The Roof of Indochina: Summiting Mount Fansipan

Mount Fansipan is the tallest mountain in Vietnam. Referred to as the “Peak of Indochina,” Fansipan is found in Sapa, Vietnam’s northernmost hill-station that is known as the premier trekking base of the country, attracting avid trekkers. Mount Fansipan is part of the Hoang Lien Son Mountain range and it watches over the terraced rice fields and ethnic villages from a height of 10,312 feet (3, 143 meters). Conquering this mountain is a beast, but here’s how to do it.

Only do this during a certain time of the year

Sapa goes through all four seasons unlike the other regions of Vietnam, meaning it experiences winter, which can get very cold. There is also your typical rainy season during which you will want to avoid visiting the region altogether because things can get slippery.

The most ideal time to tackle Fansipan is during September to April. While November till February are deemed the winter months, despite the cold, it will be an extremely adventurous experience to visit then as you may bear witness to the beautiful snow capped mountains of Sapa. The end of February marks spring, and this is when colorful flowers begin to bloom in the region, creating a romantic and picturesque setting. Hiking will be most pleasant then.

View of Mount Fansipan

To climb Mount Fansipan, you gotta get to Sapa first. This will undoubtedly be the easiest leg of your journey, as you have plenty of methods at your disposal: flight, train, bus, motorbike and private car arrangements. The most convenient option happens to be the most expensive, and least sustainable – taking a flight.

While the journey is less than an hour, you’ll end up shelling out over $100.00 USD for a two-way flight. If you’ve got a little bit more time to spend, then better opt for the bus, train or private car from Hanoi to Sapa. A private car with a driver is the most comfortable option of all – you have the flexibility of stopping wherever you need to snap pictures and you can also be seated comfortably for the whole ride.

Pack your bag, put on your trekking gear, and go! If you’re brave enough, go on foot

Hiking Fansipan is certainly for the brave. Not only will it require that you are extremely fit, but also will require that you have the right attitude towards challenge. To reach the summit, you can take one of three routes – the easy, medium and hard. Bear in mind, parts of these routes have been cleared for tourists, meaning you will come across paved paths, ladders and ropes. Treks can also range from one to four days.

If you’re adamant on completing it within one day, you need to be extremely fit and go early. But a longer trip will allow you to not only enjoy your views, but really take in the experience. You will be able to converse with the locals and fellow hikers, take breaks and revel for a while in the views you come across, and you can better acclimate to the altitude change as well. This decision should be made depending on your desired level of adventure, fitness, and time.

You should also remember to pack the appropriate clothing that will help you keep warm, and also proper hiking shoes. A first aid kit and a lot of snacks, including multiple meals, and of course, a sleeping bag if you plan to take your time. 

Mount Fansipan

It is also highly recommended that you do not tackle this alone as the hike is not easy and there have been accounts of unfortunate deaths. Take a guide with you, someone who is knowledgeable about the route and region, and will know what to do in difficult circumstances. Many porters in the area know the region like the back of their hands so you will be in good… hands. Finding a guide to take you is not so hard – many locals in the area will offer you their guidance or act as an agent to hook you up.

If you opt for this option, instead of an organized tour, remember that despite some inconveniences, your money will go towards a family that needs it, rather than an agency. Most guides speak great English, having done this plenty of times before.

The routes:

Let’s start easy

The Tram Tron route is the most trodden and will take you about 10 hours to reach the summit of Mount Fansipan. The total trail distance is about 11 kilometers and you can cover this in a day if you are fit and optimistic. There are various pit stops where you will also likely come across other avid hikers on this journey. If you opt for a more difficult route (the ones below), then perhaps you can take the Tram Tron trail on your way back down to give your legs a break.

Something a little more difficult

The medium route begins at San Sa, and reaches the summit through the beautiful Ban Sin Chai village where you can mingle with the local tribespeople. This trail is shorter, but much more difficult despite being a total length of 9 kilometers. Many hikers have reported getting lost while taking the Sin Chai trail, so only do this if you are prepared with a fully charged phone, extra battery pack and a first aid kit. The trail can also get pretty steep so make sure you have proper hiking gear with you.

The hardest of all

If you love challenges, then make your way to Cat Cat village where the most difficult route begins. To start you off on the right foot, you can relax at the village, hang out with the locals, enjoy some coffee and food by the waterfall, and then set off. This is the longest trail of all three, covering a distance of around 20 kilometers, but this also means you will be rewarded with a lot more views. We recommend you spend at least three days fully savoring the journey. You will also feel really accomplished at the end.

But I’m not a hiker…

If you are not too keen on a hike that spans multiple days and drains all your energy (or if you are strapped for time, of course), you can opt to take the cable car to the summit. A two-day-ish journey will be compressed into a matter of 20 minutes and during your cable car ride, you will be catching your breath not because you’re tired, but because of the views.

Your cable car will be passing through the majestic Muong Hoa Valley where you will get to enjoy sweeping birdseye views of the gorgeous valleys and terraced rice fields from above as you make your way through fluffy clouds. Once you reach the cable station on the top, you will have to climb up 600 stairs, or again to make it easy, there is a tram system to take you up. This is great for those traveling with little children, the elderly, and the disabled. 

Mount Fansipan cable car

Round trip cable car: 700,000 VND ($30.14)
Round trip train to cable car station: 150,000 VND ($6.46)
Tram from cable car station to summit: 100,000 VND ($4.31)

How about a tour instead?

There are numerous organizations offering trekking tours to reach the summit of Fansipan. Some of these even include transport to Sapa from Hanoi and the return journey as well. A tour that is often recommended is the one by Vietnam Discovery.

The tour lasts four days, not only will you conquer Fansipan, but other peaks such as Ham Rong Mountain, and also explore other parts of Sapa such as Lao Chai village. The route is a mix of the Tram Tron and Sin Chai trail and leaves out the Cat Cat trail. The tour price also includes everything: transport, accommodation, guide fees, tents, sleeping bags, gloves, jackets, meals, water, and admission tickets.  

Reaching the summit is an incredible experience

At the top, you will get unrivaled views of the majestic Muong Hoa Valley, which is known for its endless rice paddies colored in every shade of green and brown, separated by cold streams and dotted here and there with colorful tribal villages. There is peak after peak in fading shades of green surrounding Fansipan mountain and it is likely that your view will be obstructed by a sea of fluffy clouds.

Your journey to the top will give you a more up close and personal view of these peaks. Lots of green, with unique regional plants and trees, and the occasional buffalo or horse grazing. You will come across small tribal homes where you can say hello to the residents, however, it is likely that they do not understand beyond a few English words.

View at sunrise from Mount Fansipan

Once you reach the top, the clouds will give you a feeling as if you have arrived in heaven. The Vietnamese flag and a stone that marks the highest point of Vietnam. There is also Kim Son Bao Thang Tu Pagoda, a place of worship for locals with a giant Lady Buddha statue standing tall among the surrounding mountains, bathed in clouds. 

Conquering Mount Fansipan is a big challenge, and shouldn’t be done unless you are truly ready. While there are many mountains you can summit in this world, Fansipan offers not only an adventure with beautiful views, but also the opportunity to get a glimpse into what life is like for the tribal people that reside in the region. Truly an opportunity of a lifetime.

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