Yet another jungle peak and national highpoint has been ticked off my list, Fansipan (3143m), the highest mountain in Indochina and Vietnam. As a friend of me told me recently, we can probably consider Fansipan the last Himalayan peak before the Ocean. I so much agree with him.
From Hanoi to Lao Cai
Hanoi is not an international hub like Saigon in south, but if one travel through major hubs in Asia like Bangkok, Hong Kong etc it should not be difficult to find a connecting flight to Hanoi. Air Asia for instance has 3 flights a day between Bangkok and Hanoi to very affordable prices. If this is first time in Hanoi, take a couple of days to see all the sights, and if you have more spare days include a 2-3 days trip to nearby Halong Bay as well.
There are a few options to get from Hanoi to Lao Cai or Sapa. The bus is probably the least desirable option, because there is only local buses and they stop frequently along the road, picking up everything from people to livestock. The best option is to take one of the 4-5 daily trains (most of them are actually overnight-trains) to Lao Cai, about 40 km from Sapa. But sleepers (hard or soft) in public trains from Hanoi to Lao Cai is really difficult to get if you order less than one week before departure. This is because tourist agencies and alike from Hanoi usually buy up all the sleepers well in advance, just to sell and/or re brand them to double the price. These black market touts adds no value whatsoever, and they don't even take a risk, because unsold tickets are so easy to cash in (90% refund), within 8 hours or so before departure. Even I have used this way-too-kind refund system several times here in Vietnam, mainly to buy me backup-tickets in case I do not get the desirable departure or type (hard/soft seat/bed).
So in most cases you will end up in one of the "private" trains (like Tulico and Friendly Express) to double the price or more. For me it was not difficult at all to get a sleeper in one of the many private trains/expresses, less than two days before departure. The private trains are not separate trains, but coaches hooked up to the public trains, or in worst case a sleeper ticket in a public train which is re branded to double the price.
From Lao Cai to Sapa
Most visitors arrive Lao Cai with one of the many night trains from Hanoi. Few of them will consider staying in Lao Cai, but will hop on one of the many shared minibuses which shuttle between Lao Cai and Sapa in the early arriving hours of the trains. Expect chaos outside of the train station. The guys/drivers at the station in Lao Cai tried to really rip me off. They started at 500.000 dong for a shared minibus to Sapa. But after a while looking around and inquiring some of the 20-30 minibuses at the station, I found one ready to leave for 40.000 dong (the locals only pay 30.000 though). I saw some tourists accepting 200.000 dong per person, and who smiled of their negotiation skills because they just knocked the price down from 500.000 to 200.000 dong. When my minibus was leaving they were still waiting for the bus to be filled up with local passenger. Stupid westerns tourists.
Getting organised in Sapa
It is worth hanging around in Sapa for a day or two. The hotels are cheap and of good quality. I got a room with shower/toilet and television for only 6 dollars a night (Pinocchio Hotel). The local tribe people can be very annoying though, because they will chase you around in the streets selling postcards, textiles or whatever.
The first thing I did in Sapa, was to inquire around how to get to Fansipan independently. There was not much of help, because most of them told it was impossible, difficult route finding etc. One guy at the tourist-office, however, told me that I could get a permit for approx 20 dollars, and where I could get it (National Park Office). He wrote it down on a paper which I could show the motorbike-driver. The first one dropped me off at a hotel (wrong place), the second one dropped me off at the post office (wrong place again). I eventually lost confidence in those motorbike-drivers, and started to walk to the office myself. But I never found it, and gave up (see description further below).
This was simply too much hassle so I asked around several agencies for a guided climb instead. The price for a full package 2 day/1 night hike seemed to be 80-120 dollar if you were alone, and 60-70 dollar if you joined a group. That package usually includes guide, porter, four meals, transportation, permits, tent, sleeping bag, mattress. None of them had an organised group next day, so I ended up buying a one man deal with Sapa Pathfinder Travel (SPT) for 90 dollars. If I had hiked independently it would be 20 dollar for a permit, but then I would have to add costs for transport (10 km by jeep to the trail head), food, hire of tent etc. Overall I think there would not be much to save doing it independently. And since I had heard from several sources that there are a myriad of trails up there, resulting in problems in route finding, I thought it would be OK with a guide. Later I would find out that the route finding issues are bullshit, at least if you walk from Tram Ton Pass. There are simply to little information about "how to do Fansipan yourself" on the Internet, and there are no detailed map to be found of this area, leaving me and other would-be-independent-hikers in confusion. Thus I hope the below description of the 2 days hike will help others.
First day hiking - from Sapa to High camp
At 09:00 I met in the office of Sapa Pathfinder Travel. The guide Thuan and the porter Trung were already waiting for me. I left some of my luggage in the office, before we walked outside to the waiting jeep. From the square we drove the only uphill road, which is the Fansipan road. After only 0.5km there were a junction, and we turned left (sign to Silver Waterfall). Then we continued for another 0.5km before we arrived the National Park Office (yes, the office I had tried to find the day before). Thuan went inside and did the paperwork, and returned after 10 minutes. We continued to Silver Waterfall, but I did not see any reasons to stop, because the waterfall was just a small stream (dry-season).
There were a lot construction work on the road to Tram Ton Pass, and within a year or so it will probably be upgraded from dirt road to a "glorious paved" road. We arrived at the Tram Ton Pass pass 09:50, or more correctly below the pass on the Sapa side, where there is a big lodge/restaurant. This is the trail head and the elevation here is 1950m. At exactly 10:00 we started to walk, not up the stairs as the sign to Fansipan indicated, instead we passed the stairs on the right-hand side and continued through a gate. I'm not sure were the stairs will take you, because my bad-english guide only said "harder trail Fansipan". Most likely it's just a variation in the beginning of the trail.
From the start we lost almost 50 metres of elevation, before the trail started to gain altitude again. After 20 minutes through a dense rain forest, we emerged to an open landscape at 2040m. Here you are likely to see some buffaloes and/or horses grassing as well. The open landscape does not last very long, before the trail again penetrate the dense rain-forest. After 15 more minutes, slightly loosing elevation, we arrived at what I will label the 1st riverbed at 2010m, where the trail actually goes along or in the riverbed for a couple of hundred metres. As we walked in the riverbed, I noticed several small trails escaping the riverbed. But these trails are most likely just variations for the wet-season when the river/water stands higher. We escaped the riverbed after about 200 metres, where there is a couple of Tarzan ropes. From the river we continued steep uphill and after 10-15 more minutes we arrived the 2nd riverbed (2090m). Here the trail only follows the river for 20 metres or so, but immediately after there is an important junction. Most likely you will not see this junction at all and continue straight ahead. Fortunately that is the correct thing to do, because if you take left hand here at 2095m, you will end up in a village far below.
About 1.5 hours after the start at 11:35, we arrived the lunch camp at 2250m. There is a couple of shacks here, one of them can be used for cooking and sleeping. The porter cooked noodles/egg for himself, while the guide prepared a nice western lunch for us, including bread, cheese, eggs and fruits.
At 12.25 we continued beyond the camp, initially straight up, but shortly after the slopes turned much more gentle. This gentle "traverse" is heading for a saddle and the start of a steep ridge (2400m), which we arrived half an hour later (13:00). When you see handrails along the trail, you have arrived the start of the steep ridge. From this point it is around 400 metres quickly gain of altitude during the next hour. Halfway on the ridge (at 2590m) there is a short steep descent, probably the steepest pitch on the hill.
At 14:05 we arrived a junction at 2810m. The right fork (uphill) was closed by a few bamboos, so the left fork (downhill) is the correct and most obvious choice. From here we continued slightly downhill and 5 minutes later we arrived an area of levelled bamboos which is the camp at 2780m. The hut is just a stone's throw away, but not visible before you cross the floor of bamboos on your left side.
We met a group of Vietnamese tourists in the hut, as we arrived there 14:12. They had just summited Fansipan this morning, and was now eating lunch, before descending back to Sapa. The hut is extremely basic so do not expect any comfort here. There are a few blankets, but those should be reserved the porters/guides, while you have your own sleeping bag. We had an excellent dinner at 17:00 and shortly after we were escaping into the warm blankets/sleepingbags. During the night it was below zero, and the wind blew straight through the openings in the walls and floors.
Second day hiking - to the summit and back
Next morning we woke up at 07:00, first preparing and then eating breakfast. Thuan and me were off at 07:55. Just 5 minutes after the start, we reached a well signed junction (2815m). From here we gained altitude very fast, but then at a highpoint of 2940m we did several downhills climbs, and we almost lost 100 metres. At 08:45 we met some Vietnamese who had camped 2-3 nights here just shortly beneath the summit. It turned out they were here to do sunrise photographs, and was waiting for that magic morning. We arrived the summit shortly after at 09:00, and it was definitively not one of those "magic-days". The visibility was close to zero, but that is the most common type of weather on the summit, which attracts a lot of fog and clouds. At least it was not raining.
We just spent 20 minutes on the summit (3143m) before we descended back to high camp (2780m), which we arrived at 10:10. Because we arrived so early at high camp, we decided to have lunch further down. So we just packed our stuff and continued the descend. At 11:30 we were back in the lunch stop camp (2250m) and spent almost 1 hour there. We met another team of hikers, but these were the first westerns we seen on the mountain (3 French guys on an organised tour from Hanoi).
At 13:30 we arrived back at Tram Ton Pass, where a vehicle was waiting for us. Back in Sapa so quickly, I was able to get to the train station in Lao Cai early afternoon, and to my big surprise there were lots of available sleepers on the train back to Hanoi same evening. Just a few days ago, they were sold out. But now just few hours before departures, all the black market agents had probably returned quite a few tickets to cash in the 90% refund. What a sick system. No matter what, I was happy to have a sleeper instead of an uncomfortable seat during the night. After all I was happy but tired after the Fansipan hike.