The Roof of Indochina: Atop Mount Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng) in Vietnam

Mt. Fansipan, Vietnam

I always enjoy a good climb so the prospect of summiting the highest mountain in Vietnam (and indeed all of Indochina) more than piqued my interest.  Mount Fansipan, or Phan Xi Păng in Vietnamese (we referred to it as “Fancy Pants”), is part of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range and the easternmost end of the Himalayas.

When I learned this I was sold — to stand at over 10,000 feet atop the last major Himalayan peak before the ocean proved too hard to resist.  And the weather was improving in the region so Mt. Fansipan, which was hidden in clouds earlier in the week, was now starting to show its face.

Objective: The top of Mt. Fansipan in Vietnam

I learned from local agents in Sapa that the climb is not extremely technical but is strenuous and steep so most trekkers opt for a 2- or 3-day ascent.  I was feeling strong from our rigorous valley walks so shopped around for a guide that would do the climb in a day which I was assured is reasonable if starting early.

Unfortunately there were no group 1-day trips leaving (which would have lowered the price) so I engaged a private guide for $65 which I thought was fine, especially given that the National Park entrance fee costs $20.  So $45 for a private guide, transport to/from the trail head, and all food/water I figured this was quite a deal.

I ate a hearty pasta dinner in preparation for the trek.  Just before bed, I glanced at Mt. Fansipan from my hotel terrace.  Its cloudless silhouette under a starry sky filled me with anticipation for tomorrow’s lofty challenge.

I awoke early the next morning.  Promptly at 5 AM in the predawn darkness I met at my hotel by Mi-to-sah, my guide from the Black H’Mong village of San Sa Ho in the Muong Hoa valley below Sapa.  Within minutes I was on the back of a motorbike bound for the Hoang Lien National Park entrance.  By 5:30 AM our feet were on the trail, slowed by sleepiness and darkness.

Setting off at sunrise: in the Muong Hoa valley below Mt. Fansipan

Soon the sun was up and my spirits brightened with the coming daylight and the cloudless morning.  A great day for the mountains!

We gained elevation steadily, moving at a pretty good pace.  My guide barely spoke English which was not really a problem since he was good-natured and our gestures and facial expressions worked well enough.  He pointed out sights in the valleys below, showed me some local plants used for nutritional, medicinal, or recreational purposes.

Morning light over the foothills of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range

But it was hard to get some practical details regarding the trek, such as how long we should expect to reach the top.  He animatedly pointed to various spots far ahead and simply said “up!” and “down!”.  So I didn’t really have a good sense of our progress to the summit.

Until I crossed paths with a couple of middle-aged Canadians coming down from the mountain about 2.5 hours into our trek.  They were on a three day tour and couldn’t believe I was attempting this in a single day.  They explained some of the intricacies of the trail, how there was a first major climb, then a significant and steep descent (which involved some scrambling), before the final climb to the top.

They figured it would take me at least another 4 hours to reach the summit.  My spirits dimmed.  It was going to be a very long day.

First Camp: I heard from other hikers on a 2-day climb say it was a rough night so fortunately I just walked on by

I found the uphill trek increasingly strenuous and the thinning air left me breathless.  In order to keep forward momentum, I counted each slow step and every 50 or 100 paces I took a quick break.  This technique seemed to work, it kept my mind empty of doubting thoughts and focused on the next stopping point.

Weary after the first ascent... and an immediate descent (dispiriting indeed) before the beginning the final stage to the top

After the first climb (and immediate descent) at over 2,000 meters the trail moderated much to my relief.  Now we were directly below the Mt. Fansipan peak with glorious views of the hazy valley and Sapa town far below us.

Resting above the Muong Hoa valley before tackling the final ascent

As we trudged upwards on the final ascent, the clouds moved in and the temperature dropped.  I passed a European trio coming down, they said the apex was only 20 minutes away, great news!  I was expecting another 2.5 hours based on what the Canadians told me.  Jubilant, I found new energy and kept climbing.

Misty Mt. Fansipan in the distance and within reach... less than an hour to go!  And yes, my guide is talking on his cell phone.

At 9:30 AM I was standing at the Roof of Indochina having reached the summit of Mt. Fansipan, 4 hours since starting out.  I felt fantastic, despite the chilly air and gusting wind swiftly moving the clouds over the jagged mountains.  Mission accomplished!

Made it! Atop Mt. Fansipan at 3,143 meters (10,312 ft)... the Roof of Indochina!

The peak is a sharp pinnacle dropping precipitously on its western slope.  We climbed from the east which is much more gradual so the dramatic cliffs on the other side thrilled me.

A clearing in the clouds... north of Mt. Fansipan towards China

Mi-to-sa prepared my lunch of vegetable-and-cheese baguette and fruit and I sat gazing at the scene below me.  Occasionally the clouds broke and the sky brightened, opening expansive views all around.  But I could not see the green mountains of China, just a short distance to the north.  It was still too hazy.

But no matter, I was glad that the top wasn’t totally enshrouded in clouds with cold and pelting rain.  This was a fine day to summit, especially since the peak is normally hidden.  I felt lucky to be sitting atop Mt. Fansipan with a tasty veggie sandwich, resting my legs, and appreciating the magnificent views.

Celebratory photo atop Mt. Fansipan with my hardy H'Mong guide Mi-to-sa

The fine moment did not last forever — before long I was chilled from the winds but my hunger was sated and my body re-energized.  We started our descent around 10:00 AM and almost immediately we were out of the passing clouds and the air warmed.  I was happy to be coming down from the top of the (Indochina) world!

It's all downhill from here... except for a few painful climbs en route

Since we made excellent time on the ascent, I lingered much more on the return trip.  It was mostly sunny so the views of mountains and forests were unbeatable.  Except for bumping my knee on a rock which left a gnawing (but not serious) pain for the descent, there were fortunately no mishaps to complicate matters.  We made good, steady progress down slope.

The jagged peaks of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range descending from the Mt. Fansipan apex

I was amazed by my guide’s footwork.  A very small man (child-sized, really) with a low center of gravity, he practically danced up and down the tricky trail.  While I normally step squarely on dirt when hiking, I noticed he did the exact opposite.  I dubbed this “root walking” since he invariably stepped on roots or rocks.

This is probably because of the normally wet climate — the mud and damp fallen foliage must be dangerously slippery.  Rocks and roots must be more reliable for stepping.  And since he grew up in this terrain, walking miles each day, I followed Mi-to-sa’s example.

I tried this for a while and sure enough it provides solid footing.  But it also results in sore soles which was okay for me since I was wearing proper hiking boots.  He was only wearing loose-fitting galoshes, ouch.  I even passed a number of local porters (for the longer overnight treks) wearing open-toed plastic sandals.  Amazing.

Fancy footwork: I learned some good climbing technique observing my H'Mong guide traverse the challenging trail

I noticed the variety of flora on the trail.  There was a good variety of blooming plants, mostly tiny blossoms hidden along the edges.  These diminutive bursts of color make the trek more interesting.

Bamboo grows everywhere in the Vietnamese mountains.  And these bamboo forests serve several important purposes for trekkers:

  • the tight bundles are a thick barrier on the steep trail ledges — in case of misstep, the bamboo tangle would prevent a disastrous fall
  • the stalks are felled and stacked on wet areas of the trail, providing solid footing in the mud
  • the rods provide a hand-hold for climbing up and down the sharp rocky areas — I grabbed them frequently, to great avail
  • the stems make light and strong walking sticks — my guide fashioned one for me at the start of the trek, this was my faithful companion the entire journey
  • the gentle sounds of the bamboo stalks rustling in the breeze are an appealing musical accompaniment to pensive climbers

Mountain Bloom: Despite the end of the dry season in Vietnam, color was ever present on the way to Mt. Fansipan

Sadly, the entire length of the trail is heavily littered.  Plastic bags, tissues, wrappers, empty bottles and cans are everywhere.  There clearly is a different mindset here in Vietnam, I wish the guides and agencies would aggressively promote better waste-removal practices.  After all, this is their bread and butter;  it is in their interest to keep the environment clean.

Trashy Trail: Sadly the Mt. Fansipan trail is full of litter, I could have easily filled several garbage bags collecting trash en route... don't people think?!?

After stopping for nearly an hour at one of the base camps to enjoy a bowl of veggie soup with noodles, we reached the end of the trail around 2:00 PM .  It was still early in the day, the agency told me the earliest I should expect to be done with the trek was 4:00 PM, so we made great time.  My guide told me that several of the Vietnamese guides we passed commented how quickly we completed the climb.  I wasn’t trying to win any speed awards, but it was reassuring to know that that am a strong climber despite my relatively sedate year as I was consumed with work.

On the home stretch: heading back from summiting Mt. Fansipan in Vietnam

At the trail head, we posed for a final photograph together.  I was very proud of our accomplishment and glad to have such a trusty and capable guide as Mi-to-sa to help me to the top and back satisfyingly and safely.

After the trek with my H'Mong guide Mi-to-sa at the trailhead to Mt. Fansipan

I was exhausted.  The 20-minute ride on the motorbike back to Sapa seemed excruciatingly long, but I did enjoy clear views of the Hoang Lien mountains across the valley.   Mt. Fansipan did not seem so far away anymore.  It was an excellent achievement and a worthy mountain to scale!

Return trip to Sapa on back of a motor scooter with my guide with Mt. Fansipan in the distance

Back at my hotel, I sat on my terrace in the afternoon sunshine, stretched my sore feet, and downed a cold beer, marveling at the mountains surrounding me.  A perfect day, but I was glad it was over!

16 thoughts on “The Roof of Indochina: Atop Mount Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng) in Vietnam”

  1. My turbo trekker! Indeed an accomplishment you should be proud of!
    Taking the risk and trusting yourself can be the biggest hurdle:)

    1. Indeed, I do feel it was quite an accomplishment. Nothing like standing atop a mountain with magnificent views to feel the thrill of achievement. And a great way to end my travels in Vietnam, definitely on an “up” note! 🙂

  2. Did you ask your guide if he played Mahjong? What an amazing hike. You are our hero back in Kittry Point.!

    1. Hi Candace! Darn, I forgot to ask… actually that would have been a great way to break the language barrier between us. I would have wanted him to carry the tiles though, the climb was hard enough without the extra weight.

    1. Thanks Mark, it’s hard to do the scenery justice with a handheld camera but hopefully some of the beauty came through in the photos.

  3. Nice going Peter! Can’t wait to see you blog on the gibbon experience in Laos…and the boat ride to Luang Prabang and all of the rest of your walkabout.

    Paul xoxo

    1. Hey, yes it’s coming… a long period of silence while I worked on my microfinance application. Now I hope to catch up, I’m two countries behind!!!

    1. Good point, I should have. Honestly I could have filled 10 garbage bags if I picked up all the trash on the hike. What a shame. And I can’t begin to tell you what they throw in the Mekong River in Laos, ai ai yi.

  4. i’m tired from reading this – way to go!! what an incredible day on your fantastic journey. you’re a great storyteller and i am really enjoying keeping up with you, peter! continue to be safe, travel well, must see you this summer! xo s

    1. Hey Susan, thanks for stopping by! It has been one incredible journey, definitely an amazing part of the world. I’d love to see you as well this summer. Enjoy the spring, I hear it’s a delight this year! xoxo

  5. Hi Peter – you’ve inspired me, i’m planning to do this hike in a couple of weeks time when back in Vietnam.

    Do you have contact details on the guide you used? Email / phone # / name of the company?

    Thanks, will let you know how I do !

  6. Hi Peter- didn’t get any reply to this, no doubt you’re busy! But we just completed Fansipan this past week, finding a guide was no problem in Sapa.

    Word of warning for other readers – it was not as quick / smooth as Peter described, he must be a really fast hiker!!

    It is pretty wet at this time of year, rained for most of the day, which no doubt made things a little tougher. Total climbing time up & down with minimal breaks was almost 12 hours: 7:15 start, 18:30 back to base.

    If i go with my wife next time, i’ll take the 2 day option for sure!

    GREAT mountain, highly recommended as i think Peter’s pictures show nicely – lovely greenery, undulating route, not too tough an ascent, but sufficiently challenging to sleep well at night for sure. and feel fully deserving of a cold Bia Hanoi after a warm shower!

    I heartily encourage others to do this.

    1. Hi Drew, thanks so much for the follow up! I’m glad you did the hike, it really is quite inspiring… and the trail was bone dry when I made the trek, it definitely would have slowed me down considerably under slicker conditions. I hope you did some easier valley walks to the villages as well, we really enjoyed the people and the spectacular views of the rice paddies. Sapa was a highlight of our trip to Vietnam, I’m glad you made the trip there.

      I’m really sorry for the slow response, I’ve been WWOOFing in rural Brazil and have had very limited access to the internet…

      Happy travels, Drew!

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