In early May, we attempted our greatest physical challenge while in Southeast Asia: summiting Mount Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng), the highest mountain in the Indochinese Peninsula (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) — known as the “the Roof of Indochina.” Overall, it was a challenging but very worthwhile experience! I’d definitely recommend any visitor to this region make the trip, either by trek as we did, or by the new cable car (which isn’t the same experience, but gives access to some amazing views).
It was our first time attempting a hike that AllTrails classified as “hard.” And if that wasn’t enough warning, Shu, the founder of Sapa O’Chau (the only tour operator in Vietnam officially registered as a social enterprise that gives back to the ethnic minority people of Sa Pa), advised us that we were required to sign a government waiver for the kids to join us on this trek. So we were appropriately warned, but I perhaps did not fully appreciate what we were taking on. Thankfully, we were in really good hands with our guide Duong, and our two porters, who not only carried most of our gear and food up the mountain, but also handled cooking all of our meals and setting up our sleeping mats and bags.
We were initially scheduled to depart on a Sunday, but the two preceding days were very hot in Ta Van. (Apparently it was even hotter in Ha Noi, not to mention our next several destinations). So we made the decision to push our departure back a day, when it was forecast to be at least 10º F cooler. Unfortunately, the reason it was cooling off is that the incoming cold front also brought a storm with early morning rain and heavy fog. So we didn’t get the views that Fansipan is famous for. But given how much I was sweating on our hike (plenty), this was probably the prudent choice.
The first day: most of the way up
While the fog was giving us memories of our hike on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing [blog post to come], the environment was far more verdant and pleasant. Like Tongariro, due to the weather, there were no real views. But it was also different because the trail itself was not so desolate — and at times, the mist even made it a bit magical.
Duong told us that there are varied wild animals present, including monkeys, bears, mountain goats, snakes, and lots of birds. (We did not see many of these, partly due to the fog, but we definitely heard monkeys and saw goats.)
There are also domestic animals like oxen and cows (some of whom we saw up close and personal).
We also saw lots of plant life, including ferns, bamboo, a forest “peach” plant with tangy fruits that we tried, and even a cardamom plant. There was also an interesting variety of rocks, including some pretty quartz veins.
The trail itself was strenuous and somewhat challenging. Several AllTrails reviewers complained about being required to have a guide (whether due to the expense or the lack of solitude), but we couldn’t have done it without guidance. (I’d definitely have gone the wrong way at least a couple times.) Other than those for fire safety, I didn’t see a single sign. The trail is apparently much more supported than it had been before 2016, when there were ropes at best — now there are a variety of assists like bridges, benches, some steps (carved in mud or rock, built out of stone, or metal), and while the paths were often bumpy or rocky, the flat parts were well groomed. There was a little litter here and there, but overall it was pretty beautiful and clean.
Speaking of the rocks, we were glad to have worn our hiking boots and brought our poles. We were constantly impressed by our guide and porters, who were just wearing sandals and never seemed to sweat! (They told us that in the winter — from November to February — they wear shoes for warmth, as sometimes it even snows, and in the wet season they wear wading boots.) The poles were often a big help, especially to shift the load a bit when my knees or muscles were strained. At other times, like on stairs or the diagonal ladders bolted to the rock, they could be a nuisance, or an active hindrance — they basically extend your arms, but with the tradeoff of not being able to use one’s hands. (I tried various workarounds: tossing them up, holding them in my off hand, or handing them to Duong or Venu. Probably the best way would’ve been attaching them to my backpack, but it may have been tricky since the trail was so up and down.)
As we gradually progressed from about 1995 meters (6550 feet) to 2800 meters (9200 feet) in altitude over the course of the day, we had numerous rest stops. Some of these were at vista points, which I can only describe as disappointing given the fog. Others were for bio-breaks. (The trail was a good use case for Imodium — especially given that so far in our visit to Vietnam, bathrooms have been numerous, familiar, and pretty clean, we weren’t mentally prepared for a lack of facilities, so this was something we could’ve done without.) Others were for sheer exhaustion, especially after (or during) the parts with steep grades.
We met few other tourists doing the hike, but we met a few at our lunch stop, as well as some goats who helped us with our food scraps and leftovers.
As we continued after lunch, we got some glimpses of sun, but our family gradually aligned on the decision to take the cable car down the next day, instead of hiking back down. As the staircases, ladders, and rock scrambles continued, I was persistently damp with sweat, and tiny salt crystals formed all over my shirt and forearms (and apparently my face). I faced some real challenges with muscle cramping in my quadriceps and adductors (that then began to spread to other parts of my body). But in Duong’s capable hands, I eventually caught up with the family at Camp 2 for our overnight.
It was distinctly colder by this altitude, and when the sun set it got dark, windy, and even colder very quickly. The huts were adequate, and did a good job of helping us avoid the cold and wind. While they are solidly built and reasonably well-designed, they do not seem well-maintained, and especially the area around the kitchen and dining hut has become a bit of a trash dump. (And the less said about the bathroom facilities, the better.)
Somehow even in these conditions and with just a firepit to work with, our porters produced a six-course gourmet dinner with now-familiar Vietnamese dishes like tofu in tomato sauce, morning glory, and mushrooms, as well as some I hadn’t yet tried like stir-fried bamboo shoots. Thanks to some kind fellow hikers from Singapore, I had some muscle balm that (along with more water, ginger tea, and bananas) helped me dispel the cramps for a while.
After dinner, we tried to play a round of our ongoing family Hearts game with our motley set of light sources (a headlamp that kept turning off, a flashlight without a stand, and phone lights that we feared would discharge) but decided not to score the round. Even with our sleeping bags, it was a chilly night and our sleep wasn’t great (and apparently the tummy disturbances weren’t just for me), but the rest we got was definitely both necessary and welcome.
The second day: to the summit and back down
Duong told us that some hikers were waking up very early and departing by 4:30 AM to see the sunrise from the peak of Fansipan. When we didn’t seem enthusiastic, he assured us that with the fog, views were unlikely. Since folks were getting up from about 3 AM to get going, we were also (intermittently) awake to hear the heavy rainstorms that went on for several hours in the early morning. When we left (as the last ones out from Camp 2) it continued to be foggy, and the morning’s rain had made the ground wet, but not at all muddy.
I was struck (again) by how few people we encountered — perhaps due to the season, that it was a weekday, or that it was foggy. (We did get passed by one woman who had apparently started this morning, covering in an hour or so the part that took us nearly eight hours on the first day… which was sobering. Karthik found out that she’s training for an Ironman triathlon.)
While the remainder of the trail was far shorter than what we’d covered on the first day, the challenge continued. (I definitely understood the requirement of the waiver for kids’ participation now.) We also had some continued ailments, but we took it slow and steady and eventually made it to the cable car station. The polished, commercial, and touristy station was an adjustment from our hike so far (and our experiences in the huts).
After a break, some of us continued up from the cable car station to the summit. This part of the trail was also like night and day compared with our hike up to the cable car station — though it was still a challenging climb (especially since we were obviously higher than ever), it had consistent and wide staircases, lots of clear signage, and numerous Buddhist monuments and shrines, including one with a relic of the Buddha inside a crystal pagoda below a giant statue. These were quite beautiful, and I understood the even greater appeal they would have on a clear day. (Though the day we were there had its own benefits — in particular, the chance for some peace.)
But we finally made it!
Venu celebrated with a chocolate croissant and Karthik and I visited (another) cafe near the summit. Then we took the funicular down — which was shockingly short (maybe a minute) and worth it to spare my knees, though on a clear day it would’ve had its own great views. Venu walked back to the cable car station, and arrived literally 3 minutes after us, given our long wait to board.
After some much-needed ablutions, we took the cable car back down. On the one hand, the 25 minute ride was far shorter than our trip up, but on the other hand, this is a LONG way to go on a cable car. The cars are very big (holding up to 35 people). From our height we could occasionally spot bits of the trail we had hiked, and when the fog cleared we got a hint of some of the amazing views possible on a clear day. (When we made it to Hoang Lien station, the HUGE space for lines gave a sense of the crowds one could expect on such a day.)
So, the TL;DR: We survived, but it was definitely a challenge — and despite the lack of views, it was a good hike.
But if you’re willing to indulge one last question: How did someone (me) who finished his first 15k in the last 6% of the participants actually complete the challenging Fansipan trail?
It actually wasn’t by getting a lot more fit — while in some ways we have been significantly more active this year, I also haven’t engaged in intense physical activity with the same consistency. It was really about mindset (and a few practical tips):
- Positive team attitude: This was a hard hike for our whole family, in one way or another. Trying to be supportive of each other — including by being positive for each other — was key.
- Detachment from the result: Being focused on enjoying the journey, regardless of the views, the difficulties, or making it to the destination or not, was also key. In the words of the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2, Verse 47): You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.
- Get good help: Having skilled and strong guides and porters meant that there was no stress about getting lost, separated, or injured. We knew we were in good hands.
- Take it slow: There was no bonus to being the first up the mountain, and really no cost to getting there later. Building in this buffer allowed us to take our time — enabling us to tackle this challenge at the edge of our abilities.
- Stay hydrated: Very important when exerting oneself at higher altitudes than one is used to, but (I have found) important to well-being in pretty much every circumstance.
- Learn from experience: I definitely know things now that I didn’t know before we started (about myself, about our family, and about hiking) — whether the importance of the points above, or more practical tips, or even knowing my own limits better (and when it’s worth pushing them, and when it isn’t).
And all of these are good lessons for life as well. So this was a very worthwhile experience!