Sapa – Hey There, Fansipan!

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Asia » Vietnam » Northwest
August 28th 2013
Published: August 31st 2013
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We traveled to Sapa to summit the highest peak in both Indochina and Vietnam, called Fansipan. Located in northwest Vietnam, the mountain climbs 3143m/10,312ft along a steep and moderately strenuous path to a prominence of over 1600m/5300ft, denoting it an ultra prominent peak. Heading to the top, most tourists will likely begin in Sapa.

We arrived in Sapa from Hanoi in the early morning to chilly and drizzling weather, which, in truth, was a godsend at that exact moment since we’d spent the last month or so in extreme heat and humidity. It’s a nice little mountain town, with charming French colonial architecture and, when much of the mist had blown by later in the day, scenic views of the mountainous countryside. At times, the sun would slightly shine through the clouds; the terrain, which included both lush wild growth and rice paddies, would then shimmer in the light against a vibrantly green background. The clear organization of the rice paddies, stacked to the top of rolling hills, was an edict to man’s coalescing use of nature. It was peaceful.

However, it was not the most peaceful event getting to Sapa from Hanoi, as the periodic intimations of acrimony we’d received from locals reached new levels at the Hanoi bus stop. There, we experienced some of the most apparent hostility we’d come across anywhere, and it was of the type that not only made me feel uncomfortable, but also threatened. When we’d arrived from Ha Long Bay, we immediately headed to the bus station to take a night bus to Sapa. It started as soon as we’d exited the taxi and entered the station, noticing that we were the only tourists around, which was reminiscent of the Ellora Cave Temple incident.

We received stares of the kind we’d received in India – as if, at any moment, everyone would pounce – but these stares are usually harmless so we moved on to the ticket booth following a bus tout. As I stood at the counter talking with the cashier, several men around me began to loudly imitate my speech in a sardonic manner. I didn’t make a big deal of it and we went to inspect our bus before we purchased our tickets. It seemed adequate, though it was a new style from other buses we’d ridden in that there were no seats, only recliners stacked up like bunk beds in rows of three, with the back holding a row of five recliners. We returned to the cashier, purchased our tickets and, with some time to spare, headed outside to buy some water and food. As we walked around food stands, we were quoted exorbitant prices for everything, from 4-5 times the normal prices, like 50,000 Vietnamese dong for a French baguette which normally cost 5,000. As we walked around futilely searching for someone who would provide us a fair price, we were several times mocked by Vietnamese passersby, sometimes not understanding it, at other times clearly understanding it as we heard things like, “Mi chang, go home!” and “You lost, Mi chang? Maybe I help you find way home.” At one point, a man pulled on my beard; I slapped his hand away in frustration; his friends walked over quickly, but luckily security was nearby. We walked to the end of the station, with Klaudia ahead of me. As we passed a man, he laughed then, touching to his lips the part of the fist where the thumb and forefinger meet, began disgustingly mimicking fellatio. I was dumbfounded, but glad Klaudia hadn’t noticed it. I then felt an extreme emasculating anger: with all the aggression around me, I was afraid that any wrong move would bring the mob upon me. I experience a slight tinge of remorse even now when I think about not thrusting my fist in his face. To me, it was an unfortunate display of aggression that humiliated me. I led Klaudia away from the area and we walked around the bus station, finally finding some reasonably-priced water and bread. I was glad to be leaving that place when our departure time finally came.

The next morning, arriving at Sapa, any excess anger fizzled away among mountain grandeur, quaint buildings, and women dressed in traditional Hmong ethnic clothing. Indigo in color, the traditional clothing is embroidered with various patterned fabrics accompanied by a traditional purse; the women wear boots to match, with shorts cut off to about knee level. It was a colorful element to the town, despite the Hmong women’s potential sassiness when touting their embroidered purses and guided village tours. But, sassiness aside, they are like the heart of the town, imbuing it with its charm, smiling to everyone who walks by, carrying in their baskets their goods or little children as they walk along the streets. Not yet spoiled by the culmination of commercialism tourism brings, Sapa fit right in with the mountains surrounding it.

Although it is possible to make the summit in one long day, the weather was rainy, convincing us to book a 2-day guided trip up to Fansipan at our hotel. Included in our price was the guide, transportation to the trailhead in a van, a porter to carry food, water and sleeping bags, and, according to what we were told by the hotel proprietor, who was a Chinese-American, tents that were permanently set up at two camps. We’d debated whether to take a guide or not, and met several people having the same debate. I have two points to make in answer. Firstly, it is technically required by park rules that a foreigner be guided to the top. That this is probably for job creation is one piece of the puzzle, however. There is the matter of a very unclear, unpreserved trail for much of the way up to the summit. Without a compass and a very good map (difficult to find!), I personally would not make the attempt, at least the first time: there are portions of the trail that would cross a stream, then simply disappear into it – several times, we found ourselves walking through the water for several hundred meters. In this instance, it would be difficult to know which direction to head. Now, once the first camp is reached, the trail is very well-defined and would most certainly not require a guide.

In our case, guide or not, even getting to the trailhead turned out to be a hassle. We were promised many things for this trip that turned out to be false, one of which was transportation by van to the trailhead. When things begin all wrong on an Asian tour, you can expect other things to go wrong consistently. We ended up sitting on the backs of two motorbikes, one driven by the guide, a small, thin Vietnamese kid, and our porter, a small, thin Vietnamese old man. We gave some thought into returning to our hotel and asking for our money back, but, not wanting to waste our time shopping around anymore, we risked it. Luckily, it wasn’t a very long ride and we were on the trail soon after departing Sapa. Joining us was another Vietnamese tourist, who, when we’d arrived, was curiously staring at chickens strolling inside the park office building. We, in turn, noticed the fungus growing all over the wall as our porter brought out a basket with our food and sleeping bags, which were not covered against the elements. Klaudia asked if they would be covered as we reasonably did not want to sleep in wet ones; we were told not to worry, then the porter departed into another room and we did not see him again until we ended our hike for the day.

We made the first camp in the late morning in the fog and drizzling rain, without having glimpsed even a single view of the mountains. Camp one portended the conditions of squalor for the rest of the trip as we waited for lunch: we entered something that was not a tent, but which resembled something more like a makeshift barrack with a roof made of metal paneling in some parts, and nothing more than a tarp in others. We entered the barrack, which had something like a walkway made of mud in the center, and two raised wooden platforms above the mud on both sides of the walkway. On the raised platforms were straw mats on which to sit. On one of these mats was discarded food that looked days old; under the platforms was mud, of course, and piles of plastic bottles and trash. We sat down on the platforms with distressed countenances when a couple with another guide and porter joined us. Up to that point, we hadn’t seen anyone.

“Pretty crazy weather to be doing this in, huh?” said the man of the pair.

“Yep,” we agreed. We learned that he was from Norway, while his girlfriend was from Australia. We shared light conversation during lunch. Once we’d finished eating, we all headed up the trail again, our group of tourists now five.

We hiked up steep, slippery rocks and deep areas of mud in the rampant rain, with bamboo shooting across our path from the surrounding jungle. It was an especially difficult scramble in some places, with wet and slippery rock: we had to hold on to shoots of bamboo, or installed concrete rails in some parts, lest we slide down an incline. Otherwise, we walked through small waterfalls or up metal ladders against high cliffs.

We made it to second camp, which was almost identical to the first, except that now we would be forced to sleep there. We wished we’d gone with the 1-day option, but our new hiking companions told us that they’d talked to a couple groups who’d attempted it and failed due to the rain and mud, even though they’d started at four am. We all agreed that a 1-day failure was more than possible. But was it worth sleeping in the muddy, wet barrack, with no lights, no warmth and no door? It depends on whether you ask me or Klaudia. Naturally, when our sleeping bags were brought to us, they were wet.

We had dinner with our guide, porter and two locals that lived in another, more comfortable-looking barrack next door (our Norwegian and Australian friends were technically a part of another group, so they ate dinner with their guide and porter). During dinner, the guide interrupted his Vietnamese conversation and, pointing in the direction of the door, said, “Look – mouse.”

We glanced over; I noticed nothing, but Klaudia immediately replied, “You mean it’s a ‘rat’?”

“Yes, rat,” our guide said, then quickly remarked, “Look, one more.”

“You mean we have to sleep with rats?” Klaudia asked. I was shaking my head.

“Oh, this nothing. At night, many more. Many tourist can’t sleep because so many rats. They run on face of tourist,” nonchalantly explained our guide.

“That’s why the Vietnamese tourist was cleaning his spot on the mat so much,” Klaudia said to me after we’d finished dinner and were about to retire. That much was true: the Vietnamese guy with us probably spent about a half hour wiping down his mat; I began to wish we’d done the same, but I was beat and a little tipsy after the rice wine I’d drunk with the guide.

It was a bad night. Not only did it continue to pour rain (“pour” like I hadn’t seen in a long time, like a wall of rain) while the door to the barrack was open, letting in sprinkles of water and the chilly night air, but rats were crawling all over us. Sometimes I’d awake (well, everyone would awake) in the middle of the night when Klaudia would suddenly grab her flashlight and shine it everywhere; at those moment, just barely perceptible, I could hear and feel a rat smelling my head. As soon as I moved, the rat would scoot away, at times “away” by running over me, then right into Klaudia. The Norwegian in our group had a wet pillow, so he wrapped plastic around it to place his head on something dry; sometimes, all of us could hear the plastic rustle under the rats’ little feet, and he’d abruptly jump up screaming. Yes, it was a terrible night. We awoke tired and cold and wet.

After breakfast, during which we seemingly had to beg for some hot water, we once again headed up the steep trail in the mud and rain. It was tiring: though certainly not one of the most difficult hikes I’d ever done (that spot is still reserved for my and a friend’s San Jacinto hike up an almost impossible side trail), the hike up Fansipan, with the aid of the bad weather, is surely up there. To make matters more difficult, there were no views through the mist: views typically act as an impetus on a tough hike. But, several hours later, we’d made it to the silver pyramid designating the highest peak in Vietnam and Indochina.

We snapped our pictures and headed down, when our guide began to, what I would call, “show off”. He was like Spider-Man, jumping around and over boulders, waterfalls and streams. I’d never seen anyone so adeptly walk, run, and jump in the mountains, not even the Nepalese, all while dressed in flipflops and carrying an umbrella. Honestly, it was kind of annoying.

Back on our motorbikes, we arrived in Sapa in the late afternoon, had a pizza dinner with our trip companions and got to bed early. Needless to say, the next day brought the sun, with not a single cloud in the sky. We took a walk to a couple villages around town – the scenery was unequivocally beautiful

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