First published August 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
Fansipan (or Phan Xi Păng in Vietnamese) is the highest mountain in Indochina. At 3,143m (10,312ft) it’s a real mountain, but can be climbed without any specialist equipment or guides or porters. Located near the former French colonial hill station of Sapa, Fansipan is part of Vietnam’s Hoang Lien Son Range, which is essentially the southeastern-most extent of the same continental collision that formed the Himalayas. The ascent of Mount Fansipan can be made comfortably in one day if you are in reasonably good physical condition. And, now that the new and controversial cable car to the summit has opened, it’s possible to make the return trip to Sapa on the same day. It’s not necessary to hire a guide for the hike, but obviously you must be extremely careful and plan sensibly before setting out. The ascent takes between 6-8 hours depending on your pace, and the views are stupendous. But Sapa’s bleak climate means that Fanispan and the surrounding mountains are often hidden behind a grey, lingering mist that refuses to lift for days at a time. Even so, it’s still a challenging, rewarding, exciting, and beautiful trek. Below is my guide to climbing Fansipan independently.
GUIDE: CLIMBING Mt. FANSIPAN
There are several trails to reach the summit of Mount Fansipan, known romantically as the ‘Roof of Indochina’. However, only one is easy enough (and safe enough) to follow independently, without a guide. This is the trail that begins at the entrance to Thác Tình Yêu (Love Waterfall), 15km west of Sapa on road QL4D. Known as the Tram Ton Pass trail, it’s fairly easy to follow and, despite local opinions to the contrary, can comfortably be climbed in one day, without a guide. However, it’s still essential to prepare and climb responsibly and safely. In this guide, I’ve tried to include as much information as I can so that other climbers who want to make the ascent independently may do so. However, please note that although all the information in this guide is accurate at the time of writing, I can’t guarantee that things won’t change in the near future.
Mount Fansipan & Environs
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Time, Distance & Duration:
According to the signs at the trailhead, the one-way trek from the starting point of the Tram Ton Pass trail (at the entrance to Love Waterfall) to the summit of Mount Fansipan is 11.2km. We made the ascent in 6 to 6.5 hours. We climbed at a leisurely pace with regular short breaks, either to rest or to hydrate and have a snack, or to take photos and admire the views. We left our hotel in Sapa at a reasonable hour in the morning, after breakfast, sometime around 7.30am. The taxi ride to the trailhead takes 10-20 minutes, so we were on the trail by roughly 8.00am. We reached the summit after lunchtime, approximately 2.15pm. You could potentially make the ascent in under 6 hours if you’re very fit, don’t stop often, and have perfect trekking conditions. However, I would imagine that for most people of average fitness who simply want to successfully scale the highest mountain in Indochina and enjoy the walk, the views, and the experience (rather than treat it as an athletic contest), a general estimation would be anywhere from 6-9 hours. But there are other factors to consider: weather conditions might slow you down; perhaps you will get cramp and need an extended rest; maybe part of the trail is obstructed by a large branch or landslide. This is why you should leave fairly early in the morning, so that even if you encounter any unforeseen circumstances, you will still have time to reach the summit before nightfall. Note that, if you do run out of daylight hours, there are two permanent camps along the trail to the summit, one at 2,200m, the other at 2,800m.
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Fitness & Endurance:
Climbing Mount Fansipan in one day via the Tram Ton Pass trail is something that most people in reasonably good shape can do. However, it does require a significant physical effort and, because of the altitude, breathing difficulties caused by lack of oxygen make the climb even more of a challenge. When I made the ascent I was 34 years old and in pretty good physical condition. I was with my dad and uncle, who were 73 and 69 respectively, both of whom take daily exercise in the form of long-distance swimming and running. I found the ascent challenging but by no means exhausting. However, I do take regular, strenuous exercise. I also think that my concern for my dad and uncle’s physical well-being on the trek kept me focused on their efforts rather than my own. My dad and uncle both made the ascent without incident, but they both agreed it was one of the toughest physical pursuits they can remember undertaking. We encountered around a dozen other climbers on the trail (all with guides), most of whom were younger than us and had taken two days for the ascent, spending one night at one of the base camps. However, the other climbers appeared to be mostly of average fitness and had not had any trouble making the ascent. They seemed to be in good spirits and while they had found the climb challenging, they were not exhausted. The first half of the trail is well-marked and of moderate steepness, but the second half is rocky and very steep at times, involving metal ladder and peg-ladder climbs. Particularly grueling is the last couple of hours, when several steep ascents immediately descend again, which can be very demoralizing, especially as the air is getting thinner and your body more tired.
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Supplies & Equipment:
Although you don’t need any specialist equipment to climb Mount Fansipan, you still need to carefully consider what to wear for the trek and what to bring with you. The unpredictable mountain weather means that conditions can be very hot and very cold on the same day. In general, temperatures around Mount Fansipan and Sapa are significantly cooler than lowland Vietnam. Daytime temperatures can be mild to warm (15-25°C) during the summer months, or cool to cold (5-10°C) during the winter. On the summit it can reach freezing, and the added wind chill factor can make it feel even colder. However, the physical exertion of the climb will make you feel stuffy and hot. Therefore, it’s best to dress in light but warm and windproof clothing, with the option to strip off one layer if you get too hot. For example, we wore a T-shirt, sweater, and thin waterproof at the beginning of the climb, when the morning temperatures were cool and our bodies had not warmed up. During the middle of the trek, with the difficulty and temperature increasing, we stripped off a layer. But as the clouds descended, the wind picked up, and a light rain began to fall near the summit, we re-clothed for full protection.
For footwear, standard hiking shoes are perfect, but decent trainers are also fine. I made the climb in my Adidas Barricade tennis shoes, which are fairly hardy trainers. (Many of the guides we met were wearing flip-flops for the climb, and the Vietnamese young women in their group were wearing plastic bags over their shoes to keep them dry and clean, which would also make them treacherously slick.)
Take a small backpack with some food and drink supplies, and remember to leave room for your clothes for when you get too hot. There are no shops or kiosks on the trail, although you could potentially stop at one of the two camps if you needed to. The most important thing to bring is water, lots of it. Dehydration leads to cramp and that can be extremely dangerous on a mountain. We took three litres of water each (two 1.5 litre bottles in each of our backpacks). For food, we stocked up on local milk candy bars (bánh sữa) and Vietnamese energy bars, called lương khô, which are like army rations: compact and full of energy. At the summit there are all sorts of dining and drinking options, so you can look forward to a hot coffee and a burger when you get to the top. My dad took his trekking poles which he’d brought with him from the U.K, but you might be able to find them in the stores in Sapa somewhere, too.
Safety & Permission:
Although Mount Fansipan can be climbed independently, without requiring any specialist equipment, climbing abilities, or permission, it is still vital that you treat the ascent seriously by preparing sensibly and climbing responsibly. There have been deaths on the mountain in recent years, including foreign tourists attempting the ascent without a guide. Like any high mountain, Fansipan can be dangerous, and the risks of climbing alone, without a guide, should not be underestimated.
The trail is well-marked for most of the ascent and is fairly easy to follow. However, when the clouds descend on the mountain, visibility can be very bad, leading to difficulty finding your way. In damp conditions, the rocks can become very slippery. Tread carefully because even a minor slip can lead to an injury, and even something as small as a sprained ankle can cause big problems when on a cold, wet mountainside with no help. It should go without saying that straying from the trail, or climbing boulders and cliff faces without proper equipment, is an extremely bad idea.
It’s essential to stay hydrated. Bring lots of water with you. The climb is strenuous so you will be perspiring all the time, even if it doesn’t feel like it because of the cool weather conditions. Dehydration leads to cramp, which can be a major hindrance, forcing you to stay static for hours at a time. Cramp may not sound serious, but if your legs cramp at 10,000ft as a storm is blowing in and the daylight is fading, your situation can suddenly become very grave. Make sure you bring some warm clothing. The mountain can get very cold, even in the summer months. If you get stuck on the mountain in freezing temperatures, hypothermia is a serious possibility.
If possible, don’t climb alone. Go with a companion or a small group. If something happens to one of you, the other can get help. Bring your mobile phone. There’s a phone signal for most of the ascent. Make sure you have a local SIM card with plenty of credit. It’s best to get a Viettel SIM, because they tend to have the widest coverage in the mountains. Make sure your battery is fully charged, or even better, bring a USB battery pack so you can recharge your phone on the climb. Take a small flashlight in case it gets dark.
When it comes to permission, before the ascent I’d read all sorts of stories about independent climbers not being allowed on the mountain, being turned back or even fined by national park authorities. In reality, however, we didn’t encounter any authorities on the climb, no tickets or permission papers were asked for, and none of the official guides we passed and spoke with mentioned anything at all about it. No doubt, one of the reasons the authorities and tourist agencies in Sapa say it’s not possible to climb Fansipan independently is because, if such a climber were to have an accident, it would not only be a personal tragedy, it would give the mountain and the national park bad press and a bad name. This seems reasonable to me. However, part of discouraging independent climbers is also likely to do with money. A guided climb can cost upwards of $100. And yet, we met a number of guides and their groups who didn’t appear to have safety in mind: they were climbing with flip-flops or, in some cases, with plastic bags over their shoes so as not to get them wet or dirty, thus increasing the chances of a nasty slip or fall because of the lack of traction. Unless things have changed by the time you read this, it certainly is possible to climb Fansipan independently, without a guide and without needing to get permission. However, if you do climb independently, have some respect for the mountain and for the independent climbers who will follow in your footsteps: don’t be reckless; climb responsibly and safely. If your negligence leads to an accident on the mountain, you give other independent climbers a bad name, and the authorities the perfect excuse to ban independent climbers in the future.
Weather & When to Go:
As with most high mountains, weather on Fansipan is very unpredictable and subject to change within minutes all year round. In the morning, the summit might be perfectly visible from Sapa, gleaming in the fresh highland light; but by the time you reach the trailhead, just 15 minutes later, thick cloud might have descended on the lower slopes, and a drifting rain set in above the forests. Likewise, the temperatures fluctuate from hour to hour. Perhaps hiking through the dense forests on the lower slopes, humidity and heat will force you to strip off your layers; but as soon as you emerge from the foliage onto an exposed, treeless ridge, the wind ripping in from the north, you’ll be chilled to the bone and reaching for your jacket. Most people agree that the best times of year for climbing Fansipan are spring (March, April) and autumn (September, October). During these months there’s a good chance that the sun will shine for at least some portions of the climb and temperatures are fairly mild. On our climb, for example, we had beautiful weather in the morning, but the higher we ascended the more the weather closed in, and for the last third of the climb we could hardly see 10 metres ahead of us, including at the summit.
Getting to the Trailhead:
Sapa is the base from which to plan and start your ascent of Mount Fansipan. From the hotels, hostels and homestays in and around Sapa, it’s a 10-20 minute journey by taxi to the trailhead at the top of the Tram Ton Pass (also known as O Quy Ho Pass). Ask your taxi to take you to Thác Tình Yêu (Love Waterfall), which is 15km west of Sapa on road QL4D. The car park and entrance to Love Waterfall is on your left (if you’re approaching from Sapa) just at the top of a mountain pass, which is in turn the beginning of the Tram Ton Pass, wiggling its way around the mountains to the west of Love Waterfall. By the roadside opposite the entrance to Love Waterfall, a large billboard titled ‘Hoang Lien Son National Park’ has a rudimentary map of the three trails leading to the summit of Mount Fansipan, including the camp sites. The one that begins at Love Waterfall (the Tram Ton Pass trail) is the furthest to the right on this map. However, there’s very little detail. From the car park at Love Waterfall, walk under the entrance arch (with the words ‘Suối Vàng-Thác Tình Yêu’) and bear left, opposite the ticket kiosk for the waterfall. There’s a little noticeboard titled ‘Rules for Conquering Fansipan Summit’, at the bottom of which is a casual arrow announcing ‘Fansipan Summit 11.2km’. (Note: when we made the ascent, there was no one at the entrance, or anywhere else for that matter, who asked us to buy tickets for the trail.)
A taxi is the easiest way to get to the trailhead at Love Waterfall. There are lots of taxis in Sapa and the fare is only around $10 (200,000vnd). However, you could also arrange a motorbike taxi from Sapa (which would be cheaper), or a minivan (if there’s a group of you) which can be arranged through your hotel, or even self-drive there on a rented motorbike, but then, of course, you’d have to return to the trailhead after the climb in order to pick up your bike again.
The Climb & Ascent:
From the trailhead, the pathway immediately plunges into brush and forest. The trail is good: paved at first, with large stepping stones over cold mountain streams. Some of the trees, bushes and flowers are labeled. The canopy is thick but light shines through the branches, illuminating patches of the forest floor, thick with roots and fallen leaves. The first hour or so is peaceful, quiet, gentle and pretty – it reminded me of walking in the Welsh landscape on a damp but bright spring day.
The Tram Ton Pass trail to the Fansipan summit is undulating: it rises steeply and then falls. This can be dispiriting, because each time you expend effort to ascend a steep section, the pathway immediately descends half the height you just gained. Thus, it feels like two steps forward, one step back. A couple of hours into the climb, the forest gradually fades: going from a thick, gnarly canopy, to a spindly, thin covering with bald patches, until it disappears altogether, leaving you hiking along the top of an exposed ridge. Although open to the elements, the views back over the forested valleys and mountains are wonderful.
The middle section of the climb involves increasingly steep hikes along a clearly marked but deteriorating dirt trail. From the first campsite at 2,200m (there are two on the climb, both of which consist of corrugated iron roofed huts), the going gets tougher. The trail is steep, slippery and rutted; grooved by rivulets of rain water running down the mountainside. The air gets thinner, breathing becomes more difficult, the wind picks up and the temperature plummets. There are expansive views east over Sapa and west over Lai Chau, but during our ascent this was when the clouds drew a curtain of grey over the mountain, and although we could feel the gaping landscapes below us, we couldn’t see much at all.
Before reaching the second campsite (at 2,800m), there are a couple of major ascents which climb in altitude very rapidly. Parts of this section are so steep and rocky that metal rails, fixed ladders, and peg-ladders have been installed to help climbers get up. These can be quite tricky, especially if it’s wet. There are a few big and dangerous drops close to the ladders, so it’s essential to climb cautiously. This is also the point at which, if you suffer from vertigo, the steep slopes, sharp drops, and sensation of being very high up may start to affect you. A variety of bamboo grows on the mountainside here, known as ‘Dwarf Bamboo’. As the named suggests, it’s short and stocky but has delicate leaves and stems, unlike the large, towering clumps of bamboo you get in lowland Vietnam. Also, several kinds of rhododendron bushes that like high altitude are scattered around the trail, their pink, purple and violet flowers brightening the grey weather conditions.
The last climb, from the second campsite to the summit, is tough. It starts out gentle, and then descends. You pay for this later when the gradient gets very steep, including a peg-ladder up a sheer rock face. There’s a dramatic moment when a giant escarpment reveals itself, plunging down into the cloudy abyss below. For me, this was the first time on the climb that I had the sensation of being near the peak of a big mountain. It suddenly struck me that we were now higher than any other natural formation in this southeastern corner of the Asian continent. Strangely, this was also the moment when we heard, and then saw, the cable car emerging from the mist above us. Then came the sound of clanking hammers working on the construction site that sprawls around the peak. In fact, there was plenty of construction debris strewn around the trail as we got nearer the summit, presumably discarded from the building site. This made us think we were near the top, but the climb dragged on, winding around the various developments: pagodas, a giant seated Buddha, restaurants, viewing platforms, shops. When we finally reached the grand, wide staircases leading to the summit, the weather had closed in to the point that the pylons marking the peak were hardly visible. We weren’t rewarded with fine views over the Hoang Lien Son Mountain Range, but I’m sure they are absolutely spectacular in clear weather. However, this didn’t take anything away from our own sense of achievement at having made the climb and enjoyed it.
At the Summit:
Only a few years ago, the summit of Mt. Fansipan was what mountain peaks should be: wild, windswept, and isolated; just you are your fellow climbers standing alone, seemingly on top of the world, with nothing but nature surrounding you. And all this was gained through your own physical effort; the views over endless ridges and peaks poking above the clouds your reward for the climb. These days, however, things are very different indeed. In 2016, a cable car to the summit of Fansipan opened, thus transforming the ‘Roof of Indochina’ forever (more about the cable car below). After climbing for over 6 hours through forests, along streams, over giant, moss-fleeced boulders, and into the clouds without encountering more than a dozen people along the way, it comes as quite a shock when, within sight of the summit, the silence is broken by the purr of the cable car, the clank-clank of construction work, the nasal tones of announcements over public address systems, and the silhouettes in the mist of what appears to be a city in the sky. This is the reality of Fanispan’s summit today: a commercial toy town of fast food stands, souvenir shops, photography booths, tourist transportation systems, grand staircases, wooden decks and plank walkways, Vietnamese flags, summit pylons, and a sprawling Buddhist temple complex, including a giant seated Buddha presiding over the scene.
It’s jarring, impressive, unsettling, convenient, and confusing. In the thin air, hungry and tired after the climb, I felt a kind of culture shock on arriving at this fairground of a mountaintop. We were grateful for the hot food at the restaurant and the good, strong, hot coffee, and we gladly grabbed the Vietnamese flags, provided at the summit, and waved them above our heads next to the pylons. And we were relieved at the attractive (too attractive to resist) option of taking the cable car down the mountain, back to Sapa. We would have enjoyed the views, too, were it not for a thick fog. To some extent, at least, the structures built on and around the summit are in fairly good taste and make an impressive visual impact. The imperial-style gates that appear to lead into a kingdom beyond the clouds for example, or the mysterious silhouette of the giant Buddha waxing and waning in the mist, seemingly levitating above the material world. It was odd to see the crowds of people there, most of whom were dressed in their best, shiniest winter clothes so as to look good in all the portraits they were having taken at the summit. For Vietnamese, it’s becoming a national pilgrimage to take the cable car to the top of Fansipan, the highest point of their nation. We saw octogenarians and toddlers at the summit, neither of whom would be there were it not for the cable car. Even so, it left me feeling conflicted. I was glad we’d hiked up rather than taken the cable car. It made us feel we deserved the views (if we could have seen them), and the food, and the coffee, and the cuddly toys, and the ‘I Conquered Fansipan’ T-shirts…..
The Cable Car & the Descent:
If you really wanted to, you could hike back down the mountain the same way you came up, but it would be very tough and inadvisable to attempt to do this on the same day as the ascent. Another option is to descend on one of the two other Fansipan trails, but these are supposed to be more challenging and longer treks, and I can’t vouch for doing either of these trails independently. For us, it was all about the ascent, and we never had any intention of hiking back down: we always planned on taking the cable car back from the summit. Arriving at the peak around 2pm, we stayed for an hour or two, and left on the cable car around 4pm, thus arriving back at our hotel in Sapa before sunset, at around 5:30pm. This worked out perfectly for us, and it was a very satisfying, fulfilling way to spend a day.
The cable car is a spectacular ride, passing high above the forested valley, in and out of the clouds, going from alpine forests near the top to terraced rice paddies near the bottom. The ride only takes about 15 minutes, even though it’s over 6km long and has an elevation gain of over 1,400m. It’s a smooth, beautiful ride, the cars are large, bright, comfortable and clean, and they operate constantly from 7am to 6pm. There’s even a train running from the cable car station at the bottom into Sapa town, or you can easily take a taxi. However, ticket prices for the cable car are high: 700,000vnd ($30) one-way for adults.
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