Mt Fansipan is one of the highlights Vietnam brag about, tagged as the “Roof of Indochina” piercing the sky at 3,143 MASL, highest among all the peaks in its neighboring Indochina countries. (Although I have recently found out that the statement would not be valid if Burma or Myanmar will be counted among IndoChina, as it houses in its borders Hkakabo Razi, the highest in the entire Southeast Asia). This mouthwatering Mt Fansipan challenge led me and my co-wanderwalker Rik to spend a couple days of December 2016 to step on this roof.
Planning for the Hike
Two options to hike Mt Fansipan: Book a tour or DIY it (which is only advisable for the super adventurous!) Read on below for the walk through when booking a tour, or visit this blogpost for tips on hiking Mt. Fansipan without a guide.
Booking a Tour
I’m not a big fan of arranged tours. As much as possible I DIY my hikes. However, I couldn’t do it my way for this mountain. Probably the only peak in Vietnam where you would pay a price, Mt Fansipan could only be climbed if you have permits and a local guide, arranged by an agency. By Dec 2016, the cheapest tour I could find was provided by Mr. Linh’s Adventure, at $120 per person for a 2D-1N group tour. I have read blogs from the previous years where foreign travelers paid only $60, there were even a few who did it on their own, without guides, without fees. However, the Vietnamese justifies the changes with the death of a young British guy who attempted to climb it last mid-2016. It would somehow be a consolation if the tourist money goes to the guide, which is not the case as I will share later on. However, I’m satisfied with the communication and service that Mr Linh’s company provides. I would highly suggest them. You may message me using my FB page if you want to get contacts and referrals.
The package included the following:
- Space to leave your stuff in a homestay called Hoa Đỗ Quyên
- Car pick-up in Trạm Tôn
- Bảo Việt Lào Cai insurance
- Knowledgeable local tour guide and porter (same person)
- Sleeping bag ( 1 piece / 1 pax)
- Camp 2.800m
- Meals mentioned above (banh mi lunch, rice, soup, meat and veggies dinner on day 1, noodles breakfast, banh mi lunch on day 2)
- Two bottles of water ( 0.5 litter)
Considerations when booking
- There are 3 trails to the campsite
- Tram Ton Trail is the easiest, less challenging among the trails with a monotomous view of the mountains, an achievable dayhike.
- Sin Chai Trail is a more challenging trail, providing distinctive views, including the Sin Chai Village, but would require at least 2D
- Cat Cat Trail is the most challenging yet most rewarding of all, requiring 3D-2N.
In my case, I advised my travel agent to book the Sin Chai trail. However, on the day itself when we were already 30 minutes into the trail, I found out that we were actually taking the Tram Ton trail. I was at first disappointed, but then I realized it would have been for the better since I got really exhausted with the easiest trail 😛 Had we done the more challenging one, I would have fainted, I convinced myself.
2. Tours are always either private or private, so make clear with your travel agent which tour you are booking. In my case, I asked to make the tour private (for the same price) since I wanted to wake up too early in the 2nd day to catch the sunrise at the summit. Later on I realized that I should be more thankful, because we’ve encountered other groups who were lagging because of the slow trekkers trailing behind.
3. Weather is a big consideration when hiking. I booked our hike December because I had no other time to do it, but fortunately, God answered my repeated prayer of a great weather. Although at night, the temperature dropped to -4 degrees, during daytime, there was sun and awesome clearing, allowing us to enjoy the surrounding view. The forecasted rain did not also bother us throughout the journey.
As any major physical activity would require, hiking this roof would necessitate good endurance and stamina. Although Tram Ton trail is quite easy, with no bouldering or steep ascents that require both hands, it is very long, traversing the ranges, going up and down and up again.
Personally, I prepared by hiking every weekend starting 2 months before the actual hike (although stopped when the busy-ness of December interrupted), and by giving up my motorbike and riding the bicycle instead everyday going to work or wherever in Ho Chi Minh City.
However, I would say that this is attainable by first time hikers, just allow for more time (meaning start early) to provide room for a lot of rest stops.
Traveling from Hanoi to Sapa
You have 2 transfer options:
Train – at least 8 hours at 450K VND ($20) per person for sleeper spot, and 180K VND ($8) for sitting spot, but drops you off in Lao Cai only, meaning you have to ride a bus going to Lao Cai. For my case, I brought a motorbike on the train, so I just drove from Lao Cai to Sapa.
Sleeper Bus – shorter, cheaper and direct to Sapa. I booked the ticket for my friend Rik through Mr Linh’s at 180K VND ($8) only. They could provide pick up service from your hotel in Old Quarter district in Hanoi. Rik’s bus left 10pm and arrived around 4am, which was still too early so the bus staff allowed the passengers to spend more hours sleeping in the bus while parked. I would have taken this option had I not brought a bike with me.
Motorbike on a Train to Lao Cai
It cost 250K VND ($11) for my rented Honda Future to ride the train, same line SP3 that I rode, which left 10pm from the train station in Ha Noi at Trần Quý Cáp Street. It is advised that you just go to the train station at least 1.5 hours from the departure time to buy your and your bike’s ticket, because they don’t sell tickets for the motorbike earlier than that. It is also a must that you secretly carry a little bottle of fuel with you as the train station staff would empty your tank before loading it to the cargo segment. There’s a refilling station around 5-10 minutes from the station in Lao Cai.
Hiking Mt Fansipan
Jumpoff: Tram Ton Trail, Sapa
Hours Required to Summit: at least 7 hours, 1 to 2 days
Trail Distinction: visible trail, some paved paths/stairs, mountain ranges, sea of clouds, frosty plants (during winter)
Day 1 – Ascending to the Camp Site
December 21 came, our scheduled date to hike Fansipan. I arrived at the meet up point at 8am, when we were supposed to be there at 7am. We were warned that the hike to the campsite would take the whole day, estimating arrival at 2800MASL by 5pm. But since we were not first timers, we reached the target elevation after only 5.5 hours of trekking.
O Quy Ho, the highest pass in Vietnam
Leaving the hotel, the owner drove for us and our tour guide to Tram Ton jumpoff, passing through the famous Tram Ton Pass, sometimes called Heaven Gate Pass, the highest mountain passage in the entire Vietnam. The Vietnamese however don’t call it the same way foreigners do. It’s more popular to the locals as O Quy Ho. Aside from its title, its also magnificently surrounded by the ranges of Mt. Fansipan on the other side, and decorated by a high waterfalls visible as you pass by, making the 13-km curvy ride to the trailhead enjoyable.
The Local Guide / Porter / Cook
I was oversatisfied to have Simh, a sweet 19-year old member of the Black Hmong ethnic minority in Vietnam, as our local companion for this adventure. He had been guiding tourists in Mt Fansipan for 2 years. Although sometimes he struggled expressing his ideas in English, he communicated well enough for us to have a conversation. He carried a basket backpack of food supply, which appeared uniform with other guides we encountered, that I think is too heavy for his petite body. I hated to add another 2kg to his load, but I was promised that we will have a porter to carry 5kg the most, so I brought my own sleeping bag. He proved to be stronger than he looked though, never stopping to rest until we asked to. He also was a good cook, preparing the BEST meal I ever had in a mountain, chicken, pork, tofu, vegetables and soup!
It broke my heart however to find out that out of the $120 we paid per person (and we were 2), he would only receive $9 per day, a total of $18. WHERE DID THE REST OF THE MONEY GO??? My travel agent, who turned out to be a friend after a long correspondence, said that in Vietnam, only 30% of income from tourism industry goes to the locals while the rest goes to the government. 🙁
Tram Ton Trail
Indeed an easy trail, Tram Ton route has been developed to be tourist-friendly, with it being continuously enhanced with steps paved with stones and paths cleared from plants. This is one thing I appreciate the least as it has reduced the challenge and the natural feel of climbing the mountain. Nevertheless, it was still an amazing adventure in total.
At 9am, we started the ascent with the first part of the trail being distinctive with ashes and burnt plants as recently there had been a forest fire that consumed the trees and around it. There’s a small part of the river that we encountered but we didn’t have to cross them with our feet since as I mentioned, paths were already paved for the hikers. Going up and down the treeless peak ranges of Mt Fansipan, and having some short stops to rest, we passed half of the trail and decided to have our lunch by 12noon
Spreading our banner as a picnic mat, we prepared the eggs, tomatoes and cucumbers Simh have been carrying on his basket. I should say that his bread must be the best banh (bread) that I have tasted in my entire 7 months of stay in Vietnam! It proved to be a heavy meal as the remaining 2 hours of the hike was much harder than the initial ascent. It took us 2 more hours to reach the rest stop at 2800 MASL of Mt Fansipan, passing through fun and challenging mossy forests.
The 2800m Rest House
Our group was the first to reach the wooden rest house at around 2:30pm, finding the place cold and quiet. However a few hours later groups starting to pour in and by sundown, each tiny room were already filled by 7 people (at least in my room). There’s one dark kitchen where all the tour guides pack together to prepare and cook meals for their respective groups, using campfires. Since Simh started early, we were the first to grab a sumptuous dinner, while others were so jealous they had to wait more. Haha!
I could guess that nobody maintains the place as the toilets were too dirty, yet we had no choice but to endure using them. Although there are electric poles and lines that were laid traversing the trees and peaks, there’s no electricity in the rest stop, so expect darkness, and cold waters. I didn’t even dare to wash my hands as the faucet as the water was freezing!
As the temperature dropped by night, the only thing left to do was to sleep. Covering myself with two sleeping bags, I tried to pass out into a deep sleep, but the noisy vietnamese on the other room with only a wooden wall separating us, were too noisy. I woke up a number of times due to the cold and noise.
Day 2 – Summit Assault
We woke up 3AM the next day to assault Mt Fansipan summit. We decided not to take any breakfast so as not to slow us down. We learned from the previous day’s experience after eating banh mi! We were only able to start our final assault 4AM due to delays caused by the kitchen jam packed with guides/cooks queuing to use the camp fire.
The sky was clear, shimmering with seemingly reachable stars. The temperature dropped to negative so that even though hiking produces extreme body heat, we still had to keep our sweaters on. We could see the frosted plants shimmering as hit by our headlamps’ light. We took extra care as the path was muddy due to the morning dew. After 2 hours, we reached the seemingly endless stairway to the summit.
Mt Fansipan Summit
A frosty platform welcomed us at the peak where the wind was harshly worsening the already freezing temperature. It was 6am, just 30 minutes before the sun appeared from the cloudy and mountainous horizon. The top is characterized by a triangular signage indicating the elevation, and a Vietnamese flag. We were able to take solo pictures before the people lagging at the trail started to crowd the small platform. I must admit that this summit was designed to be touristy, as other people can reach it without doing the hike, but by riding a 15-minute cable car ride worth 600K VND as I heard.
Soon enough, Mr. Sun greeted us as it rose above the clouds, creating a heaven-like picturesque from Mt Fansipan’s summit. However, not long after sunrise, the clouds started to block our view, not providing a good clearing for our pictures. By 7am, we decided to just catch the sun along as we descend down the path.
What we passed through the dark earlier, we were then seeing in the light as we descended. The frost on the plants have turned into dew and the smell of the moist ground scented the path. Sea of clouds were still present from the horizon, covering the mountain ranges. We took the same path going down, although there is an option to take the cable car to go down. In 1.5 hours, we were already back to the rest house and had our super yummy noodle breakfast! By 10:15, we were already pushing down to the foot of the mountain. It took only a total of 5 hours to descend, from the summit to the foot, not including stops for breakfast for lunch. By 2:30pm, we have completely finished the whole thing. We were given certificates and medals! Apparently everyone who conquers Mt Fansipan receives some honor.
Suggested Itinerary by Train
08:30PM – Buy train tickets
10:00PM – Board the train
06:00AM – Arrival at Lao Cai
08:00AM – Arrival at Sapa, meetup at the hotel, depart for the jumpoff (can be adjusted to provide more time ascending)
09:00AM – ETA at Tram Ton jumpoff, start ascend
12:00AM – Lunch somewhere along the trail
12:30PM – Continue ascending to the summit
02:30PM – ETA at the 2800m rest house
06:00PM – Dinner
07:00PM – Sleep
03:00AM – Wake up, prepare and have breakfast (optional)
04:00AM – Start final assault
06:00AM – Arrival at Mt Fansipan summit (note that the summit can be crowded if you arrive after sunrise, esp during peak season)
07:00AM – Start descent
08:30AM – Back to 2800m rest house
10:00AM – Final descent
01:00PM – Lunch
02:30PM – ETA at the foot
Note that you have to allot more time for ascending and descending if you wish to take frequent stops to rest.
Expenses in Hiking Mt Fansipan
2.7M VND / 120 USD – 2D-1N tour including transport from Sapa to Tram Ton, and food for 2D –
180K VND -Sitting Train – (450K if sleeper train and 180K for sleeper bus)
250K VND Motorbike on the train –
100K Trail food (chocolates, nuts, etc)
100K Tip to guide
Total of 3.33M VND (~148USD)
If you are an adventure-seeker, you wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity of navigating the peaks of Mt Fansipan to reach its summit and witness the sun rise, but I would suggest you take Sin Chai route, a less-touristy trail, or Cat Cat route if you have more time.
However if climbing mountain is not your thing, yet you still want to reach the summit of Indochina, you can take the very touristy cable car.