Mount Fansipan (Vietnamese: Phan Xi Păng) is located at the north-west most region of Vietnam. Towering at 3,143 metres high, it is known as the roof of Indo-China and is bordering to the province of Yunnan (China) to the north and Laos to the west.
The road journey to get to the starting point of the Mount Fansipan trek in itself is already a challenge; travelling on a lenghty 8 hours overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (the last stop of the train) and then a further 1 hour from Lao Cai to Sa Pa with a minibus, and lastly, another hour from Sa Pa to the starting point of the climb.
There are also other alternative transportation from Hanoi to Sa Pa, however each with its pros and cons. For example, one can also get from Hanoi to Lao Cai via overnight sleeper bus, but safety is always the concern since the road is long and dark. Another option would be to hire a car (which can take you directly to Sa Pa), however as the journey is long, most ‘normal’ people would think twice.
Hanoi Railway Station. TIP: There are no food in the train, so get yourself some food from outside the railway station, there are a lot of street hawkers stationed right outside the entrance to the railway station compound.
We chose to go by way of overnight sleeper train, which saves us a day of travel. We sleep while we travel the 8 hours journey to Lao Cai. TIP: There are many different companies providing the Hanoi-Lao Cai overnight train route, some with better facilities than the others. Choosing a more comfortable one would mean having a good sleep for that 8 hours to ensure you are well rested for the the climb!
Our sleep cabin had 2 bunk beds. The space inside was just enough for us move in and out of the cabin. If you’re thinking of having a party inside the cabin, forget it! TIP: Bring along ear plugs to get a good sleep through the night, as the clanking sound of the train going over the rails can be quite annoying.
I slept through the whole 8 hours journey, only waking up an hour before reaching our destination. I got up, brushed my teeth and washed my face, and immediately pulled out my long zoom lens to capture some of the serene views of the daybreak.
The cold morning mist shrouds the valleys, casting an aura of serene peace and quiet. Only the rumbling of the train on the tracks thunders through the still of dawn. Rice fields after rice fields, we rolled passed, some on a hilly slope, some just on flat land. It was obvious that this region’s main produce was rice.
The early bird gets the bees. The farmer and his trusted buffalo starts their hard labour before the sun comes up.
Even these goslings got up earlier than most of the villages to have a pre-dawn swim in the pond nearby. I wonder where is mama goose?
Alas, we arrived at Lao Cai at the crack of dawn. Upon arrival, we were unsure as to whether or not this was our stop since all the train’s announcement was in Vietnamese and none of the signage on the platform was in English. Most of the cabin crew and officers on the platform did not understand English either. In the end, it was just down to asking two words… “Lao Cai?”. With the nod of the head from one of the guards, we took a deep breath, packed our belongings and got off the train.
Upon getting out of the railway station, what must be hundreds of mini buses were parked outside in the square as tourists and even some locals hopped in. These mini buses would wait until it has reached its full capacity before rolling out to its destination, mainly to Sa Pa.
The journey to Sa Pa would take us through long and winding uphill roads, with very scenic views of rolling hills and terrace fields in the valley. Our driver was careful and drove at an average speed, relying the most trusted safety device of the vehicle: the horn.
I wonder if today is the buffaloes’ day off? They seemed to be just lazing around this fine sunny morning while other buffaloes are out in the fields working their fats off. They sure have good taste when it comes to choosing a view!
At every corner of the winding road that our mini bus turns, breathtaking views leaves us awestruck as green rolling hills and unending terraced rice fields as smooth as carpets fills the entire landscape.
Honking our way the whole way through, we arrived in Sa Pa in within an hour. From the small and humble villages and fields that we passed along the way, making our way deeper and deeper into the region, we started imagining Sa Pa to be another small sleepy village with villagers going about their everyday routine. We were dead wrong. Every corner of Sa Pa’s street seems to be crowded with throngs and throngs of tourists. Some sipping coffee in the coffee shops, warming themselves in the chilly mountain air, some walking about for souvenir hunting. Some of the local ethnic tribe ladies dressed in their cultural wear can be seen approaching tourist trying to sell their handicrafts.
Every street every corner is lined with tourist. It was clear Sa Pa might have once been a sleepy little town with natural beauty, it has fallen victim to tourism.
Local ethnic tribe ladies, I’m guessing from the main Hwong tribe litters the streets selling their local handicrafts and souvenirs.
While the main income to Sa Pa town is the booming tourism market, there are still locals who are totally ignorant of the times and oblivious of their surrounding and choose to continue with their normal everyday routine. Wonder where they are headed today? From the empty baskets that they are carrying, I suspect that they might have just dropped of their farm produce to the market for selling.
We were ushered to a nearby inn which served us coffee, brewed fresh from the Vietnam’s traditional silvery coffee drip, which was heavenly in the cold mountain air.
After a much needed breakfast, our guide for the climb came to meet us. We were then quickly whisked away in yet another mini bus, driving through yet more long and winding road. This time, the sides of the road were filled with houses and mini marts. We reached the starting point in under an hour.
Welcome to the Golden Stream & Love Waterfall, the starting point of our Mount Fansipan trek. Reading out-loud the name of the park instantly made me have the ‘goosebumps’, such a corny name to the start of a the journey labeled as ‘the roof of Indo-China’.
Apparently this National Park is an ASEAN Heritage Park, which is a status given to recognize efforts to conserve areas of particular biodiversity important and exceptional uniqueness throughout ASEAN member states. This was a good indication that the authorities do in fact realize the importance of conserving this national park.
Stepping a few more steps into the compound of the national park office reveals miles and miles of cloud-covered mountain peaks.
Our guide ushered us into the National Park office, which was manned by officers wearing their usual green military officer attire. It was strange that we did not need to register ourselves into the park, neither did I see any formal procedure in placed for that. Every single signage and information in the office was in Vietnamese as though it was only meant to be read by the locals. The only words that I could recognize was ‘WC’!
Our guide introduced himself as Su and we were extremely pleased that he was able to speak good English than most of the locals. It was here too that Su briefed us on our hike and what we should expect.
There was a miscommunication with our agent regarding porters. We did enquire about porters in our initial communication and our agent assured us that the porters will carry all our equipment, but this only meant our tents and food. This was a problem for me as my own camera backpack already weighted at least 7 kg with all the camera lens and accessories. Su was kind enough to offer to carry my other backpack that had my clothing and other necessity for the hike.
Off we go! With our guide and porters leading the way, we started our adventure. A quick check of my watch says that it was 9:50am local time.
Surprisingly, the first section of the trek leads us to a few descents. I never liked descents this early in a trek, because it only means that we need to do an ascent on the last part of the trek back!
More descents! And this time the descend is on rock surfaces that is not only smooth, but is also moist and dangerous.
After around 10 minutes of mostly descents and a bit of ascents, we are welcomed by first sight of a refreshing stream with smaller rocks already arranged to form stepping stones to cross the stream without getting our shoes wet.
Our friend John shows us how the stream should be crossed with genuine gracefulness and agility.
It was here that the trek started to introduce hard ascents, which found us clawing for more breath at end of each ascent section. The randomness of the rock formation makes it harder to ascent each step must be properly footed, otherwise it will cause unnecessary use of our energy.
Some of the surfaces seems to have been so seasoned that the footing surfaces were more obvious than others.
The trail slowly gave way to a section covered with tree roots which is a different challenge to handle. Tree roots are more slippery and placing your footing on it should be avoided whenever possible.
Our guide signaled for us to have a short rest in this area seeing as there were natural formations of the tree roots that allowed us to have a good seat.
The sun beam managed to break its way into the forest canopy to shine the heavenly light on our trail.
More ascents on rocky surface. The rocks seems to be getting more and more erratic.
Su signals us to be mindful of our heads so as not to be too engrossed on the trail that we might have missed the dangers hanging overhead.
Alas, some flat lands. Why does it seem that this trail was made by vehicles? It was also here that we started noticing faint smells of dung. Yes, DUNG.
After half an hour of trekking, we reached a large open clearing which gave way to a beautiful view of the valleys and the mountain tops ahead. There was a constant soft breeze that blankets the clearing which made it a rather pleasing rest stop.
After a good rest, we pushed on into the forest and continued our journey from the open clearing into the woods.
Another encounter with a mountain stream welcomed us on our trail, this time much wider and more beautiful than the first one that we encountered.
This time, there were no stones already in place for crossing, so we had to choose our stones carefully when walking up stream.
Su decides to enjoy a stroll in the lovely cold mountain stream without any worries of his rubber shoes not drying out.
The stream gets much wider as we progressed further upstream, so we had to stay towards the sides of the bank to keep our shoes dry.
After a good 20 minutes of following the stream, the trail lead us back into the forest with a mixture if rooted trails and moist rocks.
Trails like these always gives me an impression that I’m one small ant in a very big forested aquarium just going about my life while a master watches from up above the activities of His subjects.
Picture: (Left) I wonder if the hole in this tree is made by a bird, or was it formed from natural causes? (Right) The upward ascents can get really long and tiring, sometimes impossible to complete in one run.
This particular tree must be very aged to be able to have so many roots rooted into the ground and at such lengths. We had to make a big detour around the all the roots just to get pass this tree.
Some of the trail requires us to test our acrobatic skills using fallen tree trunks like tightropes…
while some requires us to go under fallen tree trunks…
and others requiring us to go over the tree trunks.
Some slopes are so vertical that we had to grab on to whatever we could to pull ourselves up. Luckily for us here, there was a large root that we hung on to pull ourselves up the slope that we could hardly have any footing on.
This thin-legged spider was almost unnoticeable if not for its big red body suspended by its really long and super thin legs.
Picture: (Top) Watch out for these nasty ‘landmines’. Don’t worry, you will know when a mine is near from the odour that is emitting from it. (Center-left) Oops, too late, looks like someone has stepped into one of the ‘landmine’. One thing is for sure, it wasn’t one of us! (Center-right) Looks like this buffalo was having a bad day, wonder what it ate for breakfast. (Bottom) The mother load of it all! Just look at the size of that thing, from one end to the other. Needless to say, the ‘aroma’ being emitted from this gargantuan pile of crap may be enough to power a village!
Aha… some evidence of a watering hole that indicates the activities of some animal nearby, most probably the source of the dung too.
I spoke too soon! Not just one, but many watering holes! There must be a herd of them around here. From the looks of the watering holes, these were quite recent.
Found you! Hiding behind the bushes,munching away on the leaves, it was keeping a close eye on us without us knowing.
Many of the plants, flowers and fruits found along the trail.
These luminous calcite, a type of carbonate mineral are formed along the algae-filled rock surfaces due to crystallization process with the help of microorganisms.
After 2 hours of trekking through all that we finally arrived at the first camp at 11.45 am. The triangular shelters in this campsite seems like it was just newly built. I suspect that the shelter assumes triangular shape to protect them against mother nature’s extreme forces of wind, rain and sun.
Picture: (Left) The courageous chicken with its chicks roaming freely around the campsite foraging for anything to eat. (Right) The extremely friendly man’s best friend forming part of the welcoming committee to the campsite.
The two dogs at the campsite gave us a very warm welcome, planting their kisses all over our friend Weena (left) and Anna (right). We foreigners must taste different compared to the locals.
Meanwhile, back in the shelter, some of us manages to get some catnap. The building provides a very comfortable atmosphere to sleep in, sheltered from the sun and warm from the cold wind.
Lunch is served! The most common Vietnamese food which we have all come to love: Bánh mì (Vietnamese for wheat bread) with its fillings served separately so that we can have our own preferred combination and also the Xôi (Vietname for glutinous rice) accompanied by peanut toppings.
John attempts to wallop his bánh mì in just one go.
The dark knight stands guard on the passageway that leads further into the jungle to continue our journey.
After out-maneuvering the black knight, guardian of the passageway, we proceeded on to continue our adventure. The next campsite would be the base camp that we would rest for the night before the final push to the summit of Mount Fansipan. Another quick check on my watch: 1.00 pm.
Most of the following terrain brings us trekking along the mountain ridges, which provided many opportunity to view the valleys and beyond.
I was awestruck when I passing through this ridge; with the skies above opening the doors to heaven, allowing the precious life light flow unto the valley below.
Man’s innovation at its best; a recycled isotonic drink bottle transformed into a bong.
These ridges seems to be unending and can be quite nerve wrecking as it all looks the same and it gives a feeling that we are not progressing at all.
The only consolation is the easy surface of the ridge which does not require much navigation.
Some of the ridges ascents are so steep that we would use the man-made cement handles at the side to pull ourselves up.
While for some others without the handles, we can only rely on our leg muscles to bring us up one step at a time.
Not long after, we began to see these steel ladders for those almost vertical slopes.
It is advisable to climb these ladders one person at a time as it doesn’t seem to be firmly attached to the surface. We began to feel the climate getting cooler and the clouds getting closer each time. There are times where the clouds would just breeze pass us along the ridges.
A natural ‘tunnel’ formed by the branches of bamboos on each side of the trail.
This is where the trail gets really difficult and even dangerous. The descents are extremely steep and mostly on large flat rock surfaces with barely anything to hang on to. The only way to navigate down this is with extreme care. One wrong slip and its a rather painful slip unto the many rocks and some with sharp pointed edges.
This picture might give you a sense of scale of the steep trail. Staying glued to the rock face while going down would be the safest way down this treacherous descent.
Now the rocks are large and almost like chunks of diced meat with growing fungus placed in a confetti of trees and their roots.
Many times we suffer from the cold breeze that pushes the clouds into our trail, making the trail from a fictional land of ancient forest filled with fragrant petrichor and all its hidden mysteries.
It seemed like an eternity of wandering through the dense and misty clouded section, the trail finally gave way to some sunlight forcing its way into the path lighting up our way.
After 2.5 hours since leaving the first campsite, we finally arrived at base camp of 2,800 metres at 3.30 pm. The first sight of the green and blue tents was a relieve. From the distance, we could see the basecamp bursting with activities, with some locals working outside of their tents.
Another triangular like shelter, much like the first campsite before.
Noticing that the sun was slowly beginning to shy itself behind the mountain, I quickly snapped a picture of the blue tents contrasting against the greenery of the area.
The largest shelter (shown in the picture below) was to be our accommodation for the night. It has 6 large rooms and each room is able to accommodate 5 persons comfortably. That calculates to a total of 30 climbers at most at its full capacity.
Each room has a wooden raised platform (to keep it further from the cold of the ground) on which we would place a layer of insulation followed by our sleeping bags. There are 6 toilets located at the end of the shelter, with proper flushing and wash basins. Strangely, none of the toilets had any water supply! Luckily, we were already mentally and physically prepared to be without any water source (other than our precious drinking water) for the whole journey. There is also no electricity supply, so come night time, we would be relying on our torchlight.
Mobile reception at the basecamp is weak, often non-existent when there is a breeze. The reception and any internet data comes in short bust every few minutes, so you have to be really patient to wait for your messages to get through.
Our shelter for the night. The inside was warm and cosy, once inside, one would think twice about coming back out. It’s so ironic that Viettel and Vinaphone (two of Vietnam’s mobile phone providers) manages to have their advert put up in such a remote place like this.
These two lovely ladies goes about their work weaving baskets from bamboo threads. They are also the keeper of the heavenly drinks: Coca Cola, Revive, 7Up and many other isotonic drinks which can be purchased from them for a reasonable price.
She seems happy to have me wanting to take her picture and so she poses a sweet smile striking a pose with the bamboo threads in her hand.
This bamboo basket are a common standard issue equipment that is used by most of the ethnic women in their everyday life.
There was some insanely delicious scent coming from this tent which only means this is the heart of it all, the kitchen! All that trekking has summed up a huge appetite for our dinner. In this mental state, anything would taste good.
The master chef prepares a dish of stir fried tofu for our dinner. His skills with the pan is unquestionable as he flips the tofu over and over into the air with great ease.
The other kitchen aids ensure the fire for the pots continues burning evenly as they were using fresh wood (not charcoal) for the fire.
Meanwhile, Anna has found herself a new friend. This little feline seems to have cuddled into Anna’s warmth embrace.
Alas, our dinner is ready. It was already 6.00 pm at that time and the inside of the shelter was already near darkness. We had to rely on our torchlight to light up our room. The stir-fried tofu that I photographed earlier rest on our dinner plate together with stir-fried pork. We were introduced to our very first chayote dish which was cooked in the style of stir-fried chayote shoots and chayote soup. Chayote is a type of fruit belonging to the gourd family, along with cucumbers and melons, and can be commonly found in many of the highland dishes.
As the sun disappears beyond the mountain, the temperature in the area and inside the shelter dropped dramatically. We donned our winter gear and closed the doors of our rooms to remain warm.
Su prepared us his special hot ginger tea guaranteed to keep us warm.
Whenever I go for any camping trip, or any trip that sees me far away from civilization, I would set my alarm to wake up in the middle of the night to witness the marvels of the universe; the milky way and the infinite stars in the celestial sky. Before retreated for the night, I set my trusted watch alarm to 10.00 pm and made a little appeal to the Almighty so that there would have a clear sky and good weather at that time.
My alarm rang on the dot, and as I slowly attempted to get out of my sleeping bag, I realized it was freezing cold! Every inch of my body was telling me to just stay in bed and stay in the warmness of the sleeping bag! After what must have been few minutes of battling with my own self, I was finally outside… alone… in the dark. The feeling of emptiness and void was only for a brief moment and then I experienced the most incomprehensible feeling of astonishingly breathtaking canvas the cosmos has ever revealed to me!
The night sky was filled with the stars of heaven and the ethereal milky way was visible even with my naked eyes. I was completely overwhelmed with solitude; it was just me and the lights of heaven. The feeling was so ineffable that I stood there for a good 1 hour.
This was our breakfast at 3.00 am, before the final journey to the peak of Mount Fansipan. Instant Mee with plenty of eggs and vegetables.
This is it, our final push to the summit. Mount Fansipan’s summit climb feels very different from other summit climbs that I have experienced before, mainly because most summit climbs would only involve ascending all the way. For this, there were plenty of descent as well, which was very demoralizing as it gives a feeling of not getting any higher.
We reached a point of the climb that the new power station is finally visible. This power station was built for the purpose of supporting the controversial world’s longest cable car system that will connect Lao Cai to Sa Pa and to the peak of Mount Fansipan. When the cable car is operational, it will be able to ferry 2000 visitors to the peak of Mount Fansipan per hour – the same number of visitors that has stood on the peak in the whole of 2013 alone!
As we neared the peak, the climb started to get increasingly tiring as the trail started to maintain a more difficult and constant ascend. I could see from the distance that the sun’s rays was starting to light up the horizon.
As we inched closer and closer to the peak, we were already able to see most of the other peaks in the region.
At the first break of dawn, I had to stop to take this panorama picture of the valley. This picture was taken about 15 minutes from the peak.
Finally! On the peak of Mount Fansipan at 3,143 metres high! The sun rays that penetrates the morning mist produced an iridescent sky. The triangular monument that is shaped like the shelters of the campsites marks highest spot of Mount Fansipan.
I sat on the peak, feeling the warmth of sun touching my cold dry face, saying a little prayer of thanksgiving for providing us the passage of good weather and kept us all safe throughout the whole journey.
Each of our individual shots on the peak of Mount Fansipan; (Clockwise from top-left) Xiao Yan, Anna, Weena and John.
Here’s a group picture of us together with our guide Su. We were all smiles because we knew we went through so many obstacles just to get to this peak, including the fact that this trip to Vietnam was made in the eleventh hour, literally!
We stubbornly stayed up on the peak for quite awhile, unwilling to start our journey back down. Weena was all curled up trying to cope with the coldness of the wind hitting the peak while I just felt the need to photobomb her!
Su was quick to point out that most of the time, cloud would engulf the landscape. We were considered very lucky as it was a rare occasion that mother nature would allow her beauty to be seen in such uncensored sight. I stood up one last time on highest point to paint one final picture of the aurora and its magnificence, knowing that this might be my last view of Mount Fansipan in all its glory. It was a very fun climb and I would gladly do it again if I had the chance!
Special thanks to Su our guide who was there to assist us all the way from start to end. He really went out of his way to make sure we were comfortable and safe. Special thanks also to Daisy of Rising Dragon Legend Hotel in Hanoi who has is the representation of genuine Vietnamese hospitality and her everlasting smile which has been embedded deep into our cherished memories of Vietnam. Not for forget, special ‘Hi’ to our friend Anna, who must still be on her 3 months backpacking. Lastly, thank you to my dear friends; John, Weena and Xiao Yan for the wonderful journey together. I hope that with God’s grace that we would have the chance to cross path again one day in this lifetime.