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.]

19 thoughts on “Getting high in Vietnam (not that kind of high…)

  1. Well, no, we did it in 3 days! we camped and cooked (well, the porter did everything..:) it was really nice experiences and basically we took the route that was #2 (2nd toughest) in the list. There’s someone died on route #1 (toughest) before.. see link:

    Also heard a news last week that 2 climber fell off the cliff and injured…

    keep in touch!

  2. Hate being alone and cold and wet, this time i’m gonna face each and defeat them all on this Xmas in Fanxipan. Though I cant get thru all of what u say (im a vietnamese girl) but the tips are helpful. Tks Google I’ve found ur page (not u :)).
    U know, I am quite dependent and vunerable so I chose Sing Cafe – a tour agent – for logistics, well, if it is exactly as u wrote (bet U did go with them), that’d be more than tough for me.
    How cold was it? How lonesome did u feel? How exhausted did u taste???

  3. Mohamad – sorry I didn’t reply sooner but I did look up the news article. It’s at least the second thing I’ve done where I’ve found out that someone else has died in the same place afterwards! An English schoolteacher was sadly drowned in the Tully River in Australia earlier this year while white water rafting.

    Thao – also thank you for your comment. I will send you an email shortly 🙂

  4. Hi Mosher,
    My girlfriend and I are thinking of doing this trip in early May. Could you give us some more information for the planning? How did you find the guide? Could you give us his contact information? Can I ask you how much you paid for the guide?
    Sounds like a really interesting trip and a real experience :). Would be very nice if we can make it.
    If you prefer you can also email me (
    Thank you very much for your help.

  5. Hey Martin. No problem at all. I’ll contact you by email as you asked just to make sure you get the info! If anyone else wants more details, please do get in touch. Always happy to help!

  6. Hey again, Afidie! Glad you made it back in one piece 🙂 I’m off to Vietnam again in July but I doubt I will make it to SaPa this time. I might get a chance to climb up Kinabalu in Malaysia.

    Fingers crossed!

  7. Hi Mosher… hope you’re not getting sick of receiving these questions!! I’m on my way to Fansipan with my girlfriend in about 1 week. (Live in Hong Kong – just a short trip for us.) I’m was in the middle of packing up my tent, stove, pots etc and then I read your article and realized I might not need to bring any of it! If you have time and you can send me an email at [removed] that would be much appreciated! Would it be helpful to take all this stuff with me, or can one stay comfortably enough in accomodation that already exists (tents, villages, whatever.) We’ll probably do the hike in 3 days and take it easy… Thanks!

  8. Geoff, never a problem to get replies and help other people visit Vietnam! I’ve deleted your email off your comment to help prevent you getting spammed but will drop you a message shortly.

  9. well I have just got back to australia from my 35hr travel stint from SAPA. all I can say is Mt Fansipan was so Fantatic to climb, I loved every minute of it, for a bit I did wonder what I was doing up this crazy steep mountian cause my friends and I were extremely exhausted, we stayed at base camp one and then day 2 treaked to the top and back down to sapa on day 2, I would highly recomend going to base camp 2, cause we were so exhausted at the end of the day it alsmost killed us, but saying that the views are to die for, its not for the faint hearted but you need a strong mind and some good fitness, Fansipan was awesome, highly recommend

  10. Jase, glad to hear you got back in one piece! It sounds like you did the same route I did – not much the first day, too much the second. I think in one of the following posts I may have mentioned I got a partial refund for this.

    Thing is, I didn’t complain. When I got back to the hostel, the woman who runs the bookings asked if I had any feedback and I mentioned this route. It was a bit annoying for me as I was on my own and had nothing to do the entire afternoon I was in the village. But I didn’t think much else of it. Apparently, the guide I had wasn’t too familiar with the 2-day schedule which is why he split it like he did. She insisted on refunding me some money (maybe $10, I can’t recall exactly) which I wasn’t after, but hey 🙂

    Thing is, I assumed they’d have therefore made sure the guides knew the 2-day route from then on. Guess not! The recommended one is to get to the higher rest stop on day one, then peak and get back down on day 2. It splits the hard work better.

    And any chance of a discount on a house if I emigrate? Which is looking more and more likely each day as my government makes a bigger mess of my country?

  11. Hi Mosher, seems that you had a great experience there at Sapa. I’m heading off to Vietnam next week and plan to visit Sapa and climb Mt Fansipan, I would appreciate any help that you could give me regards tour guides, costs, traps, gear etc. I will have a VN friend along with me but unlikely that she would make the hike.

    Im in Australia, and where are you from?

  12. Hey, David – I get these questions a lot so I’m going to generate a new post for them based on the emails I’ve sent out. I’ll drop you an email pointing to it – everyone else, just use the search bar at the top!

    Oh, and I’m originally from the UK. Currently I live in France. And I’m looking to settle somewhere else but I’ve not decided where yet.

  13. Pingback: mount fansipan - vietnam | ecoTravelogue UNITED STATES WordPress

  14. hi mosh,

    we are going there in feb 2009. we are in a group of 4 peoples. Do you think that by adding more people into the team, it might cut a lot of cost?

  15. Hey Remi,

    It probably depends on the company you go with. The cost of the trip is mainly for the guide, but I’d guess there’s a small “per peeson” fee on top forthe cost of food.

    I’d say that it may be a little cheaper, but if you look at how cheap the guides normally are anyway, you probably won’t save a massive amount.

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