On the roof of Indochina

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Since my student days, I'd cherished a dream of climbing the 3,143 meters Mount Fansipan in Lao Cai in Vietnam's far northwest. Yet it took me several years to muster the courage and build up the confidence I would need to tackle Indochina's tallest peak.

Leaving Hanoi on a hot summer's day, I caught a train to Lao Cai. From there it was nearly one hour by bus to Sapa, where I arrived at seven o'clock on a typically cold and misty morning. By nine I'd reached Tram Ton, eager and determined to conquer Fansipan, whose name means "precarious giant rock" in the local language.

With only two days to climb the mountain, we'd opted for the easiest route, departing from Tram Ton at an altitude of 1,900 meters above sea level. We ignored the inviting calls of a more treacherous route starting from Cat Cat at an altitude of 1,245 meters with plenty of leeches and a quite different route from Sin Chao at an altitude of 1,260, meters, where most sections of the road run along the top of sheer cliffs.

Though reckoned to be the easiest way, the journey from Tram Ton made office workers like me pant and tremble in fear from the start of the road that took more than a dozen kilometers to climb over 1,200 meters in altitude.

There were 16 of us in the group along with seven native porters and a tour guide. Despite carrying heavy rucksacks on their backs, the porters kept running up the steep mountainside. Our guide Tinh said that sometimes there would be 400 people in the tour party, too many for the number of tents to go around. On those occasions the porters rolled out large canvas groundsheets in the open for the trekkers to lie and sleep on.

Tough going

The first day of climbing was the harder and more challenging, especially the first 500 meters as our unaccustomed hands and feet had great difficulty climbing on and clinging to uneven, slippery rocks that made some people give up, though not for a lack of trying.

It was drizzling and freezing cold at Sapa, so we felt fortunate when the air got warmer and drier as we proceeded into the forest, and by noon the sun was shining. Having hidden itself in the morning mist, the Hoang Lien Forest began to appear and show its fantastic features like the typically northwestern plants and flowers. In the Hoang Lien Son Range alone there are more than 30 species of azalea native to these mountains. Indeed, the azaleas and their stunning display are a major part of what draws tourists to the region.

After half a day, we reached the first stop of the ascent at an altitude of 2,200 meters. Panting and almost out of breath, it was no comfort to us when the guide said it was the easiest part of the journey. A few years ago, that stop was simply a place to put up a tent, have lunch and rest awhile. Not so nowadays, not with all the H'mong women and girls, their cheeks rosy from the cold and dry air of the mountains, selling soft drink to the growing hordes of visitors.

Onwards to the summit

The porters are paid VND120,000 (US$6) per day but they have to help the amateur climbers in many ways. Usually there is one porter for every two or three paying tourists. In some villages, more than half of the inhabitants work as porters, and even women do it too. The season for climbing Mount Fansipan lasts from February until the end of summer.

A noticeable feature of the route is the dense bamboo stretching for miles. Until a few years back, many climbers would get lost in the bamboo as it was too thick and tall to get one's bearings. Because of the increased traffic along the route, a path has been worn that is easy to follow so it is much harder to stray these days.

As we emerged from the first bamboo forest, we saw our destination in the failing light. We were worn out, and moving our legs was a real challenge.

It was much colder at night than during the day on the Hoang Lien Son Range. I wore warm clothes and crawled into a sleeping bag but I still shivered with cold while the wind gusted outside. Our porters, who doubled as our cooks, collected dead sticks to use as firewood. Around 11 o'clock, I felt thirsty and left the tent for a drink. Frost was building up and I saw the porters huddling around their campfires to keep warm.

I felt sore all over the many times I awoke from a fitful sleep, and thought of giving up the remaining part, but when morning came I was raring to go again. As we journeyed upward, we passed through more bamboo shrouded in early morning mist and tackled some formidable terrain that took all the porters' encouragement and support to get us through. 

The higher we climbed, the more difficult it was, but the forest and views were even more stunning and distracted us somewhat from our travail.

Eventually we surmounted yet another steep slope that opened onto a level area with a panoramic view and somebody yelled "we've made it to the top", much to our surprise. It was just a rock, but it jutted out proudly and proclaimed itself the summit of Fansipan, higher than anything else. One by one we touched it and yelled and waved the Vietnamese flag in delight. We were so excited to be there. And we were sure to get our pictures taken as mementos of the effort and victory over ourselves.

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