While Viet Nam’s tallest mountain is certainly not as intimidating as Everest, reaching the summit is hardly an easy feat. Le Viet Khanh describes the unforgettable experience of tackling Mount Fansipan.
To reach the peak at 3,143 metres, we began our journey at Tram Ton Pass, which is about 16km from Sa Pa Town. The pass is considered the shortest way to the top of Fansipan dubbed “the Roof of Indochina”.The highest mountain in Viet Nam, Fansipan, located in the northern province of Lao Cai, is a dream destination for adventurous Vietnamese youths.
We missed the train from Ha Noi to Lao Cai so we had to catch a later one. It was not until 2pm that we started to climb up from the base camp at 1,800m which is approachable by car or motorbike.
We used seven ethnic Mong youths as guides and porters. I befriended one called Di, who followed me and carried anything that was too heavy.
Di also helps on a farm and as a motorbike taxi driver, but when tourists want to climb the towering peak, he puts on his hiking clothes.Di and the other porters are from Lao Chai Village. He said many Mong people worked as porters. Whenever hikers appear in town, tourism companies phone the locals who shared out the work.
Di’s younger brother, A Pao, is a renowned porter. For each journey, they earn more than VND250,000 (US$12). A group of 10 generally needs one guide and five porters, each of whom carries 25-30 kilograms.
Our group had nearly 30 people, including foreigners, Vietnamese and seven porters. The weather had been freezing, cold and foggy for days. The cold soaked into everyone’s flesh and bones. Although we had been warned beforehand, all of us were astonished by the early morning cold.
The higher we climbed, the further we became enmeshed in what looked like a forest for witches. Weak sunlight filtered through the fog, silhouetting strange tree-trunks growing in clumps. The wet, slippery ground was littered with leeches which kept ferociously attacking us.
The pathway was more convoluted than we expected. It went up and down constantly. Not until nearly midday was the curtain of fog dispelled by glorious sunlight. A lovely feeling of warmth and peacefulness pervaded the whole group.
The first halt station is located on a hill, from which we could look over far off terraced fields enclosed in a world of green. At about 5pm we reached 2,200m. After a short break, we set out again.
The next part of the trip, from 2,200m to a rest stop at 2,800m took us another four hours of walking. The path was precipitous so it was much harder.
It was getting dark and the whole group was groping its way. The hard climb and the thin air made us breathe heavily. Flickering light from torches guided each step.
Someone fell behind through exhaustion, while the space between each member of the group gradually got wider.
It was completely dark when we reached the camp at 2,800m. It was windy and raining heavily. After finishing a meal cooked by the porters, we crept into our tents.
However, none of us could sleep because of the cold and the crack of thunder outside. A night at 2,800m – it was not a dream! It was the first time in my life that I realised just how tough life can be at times.
Strong winds lashed our fragile tents constantly. Although I was in a sleeping bag, the screaming sound of the wind kept me awake all night. I tried to close my eyes, telling myself to sleep for a while to have enough strength to climb to the top tomorrow! No matter how hard I tried, I did not sleep a wink.
While my eyes were half-closed, I suddenly felt as if someone had thrown a bucket of icy water over me and my sleeping bag. It was preceded by a huge bolt of lightning which ripped the tent open. Feeling unsafe, I rushed into the porters’ tent seeking a dry sleeping bag.
One porter replied that they had only two sleeping bags among seven of them. Not knowing what to do, I went back to my tent and wrapped my body in any clothing I could find, including raincoat, climbing gloves, nylon boots and several pairs of stockings.
I suddenly remembered that I still had a thermal pad that I was given in the morning. I immediately sat it on my stomach, and then crept into my sleeping bag, lying still like a grub in its cocoon.
But my tent had been torn severely and the cold wind and rain kept pouring in. Turning the torch on and holding it in my mouth, I started to make temporary repairs using a pair of scissors to make holes. I cut up old bootlaces, threaded them through and knotted them.
Next morning, we were surrounded by mist, but hurried on our way. The guides informed us there was not far to go, but the last stretch was the toughest. We had to cling to the cliff sides to creep forwards. One mistake and death was not far away.The technique worked, but it meant that if some one wanted to go outside to “the toilet” in the middle of the night, they would have to undo many knots first.
The path leading to 2,900m suddenly plunged so deeply that we had to cling to each other. The porters, absorbed in their duties, continued singing folk songs without showing any sign of exhaustion or concern.
At 8am, the group reached a forest of pines and bamboos. At 10, the whole group sighed in relief on seeing the top of the mountain and a vast panorama below. We were overwhelmed to be standing at the top of that 3,143-metre mountain.
After congratulating ourselves, we collected stones, twigs or leaves as mementos of our journey.