On our trip around Vietnam last March, a visit to the mountain town Sapa was obligatory.
Most visitors to the town join one of the many local tribe ladies to hike around the marvellous rice terraces. Originally, this is what we had planned, too. But unlike the Mekong delta, where the rice can be harvested up to three times a year, the season in Sapa starts with the planting in May and ends with the harvest in September. So when we arrived in March, the terraces were completely empty, muddy and dull – lucky us…
What a disappointment. Nonetheless, it was quite impressive to see the terraces build into the mountains like they belonged there, and I was also very curious about the local tribes living in the area. So I was still willing to do a two-day-trek complete with an authentic homestay in a small village.
But Ben had put his mind to another idea by now.
The second he realized it was possible to do a trek up to the peak of Mt. Fanispan, the highest mountain of Indochina, he was enraptured. He has this thing for superlatives so there was no way of talking him out of this.
Interested in doing the hike to Mt. Fansipan yourself? You’ll find some quick facts about it at the end of this post 😉
We spent an entire afternoon searching the internet and asking around in restaurants and hotels to find a way to do the trek. While there are a bunch of companies offering the regular tours, we didn’t find a lot of them who did a Fansipan trek. Fortunately, we eventually found a company that was nestled into a small street in Sapa. The owner of Sapa Original Trek, Mr. Thin, welcomed us and had a long talk with us although his shop was already supposed to be closed. He took away the worries we had that are natural when you’re facing a spontaneous two day climb to a 3000-meter summit. He even helped us with the equipment as we had nothing warm enough. He lent us his own jackets for the hike and took us to his good friend who owns an outdoor shop just around the corner. There we rented hiking boots for Ben and bought two heavy duty rain coats.
We splurged on a fancy meal that night and stocked up on energy bars knowing we would need them the next day.
After an unrestful night we stood before a big decision. Ben had gotten sick over night and was feeling miserable. I was having second thoughts because I had struggled with far smaller mountains before. But we did pay a large amount of money and who said traveling was supposed to be fun anyway, right?
So we dressed in our mismatched gear and hoped for the best.
After a filling breakfast (at least for me, Ben couldn’t even eat a dry piece of bread) we were picked up by Mr. Thin and his companion who drove us into town on their motorbikes. There we met an older couple from Hong Kong that would join us on the ride to the starting point of the trek. They told us they were doing this hike in preparation of their upcoming trek to the top of the Mount Everest. Alright, I thought, nothing to worry about, you will manage just fine…
It took us about half an hour to get to the starting point of the trek, the car struggling up the ascents and around the serpentines. We finally met our guide. He was about half my size (both vertically and horizontally), wore rubber boots and a bast basket on his back. I suddenly felt bad about my hiking boots, hightech backpack and rainproof jacket…
It was clear that only a tiny fraction of the 100€ we had paid per person went to the guide. We decided to tip him heavily if we survived this trip.
By now I was so hyped and drunk on excitement that my worries were swept away. We started our trip through some dense jungle. Due to the already high altitude we were breaking right through the cloud barrier and could sometimes only see a couple of meters ahead.
Heavy rainfall in the week before had filled the tiny creeks, which cut our path ever so often, with plenty of water. We crossed rivers on fallen tree trunks, stepping stones and by holding onto the protruding branches from the thicket along the stream.
Our guide didn’t speak much but he pointed out various flora and fauna along the way. He also collected a couple of mushrooms and herbs which he would use to prepare our dinner that night. Despite walking at a moderate pace to take in the sounds and smells of our surroundings, we managed to cover quite a distance in the first couple of hours. That is until we reached the first ascend.
So far the path had been relatively flat. As soon as we reached the end of the forest, however, we could see the steep climb ahead of us. Unfortunately, it was also at this moment that the excitement and adrenaline wore off so that Ben started to feel sick again. He was a miserable sight to behold. We took a lot of breaks during the climb so he could sit down and have some water. Our guide was kind and waited patiently but we felt bad for him as he was probably payed per trip and not for the amount of hours we needed.
It was roughly around 1pm when we reached the small open hut at 2200 meters where we would have our lunch break. We met some other hikers here that had started this same morning as well; an Australian couple, a guy from Britain and the couple from Hong Kong. We had a good chat with them while our guide prepared our lunch that he had carried in his basket all day long. After a while, he gifted us with bread, eggs and veggies — just what we had needed after the exhausting hike. We shared some of our candy bars with him in return and ate in silence. Ben hadn’t gotten any better. Luckily, the Australian girl was quite knowledgeable about medications and gave him something that she had brought along. That should make it a bit better, she said. It was obvious that they all doubted he would ever make it to the top. While the other groups all left soon after lunch, we stayed a little longer so that Ben could rest a bit.
It was not long after we had continued our way that the meds kicked in and turned Ben into a charging bull. He streamed right past me, laughing in glee and whilst I told him not to waste his energy, that he was only feeling better, not being better, he couldn’t resist running up the mountain. Literally. At least he was much better company now compared to the Moaning Myrtle he had been on the way to the hut, and he was able to enjoy the view for the first time on the trip. And he didn’t need to wait long for the views…
We reached the first highlight of the trip about halfway of our hike that day. On a small plateau the trees had drawn back so that we could have an unrestricted view of the landscape below us. What we saw was breathtaking: high mountains around us, deep valleys overcast with clouds below us, the steep climb yet ahead of us and the infinite stretch of nature as far as the eye could see. It was enchanting.
I felt so alone and yet not lonely at all. It is in such moments that you truly understand what a vast and beautiful planet our earth is and how incredibly small and irrelevant we are compared to it. And yet I felt deep within me how connected we all are, that we are all a part of this big living planet, its trees and grasses, its mountains and rivers, its tiny insects and large mammals. And among them all I stood so high I could barely see the valley below and realized that men’s greatest gift is the ability to see beauty in this world.
It was a long time until we were able to turn away from the sight and slowly continued our climb. The feeling, however, stayed with me far beyond this moment.
The track got continuously harder now. While it was a pleasant walk at the start, it was now a challenging, twisting path that required your feet, hands and full concentration to maneuver. We kept asking our guide just how much longer it was and it was infuriating that after every hour that passed his answer was still ‘about two hours’.
But after what felt like an eternity, when I could feel neither my feet nor legs anymore and I only pushed myself forward with my entire focused mind whispering to myself ‘Just one more step. You can do it. Just another step.’ we finally reached a small clearing with a couple of huts. We couldn’t help yelping out in glee.
The camp was a very simple set up. It consisted of a large wooden hut with about 10 separate rooms, each one only containing a wooden plateau to sleep on. There was no electricity which made it rather hard to visit the bathroom in the back of the hut, as the sun set early and left us feeling our way in the sparse light of our phones‘ flashlights.
The mood, however, was frolic and we had some great talks with the others, whom we already knew from our lunch break. All the while our guides prepared our dinner in the small tent a little further away. We were absolutely starved by now and while all the others gradually got their food we had to wait roughly two hours before our guide brought in a huge platter of steaming rice, bowls full of vegetables and spicy chicken and beef curries. It was a feast, even though I assume everything would have tasted great after such an exhausting day.
Our guide came back later to ask about our plans for the next day. We had the option to sleep in and climb the rest of the way during the day or get up a 3am to see the sun rise on the top of the mountain. We obviously chose the second option.
The night at camp was a nightmare. We had hiked in shorts and t-shirts but at night it got so cold that I was frozen stiff despite wearing thick clothes and being burritofied into three sleeping bags. Sleep was far away, and so I occasionally snuggled up to Ben, peacefully snoring next to me, to steal some of his heat. I guess there really is an advantage to being broad and muscular.
Eventually, I fell into a restless sleep just shortly before we were woken up by our guide at 3am as promised. Groggy and frozen to the bones we hurriedly got dressed and stuffed our backpacks for the day. Our guide had already prepared a huge breakfast for us but since we had eaten so much the evening before and because it was the middle of the night, we barely got any of it down.
When we were ready and stepped outside the hut with the other hikers I was taken aback. It was so dark that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my eyes and I wondered how exactly I was supposed to climb a mountain in those conditions. The guides handed us some head lamps but there weren’t enough for everyone so the rest of us took to their phones to guide the way.
The beginning was hard. My legs were stiff, I was dead tired and I kept stumbling over roots or stones. It was a steep and winding ascent and the wind was blowing mercilessly from one side. It gradually got better as the sky above us brightened with the rising sun. And that was when it happened.
We turned a corner, now facing the open valley beneath us and the mountain looming behind us like an ancient, stony dragon watching over its people below.
It was the most magical moment of my life as I stood at 3000 meters and watched the pink sun rose from the ocean of clouds below us.
There was no noise. The birds went silent and even the wind seemed to hold its breath as the sun rose higher and higher and painted the sky around us in impossible colors. We stood in awe and even our guides who had surely seen this spectacle plenty of times couldn’t help but ¬watch in quiet wonder.
It cost us quite some effort to tear away from the view and continue our hike. We all agreed that this must have been the highlight of the whole trek and that now our last goal was to reach the summit of the mountain.
I checked my phone constantly. 2800m, 2900m, 3000m… The closer we got, the harder it seemed to get. Opposed to the first day, when we had managed 1000 meters in altitude, these last 300m felt twice as long and a hundred times as hard. The soil was muddy and slippery from the recent rainfalls and Ben was at his absolute lowest now. I would walk a couple hundred meters and then wait for him to catch up. Even though the stunning view cheered us both up, we were running on our last reserves of energy.
It got foggier and foggier the higher we climbed. After a while, I couldn’t see more than two meters in each direction and my clothes were clinging to my skin, all wet from the mist.
I swear I cried out in glee when my foot suddenly hit solid rock and I saw the stairs leading upwards into the impervious haze. My body suddenly alive with energy almost sprinted up those stairs before my brain even realized what was going on. That burst of power didn’t last long though as I realized just how many stairs there were to the top. My climb turned sluggish as I dragged one foot before the other. 300, 301, 302…
The whole area was still eerily empty as the cable cars hadn’t started moving yet. We met the other hikers on our way up who were taken aback to see that we had actually managed the rest of the way. One look at Ben told me the surprised reaction was more than justified.
When we finally reached the highest plateau, Ben and I fell into each other’s arms. We laughed and cried from exhaustion and pride and happiness. We had done it. After one and a half days of fatigue, sore feet and stiff legs we had reached the summit of Mount Fansipan. Towering at 3143 meters we really felt like standing on the top of the world – or at least, as they say, the Roof of Indochina.
It didn’t even matter that the weather was dreadful and freezing and that we couldn’t see a thing of the amazing view we were hoping for. We quickly took a few photos and then hurried back down the stairs. Whilst our minds were still fuzzy with joy, our bodies surrendered, now that they had reached the goal. It was very quickly agreed that there was no way we would hike back down again.
Luckily for us, the cable car had started moving now and the summit slowly filled with tourists in flip flops and with selfie sticks dangling from their wrists. While we had cursed the cable car at the beginning of our trip for ruining the stunning landscape and spoiling the authentic atmosphere with mainstream tourism, we were glad for it now.
Slowly heating up in the cable car terminal we bought two one-way tickets for 33 US$ (27€ / 23£). This was quite out of budget as we had already paid so much for the hike itself, but we really didn’t care much at that moment. We were just immensely happy to have the worst behind us.
It was time to say goodbye to our guide as he was heading back down the mountain on foot. We offered to pay the cable car for him but he declined and so we tipped him heavily instead and thanked him for everything.
As it was still really early and the tourists were just arriving instead of leaving, we quickly managed to grab an empty car. We rode in silence as we snatched a last glimpse of the summit before it disappeared into the thick clouds.
The descend only took about twenty minutes in which we had a great view of the rice terraces below us, fallow and brown as they were, and the town in the distance.
When we reached the ground station we were surprised by the huge crowd of tourists waiting to take the cable car to the summit. It was quite hilarious to see them stare at our appearance: dirty trousers and mud-caked hiking boots, big winter jackets and the exhaustions clearly visible on our faces. I’m sure some of them got a little worried seeing us as to what would await them up there.
Just then we saw Mr. Thin waving to us from the entrance. We had called him earlier to tell him that we would take the cable car and he had said he would pick us up from the station.
The ride back to Sapa was short and Mr. Thin thankfully even brought us straight to our hotel instead of his office. We returned our shoes and jackets to him and thanked him again for the great experience he had made possible for us.
It was still early morning and our stomachs slowly made themselves heard so we stuffed ourselves at the breakfast buffet before we dragged ourselves up the stairs to our room. The rest of the day was a blur as we dropped dead onto our beds and slept till the sun had set.
The hike to the summit of Mt. Fansipan is an amazing two-day trip for everyone looking for something a little more exciting. It offers stunning views and will surely leave you entranced by the beauty of Northern Vietnam. However, it is an exhausting hike and should only be undertaken with proper fitness.
Starting/ End Point: Ranger’s station at Tram Ton Pass
Kilometers: 14km one way / 28km round trip
Duration: doable as a one-day hike (at least 10 hours for people with average fitness) but I would recommend two days
Altitude: 3143 meters
Difficulty Level: 6/10
Tour Operator: Sapa Original Trek
Price: starting at 80 USD for a group tour. We paid 105 USD per person for a private 2-person tour (including guide, four meals, water, transport from Sapa, entrance fee to the park, night at the hut, sleeping bag)
Have you conquered Mt. Fansipan? I’d love to hear about your experience and whether you thought it was worth it in the comments below.