It was time to depart for Sapa which is a hill town in northern Vietnam and the jumping off point for people who are mad enough to want to ascend Mt. Fanxipan. We took the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, close to the border with China, a journey of about 8 hours. To travel on a Vietnamese sleeper train sounds exciting and adventurous but it is probably an experience that I will not be looking to repeat in a hurry. The train carriage looked comfortable enough. Clean bedding and soft mattresses were provided in our 4 berth, first class compartment. But the whole journey was in the dark so there was nothing to see and the carriage jerked and juddered and was very noisy so sleep was next to impossible for me. Nearly all the other passengers were foreigner tourists – Vietnamese probably know better and take the plane! Arriving at Lao Cai station at 6am, feeling pretty tired, we took a van to Sapa, dropped off some bags and a couple of hours later were transported to Tram Ton or Heaven’s Gate, the starting point of the Fanxipan climb.
Mt. Fanxipan (sometimes spelt as Phan Si Pan) at 3,143 metres, is the highest mountain in Vietnam, or, even more impressive sounding, the highest in Indochina. Since the starting point was already over 2,000 metres I was thinking how hard can this be? The answer was very hard!
A guide and porter were provided. The porter carried everything we would eat for the next 2 days in his basket.
After a gruelling afternoon’s hike we arrived at our luxurious base camp accommodation to rest up for the night.
We had to spend two miserable nights in this shack (one night on the way up and one on the way down). The hut could accommodate up to 16 people sleeping sardine-like. My grubby sleeping bag was located underneath the leak in the roof meaning I was cold and wet as I lay awake on the uncomfortable bamboo slatted floor. The sleeping bag – what vile instrument of torment. The guy who invented the sleeping bag must be the same person who invented the straight jacket, and for the same reason – to drive the poor occupant nuts. Not enough room to curl up, when I rolled over the top half twisted but the bottom half stayed put. It started off cold and clammy and then became hot and clammy without ever being just right on the way.
At least the food was good, amazingly so given the primitive conditions in the ‘kitchen’.
The porters and guides managed to knock up an impressive meal which was washed down with generous slugs of rice wine.
The worst aspect of base camp had to be the toilet facilities which consisted of a wooden platform built over a pit containing a large pig who would eat the ‘droppings’. Eco-friendly, I suppose, but I won’t be eating pork again.
After an early breakfast we began the final ascent to the summit of Fanxipan. It was one of the most exhausting things I had ever done. Mud, mud everywhere, oozing over the tops of boots. Muddy trousers, caked boots, shirt soaked with sweat, glasses steamed up, visibility zero. Lungs wheezing, heartbeat audible, leg muscles aching, hour after hour.
What were the feelings on reaching the top? Not really exhilaration. Relief to get a rest but tinged with anxiety about having to go all the way back down again. It was not the best view in the world due to poor visibility but when the clouds parted there were some impressive vistas. On the way down my knees were buckling and I had to be careful not to slip and injure myself. At least my breathing was easier going down.
Finally back down to the bottom feeling strangely invigorated for several hours afterwards, perhaps due to the after-effects of prolonged heart pumping exercise and the intake of super fresh air.
Back in civilization, we were able to explore some of the charms of Sapa while recovering for the next stage of our travels.
This region of Vietnam is home to a number of ethnic minorities such as the Hmong people who are happy to pose for tourists in their traditional dress and sell examples of their skillful handicrafts.