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Climbing to the top of Vietnam

Our trip to the highest mountain in Vietnam wasn’t a well planned expedition. One of us had a summer placement at a hospital in Hanoi, and the other decided to tag along towards the end of the trip to eat as much food as possible and to see some of the country. We both love bush walking and have climbed lots of peaks in Australia and overseas. The idea to climb the highest mountain in the country was one of those late night suggestions over the phone after a few wines.

Rob: “Hey, lets climb the highest mountain in Vietnam!”
Clare: “Sure, what’s it called?”
Rob: “No idea!”
Clare: “How high is it?”
Rob: “No idea, but let’s do it!”
Clare: “Ok!”

After a quick search of the Internet and flick through the Lonely Planet guidebook, we found Mt Fansipan (3143 metres) located in the northern highlands not far from the Chinese border. A bit more research showed that it was possible to climb the mountain without having to put together a major expedition, and that anyone in reasonably good shape should be able to manage. Our plan was coming together – we’d sort the rest out in Vietnam…

In Vietnam we spent a week relaxing in Hanoi and exploring Halong Bay, which gave us time to sort out our trip to Fansipan. Strolling through Hanoi’s Old Quarter, we learnt that almost all of the bigger tourist companies in Hanoi offer guided climbs to Fansipan, for five to ten days ex Hanoi. Alternatively it can be organised once in Sapa, the tourist hub of the mountainous northwest.

From what we could gather, a local guide would be required for the trip as it is impossible to obtain maps of sensitive military areas on the Chinese border. The guides organise access through villages and obtain Government permits, and can help with hiring camping gear and arranging food. We decided to travel to Sapa independently and check out the local guides. This seemed like a wise decision as none of the travel agents in Hanoi knew where Mt Fansipan was or what the climb involved.

Getting to Sapa is a relaxing eight hour over night train trip to Lao Cai, the major town in the region situated right on the Chinese border, 346 kilometres northwest of Hanoi. From Lao Cai, it is only a short yet bumpy bus ride along winding roads to Sapa. Sapa (1650 metres) is a hill station built in 1922, set in a stunning valley surrounded by the Hoang Lien mountain range, called the Tonkinese Alps by the French colonists. The region is famous for its ethnic hill tribes and Saturday ‘Free Love Market’, where the local young people meet and court prospective spouses. The town is a bit touristy, but compared to most destinations along the guidebook trails it still has a nice feel about it and the local economy and culture isn’t geared totally to western visitors. It is worth taking a day or two to relax in the town and soak up the atmosphere (and food!), especially on a clear sunny day when the views are superb.

There are several guiding companies located in the centre of town, who all offer treks throughout the region. The most popular treks are into the valleys to explore the ethnic villages, however most companies do offer trips to Mt Fansipan. Prices to climb the mountain varied greatly between companies, and as usual you often get what you pay for. We met two other groups on the climb. One had reasonable guides who charged a lot (though they did wear bright red dinner jackets when they cooked and served food!) and the other had guides who left them behind, got them lost and had limited English skills. Our advice is to meet the actual guide (not local agents) a few days before the climb and ask them how many times they’ve guided the trip, what gear they will supply and how they’ll stage the trip, particularly if the weather turns bad.

For $US100 each, we organised a three day climb. One guide from the tourist company and two porters from the local hill tribes would accompany us, and the price included hiring of tents and sleeping bags. The porters would carry all the fresh food, cooking and sleeping gear – all we had to bring was our own personal clothing and snack food. We spent the evening relaxing on our hotel balcony with a beer, admiring the views into the valley. We were finally ready to climb the highest mountain in Vietnam!

We woke early on the day of the climb to meet our porters in the main street of Sapa. The sky was still dark, but the locals were up, the market and streets coming to life. As we waited for our guides, we ate warm French bread rolls with pate` in the street for breakfast. We were determined to fill our stomachs up, a little dubious about the food our guides may provide for the trip.

Our guides appeared, and the gear for the trip was strapped into traditional wicker baskets with a bamboo frame, with only strips of grasses for shoulder straps! Bulky doonas, cooking pots and pans, and bags of freshly bought food from the market overflowed – it looked like a lot of stuff for two nights, and it looked heavy! It was nothing like our usual collection of lightweight, waterproof, windproof, breathable, dehydrated equipment. We loaded the gear into the back of an old Russian jeep, and headed off to the start of the walk, about 11 kilometres from Sapa.

Rob Paton and Clare Holdsworth

The walk begins on top of the range on which Sapa is located. From here we trekked northward down into a steep valley lined by dramatic rice terraces. Leaving early gave us some time to look at the Black H’Mong villages in the valley. These people get few tourists through and its a great opportunity to see some of the village life. Our guide pointed out the indigo plants which the Black H’Mong use to dye their linen clothing, their variation of traditional dress which distinguishes them from other H’mong tribes who are found throughout Southeast Asia.

After a few kilometres trekking along the valley floor through the villages, the track crossed a river and we began a very steep and direct ascent up a slippery clay ridgeline, the track deeply scoured from use by village hunters and forays to collect firewood. Our two porters were quickly out of sight, effortlessly going up the mountain with their baskets strapped to their backs and nothing but thongs on their feet. After a steep 1000 metre climb we reached a narrow ridge high above the village with stunning views back to Sapa and north towards Fansipan. Our porters had arrived long ago, and were sitting back in the sun having a smoke and preparing our lunch.

The lunch stop provided the best view of the walk to come. The track drops off again into another valley before rising to the ridge that would take us to the summit of Mt Fansipan. It is a steep decent and the valley is thickly vegetated and uninhabited. For a few hours we skirted the side of the valley along tracks that would be almost impossible to follow without a guide. The terrain is undulating but easy to walk on. It is probably one of the few jungles in Vietnam not defoliated during the American War. On the final leg of this days walk we descended sharply to the floor of the valley and crossed a large creek. On the northern bank of the creek is a collection of makeshift campsites used by the guiding companies.

At an altitude of about 2200 metres, it got dark and cold quickly in the valley so we rugged up in all our thermal gear while the porters made us a fire, prepared our meal and set up the tents. As with most of Vietnam, the food was one of the highlights of the trip. The porters had carried a massive selection of fresh herbs and spices – lemongrass, mint, ginger, chillies, shallots, as well as fresh meats and vegetables and cooked us a five course feast – including French fries! Never again would we carry dehydrated foods, they had put us to shame!

After a long, cold nights sleep in a shared single bugs bunny sleeping bag (we recommend you take your own gear, or check out the sleeping bags provided by the company before leaving!), we awoke to mist and drizzle and began a direct ascent up a steep track. Care has to be taken on several sections of the track, which have fixed ropes of a dubious nature. The climb is dangerous in parts and people have died falling during rainy periods when the mud and rock falls away on the steep sections. We found that it was best to hang onto tree roots where we could, and we took our time up these sections. The ground is very unstable and slippery and the dropoff is big. The climb becomes less of a scramble and more of a steep walk after about an hour and the remainder of the route is generally safe. You should take care, however, not to lose the track and wander off along a hunters trail.

After about four hours more ascent, we entered a miniature bamboo forest at about 2900 metres. The winds were cold and we noticed a bit of extra stain as the air became thinner. Eventually the track levelled out and we suddenly rounded a corner and saw the metal trig station which is the summit cairn. We were on the roof of Vietnam!

Unfortunately the only view we got was of cloud, but we were told that on a clear day the view across to China and Laos is spectacular.

After lunch in the rocks at the summit, we were ready to retrace our steps back to the camp of the previous night. The decent was relatively fast, three to four hours, and we found we could almost run downhill through the bamboo forest, using the bamboo to balance and slow ourselves. Great care has to be taken on the final part of the trek to camp particularly when descending the steep, lose rocky sections. Its easy to dislodge rocks here and hit someone below.

After another great meal at camp, the following day the track was retraced back to the villages in the valley. Again, care should be taken in the steeper sections where the track has formed into a steep clay erosion gully. At this point our guide had organised a lift back to town and a hot shower at one of the hotels.

We thought the walk was great and it was all we had hoped for. One of the other groups we met had problems with their guide and this had a real impact on their experience. The walking is certainly different from Australia and to enjoy the experience you have to be relaxed about the quality of the tracks, the poor gear and the Vietnamese attitude to ecology and litter. Care obviously needs to be taken to ensure that you can look after yourselves if you fall or someone is injured, but these days you are probably safer in the hills than the cities.

Some facts: The length of the walk is about 35 kilometre return. In terms of ratings, the walk would probably be medium to hard, mainly because of the very steep sections on the summit day and the fact that the hill climbs tend to be direct rather than the typical switchbacks found in Australia. The walk is best undertaken in three days. You could spend an extra day to make sure that you get good weather at the summit. The best time of the year to go is the dry season, which runs from about December to March. The weather is cold at this time, so make sure you carry adequate clothing and wet weather gear.

Clare Holdsworth and Rob Paton are Australians who bushwalk in whatever  free time they have.  They have both travelled  extensively for work and always take some time out to explore new places.

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