only possible to acquire a permit if you have a guide.
The mountain is situated in a national park and rangers are stationed at the trail entrances. Some hikers still attempt to trek independently and evade the guards but there have been reports of trekkers being threatened or bribed by guards if caught without a guide.
Even if you manage to avoid guards on the way in, it is still possible to be approached by rangers en route or on the way out, therefore it’s highly advised to take a guide if you wish to trek to the summit.
The Sin Chai trail and Cat Cat trail are both much more challenging than the Tram Ton Pass and take around three to four days to complete. Neither are recommended to hike independently and tours are pricey, starting around $300USD for the Sin Chai trail.
The Cat Cat route is the longest and most strenuous of the three routes and tour operators generally don’t offer this as an option, though if you have your heart set on this trail, you may have more luck asking around for a local guide in Sapa.
Mount Fansipan Cable Car
Inaugurated in 2016, the Fansipan Cable Car made it possible to ascend to the highest peak in Vietnam in under 30 minutes, making the Roof of Indochina accessible to all. The journey is an experience in itself with spectacular views.
The cable car system holds the Guinness World Record for the greatest elevation difference by a non-stop three-roped cable car and ascends 1,410m over 6.3km, hovering over lush rice paddies and Hmong villages, before climbing up tree-cloaked mountainsides.
The cable car runs from Hoang Lien Station to Fansipan Station in around 25 minutes. Hoang Lien station is 3km west of Sapa town and can be reached by foot, bus or taxi. By far the most interesting way of getting to the station, however, is by taking the Muong Hoa funicular (a mountainside cable railway).
The train station is in central Sapa, where you can purchase tickets for the return journey on the funicular (Sapa–Hoang Lien, approx. 150,000VND [around $6.45USD]) and the cable car (Hoang Lien–Fansipan, approx. 800,000VND [around $34.40USD]). A small, retro-looking train runs from Sapa to Hoang Lien station in around seven minutes! The whole experience has a Disneyworld feel about it – minus the wearable mouse ears!
Mount Fansipan Tours
There are various Mount Fanispan tours available, including single or multi-day trekking tours, and tours that combine the cable car with trekking around Sapa. One-day guided treks cost around $78–$85USD and a two-day guided trek, camping overnight on the mountain, costs around $135–$145USD. Cable car tickets and Sapa trekking tours cost from around $90USD.
Tours can be booked through various online platforms or there are several trekking companies based in Sapa that offer guided treks to Fansipan if you prefer to book once you have arrived.
Our advice is to hire a guide or book a tour if you plan to trek to the summit. If you wish to take the cable car, it is easier and cheaper to go independently.
Things to See on Mount Fansipan
The summit of Mount Fanispan is a sight to behold. It’s not the wild beauty that hits you first
(that comes later) but the strangeness of finding restaurants and shops on top of a mountain – as you step off the cable car you’ll walk through a complex of cafés, eateries and shops! Weird.
As you exit onto the viewing platform, the open expanse of space gives views over both sides of the mountain and the sense of height takes hold. To the east, countryside spreads out like a blanket below with Sapa nestled in the foothills in the distance. To the west is the towering beauty of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range where craggy peaks rise up from below and as far as the eye can see.
Perhaps less surprising than cafés and shops are the spiritual monuments on Fansipan. Pagodas, monasteries, Buddha statues and stupas dot the route from the cable car all the way to the summit.
One of the most arresting attractions is The Grand Belfry, a 32.8m tall, five-storey building. The upper storey is modelled on a traditional eight-roof pavilion and each storey houses a bronze bell cast in the style of an original from the Tran Dynasty dating back to the 13th century.
The Kim Son Bao Thang Pagoda sits at an elevation of 3,091m and is modelled on Tran Dynasty architecture. This pagoda in the clouds is the biggest on the mountain and features two main shrines and three treasure halls.
The Great Amitabha Buddha Statue is 21.5m tall and the highest seated bronze Buddha statue in Vietnam. It also holds the World Record for the copper statue located at the highest altitude in Asia, sitting at 3,075m above sea level.
To get to the summit proper there are two options:
- Take another funicular
Way up: approx. 150,000VND (around $6.45USD)
Round trip: approx. 270,000VND (approx. $11.60USD)
Note that the walking route features 600 steps and is a taxing, but highly rewarding, climb. Once you have ascended, your efforts feel well worth it as you take in the heavenly panoramic views surrounding the peak.
Metal pyramids state the altitude of 3,143m and a Vietnamese flag is available to take a well-earned selfie with, complete with dramatic backdrop.
Best Time to Visit Mount Fansipan
Spring (March-April) and autumn (September-October) are the best times of year to visit Mount Fanispan, regardless of whether you hike or take the cable car. The temperatures are most comfortable at these times of year and visiting during these months will mean missing the extreme cold in winter, fierce heat in summer and high chance of rain in the wet season (June-September).
September to October also has the added benefit of being the season when the rice fields are ripe, meaning the paddies will be green and lush and the views at their most beautiful.
Although it’s not recommended to hike during the winter or summer months, these times offer something different for those visiting by cable car. December to February can be very cold and cloudy but also holds the possibility of snowfall. Standing on a snow-capped mountaintop in Southeast Asia is certainly a special experience! The rainy season sees fewer visitors so is a great time to summit if you prefer fewer crowds.
As with all mountains, the weather can be unpredictable and change quickly. Blue skies can cloud over in minutes and foggy conditions can clear just as quickly. As such, it’s difficult to determine the best time of day to reach the peak but generally speaking, midday to early afternoon may be the best time, after the morning mist has lifted.
Practical Information for a Visit to Mount Fansipan
The cable car runs from Sapa to Fansipan from 8 am to 4.30 pm on weekdays, with the last return journey at 6 pm. On weekends and public holidays, it runs from 7 am to 5 pm, with the last journey back towards Sapa at 7 pm.
The funicular opens at 7.45 am on weekdays and 6.30 am at weekends.
If you take on a two-day hike, you can reach the summit early morning before the cable car opens and enjoy having the views to yourself!
Tickets for the cable car and funicular can be bought on the day at Sapa Station or Hoang Lien Station but pre-booking via the Sunworld Fansipan Legend website is possible and advisable for peak times such as public holidays.
The cable car (Hoang Lien Station to Fanispan Station) costs approx. 800,000VND (around $34.40USD) for a return ticket, or around 900,000VND (approx. $38.70USD) on Saturday mornings and public holiday mornings.
The Muong Hoa funicular (Sapa to Hoang Lien Station) costs around 150,000VND (approx. $6.45USD) return.
The Fanispan funicular (to the summit) costs around 150,000VND for the way up and around 120,000VND (approx. $5.10USD) for the way down.
Tips for Visiting Mount Fansipan
- Dress appropriately
Whether you’re hiking or riding the cable car, make sure you dress for the changeable mountain conditions. Layers are key and will allow you to add or remove clothes as the weather changes. Hiking boots are recommended for trekking and don’t forget sun protection too – hat, glasses and sunscreen.
- Walk to save some dong
The station for the cable car is just 3km outside Sapa, which is within walking distance and saves money otherwise spent on the funicular or a taxi. Another cheaper alternative is to take a local bus. Avoid the hefty fee for the funicular up to the summit and take the steps instead. It’s cheaper, healthier and will give you a greater sense of achievement!
- Bring snacks and water
Especially important if you are hiking, but equally handy if you take the cable car. With so much to explore at the peak, you’ll want to allow a couple of hours. Having snacks and plenty of water will keep you going and save you money on buying food and drink at the onsite eateries.
- Prepare to be windswept
It can get very windy on top of the mountain so bring an extra layer or windproof jacket to shield from the cold. Don’t wear any loose-fitting hats or sunglasses that can get whipped away over the side of the mountain either!
- Take it slow
The altitude at the peak, and on the way up if hiking, means that there is less oxygen in the air, which makes it harder to breathe than at sea level. Take it easy on the ascent and when climbing the steps to the summit. It is recommended to slow down and take lots of breaks if you feel yourself struggling.
- Avoid peak times
Saturday mornings and public holidays are popular times to visit, and the price of the cable car is increased by around 100,000VND ($4.30USD). Avoid the price hike and the worst of the crowds by steering clear of these times. Lunar New Year is an especially busy period with many domestic tourists so is also best avoided.
- Keep hold of your ticket
If you’re travelling by cable car, you’ll receive one ticket for the round trip. Make sure you keep hold of it (don’t let it fly away in the wind!) or you’ll have to pay again to descend the mountain.
Rugged landscapes, mountain views, religious monuments and cafés in the clouds – there is a lot to see and do at the Roof of Indochina! Such a unique experience will surely appeal to many types of travellers, from outdoor enthusiasts who will relish spending a night on a mountainside to city-dwellers who’ll appreciate the convenience of summiting via train and cable car, and those who will simply enjoy the novelty of shopping and dining on top of a mountain.
However you choose to get there, the view and thrill of reaching Vietnam’s tallest peak is an exhilarating experience. The only question is: which way will you summit Mount Fansipan?