Trekking to the “Roof of Indochina”: Mt. Fansipan
At 3,143 meters (10,312 ft), the Fansipan peak is the highest point in Indochina. That means Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
I don’t know why but figured this would be an easy hike for me to get my climbing muscles back in shape for an upcoming hike in Taiwan. Well, now I’m worried because this hike to Fansipan peak was anything but Easy!
Of course, the 2-day downpour we had while on the trek didn’t help.
So, flights are cheap in Asia and the 1 1/2 hour flight from Bangkok to Hanoi was only a little over $100.
Arrived in the morning and took the airport bus to the middle of the “Old Quarter”. Following our route on my Google maps, I was able to be dropped off 2 blocks from the hotel I had picked.
The Kangaroo hostel is really a hotel and it was only $15. I had a front room, street view, and OK room. The staff was totally friendly and helpful and I enjoyed my stay there. Although I must say, Hanoi is not my favorite town.
I’m a walker and the Vietnamese use the sidewalks to park their motorbikes and run their little tea shops and restaurants.
So, you walk in the streets, where everyone loves to use their horns to let you know they are there. Loud and dangerous. And hot.
While in the capital city of Hanoi, I did go to two tourist sites that had been recommended: The Military Museum and Ho Chi Minh’s resting place, or mausoleum. Now, back in the early ’90s, when I travel led through Russia and China, I saw both Lenin and Mao Tse Tung’s bodies, lying in their deteriorating states in their perspective capitols. I was expecting to see the same of Ho Chi Minh here, but no! You are not even allowed near the door here and the guards are right on you if you venture across a particular yellow line.
The war museum was a little cooler and I checked it out, expecting to see it all about the “American War” in which I had many friends who fought in it. (the Vietnam war of course to us). Yes, the Vietnamese call it the American War. But the museum also has some ancient weapons and is slightly interesting if war is your thing.
It was wicked hot while I was there and after a day, I booked the night, sleeper train (through the great hotel staff) to Lao Cai and the touristy, hill tribe town of Sapa.
I hadn’t been on a sleeper train in a long time and reviews said it was a bumpy ride. 4 people to a compartment in 2 bunks. I had chosen the upper bunk to see more of the countryside while it was still light out. This was a mistake. First of all, it was not lights out except for about 40 minutes in the early morning before our arrival. And the window was too short to see from the top.
Luckily the guy below me allowed me to sit on his bed once we were all awake in the morning.
The other bunk was occupied by 2 girls from Harvard, seeing the world on their break from school.
I must say the berth was clean and they strive to make it appear luxurious.
You arrive in the town of Lao Cai around 6 AM and then must take a bus or mini-van up to Sapa. The road is very steep and winding. I got in with an almost full mini-bus in the back seat with a 4 person Vietnamese family. The little girl got car sick about halfway up the road but they were prepared and had a bag for her to throw up in I actually felt a little queasy myself as the road was so full of turns as we climbed up to Sapa.
Arriving in the town square around 8 am, I knew it was too early to look for a hotel, so I immediately started trekking. Using a map and Google maps, I just started walking down a steep street and road towards a place called “Cat Cat Village”
It was a fairly steep concrete road down, I hit a muddy patch and fell right down on my butt. OK, it’s slippery. Near the bottom of the descent was a booth where they collect a fee ( a few dollars) for the eco-village.
After this, the road turned into a path where 2 older men were busking. One with a 2 string violin and one with a flute. Years ago, I bought one of these 2 string Chinese violins but had difficulty playing it. So i sat down next to him and asked him if I could try. He handed it to me and then corrected me on my technique. Not an easy instrument to play.
Continuing down, I reached the river at the bottom where there was a lot going on. Flower gardens, reconstructed bamboo buildings displaying the hill tribes’ art, apparel, wind-chimes, etc.
In the river were a few bamboo Ferris wheels which turned out to be water wheels and they were building another.
I was quite fascinated with the construction, so sat down with a cup of their herbal tea (not so good taste-wise) and watched for a while. Obviously, these guys had done this before and the building of the bamboo waterwheel was interesting.
I then went over to the waterfall viewing point and then the music hall.
Where traditional hill tribe dance was going on. Very interesting.
I made my way back out of the village and started walking up the steep hill when a swarm of motorcycle taxi guys started gathering to take me back up. I said, no I’ll OK to walk back up. Well, they thought this unheard of and one was persistent and followed me about 1/3 of the way back when finally (started to rain again) I obliged and paid him the $2 to take me back up to Sapa.
Since it was now mid-afternoon, I looked for a room and the first one I went into was $15 and had a great view and seemed brand new with modern conveniences. The Hotel Mimosa. I took it.
Soon it was time to eat, so I went in search of food and found this great little restaurant that I ended up using 4 or 5 times in the next few days. They specialized in shish ke-bobs of many different types and you just pointed and said how many sticks you want and they barbecued them up on their charcoal grill. The menu was interesting though and I took a picture of the one page that fascinated me a bit as I traveled a lot in Croatia and Bosnia and Montenegro last summer and saw many people raising horses but never saw them being used for anything. So I wondered………………..
A woman sitting at the next table recommended the steamed or raw but warned me to stay away from the Hot Pot. I passed and took the pork shish kebob instead.
My preferred method of trekking is to go by myself, or with friends WITHOUT a guide.
However, this is not legal in this area and you must use a licenced guide when climbing Mt. Fanispan.
So, after inquiring at the Tourist Information center, I found Viet Discovery Travel and went to their office.
They explained things to me and that food and shelter would be provided and set me up with a guide for the following morning at 8 AM at the office. So the next day, I met my 2 hiking companions: Tom and Long from Hai Phong city as well as our guide, De. (means “goat” in English) All were 26 years old and looked quite fit and strong. I was glad the group was small and that there were no old or fat people involved. (except me is by far the oldest at 67!)
A taxi was waiting for us outside and after getting our gloves and water bottles (4 liters! Ouch, that’s heavy, I took one and drank one there)
The ride to the ranger station and the start of the hike was about 45 minutes. It rained all the way there.
After checking in with the ranger our guide said: let’s go, and so we set off, into the storm and the trail started with a downhill! Elevation was 1953 meters or 6400 feet at the start. The top was supposedly 3143 meters or 10,311 feet, so I knew we had a tough uphill as 4,000 feet is a tough climb.1,000 feet gets my attention!
The rain didn’t let up as we crossed bridges and climbed up metal steps and well-built trail with huge rocks.
By lunchtime, I was dragging my butt. Trying to keep up with the youngsters was taxing me and I knew better.
I needed to slow down. The boys were kind enough to wait as long as I wanted, whenever I wanted, but I tried to keep breaks short and the rain was still falling too hard to really take a sit down break.
Until about noon when we got to the 1st shelter, where we went inside while our guide went in another building to cook lunch. Very nice inside these A-frame buildings with clean, wooden floors.
Brunch turned out to be quite the meal with hard boiled eggs, chicken, and (always) rice.
For utensils, only chopsticks of course as that’s all they eat with. I had brought a spoon along but didn’t break it out (yet) as I could do this.
The rain didn’t let up and I don’t have any pictures of the rest of that climb that 1st day because my phone wouldn’t open with my wet fingers. But, we climbed and climbed, and the rain got harder and harder.
Finally about 4 pm, we got to our destination for the day and a group of more of these huge huts. These were not A-frames, but more conventional roof styles that all seemed to leak pretty bad in the heavy rain. Inside was a hill tribe woman who was the cook and apparently care-taker of these buildings but the place was wet and leaking water everywhere. So, she sort of gave up on the maintenance. There were plastic bags tied in the ceilings to catch the leaky rainwater, but they couldn’t keep up either.
Luckily we were the first group there as there was one room that was fairly dry> We took it!
An hour or so later, a group of 7 came in. They were quite loud and probably complaining about the wetness as they had to end up taking a room that was soaked. I felt bad for them and knew they’d have a rough night if the rain didn’t stop. (it didn’t)
The guide threw us 2 sleeping bags each, but they were damp, thin, well used camouflaged sleeping bags that I ended up using for a mattress and a pillow as I had brought my own (my pack was definitely the biggest in the group and now, I was finally glad for that)
I slept pretty good considering the heavy downpour on the tin roof. It was loud. It poured all night long.
Our alarms went off at 4:30 AM as we were expecting a 5 AM start (first light)
But De, our guide, came in and said we must wait as there was too much water in the trail. We waited until almost 6 and then set off in the rain.
Within 5 minutes, we were crossing what normally is a small creek, but now a roaring one, right above a 30′ waterfall! This was a bit scary and I think our guide was perhaps testing our will there to see if we hesitated. We did NOT!. We were game for this ascent and we ended up going up many steep places where the water was pouring down from the sky AND from the trail above. I called it: “At one with the Waterfalls”
Sure enough, it didn’t let up. But finally, we reached an area where we could see huge statues in the fog and even some motionless cable cars above (they didn’t start operation until around 9 AM)
Unfortunately, my phone wasn’t working for pictures in this heavy rain, so I can’ show you but we finally got to the last 100 meters which was built with huge, wide marble steps going up to the top.
It was amazing what they had built up here. Statues, pagodas, marble steps and shelters, and a huge building that housed a restaurant and the top of the cable car area. We hung around enjoying the non-rainy area for a few minutes but, even inside it was cold standing around in our wet clothes. So, we headed back into the rain and started the descent. There were a few amazing scenes on the way down when the fog would clear slightly and we would be rewarded with sights of many many waterfalls coming out of every mountain around us. I had to try the camera again although it was risky exposing it to the heavy rain.
The rain continued but our hiking (running) shoes did well on the bare rock and no one fell although the quads were burning as we made it down by about 3 PM.
Our guide called a taxi from about 30 minutes out and he was waiting for us.
But first we needed the picture in the ranger station in front of the “Official” Sign:
In retrospect, I didn’t mind the rain as it kept us cool. I learned to hike and enjoy it many years ago in rain.
Unfortunately, the bad part of it was the lack of great views. We did see a few but mostly it was foggy.
I learned a bit about staying dry. When it’s THAT wet, the plastic ponchos that you see all over Asia are what probably works best.
They don’t breathe, but they keep out the rain.
And we had lots of it.
Thanks to De, our guide and it was a pleasure meeting and hiking with both Tom and Long, my hiking partners.
Stay tuned for the next trek I did out of Sapa as I will write about my Black Hmong Homestay trek that I started the following day.