Sunday, May 15, 2016

Fansipan Climb: An Epic Way Up to the Roof of Indo-China

Apr 23-24, 2016
Location: Lao Cai Province, Vietnam
Entry Point: Sa Pa town
Mountain Range: Hoang Lien Song
Elevation and Prominence: 3,143 masl / 1, 613 masl
Difficulty: 3.5/5

I've always wanted to reach the so-called roof of Indo-China with the side intention to travel Vietnam particularly Hanoi. That roof is of course a mountain and it is called Fansipan (Vietnamese: Phan Xi Păng), the highest mountain in Vietnam and Indo-China which is just a bit taller than the Philippines' highest peak called Apo. My excitement was doubled and I became more thrilled when I learned that it would mean taking an 8-hour sleeper train in order to reach the trailhead and get to the mountain. It's like you've got the "feels" of the real traveler or backpacker. LOL! For a person like me originating from an island country and only experiencing the short metro rail transit (with a one way trip that lasts only up to 20 minutes or a little longer), isn't that exciting and worth forward-looking?

The practical climb preparation went out fine despite the fact that my companions and I only got to book flights one month before the travel dates. Thanks to the hype of low-cost airfare which seems to always tolerate the hunger and passion of Filipino millennials for travel. Hehe :)

The mere excitement was not enough though. Just the sole passion that I brought did not keep me throughout the climb. I honestly did not have a good physical preparation for this climb because I was too proud. I thought that doing mountaineering as my hobby for quite a long time guarantees a lasting strength and that I am strong enough. Yet, I was wrong. Fansipan mountain is no ordinary climb. This mountain gave me a fair lesson to humble myself. Yeah, I was humbled and I learned it the hard way.

Climb Preparation

Call me less adventurous but I prefer to always seek the assistance of a group which can facilitate and assist the climb. I also considered the DIY though, but I didn't want to regret in the end if something went out bad because I wasn't in my home country. Anyway, I want to do it conveniently so that what my groupmates and I would only think of is how to survive the climb. For this particular event, I patiently searched and asked around through the internet for the best tour agency that can help us make the climb possible. Majority of the companies I encountered and inquired with gave me expensive quotations. I also saw the cheap ones but it is the customers that should arrange and book for the round trip train tickets. I know it's still quite costly but I think the USD135 fee including meals and transportation train tickets plus car transfer, is not that bad. And I guess, Asian Tours and Travels did not fail us. Here's the overnight climb package that was offered for the five of us.

  • Private Airport transfer service in Hanoi to train station and pick up and droff off at Lao Cai train station to Sa Pa by shuttle bus
  • All meals for two days except for dinner on Day 2
  • Land transportation by private air-conditioned vehicles
  • English speaking local guide
  • Entrance fees for all visits as mentioned in the program
  • Train tickets, 4 berth cabin, soft sleeper
  • All fansipan equipment to climb
  • Homestay to do shower before and after climb
  • Any kind of drinks
  • International airport departure taxes
  • Personal expenses (laundry, telephone, drinks, tip)
  • Travel insurance Fansipan
What they prepare:
  • Rucksack
  • Waterproof Blue bag (for your baggage)
  • Plastic rain coat
  • Water-bottle
  • Cooking-gear
  • Plates, cups, forks, knives, spoons, and chop-sticks
  • Beddings at the bunk house
  • First-aid kit

Everything was delivered well and anything needed was given proper assistance. We are quite satisfied with their service. They also support the ethnic minorities and make these people as their local ethnic team to accompany the climbers. For inquiries, you may email: and visit their website:

Journey to the Trailhead

Day 0 - 22 April 16

As pre-arranged by the above-mentioned tour company, we headed to the Tran Quy Cap station through a cab in Hanoi. It took us about 15 minutes from our hostel. The scheduled departure time was at 9:40 PM, although I believe they give a grace period for the passengers or perhaps due to other technical reasons as we only departed from Hanoi at 10 PM. The first step upon arrival at the train station is to look for the train man, normally somewhere outside the designated gate, to reconfirm the bookings and get the round trip tickets. It is advisable to be there at the station 45 minutes before the departure time but I highly recommend (the first-timers in particular) to be there earlier as much as possible to provide time allowance for any problem that may be encountered.

The waiting time was over and we were finally on board. Excitement really filled us. The sleeper train are lined up with air-conditioned and well-lighted cabins or rooms with provided comfy beddings as well as complimentary water and biscuits. There is also an area for lavatory and toilet. Of course, don't expect too much on the toilet; just good enough to pee and release your waste, hehehe! I think there's also a part of the train that offers typical seats only, probably much cheaper but I guess the sleeper cabins are way better and more comfortable (Well, I am used, though, to a long bus ride going to the north of Luzon island in the Philippines).

After much amazement of this first time experience, we decided to settle down and sleep. We really needed enough rest and sleep in preparation for the 2-day trek to Fansipan. And so I thought it's a good idea to keep on glancing at the window, but it made me dizzy. Even after deciding to lie down on the bed never freed me from that woozy and shaky feeling. Oh, it's a little like riding and sleeping at the ferry.

The Climb Proper

Day 1 - 23 April

I moved a little in my bed. My phone was annoyingly alarming. A few seconds before I realized that I was currently on the train. Wow, that was an amazingly uninterrupted sleep. Too deep, but I guess that really helped a lot. Hanoi tour from yesterday was quite tiresome. I looked at my watch and it was 5:45 A.M. Not adjusted with the local time, it was only 4:45 A.M in Vietnam. I was a bit regretful because I set the alarm forgetting that I should consider the one-hour difference. I felt myself moving again. Oh, how I wished I could fall back to sleep right away. I did, but the nap was too shallow. In my next waking up time, somebody was shouting outside and offering a coffee. We ordered some cups believing they're complimentary also. Haha. Unfortunately, they were not. 

Stripping out the curtain and staring at the window, I realized that we were indeed already in the province. It was a foggy morning. Thoughts were filling up my mind, "What if we took the wrong train? How are we supposed to make up for the climb for the time spent [and wasted]. It's an 8-hour train ride, remember." I laughed at myself. Sometimes, I thank myself for being too skeptic. I always ensure to question and confirm everything. Similar to last night, even though there was a signage and tickets were checked before boarding, I still approached the staff/crew there and asked for a confirmation if that train is really bound for Lao Cai province

After a few minutes, the train stopped and it was announced that it's time to alight. "This is it!" I secretly uttered. It was cold already. Finally reaching the Lao Cai Train station, a person from our tour agency carrying a piece of paper with my name was not difficult to find. 

We were led to a van that would transfer us to Sa Pa town. It was approximately 2-hour drive. We passed by a lot of cliff highway. Just like when you're travelling to the Cordillera region in the Philippines, except that more pine forests can be viewed in our country.

A Vietnamese owning the homestay (where we could freshen up) met us upon arrival at the town. He also accompanied us to where we could eat breakfast and afterwards, we prepared our backpacks, had a quick shower and left some of the things which will only be used when we're back.

We met the trekking team (the local ethnic team) including the guide and the porter which carried the necessary equipments, gears, food and water. After everything was settled, we were transferred to Silver Waterfall Tram Ton pass, the highest pass in Vietnam where climbs to Fansipan start. We were shivering at that point. It was very cold.

The climb is expected to be more or less than 8 hours up to the bunk house in Camp 2. We passed by large, woody forests and streams. Just walking a few minutes and we forgot the cold temperature already. 

The first part of the trail comes with various assault portions blended with some steady trekking. The trail is actually "up and down" so you would imagine that the backtrail is definitely not a pure descent. Do expect to still dread on those assault parts on your way back.

I was amused at the presence of a great number of roots in the forest. Some hikers find them annoying but for me, they help me a lot to prevent me from sliding. They are what I could rely on when I look for something to hold on to especially during assaults.

The sad part? A huge amount of garbages along the trail. I hope this gets to the attention of the authority to take necessary actions.

After two hours, we stopped for lunch at Camp 1 and where we could shed ourselves inside the bunk houses.

So here's the sticky rice for lunch. Very appealing to the hungry climbers but beware! Brace yourself for a great struggle in eating, I'm telling you, haha! This lunch meal, however, restored our strength.

At around 1PM, we continued the trek. It's no way an easy trek. As we moved along the forested trail, you could feel that the difficulty is gradually increasing. Finally, we reached the open and grassland part. 

And whew! Welcome to the stairways! In my opinion, the steep trails range from 70 to 85 degrees. Just when everybody was encouraging each other while struggling to breathe, saying it's only a few minutes remaining to reach the camp site, the truth is, after reaching and continuing to scale, you would know that it's really not over. We were trekking together with  other groups and majority of them were local people, i.e. from a big group of Vietnamese students.

I almost cried not because I couldn't do it anymore but because I regret not having enough training and regular exercise. What more if I did not have at least Makiling climb prior to this. I could not tolerate continuous assault anymore, unlike the old days when I was still active in climbing and had time for running. I still have the ability to do the challenge of that continued and seemingly endless climbing but this time,give me a favor of removing the time pressure. So, my journey way up was "slowly but surely."

Caught in the Act! Oh no! This is a candid shot of myself portraying a not so easy way up. Haha!

It was 5:30 PM when we reached the bunk houses where we would stay for a night. If I'm not mistaken, that portion is already at 2,800 MASL. And that explains the too much cold temperature. Everywhere was foggy as well.

After being sent out to the assigned room inside the bunk house (we shared the room with other group of five Vietnamese climbers), we started to fix our things, changed our clothing to some warming gears and enjoyed a sumptuous dinner - soup, tofu, veggies, pork meat, rice and bananas. They were served hot and exactly what our stomachs long for. We really enjoyed the food they prepared for us.

I didn't mind going outside as the surroundings were terribly cold. I only got to bear the cold temperature when going to the toilet because it's necessary. I must say that the bunk house were noisy not only because of too much people but they were actually having fun with their fellows. We were initially informed about this and our tour agency asked us to understand it.

At 8 PM, we're ready to sleep. Military-printed sleeping bags were provided for us but they were quite smelly so we decided to just put it on top of our insulation mat. Anyway, all of us have brought our own sleeping bags. Feet to feet with the Vietnamese climbers (yeah, that was the position of the two groups inside the room. LOL), we finally called it a day.

Day 2 - 24 April 16

As the night progressed, I could feel that the coldness was getting tolerable. I don't know if it's only me that my body appears to be getting used to the temperature. I could really feel  that I could manage the coldness. It's bearable as compared to Snow Mountain or Mount Kinabalu or even if compared with some other highest mountains in the Philippines, like for example, Amuyao where you would also stay in a bunk house. What bothered me the most was the rain. Oh, I did not have a decent sleep because of the thought that "what if the rain didn't stop and we're obliged to go down without reaching the summit?"

Anyway, circumstances favored us and finally at 3:30am Vietnam time, we woke up, had a very hot noodle meal for breakfast and started to prepare for summit ascent.

We started ascending at 4:45 A. We were cautious in trekking because of both darkness and thick fog. We all felt the cliff to our left. As we went along the trail, we started to get sweat.

meeting new friends from the U.S.

Continuously progressing, we gradually had high hopes that there would be a good clearing at the top as we were able to see the sun slightly cracking and glimpsing behind the clouds. It was very beautiful. 

After such momentous view, some of those climbers ahead of us and now descending, told us that we were close already. However, enduring the assault struggle, that was definitely a lie! :( Perhaps, they were just pushing and encouraging us. It takes about more than an hour of endless upward trekking. 

We reached the concrete and cemented stairways and by the looks, everything around is a work in progress; a pagoda is likely to be built plus the fact that a cable car is already up and operating. Well, it's their tourism. Sooner, the roof of Indo-China will be completely easy and accessible to everybody.

At this point, the fog was becoming thicker that we could not see where the stairways are leading us. Every climber around was catching his breath. Everybody was left with no choice but to continue. Some paused for a while others kept on keeping on but they could not give up because of that hope that after a few seconds, they may finally had a glance of the top.

I was determined at this point but I would not deny the excessive tiredness that I felt. It was like a crazy attempt of reaching the top. It was driving me crazy because I kept on doing my best to lift myself and ascend but still, I could not reach the top. It seemed endless. 

Finally, the patience and resilience paid off. We reached the platform. I saw the triangular pointed steel bar and the red flag. Summit at last!

This was another triangular steel bar which I would say, a newly built landmark

So, we're already at the 3,143 MASL. From the pictures that I saw in Google, its summit is not photographed with a platform. Perhaps, it's built for the climber's safety as the top is used to be just piled with a bunch of rocks allowing the climbers with a 360-degree view.  These days, there are also fence around the said top of the peak.

 I pointed the mountains at the back because the guide said, "that is already China!"

Fog rain poured us just in time when we finished taking pictures and so we decided to descend. After a few minutes, the rains already stopped and we thought that there must have been clearing as the risen sun had glimpsed for a while. Very untimely for us, though as we had already gone down.

We had an early lunch, although bread, meat loaf and veggies only upon arrival at the bunk house in Camp 2. By the way, I finally realized that this is how our bunk house looks like (taken in the morning of our second day after summit ascent)

After preparing our things, we endured the knee-wrecking descent. But ooops, it's not all descent as mentioned earlier as we still had to face various assault-type trails. As I meditate while enjoying the descending trail, I could vividly remember the sweat that we shed when we climbed the same trail. Impatience haunted us even during the descent. 

That range is already China. Whoah!

After almost 5 hours, we're back at the Silver Waterfall Tram Toss and the guide gave us our certificates.
Dennis, together with the guide and porters.

We were then transferred back to the homestay and there, we tidied ourselves up. We waited for the car that would transfer us back to that Lao Cai train station. We were able to have a sort of quick tour around Sa Pa town proper while picking up other passengers. Unbelievably, the place is almost occupied by tourists and the livelihood of the local people is mostly from tourism.

Back at the train station, there were no more amazement of  the sleeper train because what was much awaited at that point was the long sleep until we get back to Hanoi -- a sleep that probably kept and stored beautiful memories not only in our dreams but in reality as well.

In one way or another, new places, new experiences and new people that we meet bring us new realizations and a quick check on ourselves. That's how this travel and climb have taught me. As for me: I shall never [literally] underestimate any mountain. Perhaps that is also true in real life, that I must not underestimate or take things for granted, including people, that we have in our lives. And when challenges are finally there to test us, I hope we all don't learn the hard way.
Thank you, Fansipan!

Credit to Dennis and Qitter for the some of the photos above that I borrowed from them.

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