The night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, a small town just a couple of kilometres from the border with China, was far more pleasant than the previous sleeper train journeys I’d taken – largely because I paid about 100,000VND more (about £3.30) for the upgrade to first class, which granted me a carriage in which the air-con worked properly, as well as a more spacious bottom bunk as opposed to being crammed against the roof.
Unlike the previous trains, most of the passengers were also backpackers; Lao Cai serves as a transit point for those wishing to reach Sapa, which is a 40km minibus ride away. Like all of the others, I was also headed to Sapa, and after a relatively decent night’s sleep (though I missed all of the scenery once the sun came up), disembarked in the early hours of the morning. Leaving the platform, the situation immediately became one of utter chaos as everyone tried to find the minibus company or agent they had booked with. Luckily my height proved an advantage and I spotted my bus quickly.
Minibuses everywhere at Lao Cai
The journey from Lao Cai to Sapa was absolutely spectacular – Sapa is a mountain town at an elevation of around 1,500m, so we were winding our way uphill the entire time with amazing views over the mountain valleys and rice paddies that covered every inch of fertile hillside. However, the journey was a little scary too, as the drivers of every minibus seemed to insist on travelling at breakneck speeds around every corner despite the oncoming traffic and looming drops on either side.
Once the hair-raising journey was over, I was dropped in the Sapa town centre, which was just beginning to wake up – it was still only around 7am by that point. The reason I’d travelled all the way to Sapa was to climb Indochina’s tallest mountain – Mount Fansipan, part of the Hoang Lien Son range (an eastern extension of the Himalayas), which stretches across Northern Vietnam and into China. The climb was set to be in several parts – first a hike up to the base camp that day, where we would then spend the night on the mountainside and in view of the summit. Then, early the next morning we would summit and return to base camp, from where we would eventually make our way back down to the base of the mountain.
I met up with the rest of the group I’d be climbing with – Fleur, Stephen, Anna, Leonie and Jeroen. There were some others but they didn’t complete the climb – I’ll explain later. After a quick shower to refresh after the train, we repacked our bags with the essentials for the climb and then met up with our sherpas. They piled us into a minibus and we drove out of town to the remote location which signified the start of the trail up the mountain. The sherpas sorted out our climbing permits and then we set off – still only around 10am in the morning.
The first couple of hours were easy enough as there was no serious incline – mainly just trekking through the jungle in the foothills at the base of the mountain. There were some tricky parts as the downpour the previous day had reduced sections to steep climbs up mounds of mud and clay. Unfortunately the burn on my leg had blistered and turned into a bit of an open wound, and all the dressings I tried to put on just kept sliding off. I covered it in antiseptic cream and just hoped for the best, but it got covered in mud and dirt so was pretty sore.
Following a stream upriver in the jungle undergrowth. It was absolutely sweltering.
Soon we noticed that we were going upill a lot more than down and through the gaps in the trees we could glimpse Fansipan and the surrounding mountains occasionally, their peaks obscured by clouds.
One of the neighbouring mountains.
Eventually we reached a couple of huts which signified our stop for lunch – the sherpas rustled up some delicious Bahn Mi which filled us up. Unfortunately in the heat and humidity I’d already drunk about half of my water – water that was supposed to last for the entire climb and descent. When I realised that I rationed it much better, but it meant I was quite thirsty.
The lunch spot.
We only stopped for lunch for about half an hour, before continuing on as the terrain became far more uneven and the path gave way to a very rough track that we wouldn’t have noticed were it not for the Sherpa’s, who knew the route like the back of their hands. (Interestingly a British guy died on the mountain last year in the month before I climbed it, when trying to ascend it on his own).
We emerged from the lower jungle in the early afternoon and suddenly the climb got a lot harder, and steeper. We had to use ladders and ropes to get up some sections and we were climbing up rocks and boulders for much of it.
The route up.
What amazed me was how slippy the grip was even with my hiking trainers, whilst the Sherpas maintained perfect balance in just a pair of sandals, with all of our cooking equipment and food on their backs. The views turned from good to spectacular too, as our route mainly stuck to the crest of one of the mountain’s ridges, so we had expansive views to either side.
As the afternoon wore on though these views were hampered as we went into the clouds, so that all we could see was the the path in front of us, with any views to either side obscured by thick white cloud. It was quite surreal, and also refreshing as the cloud cooled the air and almost made us feel cold. The climb at this point followed a familiar pattern – reach the end of a long, steep stretch, exhausted, and feel quite relieved. Then turn the corner to find a longer, steeper stretch awaiting. We took rest breaks increasingly frequently and finished the last of our water (which was supposed to last another couple of days). Luckily, we were able to refill our bottles from a natural spring as the water was so pure at that height there was no risk of any poisoning. After an age, we finally spotted base camp ahead of us, perched on the side of the mountain. The final climb up took another hour, which was agonising, but eventually we made it.
Our bed for the night was basically a big wooden bench that fit six of us, in a large wooden hut. We had sleeping bags, but it definitely wasn’t very comfy! That evening the Sherpas cooked us a great meal (I think it was chicken) and then we sat outside the hut playing Uno until we could no longer see. The view over the Sapa valley was just unbelievable, and with the total lack of light pollution we saw a huge array of stars as night fell. We had to get an early night though, as we were due to be up at 3am in order to summit. The uncomfortable conditions made sleep difficult though so I don’t think anyone got more than 3-4 hours. The Sherpas were ready when we woke up though with some strong Vietnamese coffee, which was badly needed by us all. In complete darkness we left base camp (leaving most of our stuff there and taking only the essentials), and using only the light from our phone torches we began the steepest part of the climb yet; up to the summit.
I’m not going to lie, climbing by torchlight in the pitch black didn’t feel particularly safe, as we could barely make out the path in daytime, let alone at night. Thankfully the first signs of dawn rolled in around 5am, making it light enough to just about see where we were treading. Although the goal had been to reach the summit for sunrise, we missed it by over an hour and so instead had to settle for watching it come up as we were halfway up the mountainside. But that took nothing away from it – it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The pictures don’t come close to doing it justice, but here you go:
After marvelling at the sunrise for long enough (and taking a much needed rest), we pressed on with the summit in sight. At one point our path was blocked by this snake:
Naturally none of us knew whether it was venomous or not so we left it the hell alone. Unfortunately it seemed to be enjoying basking in the morning sunlight and so eventually Stephen threw a stone near to it, which scared it off (luckily not towards us).
Side note: Out of interest I emailed that picture and a description of the snake to a guy called Vern Lovic, an expert in Southeast Asian snakes. He kindly identified it for me as Protobothrops Jerdonii – a type of venomous pit-viper native to Vietnam, Burma and China. Its venom can be deadly so in hindsight I’m glad we stayed well away from it….
Snake out of the equation, we kept climbing and finally, finally saw the summit ahead of us. Tragically, the Vietnamese government has decided that Mt Fansipan is such an attraction that it deserves a cable car to the summit – and so there is a huge development at the summit underway building a cable car, restaurant and visitor centre. Whilst I can’t blame them for doing everything possible to encourage tourism, it was a huge shame that the beautiful peak has been blighted by an ugly cable car and a collection of buildings. It also means reaching the summit feels slightly less of an achievement! Still, we were relieved to have reached the peak, and immensely proud as well. The summit is obscured with cloud the vast majority of the time, but thankfully the gods were smiling on us and we seemed to have picked the one cloud free day all month! The reward was yet more unbelievable views – we could see all across the Sapa valley, look down on the smaller peaks and gaze into China to our North.
Looking back the way we came…
A little look into China.
It was really stunning and definitely made the gruelling climb worth it. As we summitted so early in the morning, none of the cable-car tourists had made their way up yet, so we had the peak to ourselves. Just the six of us, our shepas, and the other members of the group – who didn’t make it up until about an hour after the rest of us, and were so tired they took the cable car down as opposed to climbing!
Secretly a part of me was glad for the cable car development – as it gave us the chance to buy extra drinks and food for the descent – as well as a beer to drink on the roof of Indochina. It felt goooooood.
After about an hour or two on the summit we started to retrace our steps back to base camp, which took forever as we were all exhausted, and the route was so up-and-down it was at least a couple of hours to get back. There we rested, had some food and enjoyed our last few minutes above the clouds.
Heading back down to base camp (on the left).
The climb down from base camp and the subsequent trek to where we had started was incredibly tiring; by the end we were all so exhausted even the smallest hill was a massive challenge to get over. It took all morning an afternoon to get down, and when we finally stumbled into view of our starting point the relief was massive. Thankfully there was a minibus waiting for us, and we all just crashed onto the seats and slept on the drive back into town.
One of many rests we needed on the way down.
Good spot for a sit-down.
Stephen with his trusty walking stick.
I don’t know how the Sherpas do it – they were smaller than all of us (the youngest was only 15), carried more than us and yet never got tired and were booked to do it all again the day after our trip ended – it’s crazy. Massive thanks to them as we’d have never done it without them. It was definitely one of the hardest things I did on my entire trip but it felt like a huge achievement reaching the top. That night after the best shower of my life in one of the most amazing hostels I stayed in (check out the view) the six of us who got up and down met up in Sapa for drinks and a pizza. Its a great little town – quite touristy but that’s for good reason with the surrounding scenery. The streets had a good atmosphere in the evening and it was a good night (although an early one because we were all so tired).
Postcard view from the hostel.
The next day I rented a motorbike from my hostel and set out to explore the terraced rice paddies, fields and hills that make Sapa so famous. I must have ridden around 100km+ that day as I went to Lao Cai and back as well as through lots of small villages hidden away in different valleys. Riding a motorbike was such an addictive feeling, and it allowed me to see so much of the area in just a day, for only $4 for the rental and $1.50 petrol! Here are a few pics:
Sapa and Mt Fansipan absolutely charmed me during my fairly short stay, so it felt all too soon getting onboard the nightbus back to Hanoi. Before I left I had to visit the hospital as the burn on my leg had become infected during the climb and was looking pretty nasty. Luckily they checked for blood poisoning and I was all alright so they dressed it up, gave me a load of meds and creams to take, charged me $40 and sent me on my way. I’ll definitely be returning to Sapa when I’m back in Vietnam next month, I feel like there is still loads more to see and discover there (plus I want to go back to the place where I had the best Pho in ‘Nam).
The bus arrived back in Hanoi at around 3am, and with no hostel booked and dwindling money supplies I didn’t have much choice but to sit under cover on the street until morning, with the most torrential rainstorm ever happening all night. The amazing people at the hostel I’d stayed at previously in Hanoi very kindly let me shower once they opened up in the morning – then I grabbed some more Pho and continued my exhausting 36 hours of travel by making my way to the airport for a flight to HCMC. Arriving at about 2am, I again had to rough it at the airport rather than waste money on a hotel for half a night. Finally, once morning arose I dragged myself into town and got on a bus to one of the final stops on my trip – Cambodia!
If you want to see a picture of the burn on my leg, I’ve put it below. It’s not pretty, so you’ve been warned: