Beginning at the comforts of an eco-lodge, Katie Jacobs ignores the advice of locals and decides to tackle the tallest mountain in Indochina in one day.
Looking over the mountainous valley I felt the ground sway below me. The long train ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai had been followed by a bumpy 90-minute drive to our accommodation and I was having trouble convincing my body it was no longer moving.
Located 45 minutes from the mountain town of Sapa, Topas Eco-lodge is perched on a hill jutting out into the valley. With sweeping views of steep mountains, deep valleys, and lush rice fields, the location alone makes the lodge undeniably worth the journey. Having caught the night train, my husband and I had arrived early morning, ready to enjoy the cool mountain air, experience a new part of Vietnam, and conquer Fansipan, the highest mountain in Indochina. The mountain, which rises out of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range in north-west Vietnam, has been coined the “roof of Indochina”. At 3,143 metres, it was a challenge too good to pass up.
The day before our trek, we decided to explore the area around the eco-lodge — and warm up our legs for Fansipan — so we set out for the nearby Red Hmong village. The Red Hmong are one of eight ethnic minority groups in the region. With an entourage of six local women, we descended through rolling rice paddies that extended to the horizon. The harvest was due to commence in the coming month and the tall stalks of rice glowed bright green and gold in the midday sun. Climbing up to a village, we were welcomed by barking dogs and screaming children enjoying their last days of summer freedom before the start of the new school year the following week. The village was a hive of activity. At the school, a group of girls were rehearsing a dance for the commencement assembly, while a women’s group was meeting to discuss the classroom repainting, which was currently underway outside.
That evening from our hotel balcony we watched as darkness engulfed the valley and small lights flickered throughout the hills like distant fireflies. The cool, clean air was a relief after the heat and noise of Hanoi, and we watched in peaceful silence as lightning in the distance bounced off the mountainous horizon.
We awoke early the next morning to flashes of lightning cutting through the foggy darkness. Last night’s distant storm was suddenly not so distant. As rain pounded on the balcony we hastily tried to contact the tour agency, assuming our Fansipan trek would be cancelled due to the weather. No such luck — we had paid and so we would go.
As the wet grey dawn broke over the mountains we arrived at the start of the trail. Although fog remained low, the rain had slowed to a heavy drizzle. Pulling on raincoats we headed into the damp forest, our guide silently leading the way towards the mountain. Once we’d resigned ourselves to wet feet, the first third of the walk was fairly easy. Despite the cautions against doing the trek in a day, it wasn’t until we reached the first real hill, with steep slippery boulders and mud shoots rising above us, that we realised the challenge we had set ourselves.
Stopping regularly to catch our breath, we were briefly rewarded with clear views. The green mountains, previously invisible below, emerged through the grey clouds that blanketed the valley. Dense forest shielded any signs of human habitation from this height. As the only hikers on the path, we experienced a rare moment of solitude in this densely populated country. In the final hour before reaching the top, our steady pace slowed dramatically. As we hauled ourselves up steep rocky slides we had to pause every minute, out of breath, legs burning and hearts thumping. The frequent rain, endless mud, slippery boulders, hidden tree roots, and the race against sunset made the challenging walk even harder. But we reached the summit in five hours. Scrambling to the top we were greeted by dense fog and a woman selling canned soda. Seemingly oblivious to the terrain, she was not only in full control of her breathing, but also spotless, despite the rain and mud.
The feeling of light relief as we began the long descent down was short-lived. The slippery boulders and small streams we had fought our way up only minutes before were a whole different challenge on the way down. For the next few hours we spent the majority of our time crouched low, blindly grasping for whatever we could get hold of. Eleven hours after we started, we emerged back onto the road, tired and muddy but proud we had summited the mountain in one day.
Despite the alluring challenge of conquering Fansipan, the construction of a tram linking Sapa to the mountain’s peak began last month, which could reduce it to another roadside attraction.
Back at the lodge that evening I had to coax my legs to walk to dinner. With a sense of accomplishment we raised our wine glasses in triumph before falling into a deep blissful sleep half an hour later.
Our final day at Topas was spent with as little movement as possible: reading on the balcony, drinking coffee and playing a slow game of petanque (in which you take turns throwing a ball at a target). Feeling refreshed, we were ready for the long train journey home to Hanoi, away from the land of endless mountains and quiet, fresh air.
A guide is required to climb Mt Fansipan and all tour operators in Sapa (and many in Hanoi) can arrange one to three day treks depending on your preference. Topas Eco-lodge is located 45 minutes outside if Sapa. Visit Topasecolodge.com for details.