Getting high in Vietnam (not that kind of high…)

Hanoi has it in for me. You may recall the last time I flew out, just as I was about to walk to the bus stop the heavens opened. Well guess what happened this time as I was waiting to leave and catch the train? Fortunately a taxi to the station was included in my excursion cost, but I was still drenched by the time I got to my carriage.

I shared a “hard sleeper” (6 berths, thin mattresses) with two Dutch girls, an English guy, his Vietnamese wife and a Vietnamese man who ambled in more than an hour after we left Hanoi. He very kindly didn’t complain that one of the Dutch girls had swapped beds with him so as to be on the same level as her friend.

We pulled into Lào Cai much earlier than expected – around 5am. It took ten minutes to convince the Dutch girls that the train wasn’t going any futher! I found my bus, and shortly after, Griff (the English guy from Hanoi) boarded. This is strange as his train arrived earlier than mine. Half an hour or so later and we spotted the Aussie group who got on a different bus.

I dozed on the ride to Sapa and met up with the Aussies again at the tour office. I guess their bus was faster than ours. I was given a room key for a nearby hotel so that I could get showered, then had some nice phở for breakfast before jumping into a big, bouncy Jeep up to the start of the mountain trail by way of an office for my guide to get a permit.

It seems Fansipan can be spelt many ways, just looking at the posters and signs. The other two I spotted were “Fanxipan” (used on many of the direction signs on the climb itself) and “Phan si păng” (also printed as one whole word). Either way, it’s quite a hike up to 3143m.

The weather wasn’t great, but at least this means I was cooler than on my last visit. No great views, but the sounds, smells and close-up vegitation were stunning. If I could bottle some of the scents, I’d make a fortune.

My guide, Paó (pronounced Paho), spotted some plants which he picked. One he called “cinnamon” but with a hard “k”. It grew close to the ground and was a reddish bulb with leaves tucked around it. True enough, a nibble of the exposed flesh where he had snapped it from its root did indeed taste vaguely of cinnamon. Further on he found three young, juice bamboo shoots which went in his rucksack, presumably for use in dinner.

Footing wasn’t exactly treacherous, but could be slippy in places. Several times I heard “mind head” and realised I had been watching my step so much I’d neglected to care about anything above shoulder height. Not good when some of it is spiky and extremely solid.


Just before midday we stopped for a picnic lunch which was really needed by then. I was impressed by how much Paó had crammed into his small rucksack. I provided dessert in the form of some peanut butter & chocolate Oreos I’d brought from Hanoi.

A little over an hour later we arrived at where we would be spending the night. Much earlier than I had expected and I wished I had brought my PSP after all. I certainly didn’t have enough left in the book I was reading and only one Biro to scribble with! As I sat drinking tea with a Japanese man who was on his way back down, an exhausted English tourist staggered in. He’d summited and come down again already after starting at 6am – and didn’t recommend anyone else ever do it! I’d have been tempted actually, but realistically it would mean staying in Sapa a full day beforehand due to the train times. Either way it would be a 2-day trip. But well done to him – it’s hard work and he really had to talk his hotel into letting him do it in the single day! I bet he didn’t really regret it once he settled in for the night.

It’s also a shame we couldn’t summit that afternoon as the sun put in a brief appearance, but it would almost certainly have meant descending at least some of the way in darkness.

The accommodation was a simple bamboo structure covered with blue plastic tarpaulin – sure to make a noise like a million snare drums in heavy rain. The beds were woven reed mats on suspended bamboo slats and certainly no less comfortable (or more comfortable) than the hard sleeper train.

A handful of rucksacks were already in place and Paó told me that six tourists were ahead of us on the second of their three-day ascent. They would be at the village in time for dinner in the evening. With my two-day schedule, I would also pass back through this village on the way back to Sapa.

It was bizarre sitting in my home for the night and watching the mist visibly swirl in through the doorway, making all my stuff wet. By mid-afternoon the could had once again moved in to cover the mountain and the temperature dropped accordingly.

Thankfully, around 5pm the other group returned. By this time I’d finished my book (the excellent Voices From D-Day by Jonathan Bastable) and run out of things to scrawl in my notebook. The group consisted of four Israeli guys, a girl from Canada and her Kiwi boyfriend. They’d set off at 7am that morning, but reckoned with one person the climb would be a lot quicker.

Dinner was superb, cooked over an open fire by Paó. He was obviously used to larger groups as there was enough food for four people! Spring rolls, tofu, pork, bamboo shoots, pineapple, tomato, rice… and the inevitable industrial-strength rice wine. Every few mouthfuls of food, he would cry “Cheers! Good health!” and make me neck some.

During dinner, the first pitter-patter of rain was heard, followed by thunder. This would make ablutions awkward as the WC consisted of a plank of wood over a slope with what looked like a ragged wind-breaker in front of it. Even Leeds Festival looked palatial in comparison.

Barely even 8pm, I crawled into my sleeping bag and started to nod as everyone else played cards. Tomorrow promised to be damn hard work.

[UPDATE: If you’re after more information on the climb, how to book it, what you need and so on, please go to the new post I added elsewhere. I hope it answers a lot more of your questions. Alternatively, check out the emails I got from Geoff after his visit.]

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