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…Book your Mount Fansipan and Sapa Trek here.
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 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!
In 2016, a cable car opened to take visitors close to the peak of Fansipan. For more information on how to reach the top of the mountain without a multi-day trek, scroll to the bottom of this article.
Fansipan Trek Day 1
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.
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.
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.
Fansipan Trek Day 2
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fansipan Cable Car
Opened on February 2nd 2016, the Fansipan cable car has made getting to The Roof of Indochina a much simpler task.
Located less than 3km from the centre of Sapa, the cable car station is within easy walking distance for most travellers but if you’re not feeling the short trek, there’s plenty of taxis who will drop you off at the station for around 200,000VND.
In 2018 a train running from Sapa to the cable car station opened. The costs are the same as a taxi at around 200,000VND but it takes less than half the time!
The cable car itself stretches more than 6.3km and climbs over 1400 metres on its way to Fansipan. This makes it the longest non stop three rope cable car in the world and means it holds the record for the greatest elevation gain by a non-stop three rope cable car!
It costs a little over 700,000VND for a return ticket and takes around 20 minutes to get from one end to the other. The cars are capable of holding 30-35 people at a time but if you visit during the week or in low season, you’ll likely get a whole car to yourself.
At maximum capacity, the cable car can carry 2000 people per hour up the mountain so the experience has changed dramatically since its introduction. There are now shops, cafes, toilets and even WiFi near the peak!
The cable car doesn’t make it all the way to the top though, there are still 600 steep, uneven steps to contend with. These can be slippery in poor weather so watch your footing! However, if you don’t fancy the 30-minute climb from the cable car to the peak, there’s a funicular which can whisk you to the very top in a matter of minutes. This costs 100,000VND and can only transport 200 people per hour. On busy days, you might be waiting a while for a ride!
The introduction of the cable car, train and funicular has changed the face of Fansipan forever and reaching the peak is not the mammoth achievement it once was. But now the beauty of The Roof of Indochina can be appreciated by everyone, not just a few fit individuals with plenty of time on their hands.
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