The early morning mist parted to dry grass terrain and crispy trees. It was 5am in the morning and conditions were perfect for a climb up Mount Fansipan.
The forest was peaceful. Bird call was intermittent. The 18 degree Celsius air was refreshing.
Not that I noticed.
My heart was pounding. My breath, rapid. Most of all, it felt like two thin needles were slowly making their way into my brain via my ears. All this – and I was only 30 minutes into the trek.
At 2,000 metres, it didn’t seem likely I should have Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). And yet the symptoms were there. From my previous experience at Mount Kinabalu, I knew this was my ailment – or if not, a close cousin. Still, I wanted to push past the pain, and attempt the last peak of the Himalayan range.
Mount Fansipan stands at 3,143 metres. It is the highest peak in Vietnam and Indochina. We started blearily, at the Tram Ton pass ranger station after ascending via a private car. Our guide disappeared within the building for about 10 minutes, before coming out and setting forth in a direction, beckoning us. Wait, what? We’re starting? Like any true-blue Singaporean, I needed a briefing. I needed to know what to expect. Hah. Before I knew it, my guide had disappeared behind some shrubs. A moment went by, before he poked his head out, then waved his hand in the international sign to follow. Noobs, he must have thought.
The pace was brisk. And somewhere in my head, I was wondering – this wasn’t the pace at Kinabalu right? Did my memory fail me? Or is this like a local way to warm-up? Am I feeling my age?!
Terrified of the last possibility, I bit my lip (which helped with the panting) and pressed on.
But 30 minutes in, the two pinpricks of pain drilled into my ears, altering my usual sense of balance. Although my legs felt fine, the pain was a distraction that was building in intensity. I really wanted to give up, unable to bear the thought of another 5 hours of this symptom.
I chatted with my friend Anders, and he urged me to press on, so reluctantly, I tried. Although we started this as a pair, at this point, we were joined by others who decided to do the 1-day ascent and descent. This included a German guy, a French couple and another Singaporean pair. Chatting with our new-found friends helped to ease my suffering a little.
The Fansipan trail begins through a forest, but it opens up fairly quickly to a more open trek, with previews of the surrounding topography visible through the shrubbery and trees. It’s an undulating trail and relatively easy – but not so much at the pace my local guide was hitting. The views were nonetheless rewarding, and always a factor in motivating trekkers like me.
After the first hour and a half, the reality of the terrain set in.
As we were cresting the mountain landscape, this inevitably led to quite a few dips after some vigorous climbing. At certain parts, the trail was nothing but a series of clambering up and down – a phenomena usually announced with some French cursing by one of the trekkers. When in nature, we can’t expect a continuously smooth ascent, but Fansipan taught this lesson loud and clear.
About 3 hours in, we came across the campsite for those doing the 2-day trek option. There’s a large metal shed, but it’s pretty much empty and honestly, quite unwelcoming. We had a longer break here, so we used the 15 minutes to chat with each other a little more, before heading off.
As we journeyed on, my ailment would come and go. Sometimes as nausea, other times as giddiness, but the earaches almost never left. Even though my legs felt fine and I could feel my stamina was alright, the internal symptoms reduced my speed greatly.
In a strange way, the technical aspects of the trail helped. At the points where bare-boned metal ladders and assisted rope climbs were needed to get up steeper inclines, my focus shifted and that took away some of the pain.
As the trek came into its final leg, I was almost always the one at the back. Straggling behind the group, I finally caught up with them as they grouped at the last crest.
Something was not right. This is the last peak before our goal, I know – but why are they grinning in a weird way? As I came up to them, yelling “Grandpa’s here,” I finally saw the reason why.
Our last climb looked like landfall.
What looked like a natural landslide topped with construction debris turned out to be our way up. Just looking at the incline and terrain, I almost decided to turn back. The angle suggested full-on climbing – no limb will be idle. If I have barely made it so far, how was I to tackle this?
But because life should have more why-nots than whys, I smiled nervously and said, “let’s go!”
Truth be told, it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. Yes, it was a little steep. And yes, there was plenty of loose rubble. And of course I remember the part where we had to balance our way past a deadly drop, with construction debris above us, held back by an unreliable-looking net. But we made it. To our lunch stop at the top of the landslide.
After our meal and and a much-appreciated extended break, it was 30 minutes to the top -a man-made paved way to the peak courtesy of the newly-built cable car station – the Fansipan Legend.
This made for an amusing contrast between climber and cable-car tourist. One would be near the end of their energy tether, putting one heavy foot in front of another up the tall steps, having just spent six hours covering 15 km and rising over a thousand metres in elevation. The other would typically be your middle-aged Vietnamese dressed in their finest, with sunhats, shades and selfie sticks.
At the peak, it was foggy, windy and cold. One could move around the wooden platforms constructed for viewing and witness Fansipan’s surroundings. But most popular of all, was the metallic monument that marked the highest point, where everyone vied for their moment.
I made it. I couldn’t remember most of what happened up there, but I made it. I was disappointed at my performance, yet also proud that I did complete it with the help of my new-found friends.
What goes up, must come down. I knew that. But there was no question about it – I was taking the cable-car down. Fansipan Legend, here I come!
My ambition got the better of me. Mount Fansipan is a lot more challenging than what most of the reviewers online have portrayed. And I’m basing this on the feedback from the group, most of them active folks in their 20s and 30s. Maybe that was also why most guides advised on the 2-day option.
The mountain does give me mixed feelings as a climb destination, because the view at the top was a little anti-climatic, with the journey offering more inspiring views. And although the trail was never physically difficult, a few points gave moments of apprehension. What one had to prepare for, is the assault on one’s morale as they oscillated between crest and valley.
I would still recommend Fansipan to trekkers seeking a well-rounded training experience, but just try to give yourself about eight hours instead of six for a nice buffer.
That said, the views from the cable-car are pretty amazing.