Fansipan – 10,308 ft
Matthew and Amanda
October 12, 2016
In planning the itinerary for our trip, Vietnam wavered between exclusion and inclusion. On the one hand, it offered interesting cultural sights in the cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, along with beaches, hill country, and the iconic Ha Long Bay. Plus, food and lodging were very cheap so our dollar would go far. On the other hand, it would be yet another country in which we couldn’t drink the tap water, couldn’t eat raw unpeeled fruits and veggies, and generally had to be on guard most of the time. One more hot and humid country with the risk of mosquitoes and, later, Zika. One more country where we couldn’t swim in lakes or steams due to the risk of schisto. One more country before we got to the land of milk and honey in Australia and New Zealand, where we could relax a bit.
Nevertheless, before our trip, we got a Vietnamese visa in DC, and hoped that Vietnam would work out somehow or another.
By late September, we were in Sri Lanka with flights booked to Thailand and Cambodia, and were running out of runway – it was time to make a decision with respect to Vietnam.
As with any new country, I knew that it would be nice to knock off the high point. But my initial research suggested that Vietnam’s highest peak, Fansipan (elevation 3143 meters), was non-trivial. It would require a two day jungle trek, which sounded fun at first, but became less appealing after the CDC advisory about Zika prevalence in Vietnam was posted.
For whatever reason, I decided to dig a little deeper into Fansipan logistics, and I was astonished to discover a few webpages that mentioned a cable car to the top. Why hadn’t I seen this before? Are these websites even talking about the same mountain? Why don’t most webpages even mention it?
It turned out that a cable car that apparently went all the way to the summit was just completed in Feb 2016 – seven months earlier – which explained why it didn’t show up on many webpages yet. But further research revealed photos of the cable car, booking information, and photos of people next to the summit sign that clearly hadn’t trekked 2 days through the jungle. The cable car was legit indeed.
The fact that the summit would be easily accessible, and that one could mitigate mosquito exposure due to the enclosed car, tipped the balance back in favor of Vietnam. To be sure, getting to the top by cable car would be far less honorable than hiking it, but it was better than not getting to the top at all.
We planned an abbreviated schedule for Vietnam: two days for Fansipan, one day to tour Hanoi, and one day at Ha Long Bay, before heading Down Under, and booked our flight from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Hanoi.
As we disembarked from our plane in Hanoi, were greeted with a breath of hot, humid air, which initially made me grimace. We had been in hot places on our entire trip so far and even though we looked forward to Vietnam, we didn’t look forward to another week of sweating. But we knew it’d be much better in the mountain town of Sapa, the gateway to Fansipan and the hill country.
We slept for a few hours at the Hanoi Rendezvous Hotel and boarded a bus bound for Sapa early next morning. The bus was super luxurious with plenty of leg room and giant seats, and was only $17 for the 6-hour trip. It seemed much better to us than the popular 8-hour sleeper train that cost more than three times as much.
When the bus door opened in Sapa at 12:45pm, we felt a rush of cool air. We were at about 5000ft and the recent rain kept the temperature in the upper 60F’s. “Now this is what I’m talking about,” I said.
Eager to catch a cable car up that afternoon, we quickly dropped off our stuff at the hotel, hopped in a taxi, and arrived at the base station of the Fansipan Legend Cable Car by 1:50pm. We hurriedly paid the $30 per person and made a beeline toward the entrance.
The lobby of the building was magnificent. With marble floors, polished gold railings, and shiny escalators, it seemed more like the entrance to a fancy hotel. Although the vast complex was clearly built to handle hundreds of people, it was utterly deserted, and we immediately boarded the first car without waiting.
The car slowly inched towards the end of the station, which we realized now was perched atop a high cliff. In a thrilling move reminiscent of a giant roller coaster, as soon as the car engaged with the primary cable, it rapidly accelerated forward and simultaneously plunged downwards, off the cliff. In an instant we were a thousand feet off the ground as the car swung back and forth.
A family of ten boisterous Vietnamese adults shrieked with excitement and whooped with delight, filling our small car with an ear piercing cacophony. They pushed and shoved, jockeying for the optimal position to take photos. The shoving and yelling continued for nearly the entire 25 minute ride up the mountain, creating at times a deafening roar in the enclosed cabin. Despite the peacefulness of the scenery below, they somehow found it necessary to make the inside of our little car mimic the chaos and mind-numbing pandemonium of a busy street in Hanoi. Too bad we didn’t wait another three minutes,” I said to Amanda. “We would have had the next car to ourselves.”
Fortunately, the scenery around us more than offset the discomfort in the cabin. As we crossed the first valley across an incredible suspended span of probably more than a mile, the car periodically plunged into a cloud, quickly enveloping us as if in an airplane. Minutes later, we’d emerge from the cloud and spot hundreds of terraced rice fields covering the valley more than a thousand feet below. It was without a doubt the most spectacular cable car ride that we had ever taken.
As we ascended, the rice fields gave way to jungle and the mountains became more rugged. By 2:30 pm, we arrived at the top cable car station at an elevation of about 9,800 ft. An equally impressive lobby greeted us here, and we marveled at how they got everything up in the first place. Much of it was still under construction (I read that they’re even working on a hotel at the top!) but the cable car was fully operational.
Thankfully, the cable car didn’t go the whole way to the top, so we’d have to earn it to some extent by doing a little bit of hiking. I couldn’t find anything written about the trail from the cable car station to the true summit, but maps suggested it was less than half a mile and with a climb of less than 500 ft.
We embarked up the nearby steep stone staircase that led upwards and passed a sign that read “To Summit.” The area was shrouded in dense clouds and visibility was only about 1/4 mile so it was impossible to see where exactly the trail led. Accustomed to unexpected access difficulties in the pursuit of high points, I couldn’t shake a nagging suspicion that this trail didn’t actually go to the true summit. But I recalled that in my research I had found a handful of photos of the summit area taken on clearer days, which clearly showed the staircase leading towards what seemed to be the top, so I relaxed a bit.
As we ascended, we passed by various structures that were all part of the construction effort and were at differing degrees of completion. First, we passed a magnificent gateway and temple that looked like they had just been finished. Farther up, we spotted an inclined railway car station that was nearly complete. The map indicated that this incline (“funicular”) would take people within spitting distance of the true summit. Later, we walked around a gigantic Buddha statue that looked to be about half finished. Here, we had to wait a few minutes as workers lifted construction equipment overhead and the trail was temporarily closed.
Finally, we passed the top station for the inclined car and soon the true summit came into view through the fog.
Seeing this flurry of construction activity and enormous complex on the summit elicited mixed feelings from us. On the one hand, it was great to see Vietnam’s huge sense of pride in their highest mountain. It was also nice that it made the top accessible and able to be appreciared by everyone. The jungle trail from the base of the mountain to the top was, I’m sure, still there, so if you didn’t want to take the cable car up you could always still opt for the more honorable two-day hike to the summit. But on the other hand, it was also kind of sad that this formerly pristine and wild peak surrounded by nothing but wilderness had been deluded of trees and covered by a city’s worth of buildings. In any case, we couldn’t deny that without the cable car, we probably wouldn’t have gone to the top of Fansipan this trip.
By 3pm, we found ourselves on the summit of Vietnam. Despite the lack of crowds at the base station, here there was a line of people waiting to take their photo next to the meter-tall stainless steel pyramid that marked the summit.
Photo etiquette was far different here than it would have been on a comparable summit in the US. Although there was a sizeable line, people would take dozens of photos of each other in holding the summit flag in various subtly different poses in an effort to get the perfect shot. It eventually became pretty annoying, as people seemingly had no regard for just how long they were making everyone else wait. “Just think if we had come in the morning of a clear weekend day, when there’d be ten times as many people,” I said to Amanda. “We’d have to wait hours.”
Just when it became our turn, an old Vietnamese man pushed his way in front of Amanda for his third summit photo. With a long beard and outfit of olive green, the rude fellow looked exactly like Ho Chi Minh himself. “Wow, people really don’t know how to take their turn around here,” Amanda said.
We jockeyed our way back to the front and finally got our turn on the summit. We politely took only about 30 seconds and gave the next people a turn. Five minutes later, we decided that it’d be prudent to take some more summit photos on another device, just to be safe in case my phone was lost. After waiting our turn again, as we walked toward the summit, the same guy pushed his way in front of Amanda and made a beeline for the top in front of us! This time, Amanda pushed back, putting the guy in his place, and we hurriedly snapped a few more photos.
Eager to avoid further confrontation, we evacuated from the area and wandered around a bit. A Vietnamese guy said hello to me and motioned for me to come over, pointing to his camera with a big smile. It was apparent that he wanted to take a photo with me. Amanda had previously alerted/warned me of this type of thing. Some Asian people, inexplicably, want to take photos of themselves next to blonde haired, blue eyed strangers. Maybe the gentleman wanted to share the photo with his friends and say, “hey, check out this unusual creature I encountered when I was on Fansipan.”
Knowledgeable that if I granted him this favor, then I could request that he reciprocate by taking a photo of me and Amanda, I assented, and the favor was indeed returned. But when he asked to take more photos of me with the rest of his family, I demurred and walked away in order to excuse myself from the uncomfortable photo shoot.
It was a decidedly tawdry spectacle on top of the highest point in Vietnam: people waiting in line, pushing and shoving for just a few brief seconds of glory on the summit.
But not everyone was rude and pushy. We met a nice Vietnamese couple who were about our age, and with whom we exchanged cameras and captured summit photos of each other. Such photos, we’ve found, are often far superior to selfies, and they give you the chance to make friends too.
By 3:30pm, our work on the summit was finished. We packed up our stuff and embarked down the steep stone staircase back to the cable car station which, we estimated, was about 300-500ft below us. The clouds hadn’t thinned, but at least it wasn’t raining.
After another spectacular ride in the cable car, we were back down to the base station by 5pm. As we hopped in our taxi back to Sapa, I peeked behind me and happened to catch one last fleeting glimpse of the summit, which had momentarily appeared through a break in the clouds. It was a good thing we had decided to include Vietnam in our trip after all, I thought to myself.