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THIS IS MY TRAIL
Andrew Westbrook
Andrew Westbrook is a travel journalist with a passion for escaping the crowds on remote, long-distance trails.

Climbing Fansipan

The Tallest Mountain in Vietnam

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Climbing Fansipan (Phan Xi Pang)

The 'Roof of Indochina'

Known as the ‘Roof of Indochina,’ Fansipan (10,312 feet) is the highest mountain in Vietnam. Located in the country’s north-west region just 17 miles from the Chinese border, it is the Hoàng Liên Son range’s tallest peak, rising from a photogenic valley of rice terraces. Sapa, the French colonial outpost turned tourism boomtown, is the main gateway to the remote Hoàng Liên National Park in South-East Asia where Fansipan is located. The park is renowned for its biodiversity, towering bamboo and colorful hill tribes. Guided treks up Fansipan started in earnest in the 1990s, typically taking at least three or four days, but shorter, more challenging hiking trails in Vietnam have since become just as common.

  • Trail length: 12mi
  • Climb: 5,400ft

Hiking in Vietnam's Hoang Lien Son Mountain Range

As I stumble to the ground, suffering serious dehydration, fearful of armed tribesmen and having no idea where my guide has gone, I begin to wonder if climbing Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak, was such a wise idea…

From the moment I’d arrived among the forest-clad peaks of the Hoàng Liên Son mountain range, dubbed the Tonkinese Alps, I knew I couldn’t leave without taking on the region’s most lofty climb. My problem was that before reaching Vietnam, I’d never heard of the ‘Roof of Indochina,’ which meant I had scant time to plan and set out on a bonus multi-day excursion.

Added to that was my guidebook’s entry on climbing Fansipan. It was clear on two things:

- All but the very fit should be able to do the trek in three or four days.

- For safety, you should never go one-on-one with a guide

Unfortunately, I could only spare two days, despite being far from the finest shape of my life. Worse still, I couldn’t find anyone to join me, meaning it would just be me and a guide. My choices were stark – try my luck or turn my back. A sucker for a challenge, I decided on the former, setting off with my sole companion – my guide, Tintin.

"From the moment I'd arrived among the forest-clad peaks of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, dubbed the Tonkinese Alps, I knew I couldn't leave without taking on the region's most lofty climb."

Tintin and the Tonkinese

Tintin has an English vocabulary barely broader than my non-existent Vietnamese and so conversation is at a minimum as we start hiking through the Tram Ton forest in Vietnam. The scenery more than makes amends, however, and soon enough we hit the steep muddy slopes.

We start at a ferocious pace. Having been told there are two potential camps on Fansipan, with one much nearer the top, I’m eager to cover the maximum distance, and dig in deep as we push up through the trees.

Feeling good, we settle into a speedy rhythm, barely stopping as the fog envelops the rice terraces disappearing below.

Unfortunately, my dream of reaching the second camp appears a victim of the language barrier. Arriving at the first camp for an early lunch I realise Tintin is pitching our tent. I protest, but Tintin stands firm, insisting it’s the far better camp and that our early pace means there should be no problem tomorrow.

And so, after a bite to eat, it’s barely afternoon when we bed down in our cosy two-man tent, with deafening snores coming from Tintin’s side almost immediately.

I sleep terribly, with Tintin transforming into a drunken giant, bellowing in my ear as he rolls down the sloping tent towards me, pinning my face against the rain-sodden canvas as I lie there, confused by what sounds like dogs barking nearby.

Rising at dawn, I feel like death. I’m exhausted and damp, and my legs ache like never before. I hope I can walk the stiffness off as we set out carrying only the bare essentials, including just a bottle of water each, expecting to be back in camp that afternoon.

"It's barely afternoon when we bed down in our cosy two-man tent, with deafening snores coming from Tintin's side almost immediately."

On the Run

I’m immediately struggling, my legs screaming in opposition. Worse still, I quickly run out of water. Our pace is painfully slow and I’m aware my hope of reaching the top and back in time for my bus is rapidly fading. I’m miserable, hating myself, the mountain and especially Tintin when he starts suggesting we should turn back. I insist we’ll make it, and trudge on, blanking out everything but the trail.

Finally, just when I think the pain will never end, the trees clear and the metal triangle signifying the summit of Phan Xi Păng comes into view. The feeling of elation is huge, instantly evaporating any memory of the lows. All smiles again, we soak up our spectacular surroundings, thankfully free of the area’s infamous fog, and it feels as if anything is possible.

But we can’t hang around. Our chances of making it back in time are looking slim.

“Could you do it?” I ask Tintin.

“Of course,” he replies distractedly, “but I run down.”

And so we run. On an adrenaline high, I find my former strength and we tear down the mountain, half falling, half running, ripping clothes and flesh on the sharp bamboo as we go.

But as the adrenaline wears off I begin to struggle again. Suddenly dizzy and feeling sick, I realize I’m seriously dehydrated and drop behind. Things then go from bad to worse as we reach a rockface we’d climbed that morning with the aid of a log left by the local climbing guides. The log has moved.

"Just when I think the pain will never end, the trees clear and the metal triangle signifying the summit of Phan Xi Pang comes into view. The feeling of elation is huge!"

A lawless land

“So what?” I ask about the log, thinking only of water.

Tintin’s reply unnerves me. “The log hasn’t moved on its own.”

Suddenly water isn’t at the forefront of my mind. Who even knows we’re up here? Why would they want to stop us?

Answering my thoughts, Tintin adds: “Local tribesmen hunt on the mountain with their dogs. They must be slowing us down to steal from our camp.”

“Dogs? Oh. What if we see them?” I ask, unsure what a potential standoff could entail. I wish I hadn’t asked.

“Then we hide. They will have guns. Up here there are no witnesses, no police...” he adds, trailing off.

Now clearly worried about losing our stuff, and annoyed I’d not mentioned the dogs I’d heard the night before, Tintin has less patience. Racing off, he leaves me alone. I stumble around, aimless and disorientated, feeling as if I could faint at any moment. I start to panic. But just when all seems lost, I hear a distant call. It’s my name! Tintin is calling me!

Finally finding our camp, almost all our stuff has gone but there are no tribesmen in sight. I’m beyond caring though – I see Tintin already has some water on the boil and I’m overcome with relief.

A swift half hour later I feel alive again, so off we run, galloping down Fansipan’s forest. It’s tight, but I make my bus with minutes to spare, the majestic ‘Roof of Indochina’ conquered.

"I stumble around, aimless and disorientated, feeling as if I could faint at any moment. I start to panic. But just when all seems lost, I hear a distant call. It's my name! Tintin is calling me!"

Plan your travel

When to go
October and November are the best months as you'll avoid the hot and very wet subtropical summers (the heaviest rainfall is in July and August), as well as the winters, when temperatures can plummet to below zero at night.
How to get there
Head north-west on the train from Vietnamese capital Hanoi to Lao Cai, which takes 8 to 9 hours. From there, it's a 24-mile bus or taxi ride to Sapa.
Visa
Tourists need to arrange a 30-day visa in advance. This can be done through a Vietnamese embassy, or it's generally easier and cheaper to organize a Visa On Arrival (VOA) through a Vietnam-based travel agent.
Gear
It will most likely be steamy, but there might be enough mud to devour your trail shoes, meaning a pair of sturdy hiking boots such as the Moab Peak Ventilator Waterproof could be your best bet. Opt for breathable quick-dry kit such as the M-Select WICK range during the day, plus a warmer layer for the night.
Length of Trip
Guided treks range from 1 to 4 days, but a high level of fitness is required for the 1-day trip. Trail runners have been known to do it in about 4.5 hours.
Difficulty
There is no technical climbing involved, but the terrain is tough and the ascent is steep. The relatively unfit should still be able to cope with the longer treks.
Accommodation
Either tents or basic huts.
Food and Drinks
Guides generally provide main meals and boiled water at camp stops, but it's worth taking a decent supply of your own water and snacks.