Thursday, August 21, 2014

Trekking Solo in Vietnam: Mt. Fansipan

By The Mind Room
Traveling alone in Vietnam kindles a love for the unknown and unpredictable. Modern Travelers follow in the steps of many past explorers.

It’s 4:30AM, and we whiz over Vietnam’s dusty mountain roads on a tiny red motorcycle. My trail guide, Chah (5’1), revs the engine, and I cling shamelessly to his waist from behind. Every time we zoom around a tight curve, our entire outfit tilts precariously and threatens to fling my unwieldy 6’4 body off the narrow seat. Even though my Ichabod Crane-like knees jut out awkwardly, our speed is exhilarating. The preliminary rays of dawn are just beginning to illuminate the peaks above us, and we pass teetering fruit trucks and groups of colorfully-dressed Black Thai women jingling towards Sapa with baskets of hand-made trinkets.

The trailhead is an abandoned colonial French outpost in the middle of northern Vietnam's Hoang Lien Mountains. I pause for a few perfunctory stretches while Chah glances impatiently at me and then at the trail. I strap on my locally-purchased, counterfeit North Face daypack and clench my Black Diamond hiking poles. I'm ready to conquer Fansipan, one of Southeast Asia’s highest peaks.

Trekking Fansipan 1

Arrival

Not bothering to research the mountain’s location beforehand, my China Southern Airways flight lands me in Saigon (Ho Chi Hinh City) in southern Vietnam. It doesn't take long to figure out that Fansipan rises in Vietnam’s far north near the Chinese border. Doh! Looking at a map, I realize that I have a 2,000-kilometer journey, no knowledge of local languages, and no friends in the region. With only 13 days, I also have no time to waste.

From Saigon, I board what I think is a nonstop bus to Hanoi. Dozens of tourists and locals board the blazing red, and eight hours later we arrive at beach-city Nha Trang. Standing alone on an unfamiliar street corner, I watch nervously as the bus shuttles back towards Saigon. “Are we going to Hanoi?” I ask with trepidation. “Yes. Tomorrow night.” I've traveled in the developing world before and know never to depend on a detailed itinerary. Three days, three buses, and several more impromptu stops along the coast later, we finally reach Hanoi.

1647 kilometers down; 336 to go. My ever-helpful Lonely Planet guide leads me to Hanoi’s train station for a ticket to Sapa, the mountain town nearest to Fansipan. A German woman, flanked by a careworn husband and two terrified-looking children, yells angrily at an attendant in the station's lobby. I shuffle past and board a railcar: room 4, number 14. Five hours on a cabin bed is easy; my bunkmates, a friendly, middle-aged Singaporean couple, tell me all about their love for cruising their Harley Davidsons through Thailand. Afterwards, I nestle under my sheets and even manage to get some much-needed sleep.

The final, 2-hour bus ride from our mountain train stop drops me off in the middle of quant Sapa, an old Bavarianesque vacation spot for French colonials. I easily find a $5 dollar-a-night lodging at the sparse, but cheerfully managed Pinocchio Hotel and stretch out on one of the three beds in my room. Success! I appreciate the fact that I am in Vietnam’s northern mountains with plenty of time left to get trekking Fansipan. Suddenly, 2,000 kilometers of cramped and uncertain travel seems well worth the trouble. 

Hiking the Fansipan Trail
 Trekking Fansipan 2

At first, the trail descends down several steep drops into a shallow canyon and passes a drying streambed that reminds me of scenes from The Thin Red Line. The hardened clay ground makes for sturdy steps, but the trail is clearly not maintained. We constantly maneuver around washed-out gullies and clamber up near-vertical inclines. At the far end of the canyon, the path climbs relentlessly upwards. Chah bounces effortlessly from rock to rock and tells me about his family. Looking younger than I am, he already has a wife and several children; they live with his parents in a neighboring mountain village.

Fansipan (10,312ft.) is often called the rooftop of Southeast Asia, and I am almost completely unprepared physically for the hike. Lonely Planet advertises only two local backpacking options: a strenuous three-day trip and the exhausting two-day option. The day before, I strolled into a cavernous touring shop punctuated only by a small school desk and chair. The elfish man behind the desk offered an unexpected alternative: “Would you like to hike Fansipan in one day?” Not backpacking would render 80% of my luggage unnecessary, but why not? I take it as a dare.

Conquer Fansipan 1

Chah darts ahead and skips gracefully from step to step. He shouts back at me, “Come on!” as I struggle over a lengthy and precipitous slope. The topography is confusing. Before coming to Vietnam, my impression was that the entire country is covered in uninterrupted jungle. Even though everything is green in northern Vietnam’s mountains, the forests are thin and leafy. We are also constantly surrounded by blackened earth and the burnt husks of dead trees. Chah explains that, at lower elevations, the hill tribes periodically burn the forests in order to discourage undergrowth, avoid wild predators, and clear land for agriculture. Far removed from the constraints of such a life, I am disappointed. The only “wildlife” we see on the entire hike are three bored cows chomping a bush.

As we gain altitude, the woods thicken. The morning fog starts to dissipate and the jagged edges of slim mountain ranges appear above us. Beautiful ribbons of mountains connect and separate in all directions; ridgelines are barbed and dramatic. We scramble up mud-covered and slippery ravines. Suddenly, we reach the foot of the range’s razor-edged backbone, and the trail becomes discernibly maintained with clumsy side rails and an even path. The going is slower as the trail ascends more quickly, and I take my time clinging to the rails. I pause for a moment to take in the vistas. “Come on!”

Previous trips with friends in the developing world gave me confidence to set out on my own. Traveling solo through Southeast Asia stirs unwanted but somehow alluring memories of the first European explorers in the area. Milton Osborne’s The Mekong outlines their adventures. After securing a trade empire based at Malacca (in present-day Indonesia), Portuguese explorers plodded throughout the region’s interior by the mid-16th century. Names like Tome Pires, Antonio de Faria, and Ferdinand Mendez Pinto appear who explored the coastlines of present-day Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1540s. Contemporary maps of the continent’s untamed interior attest to their forgotten exploits seeking trade, wealth, and conversions to Christianity. I imagine the wonder these men must have felt as they traveled in such distant and untouched native societies and contexts. Every sight was a new discovery; every jungle bend presented these men with something new to grapple with and understand.

I briefly begrudge the mass communication of our internet age for spoiling Vietnam’s many unique surprises. Before disembarking from my plane at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Google Images already illustrated the sights of Vietnam to me: the peoples’ dress, the natural scenery, and even my journey’s probable obstacles. But venturing out alone without a detailed plan rekindles an adventurous spirit of the unknown. Topography and cities are new; relationships are always novel, and never knowing what to expect next is invigorating. Even in a modern age, travelers can catch a glimpse of 500-year-old adventures. Never mind the every-moment control we exercise over our lives here in the United States; in Vietnam, I am immediately addicted to the risky unknown.

Mt. Fansipan, Vietnam

The trail’s last push is extremely difficult. My legs and chest sting with pain, but I scramble up a muddy embankment encased with dense, leafy ferns and trees on either side. Chah disappears somewhere ahead. Suddenly, the peak appears out of the mist in front of me. I made it! The jungle stops at the base of a 50ft.-high pile of rocks at the summit, and I carefully wobble to a perch at the pinnacle. Two Australian cyclists are eating a snack with their guide, and we chat briefly about trail conditions. After they leave, Chah and I gaze out across the mountain range. Chah tells me that Dien Bien Phu lies further west. Sapa is hidden 20 miles north.

Conquer Fansipan 2

A small, silver pyramid marks Fansipan’s apex and predictably reads: “Fansipan/3143m”. I sit next to a nearby statue of the Buddha which someone cemented onto the rock. On his pedestal lie an orange, a mummified apple slice, and a package of four cheese-filled crackers. I snap a few pictures and relax. Hooray! Only five days ago, I arrived at the wrong side of Vietnam. I close my eyes and wonder what I should do next with the remainder of my time here. Before I can finish my thought, I am interrupted by Chah’s shrill voice: “Come on!”

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