Fan Si Pan 3143 m (10,312 ft.) highest mountain in Vietnam
Trip report by Richard L. Carey
Taking advantage of a discounted All-Asia ticket on Cathay Pacific Airlines my friend Ken Olson and I went to Vietnam in early November 1998. We decided that Hanoi might be more interesting than Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and Ken also found some details on the Web about the town of Sapa and the highest peak in Vietnam which was nearby. Fan Si Pan, or Fansipan in some guidebooks, is also known as Phang Xi Pang although this probably Vietnamese spelling is not used much. The name Sapa is also seen sometimes as two words and on older maps is called Chapa. Fan Si Pan is the high point of the northwest-southeast running Hoang Lien Son range which extends for about 19 miles between the Red River and the Black River. The peak is about 180 miles northwest of Hanoi and is 17 miles from the Chinese border at the town of Lao Cai.
We arrived at the Noi Bai airport north of Hanoi late on a Friday after a one and a half hour flight from Hong Kong. We had proper visas, purchased in the US for $60, but the surly immigration agent held up another form and sent me over to a back table to fill it out and attach a photo. Ken didn't have a photo, but was only charged US $2 for one. Then our baggage was x-rayed before leaving the building! Outside we were mobbed by aggressive taxi drivers offering to take us into town. We negotiated a fee of US $20 for the long 45 minute drive into the city which the guidebook said was the normal fee. I thought we would be in a proper licensed cab, but the driver walked past the nice white cabs and took us to his unmarked jalopy in the rear. After some protests the insistant driver coaxed us into his car and we got in after jamming our big duffel bags in the small trunk.
Another fellow rode up front with the driver and his sole purpose seemed to be persuading us to go to the Camellia Hotel. I couldn't find this in either guidebook so we insisted on the Continental Hotel in the Old Quarter where John McCully had suggested. The fellow implied that it was no good and in an isolated area and that his choice was much better. The Continental turned out to be an old French style four-story building and we had a large room with twin beds for US $20 with CNN on satellite TV. Hey, just like home! The staff was very friendly and we found we were the only guests in the eight room hotel. Other than marginal hot water it was fine.
The Old Quarter, which dates back 500 years, has narrow streets and much of the sidewalk space is taken up with sellers, shop people, parked bikes and scooters so there is no room to walk. Living space must be crowded for families cook and eat out on the sidewalk too. Walking to some of the famous sights the next day, we were soon approached by cyclo drivers. The cyclos are three-wheeled bikes with the passenger seat up front and a single wheel and driver in the back. With the traffic and confusion this seemed like a good way to get around so we pointed to the sights on the map and off we went on two cyclos. First stop was Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, a large granite building with a big parade ground in front. There were quite a few visitors and several Vietnamese Army men decked out all proud in their green uniforms with stacks of medals. Turns out that "Uncle Ho's" body is sent to Moscow each year in the fall for "maintenance" so we couldn't see him.
Next stop was the Army Museum which has loads of captured weapons and war machinery. Exhibits were labeled in English, Vietnamese, and French. There is a lot to see here including a Mig 17, various missile launchers, tanks, and parts of a shot-down B-52 as well as helmets and clothing from captured US pilots. It was interesting to learn the story of the war from the opposing side. A large section is devoted to the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Another worthwhile stop was the "Hanoi Hilton" the infamous prison which has been converted into a museum. This was a large French prison much of which has been torn down and replaced by a modern high-rise hotel. A tour guide showed us where American pilots were held and there were photos of six of them including a young Senator John McCain. She said about a hundred were held in there at times. Leg shackles and a guillotine used on Vietnamese guerrillas were a grim reminder of brutal treatment during the French occupation. Our guide said that leg shackles were not put on American prisoners and I had to take this on faith for I didn't really know.
After three busy days we left for Lao Cai on a night train. We booked a hard sleeper, the best there is for US $17, and made sure to get bottom bunks on McCully's recommendation. Boarding the train at 8:00pm we found our cramped room had three bunks on a side and thought we might be lucky enough to have it to ourselves, but soon two men came in to take the next level and later a woman with a baby took one top bunk and a fellow with a bird in a covered cage took the other. Our Thermalrest pads just fit the bunks and helped out over the thin reed mat provided. Everyone soon bedded down for the long ride and fortunately there wasn't a peep from the bird or the baby all night. The train made one long stop during the night and never seemed to go over 45 miles an hour so it took ten hours to cover the 180 miles to Lao Cai. Arriving at 6:30am we took one of the waiting Toyota minibuses to Sapa. The cost was about US $2 for the one hour ride through the mountains.
We had made a reservation through Green Bamboo Travel in Hanoi for a room in their hotel and it was on the south side of town on a steep slope facing west. Our room in the colonial-style building had a balcony with a great view of Fan Si Pan across the valley. The mountain had long steep slopes and looked close in the hazy conditions. My GPS showed only 4.7 miles to the summit. The guidebook said to allow three to four days for the steep climb and to hire a guide. It was a Monday and we wanted to start the trek up the mountain the next day and luckily the Green Bamboo office found a guide who could set up the trip. We settled on $160 for both of us for a four day trip with our Vietnamese guide Tien providing all the food and cooking meals for us. We had our own tent, sleeping bags, and pads and he would arrange for a porter to carry some of our gear. Tien said he had climbed the peak 57 times guiding groups so we thought he should certainly know the route and he spoke English fairly well also.
The town of Sapa and surrounding area has only been opened to tourists since 1993 and has changed considerably since then. There were only two restaurants then and few hotels. In our walks around the small town we saw half a dozen restaurants and at least ten hotels. There were at most twenty tourists in town and it seemed they had over-built expecting a flood of visitors. But, the town attracts more tourists on weekends which is market day for Hmongs and other hill people. Sapa is at 4900 feet in the mountainous region called the Tonkinese Alps by the French who built villas here in the early 1900's for a summertime escape from the heat of Hanoi. There were many Hmong women in the streets selling silver jewelry, cloth items, and a small string device which one can play like a zither. They were striking in their dark indigo-dyed coats and leggings. The Hmongs along with Dao and Kinh minorities have a different language and are more numerous than Vietnamese in the area.
We had our packs ready by eight Tuesday morning and met our guide at the Green Bamboo office. He found two young boys, Thanh and Nung, who would come on the trip as porters and helpers. We had them carry our sleeping pads, tent, and some clothes. With this arrangement my pack weighed about 20 -25 pounds which was plenty I found on the steep slopes ahead. Tien often boasted of his strength and offered to take more of our gear, but I think another porter would have been needed for them to carry most of our gear. The load seemed light to me so I was happy to have them carrying all the food plus some of our gear.
Starting out heading west from town on a poor dirt road we descended into the valley and soon branched onto a paved stone path to the Muong Hoa River. The rice fields and thatched-roof houses reminded me of the low lands of Nepal. Plowing was done with water buffalo and as in the rest of Vietnam that we saw, there is no machinery used. Although the Hmong in this area are poor the pace of life seems slow and peaceful. The climate is mild and tropical fruits are plentiful. We crossed the river on an old bridge at 3900 feet and passed an abandoned hydroelectric plant built by the French. From here we would have to climb 6400 feet to reach the summit of Fan Si Pan.
The trail soon narrowed to a path in the thick forest. We saw scattered Hmongs who gather pepper and do some hunting in spite of the fact that the mountains are in a preserve. Twice we heard gunfire not too far away which Tien said was Hmongs hunting birds which fetch a good price in town. In one area they had herded a buffalo deep into the forest. It was a thick, lush, green forest and travel even a few feet off the trail would be difficult. Much of the time we were under a thick canopy and sunscreen is not needed. We were amazed at the lack of insects, apparently because it was the dry season. I didn't see one mosquito the whole trip and malaria pills and insect repellant were not needed at this time of year. The locals haven't thought of switchbacks yet, so the trail goes very steeply straight up the slopes in many places and we had to step on slippery roots and grab tree branches and bamboo stalks to pull ourselves up. We did not have any rain on the trip and it was fortunate because the trail would be treacherous in wet weather.
We stopped at a stream crossing for lunch and Tien prepared some sandwiches of soft cheese, pork spread, and canned mackerel on French rolls. We also had some oranges. It was tasty and we would have the same lunch every day. Our first night's camp was high on the ridge east of the summit at 7550 feet. It had been a hard day and Ken and I were exhausted after descending 1000 feet and then climbing 3650 feet. Our guide, who was as full of energy as when we started, said that he sometimes leads a five day trek and breaks up the first day with a camp lower down. Tien and the porters hacked down some small trees for a cooking fire as we set up our tent. There seemed to be an abundance of trees and not much evidence of over-cutting even though this site had been used by many parties in the past few years. I would have liked to see the guide use a stove, but it would be hard to change ingrained habits.
Getting up at 6:00 and moving out by 7:30 we stayed mostly on the ridge the morning of the second day heading west toward Fan Si Pan which was about two miles away. The ridges were covered in a thick growth of dwarf bamboo, about one-quarter inch in diameter, which was eight to ten feet high and covered the foot-wide trail. I found myself spreading the closed-in bamboo with my arms as if I was doing the breast stroke. There was a lot of drag on my pack as we pushed through. There wasn't much to see except that now and then we would go over rocks and pop out of the bamboo and catch a glimpse of rugged green ridges ahead. We reached a large rock outcrop and stopped for a long lunch. Clouds were now drifting over the ridge, but Fan Si Pan was clearly in sight. Unfortunately there was a big drop ahead and some boulder-covered slopes that looked difficult to get around.
Down we went after lunch losing some 500 feet and then traversing along the south side of the ridge. There were some narrow spots as the trail went along the bottom of big boulders and the bamboo which had been a problem earlier provided handy, sturdy shafts to grab onto. Finally we arrived in a dense forested canyon with a stream at 8900 feet which was only three-quarters of a mile from the summit. This was the only water source we had seen throughout the day so it was a much appreciated site even though camping was tight. Tien enlarged a makeshift platform of bamboo for our tent and got a fire going. This was our coldest night with a low of 39 degrees. Ken and I turned in early and Tien and the two boys tended a roaring fire for some time. I thought the wood must have a lot of sap in it since there were some loud pops. Then much later there was a boom that woke me from a fitful sleep and I suspected they were playing with firecrackers. It wasn't until the next evening that we learned they were throwing batteries in the fire.
Our third day would be summit day, but not until we gained about 2300 feet up the usual steep slopes. Most of the way the trail had been fairly obvious, but this day we ascended steep rock-covered water courses with the trail suddenly taking off horizontally along the slopes. I thought this would be tricky without a guide. Occasionally there were plastic ties around branches or a discarded water bottle that would be a sign we were on the route. After two and a half hours we topped out on rocks in the bright sun at 10,312 feet. We had made it! We stayed on the summit for two hours admiring the views, taking pictures, and eating lunch as clouds slowly built up and drifted along the ridges around us. There was a small stainless steel pyramid at the highest point with names scratched on it and some trash and a small shrine below to the north. I brought nesting cans and explained to Tien how most peaks in the US have a register on top. He seemed to approve of placing a register and signed the notebook in Vietnamese noting that this was his 58th ascent.
Our descent route was generally northeast along a long ridge. It was an impressive route with a huge black rock monolith on the left across a deep canyon. On one steep section a mass of earth and moss had slipped off the slope which took the trail with it such as it was. It made for a dicey class 3 traverse without the usual bamboo or branches to hang onto. We made our third night's camp at 6700 feet in a canyon with a good sized stream and a spacious camping spot. Tien said that on the three day trek this was the site for the camp and the summit was done from there. It was a harder trip and one that he did not prefer.
Our last day was a pleasant descent to the river and welcome signs of civilization. There was bright sun which made for a hot climb from the river up the slopes to the road that headed east to Sapa. We passed the town dump on the way and Tien left our trash. Arriving in town at about noon we said farewell to Tien and the boys and gave them a tip for a well-run trip. The next day we were up early to catch a 6:00am bus to Loa Cai and then boarded the 10:00am day train to Hanoi. Unfortunately this train ride on unpadded seats was hot and noisy and we were heckled by sellers most of the way. It arrived in Hanoi at 9:00pm about an hour late and was the worst journey of our five week trip. But it couldn't dampen our spirits and the memories of an exciting four day jungle trek that had worked out better than we could have imagined.
Map: The map of our route is shown on the 1:50,000 scale map. This is the lower left corner of the Lao Kay, Vietnam map published by the NIMA (formerly the Defense Mapping Agency). The route was mapped using a GPS receiver with manual corrections to match the Indian 1960 datum. This map can now be purchased from the U.S. Geological Survey. Contact the office in Denver, Colorado. The telephone number is: 888-275-8747. Ask for NIMA map number L701457531. The map is US $7.00 with a US $5.00 per order handling fee.