This trip was quickly put together within 2 days of discussion. It started out with me suggesting to Rapimoment to join me to Taipei on a city trip for a couple of days but somehow the conversation took an unexpected turn and ended with a hiking trip. In Vietnam!
I merely brought up Fansipan to Rapimoment as a reply to her mentioning that she wanted to go somewhere with mountains, completely disregarding my suggestion to go to Taiwan, by the way. It took her around 3 minutes to look it up online and then she said yes. So that was how this trip started.
We caught an early flight, which we despise, to Hanoi. We didn’t really do much there as both of us had been there before and we thought the same that other than food fest, this city has nothing much to offer. We were really tired because we didn’t get much sleep the night before and so we spent most of the time at cafés and restaurants enjoying the feast and basically just chilling. Then it was time to catch the night train. I was looking forward to it! It was my first time riding a train in South East Asia.
The train left the station at 9.30pm and it was packed with fellow travelers. We were put in the same room with an American couple. We didn’t get to chat much as they, too, were tired and wanted to go to bed 30 mins after boarding. I was happy in my comfy bunk bed and ready to get full 8 hours of sleep that I needed.
My hope and dreams shattered right after we turned off the lights and started to dozing off. The train was so loud and it was everything but a smooth ride. It made occasional stops with new people coming up. An officer knocked on our door maybe 3 times not sure why but we just answered yeah? Then he replied OK and walked away. Again, I didn’t get my sleep and was feeling drained.
As soon I as I noticed that the curtain let too much light in, there was another knock on the door with the sound of an officer saying “Lao Cai, Sapa”. Finally we were approaching our destination. The train stopped at Lao Cai train station at 5.30am. We got off and headed out. A man approached us saying a van to Sapa cost 110,000 VND per person. We got the price down to 50,000 VND (I’ve got skills, baby!) and went to his car. To our surprise, we had to wait for another hour until the van was fully packed before we could actually head to Sapa, which took us around an hour. We drove across the mountainous terrain. It was a joy ride. One of the most beautiful scenic rides I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. Green rice paddies, trees, forest, streams, waterfalls, and just NATURE in general. This is paradise, I thought.
But when we arrived at Sapa, my heart broke.
What a big pile of mess this place is! The town is full of hotels and future hotels. The whole city is nothing but a badly-organized community of construction sites. The streets were filled with dust and the road sides were occupied by brick blocks and piles of dry cement powder. The ugly unfinished naked concrete buildings are blocking all the greenery Sapa is known for. Everything was gone. It was a bad case of expectation vs. reality.
As drowsy as we were, we were determined to get out of the city as soon as we could. We left our luggage at the hotel, which we couldn’t yet check-in, had quick breakfast, rent a motorcycle and drove out to the mountains. That was the best decision because as soon as we were away from the city, the beautiful scenery came back again. The peaceful green land opened up my heavy eyes. We did a lot of sight seeing and a bit of hiking. The two waterfalls we visited were such beauty, especially the Love Waterfall, which took a bit of time to hike to. But it was so worth it!!
Next morning we set out to what we were there to do in the first place, hiking Fansipan. Fansipan is a mountain situated near Sapa with its peak sitting at 3,143 meters above sea level. Ironically, the first time I heard about this peak was a couple of years back when they announced the completion of the construction of the cable car to take tourists up the mountain. And it would take only 20 minutes of people’s precious time to be standing on the summit. And there is no need for hiking up there anymore. Ha! So why the hell would we do a 2 days/1 night hike up there, you might ask. Well, to be completely honest, I was not quite sure myself….
We were a group of five, a Canadian girl who lives in China, A British guy who is traveling through Asia, a Singaporean cop, and us two. The van took us to the Tramton pass, the same entrance to the Love waterfall, and dropped us off there with 2 porters. Right away, the driver said to us “OK. follow these guys, off you go. I’ll see you tomorrow, bye!” And so we started our hike.
We walked right into the dense rain forest — little streams running through and bamboo trees popping up along the way (our porters had fun harvesting bamboo shoots the whole hike). I have to say that I was quite impressed with how well the trail was mapped out. I am pretty sure that it is possible to do the hike on your own (if you plan to summit can come back down in one day — hardcore!) without a guide since the trail is very well marked. There’s no way you can get lost.
First half of the hike was moderately easy. It was a mix of muddy wet ground along river valley, flat dry land, and steep slopes — an overall very scenic route. We had 2 mini breaks. After around 2 hours of hiking we had a lunch break at the first camp. The porters made us big ass egg sandwich which I couldn’t finish.
After almost an hour of the break, when we were all about to doze off, our porters called us and said that it was time to continue the journey. We got up and followed them. This half of the trail was crazy. We were, 90% of the time, hiking up very steep hills and screes. The higher we go up, the less trees, and the stronger the heat. We were basically climbing rocky hills and steel ladders in the sun. By the time we got to our camp site, we were all soaked with sweat.
What was amazing was one of the porters. He hiked with us carrying a big bamboo basket full of ingredients like water and vegetables that were then turned to our lunch, dinner, and breakfast later. He did all this wearing flip flops. We took many mini breaks, too many in my opinion but I guess the porters were exhausted as they were carrying a lot of stuff.
We finally arrived at the camp site at around 5.30 pm and I couldn’t be happier. It is a big cabin with around 6 rooms in it. They showed us a room, where there was just one big wooden platform. They put on foiled mattress thing on it and told us we will be sleeping on it together side by side while giving us each a very thin sleeping bag. The porters forgot to mention to us how cold the night would get.
After dinner in bed, we agreed on starting the hike the next morning at 3 am to see the sun rise on the summit. The cop was the one insisting on doing so while the others didn’t really care what time we go.
Although I slept in my winter jacket, thick socks, and a beanie, I was still freezing. It must have been at least 5 degree celcius that night and the sleeping bag was too thin. Plus the ‘bed’ was anything but comfortable. Our porter woke us up at 4 am instead of 3 am bringing in coffee and we had instant noodle breakfast in bed before we continued our journey. From this camp site it was not a long way to go to the summit but it was just climbing up and up. It took us only around 1 hour and 45 minutes from the camp to the summit. We didn’t make it to see the sunrise from the summit because we woke up later than planned but we got to see the sun rising over Sapa town while climbing up and that was as impressive.
Finally standing on the roof of Indochina, we all celebrated and took many photos of the beautiful mountainous scenery (we were super lucky there was no fog at all) and also of ourselves with the Fansipan summit sign. There were actually around 3 signs up there lol and they have built these wooden hand rails around them all. All this gave me very odd vibe. I had never been on the summit that is so well developed before. I knew about the new cable car station but I expected it to be a simple small thing and not this giant complex on top of the mountain. Turns out they are building a bunch of stuff up there. There’s an on going construction of a big Buddha statue so I guess they will build a proper temple there as well. It looked like just another tourist spot with gift shops. It kind of ruined the whole summit experience seeing big concrete structures instead of real nature itself. But I didn’t let that take away my hiking experience as I did really enjoyed the journey to the top and I was very proud of myself!
Having said that, because we wanted to have time to relax and didn’t want to spend another 5 hours walking back down the same route, we decided to save time and take the cable car down instead hehehe And it was a great decision because the view from the cable are was amazing! It took us only 20 minutes to get down. Then we relaxed for the rest of the day…
Walking in crowded Sapa town gave me the ‘tourism gone bad’ vibe and it reminded me of a little town in northern Thailand called Pai. Pai was a quiet mountain town where people go to relax and enjoy the pristine nature similar to Sapa. There were maybe a handful of hotels. But then it got famous and became a hot spot for the tourists both domestic and international — a lot of backpackers. And now if you go to Pai, that quiet mountain town vibe is no longer there. It is now full of restaurants and road side bars and people selling Kaosarn road streetfood. There is a typical walking street where the ‘locals’ sell their ‘handycrafts’ right next to each other for tourists to take back as souvenirs.
And like Pai, Sapa has become that touristy destination. I saw countless of big tour groups coming in by bus and a lot of travelers altogether in this dusty town. Hmong people selling the exact same ‘hand made’ stuff. A lot of big constructions going on even on top of the mountain destroying the real beauty of the place to cater to the mass. There’s no authenticity. It’s sad to say but we were definitely too late to the party. Sapa is no more.
- You can also take a bus from Hanoi to Sapa. No need for the train.
- You can organize/book the Fansipan hike through your hotels
- Bring your own water for the hike
- Make sure to bring solid hiking shoes and winter jacket (it's really cold up there)
- Best way to get around Sapa is to rent a motorbike. Wear helmet!
** This blog is my experience in 2017. Things probably look different now**
After Sapa, we continued our journey headed West to a little unknown town called Cao Bang. You can read it here.