AsiaVietnamSapa

A Mountain To Climb

Sapa Travel Blog

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Well, that was a waste of time!

Most people, when they come to Sapa, opt to do some (pretty lightweight) trekking around the hills, stopping off at rural minority villages on the way. I had done something similar in Dalat and in Chang Mai, Thailand, so fancied a real challenge: conquering the highest mountain in Indochina, Mount Fansipan.

Fortunately, Liz, the Australian, was also up for the challenge, greatly improving our chances of finding a guide and porter willing to help us with our quest. It didn't prove a problem; we were on our way to Sapa on the overnight train from Hanoi that night - which was surprisingly comfy, especially when compared to the open tour buses.

On our way to base camp

The next morning we met up with our guide, Thanh, and porter (I didn't find out his name because he didn't speak English - or speak much, actually - he was a total legend, mind you). Thanh suggested we didn't attempt to start the trek that day, as it had been raining and would be dangerous. Knowing that Sapa's climate contains a lot of rainfall, we asked what would happen if it was the same the next day, to which he said we could still go if we wanted. We decided to ignore his advice and leave that day.

If I didn't already have any bearing on how big a challenge lay ahead from what I had read about Fansipan and from Thanh telling us he could only manage it once a month because he found it so tiring, I had a better idea after the first hour of trekking. In at the deep end, we ascended over super-steep gradients and slippery, muddy terrain.

No, Fansipan is behind that one, in the clouds
It wasn't long before we had to cross a series of fast-moving streams after removing our boots. I shouldn't have bothered; it wasn't long before I slipped on a moss-covered rock and dropped mine in, anyway.

We arrived at our base camp, at 2,200 metres above sea level, earlier than expected, before blisters had appeared, still with enough energy saved for the mammoth task ahead of us the next day. Not surprisingly, the base camp was basic - as were our sleeping quarters - but the food the porter and guide prepared were exceptional, with around six or seven different dishes, including my favourite: Vietnamese spring rolls.

Starting early the next morning, we headed upwards and onwards. It was unbelievably tough; the first half an hour felt like a decade.

Whose idea was this?
The terrain was so steep that you often needed ropes to pull you up - so pretty much rock climbing without a harness. Elsewhere, you relied on tree roots and branches and pieces of bamboo to pull you up the seemingly vertical gradient. It was as much an upper-body workout as it was on your legs, which, after a while, felt like they were hardly attached to your body and were just dragging themselves up.

Thanh said the hike up should take between four and a half hours, so we were shocked and relieved to see the top after only three gruelling hours. We had, apparently, matched the current fastest time that Thanh had done it in, accompanied by an Icelandic guy. At the top there wasn't much of a view. On a clear day, you are supposed to be able to see Laos and China in the distance.

I love you
What we saw was more like a giant piece of white paper. I hear it's pretty much always like that; the granite height marker was enough of a sight for sore eyes for me, anyway.

After a lunch in chilly winds at the summit, with our heads in the clouds, we started the descent. Although no way near as much a physical exertion as the way up, it still required a lot of concentration, due to the trickiness of the terrain. It was torture on the knees, and it wasn't long before you could feel the blisters forming. Arriving back at base camp was a huge relief - as much as it was to hear a couple who had trekked from Everest base camp say it was as hard, if not harder than any trekking they had done.

The next day was spent getting back to Sapa. In a way, I actually found it more of a challenge than the hike up to the summit.

Our porter, my saviour
I had asked Thanh if it were possible to go another route back so that we could see something different. He said we could, but it would mean going a harder route. I don't regret going this way because we saw some awesome scenery as we trekked up to the top of one mountain, then circled four peaks before heading down, down, down to the village of San Chai. It was the going down that was an absolute killer. I don't know whether it was from the day before's exertion or the rain that had fallen during a storm the night before, but something took it out of me very early. I lost count how many times I stacked it; after a while I got fed up with it. One time I slipped off the path and slipped a few feet, having to hold my weight to stop myself going any further, using some vines, then relying on the porter to help me out.
Sin Chai village
I was fortunate that I had not slipped a foot or two later, as I would have had a lovely ten-foot drop to put my bone stability to the test. After the cuts and scratches and the embarrassment resulting from slipping and falling another four or five times, plus the heavy legs from the day before, running out of water, not to mention the constant insect bites and blisters on my feet, I was done with mountains. Pleased to reach the village and await a van ride home, I couldn't wait to get back to our hotel for a snooze and to devour a three-course meal - plus a pack of Oreo biscuits for good measure.

Definitely one of the highlights of my trip - even though at times I thought I was crazy doing it - and one that I shall never forget. Or recommend. Only joking. But you'd have to pay me a few gazillion dong to do it again!

Ape says:
Great blog Dan, I just came back from a two day Fansipan climb. Like you're saying, really hard, but so worth it! Thanks for the blog, it helped me out on my choice!
Posted on: Apr 28, 2008
jannahw says:
Oh Dan, what a challenge and what a fantastic experience. Your account is so vivid I felt I was there, climbing and sliding with you! Pass the Oreos!!
Posted on: Jun 23, 2007
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Well, that was a waste of time!
Well, that was a waste of time!
On our way to base camp
On our way to base camp
No, Fansipan is behind that one, i…
No, Fansipan is behind that one, …
Whose idea was this?
Whose idea was this?
I love you
I love you
Our porter, my saviour
Our porter, my saviour
Sin Chai village
Sin Chai village
Not a bad view from my hotel room
Not a bad view from my hotel room
Stream-lined
Stream-lined
Crossing a bridge
Crossing a bridge
Wild horses (probably not)
Wild horses (probably not)
Woman and dog at base camp
Woman and dog at base camp
Thanh cutting some much-needed dra…
Thanh cutting some much-needed dr…
These boots werent made for walki…
These boots weren't made for walk…
The descent - finally, some visibi…
The descent - finally, some visib…
On our way to base camp
On our way to base camp
Silver waterfall
Silver waterfall
On our way back to Sapa
On our way back to Sapa
I am absolutely shattered.
"I am absolutely shattered."
Thanh spies the finish line
Thanh spies the finish line
Sin Chai village
Sin Chai village
Thanh setting the pace
Thanh setting the pace
The team with the mountain we had …
The team with the mountain we had…
Sapa
photo by: Paulovic