Sa Pa, Vietnam – 11 September 2017
You don’t have much bargaining power when you’re in Sa Pa arranging a motorbike taxi for 4:30AM the next day and they know the reason you’re leaving so early isn’t actually to see the love waterfall at sunrise, despite what you may say. I was keen to make a solo summit of Mt. Fansipan, the tallest peak of Indochina, during my stay in Northern Vietnam. The issue was that you usually need to arrange an expensive guide and go with a tour that takes 2 days. I knew this expedition was within my abilities, and I was keen for another big run during my 6 week trip through South East Asia. Time to have a real adventure!
I had been a bit unsure given I still had a bit of a cough and the conditions had not looked great on the ‘recon mission’ the day before. Rain driving into my face on the back of the motorbike in the darkness on the way up out of Sa Pa didn’t exactly act as reassurance. However, I was keen to at least give it a go. As a back up I had cleverly spent some time the day before to get myself happy with the possibility of having to turn back if required.
Starting with the headlamp, there was not much chance for running. The trail was well stocked with yellowy rock steps, which suggested quite some care in the maintenance. Would the whole trail be a highway? Despite reading that you couldn’t get lost cause there’s only one trail, I had a bit of a mishap before the sun was up. The quality of the route deteriorated into pretty much bush bashing, so after a couple of minutes pursuing the ‘yea it’s just here, keep pushing’ tactic, I got out my phone to check on maps.me. A great maps app that is brilliant for offline (forget messing about saving offline areas in Google maps). The Vietnam map happened to have an outline of this trail and I could see I was about 100 metres off so headed back the way I came. Back to a small clearing and there was another way. I was impressed with the GPS accuracy considering the cloud and bush cover. Also the accuracy of the trail outline on the map was very useful. In retrospect, this slight mishap of leaving the trail could have been a serious issue. However, life continues to be good to me. I was back on the trail and psyched for some daylight.
Since you are not supposed to be out here without a guide, I walked quietly through two camps that were on the trail. I heard people awake at the second one, but no one was out so no worries. As it turned out, passing a couple of guided groups was no problem too. People were friendly and maybe uninterested in regulations. Winning.
There really were a lot of stairs, and a lot of walking. So many carefully placed rocks and cuts into more stationary larger stones. Up and up and up. You couldn’t see far ahead the whole way, but you could count on more stairs. Perhaps it was a good thing you couldn’t see them all at once…
There were definitely plenty of more interesting bits too. Really steep climbs, steel ladders, bits of wood secured into holes in large rocks to provide some sort of stability, or even a ladder where the stick rungs were just sitting on the wood plugs. OK for just downward pressure, but looked a little iffy.
There were a lot of sections where the idea of coming back down in wet conditions did not thrill me. I decided I would get the gondola back from the top.
Pushing on I passed a couple more small groups and was getting close. There was just over a kilometer to go and I thought I must be near the peak altitude so was looking forward to the trail leveling out a bit and maybe actually doing some running. It was not to be. Suddenly there was a series of steep descents creating an elevation loss of a couple of hundred metres. You know you need to get any elevation loss back and then some when you’re on your way to a summit. Up, up and up.
In the final stages the trail seems to be approaching the wall of a platform that could not easily be scaled. This could be a real setback. Luckily there was a very budget staircase linking to a gap in the wall. I was up on the platform and could soon make out the shape of a giant Buddha under construction through the cloud and mist. Moving along the platform I got to some stairs which linked to a serious stone pathway that appeared to lead up to the summit. There was a quite apparent ‘do not cross’ type barrier in the way though. I left the red zone and starting climbing more stairs to the summit. This section was impressive for the quantity of quality stone that had been carried up here to make it happen!
You could not see anything at all from the top! It was super cloudy the whole time I was up there. I did have the area to myself for a while before first some wardens, then other hikers and guides appeared. No worries being alone without a guide here as it is accessible via a gondola from Sa Pa. Nothing suspicious here… The summit was nice and there were Vietnamese flags sat there for you to wave around in photos. Unfortunately I could see some hideous monstrosity of a large construction underway not far below. I thought that would destroy the special remoteness of the area. I’d worked hard to get here, I didn’t want to see some resort or whatever.
After conceding there was no view to be had, I went to the little funicular station nearby. Cable car tickets were a whopping 600k VND, which I didn’t have with me so I was relieved to see a 100k option for the funicular. I didn’t know where it went, but assumed it would at least get me close to Sa Pa. I thought it was like a budget cable car option for budget travellers like me. Well, that ride only lasted a couple of minutes and took me to the cable car station not far below! I knew I didn’t have enough money for a ticket with me, so ‘hilariously’ I walked back up the way the funicular had come and waited for a couple of people near the ‘do not cross’ barrier to dissipate before heading back to retrace my steps.
I knew I had heaps of time before leaving town on a night bus that evening, so I got psyched to take it slow and be careful. To make it brief, I really did not have any issues. The sections I thought would be nerve racking were not so bad in the end and my feet felt really stable. It was a test, but I had studied hard and performed well.
One last turn of events ensued. I was too stingy to pay for a taxi car back to town so I wandered around and talked someone into giving me a ride back on their bike for a good price. He didn’t have any helmets and was making the most of the trip to town by balancing some type of carrier in one hand, which I guess he would drop off or fill with supplies in Sa Pa. So, no helmets, some unbalanced cargo, AND a couple of mid-ride phone calls made for a pretty scary moto ride home to say the least! Advice to myself: maybe be more organised and don’t be so stingy with transport costs.
After so much uncertainty going into the day, followed by a successful outing, a phrase I heard from a friend came to mind: ‘outside your comfort zone, inside your competency’. A great adventure! NB. If you are planning to give this one a go, check out the other stories online too. It made for fun reading and got me better prepared.