|Height|| ||3143 metres (10,311 feet)|
|Vertical Elevation (climb)|| ||~1850 metres (carpark)|
|World Rank|| ||59/243|
|Location|| ||Lào Cai Province|
|Nearest town|| ||Sapa (9km)|
|Start/Finish|| ||Park entrance|
|Climbing time|| ||10.5 hours (no breaks)|
|Grade|| ||3/5 Climb|
|Date climbed|| ||22nd September 2015|
Vietnam's (and Indochina's) highest mountain, Fansipan (or Fanxipan), has long been a popular for destination for hikers. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your desire for climbing), this very appeal means the mountain will soon play host to one of the world's longest cable cars. A USD$200+ million investment will turn the sleeply mountain town of Sapa into a luxury resort town, with 4 and 5 star hotels, golf courses and restaurants. The mountain, which sees only a few thousands summitters each year, will now be able express the same number of tourists to the summit in less than 20 minutes.
However, the cable car was scheduled to be completed by November 2015, however on my recent climb, it was clear the completion date would still be sometime in 2016. In any event, a climb is a climb and if you're going to be happy getting to the top, covered in mud, tired and sweaty and mixing it with hordes of tourists who have just hopped off the cable car, then this is still a great hike.
There are building works still be completed at one of the two overnight hiking spots on the mountain, so the hike will certainly continue to be accessible to would be summitters.
Most climbers complete this hike in 2 days, although a 1 and 3 day option are also available. This was my second attempt at the mountain (completed in a day). My first overnight attempt in 2009, ended in failure when a combination of severe gastro and a torrential lightening and thunder storm forced me to turn back on the second morning of my attempt.
I've climbed Fansipan twice now (June & September) and my memory of both is rain and mud. However, I've seen plenty of photos of the mountain basking in glorious sunshine with fantastic blue-sunny skies.
Muong Bu Weather (1640m)
|Avg. high C°||18°||11°||12°||18°||21°||22°||22°||23°||22°||18°||17°||13°|
|Daily mean C°||8°||9°||14°||17°||19°||19°||20°||19°||19°||15°||13°||10°|
|Avg. low C°||5°||6°||11°||13°||16°||17°||17°||17°||16°||13°||10°||7°|
|Avg. # Rainy Days||3||4||5||5||NA||17||20||20||14||10||8||3|
All climbers of Fansipan are required to join a tour or have a guide accompany them to the summit. While the track is relatively straight-forward, there are a few side-tracks and a couple of points where having a guide to keep you on the straight and narrow would be beneficial. And besides, most of the guides are locals, meaning the tourist dollars are well appreciated. The guides will carry your gear, cook you dinner and generally keep you somewhat entertained during the climb (assuming you can speak Vietnamese :)
There are any number of tour companies online, as well as in Sapa who can organise a tour for you. Alternatively (and what I did) was to organise a guide through the hotel.
Like most places throughout Vietnam, there is a local Vietnamese price and a foreign price for climbing. Prices are always quoted in US dollars and the cost can vary considerably. If you are willing to try and organise a guide while in Sapa, it will be much cheaper than organising prior to arriving. Further, if you join another group or go with several climbers, it is much cheaper. I ended up paying about US$300 for my own guide. This was exceedingly expensive for what I got, however I wasn't able to join another group (through the hotel booking service), and I booked everything prior to arriving. Several of the guiding companies no longer take climbers up Fansipan as a revolt against the cable-car. Not sure how long they will be able to sustain this, however consider that you may have some guiding companies trying to convince you not to climb.
Depending on whether you are doing a 1, 2 or 3 day climb will depend when you depart. As I was completing a 1-day climb, I was picked up from my Sapa hotel at about 5.30am to be at the park entrance at 6am. However, as I was coming back down the mountain, there were climbers only just starting their ascent (3pm-ish).
While on the topic of access, it's certainly worth thinking about how to actually get to Sapa. There is no high speed freeway from Hanoi which takes about 5 hours by car. This is certainly the fastest way to get into the mountains. However, I absolutely recommend you don't take this option and instead take the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (and then a transfer to Sapa). The train is a throwback to the state run communist days and government owned enterprise. However, all the good things and not the bad. The overnight train runs several nights a week and provides a range of different travelling options. This includes wooden seat carriages, to 4-person bunk rooms, to 2-person cabins. It seems different travel companies have rights over different carriages (although all operate on the same train). We were staying at the Victoria Sapa Resort and Spa, and they had 2 of their own carriages. The service is pleasant, every other night there is an eating cabin, and the rooms/bunks etc are well appointed. It reallly was good fun in our little cabin, listening to the sound of the train, and the rocking of the carriage for the overnight trip. I travelled to Sapa with my wife and 9 month old daughter and my wife certainly thought this was a highlight of our Vietnam holiday. Highly recommended.
All climbers must take a guide to the summit, and the summit/guiding fee includes a park entrance fee. At the park entrance, there is a park office and my guide disappeared somewhere in the building to register me. He required my passport to do this and I did later see a guard wandering around. Completion of the climb also means you get a certificate and a little Fansipan summit medalion. Both were pretty cool, and worth the $300+ I paid to climb the summit.
Remember, there are different ways to climb the mountain, 1, 2 and 3 days. Each has a different pricing model, based on sleeping in a cabin and the amount of food carried/cooked for you. In addition, the more climbers, the cheaper it is per climber. If you have some time in Sapa, then it's definitely worth shopping around for a good deal. If (like me) you have limited time, then booking something prior is the way to go (either through a tour company or through the hotel you intend to stay at).
There is an overnight shelter about 2 hours into the climb where a permanent care-taker lives. They sell a few bottles of water and soda. However, other than this, everything you want to bring you (or your guide) will need to bring with you. I drank about 3-4 litres during my 1 day climb. I ate hardly anything.
I crawled out of bed, bleary eyed at 5am. It was still dark outside. I could hear the sound of a light rain on the concrete balcony just a few metres away. As I pulled on my shoes, completed a last check of my gear, I hoped today would be the day that I would stand on the summit of Fansipan. I had already attempted this climb a few years earlier in 2009, as an overnight hike. The first day, albeit hard work, had been fine. I could remember tucking into a fantastic meal cooked by our 3 porters. However, that night not only did the weather turn, but the contents of my stomach also turned. I still have a foggy memory of squatting in the bushes near our tent, with absolutely torrential rain pouring down on top of me. Thunder and lightening lit up the sky, as my last meal also exploded from my body. The next morning, I had also awoken bleary eyed having been up at least a half-dozen times during the night. With the rain still heavy, our guides had made the decision that we must all turn back. I remember, not fighting very hard at the time, feeling weak and exhausted from the night before. I swore that one day, I would return and conquer this mountain.
And here I was, 6 years later ready to give it another shot. This time, I wouldn't allow enough time for food poisoning to squander my plans. I had opted for a single day (up and back) trip. If I were to get sick, hopefully I'd be back in the comfort of my hotel. As it turned out, I would once again get another bout of diarrhea, only this time it would be on the train returning to Hanoi. However, another time another story.
Just after 5.30am a vehicle pulled into the hotel carpark and Thinh (my guide for the day) welcomed me. In his broken English, Thinh explained that he would guide me to the top and back of the mountain and that he would carry our lunch and any water that we'd require. Unfortunately (for Thinh), I was also carrying water, which it turned out to be sufficient for me for the entire climb, and similarly I'd packed a few energy bars, which also was all that I needed for the entire climb. Fortunately (for Thinh) who had had no breakfast, was able to eat most of our lunch within the first hour of our climb (a breadroll, some tinned ham and a bananna).
At 5.55am we arrived at the Fansipan park entrance, with it now light enough that I wouldn't need the headlamp I'd also packed. I sat under the balcony of the park rangers office, while Thinh disappeared to register me for the climb. It was still raining lightly, but not enough to really bother me. A few minutes later, just after 6am and we were off.
The first hour and a half of the hike is pretty straight forward. The trail follows and a crosses a creek in a few places. Depending on the rain and height of the water, will depend whether you take your shoes off, manage to tic tac across, or just walk straight through. There are a few steep sections, although nothing you wouldn't expect from a mountain climb. At this stage, I was still trying to keep my shoes clean (ie not completely covered in mud). These shoes would have to last for another 2 weeks in Vietnam. Surprisingly, I managed pretty well, although later sections closer to the summit and I threw all caution to the wind, as it became increasingly impossible to avoid the mud across the track.
By 7.30am we'd reached the first camp site. There is quite a nice cabin here, as well as a local family selling a few drinks. The 3-day version of the summit, uses this camp as the 2nd night on the way back down the mountain. Although so close to the finish, I think I'd just bust a gut and get to the end. We stopped briefly, before heading off again.
The next section, to camp site 2, is probably the hardest, but also the most scenic. You pretty much continue to climb the entire time, with the trail effectively following a series of ridgelines. On several occassions, there are spectacular views in all directions (or there would have been had it not been for the constant cloud and fog). Nevertheless, when the clouds did part briefly, it certainly was a welcome relief to the constant pain of upward climbing, to be able to view across other mountains and valleys. There are also a few gnarly sections, with ladders and some quite steep sections.
Just over 2 hours later, we dropped down into a small valley and camp site 2. This area has certainly changed since I was last here. A new multi-room cabin has been constructed, complete with toilets. There was a communial kitchen/cooking cabin also under construction. I'd imagine it will be complete sometime early 2016. This is where most hikers spend their first night. However, it was only 9.40am, so again after just a few minutes we were off again. Just as we left, two Canadian girls arrived. They were going to stay the night. I felt somewhat sorry for them, as they would have a long day ahead of them with little to do. Even my guide recommended that I try to convince them to at least get to the summit and back, however they weren't convinced. On the way back down the mountain, we passed many other groups (I think about 20) who were also on their way up. So at least they'd have some additional company during the day.
The final section to the summit took just under 2 hours. It feels as though the trail winds up and around the mountain, before you finally reach the summit. However, for much of this last section, there was the constant sound of construction work going on. In addition, the track was completely torn up and extremely muddy. There was a lot of trash and construction debris strewn across the place. All of this in the name of progress. Several times you pass under or near the cable car which will eventually take tourists the summit. And close to the summit, you can seee where it's all going to come together. A large platform was being built, presumably with cafes, toilets and other ammenities. It will be interesting to see how the tourists actually get to the summit proper. As the summit area is actually really quite small. Just a pile of rocks, surrounded on several sides by a steep drop-off. I imagine this will also be 'touristed' up and made safe.
So at 11.35am we topped out at the summit. The clouds were still very thick, so I couldn't see anything. We spent just 20 minutes on the summit. Took a few photos, and chatted to some Singapore guys who arrived just before we left. It started to rain again, hence my decision to get going. It was 16.5C on the summit, just 1.5C colder than the park entrance (at 18C).
We departed at 11.55am and like all my hikes, the descent is always the worse. Once the europhia of reaching the summit has surpassed, I just want to get out of my wet, dirty clothes and back to the comfort of civilisation. However, it would be another 5 hours before we finally reached the park entrance again. We arrived just about 5pm. There were still groups just heading out so late in the day, and I was sure they'd be arriving at the camp sites in the dark. However, my climb was done.
Back at the park entrance, I received my certificate and even a fancy medallion celebrating my climb. Kinda cool.
Less than 30 minutes later, I was in the shower and getting ready for bed. It had been great day and a great climb. I only hope the appeal of climbing Vietnam's highest mountain is not lost once the cable car is complete.
Timings for Climb
Sapa to Park Entrance: 20 minutes (by vehicle)
Park entrance to First Camp: 1.5 hours (4km)
First Camp to Second Camp: 2hr 10 min (3.2km)
Second Camp to Summit: 1hr 50 min (2.4km)
Summit to Park entrance: 5 hours
Total: 10.5 hours return (+~30min breaks)
I would say our speed was medium to fast. We made very good time between each section and only spent 30 minutes on the summit having lunch.
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