Day hiking Vietnam’s Mount Fansipan is a fatiguing but extremely rewarding introduction to Southeast Asia’s many outdoor adventures. Trail stats are at bottom of page.
Trekking to the Top of Southeast Asia
By Daniel Anderson Jr.
It’s 4:30 a.m., and I am whizzing over one of northern Vietnam’s dusty mountain roads on a tiny red motorcycle. Chah, my Dao tribe trail guide who stands all of 5’1”, revs the engine as I shamelessly cling to his waist from behind. Every time we careen around a hairpin curve, our entire outfit tilts precariously and threatens to fling my unwieldy 6’3” body off the backend. Even though my Ichabod Crane-like knees jut out awkwardly, our speed is exhilarating. Dawn’s faint rays illuminate the vibrantly green peaks above us. We zoom past teetering Hyundai fruit trucks and groups of colorfully-wrapped Black Thai women jingling towards tourist haven Sapa with baskets of handmade trinkets for sale.
The trailhead is an abandoned colonial French outpost in the middle of the Hoang Lien Mountains. I pause for a few perfunctory stretches while Chah glances impatiently between me and the trail. I sling my newly purchased counterfeit North Face daypack over my shoulders and pick up my Black Diamond trekking poles. All set. I am ready to climb Southeast Asia’s highest peak: Mt. Fansipan.
Fansipan is the reason I am in Vietnam. Anticipating a two-week Christmas break from a yearlong teaching gig in Beijing, I decide to flee my first ever snowy winter and enjoy balmier climes farther south during my time off. A fellow backpacker from Beijing gave Fansipan rave reviews, and my decision was made.
Not bothering to research the mountain’s location beforehand, my China Southern Airways flight lands me in Saigon (Ho Chi Hinh City) in southern Vietnam. It didn’t take long to figure out that Fansipan rises in Vietnam’s far north near the Chinese border. Doh! Looking at a map, I realize that I have a 2,000 kilometer journey, no knowledge of local languages, and no friends in a bustling country of 90 million souls. With only 13 days of vacation left, I also have no time to loose.
I purchase what I understand to be a nonstop bus ticket to Hanoi in the lobby of my guest house in Saigon’s popular Pham Ngu Lao district. Dozens of tourists and locals board a blazing red, unexpectedly comfortable Minh Phuc Travel bus. Eight hours later, we arrive in beach city Na Trang. Standing alone on the unfamiliar street corner, I watch nervously as the bus trundles back towards Saigon. “Are we going to Hanoi?” I ask a receptionist with trepidation. “Yes. Tomorrow night.” Having travelled in the developing world before, I know never to place much hope in a detailed itinerary. Thirty-six whirlwind hours and several more impromptu delays later, I finally reach Hanoi.
One thousand, six hundred and forty-seven kilometers down; 336 to go. My ever-helpful Lonely Planet travel guide leads me to Hanoi’s Tran Quy Cap train station for a ticket to Sapa, the mountain town nearest to Fansipan. A German woman, flanked by a haggard husband and two terrified-looking children, yells at a station attendant in the lobby. I shuffle past and board a comfortable first class railcar ($35). Room 4, number 14. The next five hours on my cabin bed are easy. My bunkmates are a friendly, middle-aged Singaporean couple who tell me all about their love for cruising their Harley Davidsons through Thailand. I even manage to get some sleep.
The final two hour bus ride from our train stop in Lao Cai leaves me in the middle of quaint Sapa, an old Bavarianesque vacation spot for French colonials. I easily find a $5 dollar-a-night lodging at the sparse but cheerfully managed Pinocchio Hotel and stretch out on one of the three foam beds in my room. Success! I fully appreciate the miracle that I am in Vietnam’s northern mountains with plenty of time left to trek up Fansipan. Suddenly, 2,000 kilometers of cramped and uncertain travel seems well worth the hassle.
From the trailhead, the footpath descends several steep drops into a shallow canyon and passes a drying streambed that reminds me of scenes from The Thin Red Line. The hardened clay ground makes for sturdy steps, but the trail is clearly not maintained. We maneuver around washed out gullies and clamber up slippery near-vertical inclines. At the far end of the gorge, the path forgoes switchbacks entirely and climbs relentlessly upwards. Chah, wearing oldie flip-flops, hops effortlessly from rock to rock and tells me about his family. Looking younger than I am, he already has a wife and several children. Through inventive English sentences and zealous charades, he communicates that they live with his parents in a neighboring alpine village.
Fansipan (10,312 feet) is often called the rooftop of Southeast Asia. I am almost completely unprepared physically for the hike. Lonely Planet advertises only two backpacking options: a strenuous three-day trip and the exhausting two-day option. The day before, I strolled into a cavernous tour shop containing only a small school desk and an antique chair. The gimlet-eyed clerk behind the counter offers an unexpected alternative: “Would you like to hike Fansipan in one day?” Not backpacking overnight would render 80% of my carefully selected luggage unnecessary, but why not? I take it as a dare.
Chah darts ahead and Billy goats gracefully from one toehold to the next. He shouts back at me. “Come on!” I struggle over a lengthy and precipitous slope. Before coming to Vietnam, my impression was that the entire area is covered with uninterrupted rainforest. Even though everything is verdant in Northern Vietnam’s mountains, the jungle is thin and low. We are constantly surrounded by blackened earth and the burnt husks of dead trees. Chah explains that, at lower elevations, the hill tribes periodically burn the forests in order to minimize undergrowth, avoid wild predators, and clear land for agriculture. Far removed from the constraints of such a life, I am disappointed. The only “wildlife” we see on the entire hike are three cows chomping at a bush.
As we gain altitude, the woods thicken. The morning fog starts to dissipate, and jagged mountain peaks materialize around us. Serpentine ribbons of mountain ridgelines connect and separate in all directions; rims are barbed and dramatic. We scramble up slippery mud-covered ravines. Suddenly, we reach the range’s razor-edged backbone, and the trail becomes discernibly maintained with sturdy concrete handrails and an level pathway. The going is slower as the trail ascends quickly with cliff-like slopes falling on either side. I take my time clinging to the rails and pause for a moment to take in the vistas. I hear Chah’s voice ahead. “Come on!”
Previous trips with friends in the developing world gave me confidence to set out on my own. Travelling solo through Southeast Asia stirs unwanted but somehow alluring memories of the first European explorers in the area. Milton Osborne’s The Mekong outlines their adventures. After securing a trade empire based at Malacca, Portuguese explorers gallivanted through the region’s interior by the mid-16th century causing trouble in whichever native society they encountered. Names like Tome Pires, Antonio de Faria, and Ferdinand Mendez Pinto explored the coastlines of present-day Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1540s. Contemporary maps of the continent’s untamed interior attest to their forgotten exploits seeking trade, wealth, and conversions to Christianity. I imagine the wonder these men must have felt as they travelled in such distant and unknown cultures and contexts. Every sight was a new discovery; every jungle bend presented these men with something new to grapple with and understand.
I briefly begrudge the mass communication of our internet age for nearly spoiling Vietnam’s many unique surprises. Before disembarking from my plane at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Google Images already illustrates the sights I would experience: locals’ garb, the natural scenery, notable landmarks. But venturing out alone without a detailed plan rekindles an adventurous spirit of the unknown. Topography and cities are new to me. New friendships are always novel, and never knowing what to expect next is exciting. Even in a modern age, travelers can catch a glimpse of 500 year old swashbuckling adventure. Never mind the every-moment control I normally exercise over my life. In Vietnam, I am immediately addicted to the risky unknown.
The hike’s last push is extremely difficult. My legs and chest sting with pain, but I scramble up a sludge-covered embankment encased by dense, leafy ferns and trees on either side. Chah disappears somewhere ahead. Suddenly, the peak appears out of the mist in front of me. I made it. The jungle stops at the base of a 50 foot high pile of rocks at the summit, and I carefully wobble to a perch at the pinnacle. Two Australian cyclists are eating a snack with their guide, and we chat briefly about trail conditions. Chah and I gaze out across the mountain range. Eye level clouds obscure portions of the view as they pass. Chah tells me that Dien Bien Phu lies further west. Sapa is hidden 19 kilometers to the north.
A small, silver pyramid marks Fansipan’s apex and prosaically reads: “Fansipan/3143m”. I sit next to a nearby statue of the Buddha which someone had cemented onto the rock. On his pedestal lies offerings of an orange, a mummified apple slice, and a package of four cheese-filled crackers. I snap a few pictures and relax. Hooray! Only five days ago, I arrived at the wrong side of Vietnam. I close my eyes and wonder what I should do next with the remainder of my time in this magnificent place. Before I can finish my thought, I am interrupted by Chah’s shrill voice: “Come on!” It’s time to go.
December 27, 2009
Dan Points: “8” for sweeping views over Southeast Asia’s dramatic green mountains
Difficulty: Extremely Strenuous
Distance: 14 miles round-trip
Time: 8 to 10 hours
Trails: Followable, but paid guides ($35-$50 per person) are helpful to navigate the unfamiliar route
Elevation: About 3,800 feet cumulative gain
Directions: Get to Sapa in Vietnam’s northern mountains. Local tour operators will help iron out the details from there.
More information can be found at Lonely Planet’s website. October through December is the least wet time to go.