Photos by Alex Ivanov. Additional photos by Rob Gooding, Dom Marshall, Jack Nuttgens and Dean Wall.
Fansipan; a comical name, and not one that’s on many bucket lists, but it is the highest mountain in Vietnam, measuring 3,143 metres at the summit. Back in November 2016, when I was teaching English in Hanoi, I had a week of standard but annoying teacher problems (last minute requests to cover lessons, being left with a class from Hell in a rural school by the teacher, playing on the world’s grumpiest football team), and felt desperate to disappear to somewhere green, remote and beautiful. Mai Chau, the highland rice paddies, or Cat Ba, the rugged tropical island off Ha Long Bay, beckoned, and as I tried to arrange to travel to one or the other, I found out that my flatmates where planning to climb Fansipan, far in the Northwestern Highlands, over the weekend.
The plan was to leave Hanoi at ten p.m. on the eight-hour sleeper bus on the Friday night, meet the guide from VietTrekking in Sapa (a small town surrounded by minority villages that functions as a hub for trekkers and backpackers) the following morning , arrive at the summit of Fansipan at dawn on Sunday and return to Hanoi by sleeper bus the same evening. In VietTrekking’s itinerary there was also a mysterious reference to “bath or shower with herb of Dao”.
So with little time to spare on Friday afternoon, I found myself in the Hanoi outdoors shop UMove. It was there that I bought walking boots, a warm black waterproof coat, thin walking trousers and two pairs of socks. Then I stocked up the trekking essentials: raisins, peanuts and Oat Choco bars, a high-energy combination of sugar and oats, and the closest thing in the world to Tolkien’s lembas. Soon we were outside our local bia hoi catching a taxi to Hung Thanh’s bus station.
Hung Thanh buses have a reputation for unreliability. After racing to reach the office/ pick up point on time, we ended up on the pavement outside, waiting for the bus. After waiting twenty minutes, during which Rob and I befriended two slightly creepy Frenchmen, a bus arrived and they told us that there was not enough space; we would have to wait for the next one.
This took quite a while; every time a bus with Hung Thanh’s festive blue and red lighting in the windows passed, we waited for it to slow down, and every time it carried on past us. I retreated into my headphones (I was having a week where nothing sounded better than Bullet for my Valentine’s Fever) and was surprised to notice that one of the Hung Thanh organisers, a stocky man in his thirties with glasses, wearing a knitted sweater-vest, was holding up a red kickboxing pad for Dom to jab and swing at. He soon moved on to Josh, our boxing aficionado, and then almost everybody had a go at hitting and kicking his pad; he took a particular shine to Leo, and enjoyed correcting his roundhouse kicks, then demonstrating them himself quite forcefully. Close to an hour passed before a bus stopped for us, the Hung Thanh man bidding us a lengthy farewell and telling us to train with him again when we returned.
On the sleeper bus, we had narrow plastic berths, a bit like a child’s slide with blankets, almost horizontal and with smooth, leathery pillows. There are two levels- half of the passengers are more or less on the floor, the other half bunking above them. The lights went off almost straight away, and apart from the odd alarming lurch, I slept easily.
Of course, the issue with sleeper buses is that they arrive or leave very early in the morning. This one reached Sapa at around six, dropping us in the town centre.It’s an odd town, with pretty scenery and a small lake, yet with the same abundance of overhead power lines and brashly-coloured buildings with advertising hoardings as Hanoi. There were a plethora of hostels, bars and outdoors shops, and the more touristy restaurants served “black chicken”, a pike-like fish called cá tam, and porcupine. It reminded me of about sixteen different places at once. Rob compared it to Switzerland or the German Alps; to me it seemed Midwestern, though I’ve never been to that region. If a Vietnamese TV channel ever remakes Fargo, it will be set in Sapa.
A group of women in their sixties, wearing bright headscarves and dark dresses, made a beeline for us and asked us to go trekking with them. They became quite mournful when we said that we had already booked elsewhere and we set off into town without much of an idea for directions (basically, away from the women), and sat down in a restaurant for hot drinks. Rob called VietTrekking and a short walk took us to the office, where we enjoyed breakfast and preparing for the day’s trek.
We got in a minivan, which took us uphill and uphill, past buffalos and out-of-town guesthouses, towards the base camp; it was a cloudy, almost gloomy, day, and the lurching of the van made it difficult, and quite risky, to sleep. In less than half an hour, though, we reached a hut. Inside were charts showing the colourful wildlife that lived in the area and that the very dedicated might see; hornbills, cobras, bears (we would see some goats and spiders.) They handed us bottles of water, and we were ready to set off.
I can’t properly introduce you to Josh, Dean, Pete, Rob, Dom, Leo, Alex and Darren in a blog this short, but look at those pictures. These are the faces of nine men who are about to conquer the highest mountain in Indochina. Alex, being the photographer, is missing, which sounds like the premise for an episode of Sherlock.
The trek took us through mountain forest, across trickling streams, and the darkness of the trees combined with the mist to create a sense of a mysterious, primeval setting, even though we kept meeting other trekkers. The ascent was gradual (and, alarmingly, at many points, we were descending) but I found that I needed the frequent breaks for Oat Chocos. At half eleven, we reached the halfway point, a long hut on the side of the mountains where we stopped for chicken, omelettes, bread and salad. Outside were two puppies fighting, one black and one light brown, the latter viciously biting the ears of the former.
We set off again and the ascents became steeper, the hillside barer. We saw goats hopping around and I stopped to point out a shiny black slug-like creature; I asked the guide, Shu, whether it was a leech, and he insisted that it was something different. Shu was delighted with Rob and Dom’s Vietnamese ability, and opened up to us; he was saving money to build a house for his wife and family, although it sounded as though he received only a small fraction of the money from the trek, and he belonged to one of the local minority groups, and spoke another first language in addition to Vietnamese. He was incredibly blasé about the length of the walk, saying that he had made it to the top in four hours before, and that we would easily reach the night camp before sunset.
As the path delved into forest again, I had to hand over my rucksack to Shu and use my hands to climb down rocks the rocks, surrounded by branches straight out of The Jungle Book; Shu climbed out onto the branches with complete confidence.
We reached the checkpoint where we had stop for the night, at around 2,800 metres, shortly after four. We met a friendly German couple travelling the world trekking (he mentioned us in his blog) and sat on the rocks, chatting and relaxing with a ginger tea. I was excited to learn that the Germans had been to Cat Tien National Park in the south of Vietnam, so I was quite aggrieved when I asked whether they had been on an early-morning gibbon trek, and Darren suggested that my way of speaking sounded like the set phrases from the Grade 5 English syllabus (Week 5: “Where did you go on holiday?” and “What did you do there?”)
Dinner was rice with some vegetables, chicken and rice wine. Afterwards ,we made our way back down the path to a viewpoint to watch the sunset.
The view was one of the most beautiful, impressive sights that I saw in Asia. We were high enough to look down on the clouds, which made them resemble a misty white lake, or river, as they drifted slowly away towards the valley, with the mountain roads as distant shores. Once the sky faded from blue-black into darkness, we could still see the lights of cars moving along the roads, with the static lights of villages further back in the background.
We then went into the smoky hut where the cooks had prepared our dinner, to talk to Shu and sit around their fire. The others sat on stools or barrels; as the last one in, I sat- with classic Vietnamese disregard for health and safety- on a barrel that appeared to contain fuel. A fire being a fire, we sang songs- Shu and the cooks volunteered a couple in Vietnamese, though they seemed happy to listen most of the time- and we were in bed by eight, knowing that we would soon be up again.
The building where we stayed was rectangular, with two rows of bedrooms, a path down the middle, and bathrooms at the end. It was big, with concrete walls and a high roof so that the walls of the rooms didn’t reach the ceiling. One of the others was occupied by a huge group of Vietnamese people, who stayed awake the whole night, laughing and talking. We shared a single palette. There was no bed in the room; there was space on the walls to use as a shelf (for something small) but apart from that, it was there to sleep on the palette and put the bags on the floor. Seven of the team lay in a row along the palette, with Pete and me across the bottom, slightly at an angle to each other so that our feet didn’t fight for space.
It was most uncomfortable night I’ve ever spent. They say that sleeping on a hard surface is good for you, but the wood hurt my back; if I rolled onto my front, it pressed against my kneecaps, and if I tried to sleep on my side, I could feel it in one hip. It was also cold; Shu provided sleeping bags, but I changed between using my coat as a pillow and putting it over me as a blanket.
It was a relief when Shu knocked on our door and told us to get up and out for the climb. It was half past four in the morning; we would have set off earlier with if the sky had been clearer. That seemed hard to believe as we stepped outside; we could see thousands of stars against the blueish night sky. It was beautiful; I could make out Ursa Major and Orion, though I couldn’t find my other usual go-to, Cassiopeia on her throne. The cooks had prepared the perfect nourishing awakening meal; a broth of noodles with morning glory (a green vegetable popular in South East Asia) and omelette floating in it.
After packing our bags and getting dressed, we set off, and it was here that my hasty packing almost proved to be my downfall; I had left my headtorch in Hanoi (although I did have one) and was the only person without one. I found myself following Pete, who was at ease on the narrow route. For reasons best known to himself, he had decided to put his speakers on in his bag, and play Jeff Buckley while we set off up the path. I don’t think that nature needs augmenting with music, as a rule, but as music goes, it was suitably unearthly and mysterious in the darkness.
We soon fell behind, and I had to keep asking Pete to stop and shine his light on the path in front of me; after a while, the group in front of us stopped, Darren and Alex calling out to us from around a corner. Embarrassed by my slowness and lack of a light, I insisted on going to the front of the group. “I know I sound like a diva!” I declared. Shu was concerned about my lack of a light, as several sharp descents and paths with steep drops were coming up, so he gave me his torch, insisting with the preternatural assuredness of a professional mountain guide that he would be fine.
We were none too enthused about the prospect of having to go further down in order to go up again and as Shu had said, there were difficult descents, several of them down ladders, where one of us would have to pass down the rucksack before moving. After another 20 minutes or so, we came to a part of the path that he had been designated too difficult to simply walk up; a couple of meters of smooth diagonal rock at 30 or 40 degrees. Instead of a ladder, a rope was attached to hold onto while walking up the rock. With the rope attached, it wasn’t difficult, but I was glad that the night concealed the drop.
We started ascending again, not steeply but consistently, and eventually the path became flatter, though it kept winding. Not long before dawn, we arrived at a formidable set of steep stairs. Next to them was a concrete building in progress, wooden scaffolds up outside it; the new welcome centre for the top of Fansipan, for the daytrippers who come up (to the chagrin of mountaineers) by cable car. We walked up two flights, and there was the summit, misty in the dawn, a mound of rocks with Vietnamese flags and a pyramid-shaped, masonic-style plinth naming it the highest point in Indochina. Even as dawn broke, the view was limited at first- blocked by clouds- but at times they would briefly move aside, showing an expanse of green-topped mountains, some near, some distant.
As we were at the top, the descent became an increasingly real prospect. Tired, knees aching, many of us weren’t keen on the trip down with the bags, and with the exceptions of Josh and Alex, we decided to take the cable car down. After all, it’s the ascent that really counts. We found a lounge with sofas, myself with a hot chocolate, exhausted.
The cable car offered a different view of the mountain, and from above we could see huge ball-shaped spider webs in the trees. As we approached the outskirts of Sapa, the mountainside turned to sloping green rice fields. The visitor centre where we landed had its own bridge, miniature temple and other buildings, and it was much warmer down there. VietTrekking’s minivan kept us waiting, but once it arrived, we were soon in Sapa.
Back in Sapa, VietTrekking dropped us at the hostel and we agreed to return later for the “bath with Herb of Dao” and dinner. It was only mid-morning, but we were all famished, so we went to find somewhere to eat. In the restaurant, I ordered something described on the menu as “beef curry”- ca ri in Vietnamese- which turned out to be a savoury brownish soup with thick pieces of beef, carrot and potato (Dean said it was similar to an Irish stew), and absolutely nothing to do with curry. It was, however, perfect after the long trek. Revitalised, we decided to hire xe om, the low-powered Vietnamese motorbikes (having heard that Alex and Josh were nearly back) to explore some of the nearby villages.
I had never ridden a motorbike, and didn’t think that Sapa’s twisty roads were the best place to start, especially after climbing a mountain, so we soon found ourselves negotiating for eight. I hopped onto the back of Pete’s. After a detour to a petrol station (where it became apparent that the bikes were of very poor quality), we headed out of the town centre onto a road with a steep mountain wall on one side and a sharp drop on the other, and after a few minutes, stopped to look at the view.
It took me a moment to appreciate that that view Ta Van village from the roadside was one of the most beautiful places that I had ever seen; it lacked the drama of the night before’s mountain sunset, but instead showed us an incredibly lush, green landscape, with the sun shining on the water in the fields. Asymmetric rice terraces slid down to meet one another on the valley floor, where a wide river coursed through. Near the bottom was a yellow-painted school, and in the fields, we could make out people in conical hats, small children and chickens walking around.
We followed the road down towards the village, along the side of the valley, doubling back on itself to descend, and as we went I noticed, on a grassy bank, a rooster in a hutch; not one of the bell-shaped metal cages that chickens are kept in in Hanoi, but a light, vertical wooden cage with green gauze on the sides. The cock (or rooster) had the glossy black and bottle-green plumage that goes to make feather dusters in Hanoi, and, with its long neck and violently red head stretched out, must have been over two feet tall.
As we started down the road, we came to a manmade viewpoint with a low wall overlooking the valley. As we stopped there, the children- all girls aged between six and twelve- ran over with fabric friendship bracelets to sell. “Sufferah” they seemed to say as they surrounded us, or something that sounded like it- I couldn’t tell whether it was English or not- in a whiny tone straight out of a horror film. “Buy for meee” they moaned. Darren seemed to be their favourite target, and when he showed them the bracelet that he already had, they changed their refrain to “You buy twooo?”
Moving on, we headed down to the village, where rundown houses and shops stood not far from pretty, rustic backpacker homestays. The women there were selling traditional shirts as well as food and drink, and when Darren’s bike spluttered and gave out, they let us leave it there for the company to collect.
We went on through the village, then started ascending again, stopping at a café for drinks, and to look at the rice terraces in the hazy late afternoon light. By now it was not long until our “bath with herb of Dao” appointment, so we headed back towards Sapa; I was quite cold, and Pete agreed that we should get back as soon as possible. The road was full of potholes, other drivers whizzed past often on their motorbikes, and once we had to slow for a group of water buffaloes with calves, walking along the road in their slow, relaxed manner.
When we came closer to Sapa, the enormous rooster that I had noticed earlier almost brought my literary career, and Pete’s life, and possibly Rob’s, to an embarrassing end. Bouncing on its feet as though it was trying to start a particularly violent one-rooster mosh pit, it leapt, useless wings flapping, into the side netting of its hutch, sending itself bouncing and spinning off the bank and directly into our path. Pete didn’t swerve exactly, but he certainly leaned left harder than either of us would have liked, with another driver coming the other way. Rob, just behind, did the same. We straightened out again, safe, and were soon too far ahead to turn and see what became of the cock, but having an irrational fear of chickens to begin with, it was one of the most unpleasant experiences that I can imagine. It reminded me of the old joke; Why did the chicken OH MY GOD WE’RE GOING TO DIE.
In Sapa, we regrouped at the hostel, and a young man with glasses took us to the bathhouse. As far as I’m aware, “herb of Dao” is a herb used by the ethnic Dao people of Northern Vietnam; at least, it seems to be the most logical explanation. We went up a flight of stairs to a cold waiting room with some sofas. After a while, a middle-aged woman ushered us into a second waiting room, telling us to strip down to our underpants; from there, we were then shown to tiny bathrooms, where baths awaited, full of dark purple, almost brown, water. The walls were very thin, so we were able to keep up a conversation in the baths.
“Don’t stay in there for more than fifteen minutes, or the herb will get you high!” she warned us. Is this some kind of pattern? My mum used to make gravy with the water from boiling purple-sprouting broccoli, and this water was very hot, and more or less the same colour. The tub was so small that I had to either sit up or lie on my back with my legs in the air. On the opposite wall was a picture of a woman wearing a very short kimono; apparently, there was one of these in every bathroom, some sexier than others. There was a tap to run more water when it lost heat, and a sort of pan to scoop it in. I’m not really sure why this bath was included in the trek, or what it added much, beyond being pleasantly relaxing.
After our baths (I wasn’t feeling at all high) we headed to the restaurant, where platters of beef, chicken, salmon and white fish awaited to go in the hotpot, along with noodles, vegetables and mushrooms. It was a nice meal, and afterwards we headed to a dimly-lit but quite stylish backpacker bar, where two of our friends from Hanoi were drinking, visiting Sapa for the weekend with their dad.
We cut it fine reaching the bus back, but once we were aboard, the journey was uneventful, although it took a while to get a taxi back to the flat. At half past four a.m. I found myself outside my bedroom door, taking everything out of my bag to find my key at the bottom.
I didn’t get much in the way of sleep before the next day’s work, but the weekend must have had a revitalising effect; Vietnamese people are rarely shy about commenting on someone’s physical appearance, so when my friend Vũ told me that I looked more energetic than usual, I knew that it had done me some good. Climbing Fansipan was a fantastic weekend, and some of my enduring memories of Vietnam will be from Fansipan and Sapa.