Fansipan again!

Martin and Peiling on FansipanFansipan seems to be the most popular subject on this site right now. I had another series of emails from Martin and Peiling (not sure where they’re from) asking for information before they made the trip. I’m happy to say they made it to the summit and back again to tell the tale!

As you can see from the picture, the weather wasn’t so great for them and the visibility was about as good as I got when I climbed. At least I didn’t get soaked until I was relatively close to the bottom.

In their own words:

We just got back from Hanoi on Friday and had a great trip. We stayed at the Hanoi Backpacker’s and they arranged our Fansipan and Halong Bay trips. The trek was good, we made it to the summit! (see attached picture) but as you can see the weather was not that great. As you mentioned on your blog, the 2nd day is really the tough one. After the hike to the camp at 2200m, I was thinking this will be easy but the 2nd day was really not easy at all. However, we were fortunate to make it to the top at all, ppl coming the day after us decided to not go beyond 2200m because of constant rain.

Halong Bay was very nice as well.

The Backpacker’s organization was amazing and we also enjoyed the 2 days in Hanoi very much. It’s an amazing and very busy city.

Thank you very much for all your help.

You’re both very welcome and I’m glad you had an enjoyable (and safe, though wet!) trip. Personally I just can’t wait to be back in Hanoi again in June!

More on Mount Fansipan

Geoff from Hong Kong got in touch via the original Fansipan post asking for details about the climb and so on. I passed on what I knew and he jetted off to Vietnam for the hike / climb. Then he wrote back with his experiences, which he’s given me permission to publish here. Everyone’s experience of a place or a journey is going to be different, so I thought it might be useful to have this up here as well. I’ve included his opinions on Vietnam as a whole and the surrounding countries as well.

Glad to be of help, Geoff, and thanks for your emails!

Yeah everything went quite well. We elected for the two-day option in the end. But we ended up leaving the day after the train arrived. Spent the first day on a rented motorbike cruising around the little minority villages
in the area. So that allowed us to get an early start on day one of the hike, meaning that we easily got up to the 2800m camp by about 3:30pm. The food was awesome… except that it was served at about 4:30, and bloody hell the guides and the porters all went to sleep at 5pm. Leaving us to try to figure out what the heck to do in a corrugated tin hut haha! Anyway played a few games and went to sleep around 8pm. The next day alas was pouring rain (previous two days had been beautiful). But we got to the top in about 2 hours. No views… but nice feeling. Clouds parted to give us some good views on the way down though. But oh my what a haul down!! We were going to take the long way down to another village, but my friend was all but dead by the time we got to the 2250m camp so we just slogged back to the original car park. Full and hot sun by the time we got half way down.

So yeah it all worked out really well on the whole… quite a tough trip but manageable by staying higher on the first day. If anyone else was going to go… personally I’d recommend taking your own sleeping mattress. I’m used to some pretty hard core camping, but that bamboo matting was terrible. So sleep was hard to get the whole night. For the sake of one extra kg I’d rather have a good nights sleep. And since you come back via the same hut, you wouldn’t have to take the mattress up to the top. As for the guides… mmmm…. kind of ok service but not great. Got us up and down but nothing extra. We bargained hard and got the agency down to $60 per person (group of 4) for the 2 day trip. Seems excessively expensive to me but anyway had no choice. Typical north-vietnam – where they gang together to set a price and there’s nothing you can do. So it was $120 for the two of us. Would have been $150 for the two of us but luckily we found two more people so the cost went down.

I exited Vietnam by crossing into China and taking a sleeper bus up to Kunming. That was great fun – highly recommended. I love China… always have. And what a difference in the honesty of the people. As soon as you cross the border everything just seems to be ‘simpler’. You don’t have to pay ‘tourist’ prices for dumb things like bottles of water. Bus tickets are fixed for everyone. Food is cheap. Love it! Not to knock Vietnam, but I get so tired of fighting for everything there, from a bus ride to a bottle of water to a bowl of noodles. One bugger in Lao Cai asked me for $4 US for a cup of coffee. What a laugh. I threw him 10,000 dong and walk away, and he laughed like it was funny. Well guess that’s normal there… get sick of it though!

And a second mail, following on about the pricing and “rip off” policies:

As for your thoughts on rip-off pricing… interesting… and I know everyone has their own opinion on the matter. As for my experiences though – I’ve found Vietnam without a doubt the worst place I’ve ever traveled to when it comes to people trying to rip tourists off. For many reasons… but first I’ll admit it only happens in tourist places like Sapa and Halong Bay. I’ve been to Haiphong for example and never experienced any problems at all. And I’ll also say that the Vietnamese people are as keen to rip their own people off if they can get away with it as they are to rip tourists off – I’ve seen many a ‘rich’ Saigon citizen getting raped over the coals as well. And in a funny sense they fight it less and just accept it because they are, after all, rich. Compared to the villagers. And of course they have the whole face-saving aspect where they wouldn’t be caught dead bargaining for a bottle of water because they want to show the world that they can afford three dollars for a bottle of water.

But my issue with the Vietnamese is that it’s turned into a national sport for them… and there’s no peace. I’ve travelled extensively all over south-east asia. And sure in Cambodia and Thailand for example a tuk-tuk driver will ask for more than he might otherwise get. But the difference is that if you call his bluff and say no – you’ll only go for whatever – they’ll normally back down and accept it. They’d rather get something than nothing. But in Vietnam they’ll flatlely refuse. Because they don’t want to appear ‘weak’ in front of their co-workers I suppose. Or often there’s price-fixing where all the drivers get together and say “Ok if it’s a foreigner the minimum price is this”. And if they contravene that they’re kicked out of the ‘gang’ of drivers. So the end result is I have to argue for everything. Water. Food. Noodle soup. A bus ticket. And it’s bloody tiring. Because more of often than not they just refuse to sell the item. And I don’t even mind paying more than the local price… I can understand that rich people should pay more. But I refuse to spend 3 bucks on a bottle of water.

Clambering up Fansipan

Photo taken by Iain Purdie, 26th April 2007. P...

By far and away the most popular page I’ve had on the blog is the one regarding my climb up Fansipan in Vietnam. I get a ton of comments on it, all asking the same questions. Hopefully this post will answer a lot of them to save me being asked them over and over! If there’s anything I missed, then please do ask and I’ll update this post.

Do note that I last visited Sapa in April 2007, so prices and so forth may have changed since then.

I booked my trip through the Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel. I’ve been told they’re not the cheapest to go with, but they generally get you a really good deal, with a reputable company at the other en. This goes for their other excursions as well. The trip included all of the following:

  • 1st class return train travel to Lao Cai
  • return bus trip to Sapa from Lao Cai
  • guide
  • accommodation (train is overnight so includes bunks)
  • meals while on the trek
  • transport to the start point of the trek, and back to town after
  • transport to / from Hanoi railway station from the hostel
  • use of shower facilities back in town after the trek

The above cost me around $120 – I can’t recall the exact amount, sorry, but that’s about right. Note also that I did the trek in two days. The norm is three and I have met one person who did it in a single day and who heartily recommended against this.

I can’t recommend a good company to book with in Sapa as I didn’t do things that way. Likewise I can’t tell you the name of the company I went through as it was all booked via the hostel. Sorry.

It is possible to book the trip in Sapa itself, or in Hanoi or many other places in Vietnam. One thing to watch for is booking the train tickets – do not expect to get any “on the day”. Train tickets in Vietnam sell very quickly, especially on the major routes. They’re also usually bought up very quickly on release by various agencies, and Vietnamese do get preference over foreigners. Simply put – try and book a package from somewhere or at least book well in advance (a week or so).

The guide carries the food you’ll need. At the small village we stopped at, food was provided there. The next rest stop (the one I didn’t use) is just a shack / campsite higher up with no locals living there. The guy I went with wasn’t the best guide as he split the two-day trip in a bad place. Very short first day, VERY long second! I think it was just the 2-day rather than 3-day that threw him out of whack. He certainly knew the route and was great company in the evening.

The first stage of the walk is very light. Therefore if you want, you could carry packs to the village and then leave a lot of things there for collection the next day once you’ve done the peak. Again, though, I’d check with the agencies in town. Many will look after your kit there so you don’t even have to get it anywhere near the mountain. The one I used let me shower in the hotel next door when I returned as well – no extra charge – as my next stop was the train station to return to Hanoi.

You shouldn’t need any more equipment. I didn’t take my sleeping bag or anything. Again, I can’t vouch for the accommodation nearer the peak, but the village provides a wooden hut with bamboo “bedding” and blankets. It was bloody cold, so an extra sleeping bag may not be a bad idea. An inflatable mattress for comfort is personal choice, but if you’re used to sleeping on foam camping mats, then the bamboo suspended bed is about as “comfortable” 😉

Overall, just enjoy the trip. It’s hard work but well worth it.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

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.]