Trapped on a Watery Hellhole Named Fansipan

Expectation WAS The Root of All Heartache

When we got to Sapa (1500m), it was foggy, rainy and cold. Brown rivulets flowed constantly on the roads from construction materials stacked by the roadside, from heaps of rubbish emitting a kind of smell even in that weather. Hardly the tranquil, pristine, french-influenced hill station I had imagined.

the scene from our hotel - the only terrace we saw in sapa

this was the best view we could get – from our hotel and the only rice terrace we saw in sapa

We’d arrived in Sapa on 21 May and realised that everyday after that was going to be awash with rain. Hadn’t we read that march to may was a good time to visit Sapa? Yet, locals told us that May had always been wet. The best time to see those famed rice terraces? That would be September/October. But don’t take my word for it. Do your own research and make sure it’s thorough.

Day 1: To Be or Not to Be (Hero), That Was the Question 

It was raining with abandon when we woke up. We were so close to giving up the whole venture altogether but the local tour agency assured us that the route would be safe despite the rain. We were sceptical but didn’t want to look like cowards or lazy bums.

stiil dry and hopeful

ignorance is bliss – still don’t know what’s to come

After hanging around the breakfast area for a long time and eating breakfast twice (futile wait for rain to stop), we finally checked out and headed to the tour office to deposit our luggage and pick up the trekking crew. Then it was a 20-minute ride to the trailhead (1900m). The van drove deeper and deeper into the fog – too late to get cold feet – before it passed a big touristy arch, then stopped in front of a white bungalow (white house – the park office) . At 940am, we set off for what’s going to be a miserable journey – but we didn’t know yet.

the big touristy arch

the big touristy arch

ready to roll!

ready to roll!

start, get set, go

start, get set, go

starting slow

lush green foliage at the beginning

trekking crew - porters

the trekking crew – porters

It drizzled intermittently but wasn’t heavy enough for us to whip out our rain gear or umbrellas. We crossed the river 3 times though, quite an unnecessary and dangerous undertaking considering other easier routes were available. I was also uneasy we made the crossings without any safety ropes, over a river that’s swollen with water from heavy rain and prone to flash floods. Then we had to dilly-dally because we were making a fuss about keeping our boots dry – how silly and meaningless in hindsight.

morning's trail

miraculously, the sun made a brief entrance

early trail

trails were wet but walkable


lots of root-work

even the macho man needs help

even the macho man needs help

camera-check; umbrella-check; boots-check

camera-check; umbrella-check; boots-check; walking stick-check

another major river

another major river crossing

smiles of relief

smiles of relief


leaving the river behind

We got to the first campsite at 1pm. By now, we’d figured that there wouldn’t be much for us to see on this trek.

Lunch was a horrible meal of (a lump of) hardened glutinous rice, fish spam, crushed peanuts salted, hard boiled eggs and bananas. But there was no hot water. That surprised me again. I didn’t expect the meals to be as bad as the weather. Even though we were suffering, I wished we could have at least suffered in style.

group shot with other hikers after lunch

post lunch shot with 2 other hikers – did they feel cheated too?

The second half of the day’s trek started innocuously enough. The first hour was an easy gradual ascent but the next 2.5 hours was not pretty. It became impossible to use the umbrella and the camera because some parts were almost vertical, more like rock-climbing. This was immediately followed by a long steep climb that literally ‘took my breath away‘. And those steel ladders that appeared randomly along the trail – they were slippery, wobbly, too long, too narrow, too precariously perched. Yet, cross them we must.

post lunch trail

after lunch – the umbrellas are out

when the clouds parted a bit, that's what we saw

when the clouds parted a bit, we saw some … green

climbing and climbing

long, steep, never ending

sea of clouds

sea of clouds

the final ascent before we reach the campsite

the final ascent before we reach the campsite

where we will stay for the night

campsite for the night

The campsite hut (2800m) was a dismal, dark, damp place with no electricity and no running water. Some rooms were leaking so the early arrivals dutifully examined each room, chose 2 that were relatively dry and settled down for a long, sleepless night. Between 4.30pm to 6pm, everyone arrived, in time for dinner.

living room+bedroom

living room+dining room+bedroom

We discussed and decided that we’d head back to town tomorrow because it was pointless to continue. We had 2 options: trek down first thing tomorrow or hike up to the summit, then go down by the cable car. The guide was confident the cable car would be working so we decided to take a gamble with option 2 as it would only be a 2 hour trek up.

Day 2: As ‘Good’ Luck Would Have It

It was still raining of course when we left the campsite at 7.10am, Our pace unhurried, secured in the knowledge that we were a mere 2 hours from the end of our ordeal. It wasn’t an easy trail; we slid down long sections of steep slippery rocks, walked along narrow ledges, climbed up long metal ladders that felt flimsier than the ones the day before. The climax was this steep rock face riddled with big loose rocks that we had to tackle in order to get to the cable car platform.

misty, cloudy as usual

misty, drizzly morning

this was the easy part

this was the easy part

we were still holding a tight formation

still able to pose

near the rock face

having a break after scaling the sheer rock face

No, that wasn’t the cable car station. That was a construction site below the viewing platform, with workers busy moving rocks and welding stuff. After climbing up the 300+ concrete steps, all we saw was a wooden platform and a triangular stone in the middle, declaring this was the summit of Fansipan (3143m) but no sign of any cable car. Frankly, the cable car would have excited me so much more.

But we’d already heard it from another guide – that the cable car was suspended that day. I was irked that we were tripped up by poor planning and broken communications, wasting precious time, effort and emotions. Imagine! we could have made it back to town that night.

there's nothing to see up there

there’s nothing to see up there

It began to rain again heavily as we started the inevitable trek back to the campsite (10am). When I got to the campsite around noon, I was so cold I thought I’d die from hypothermia. Luckily we could huddle in the cooking shed around the fire while waiting for the rest to return. Finally all got back by 2pm.

the cooking shed

the cooking shed

We had a super quick lunch and left at 230pm for the first campsite (without our guide because he was still eating since he was one of the last to come back and was busy cooking). We wanted to leave asap so that we could reach the first campsite before it got dark.  As it turned out, we took between 2.5 hours to 5 hours to get there. Most made it through before nightfall but some had to trek in the dark in really heavy rain. We were relieved that no one got lost or injured.

the first campsite cooking shed

the first campsite cooking shed

Day 3: All’s Well That Ended Well

The guide didn’t tell us what time we needed to wake up but we got up by 530am anyway and were ready by 7am. We left the campsite at 7.20am buoyed by the thought that the worst part of the trek was behind us and we’d really put an end to our ordeal this time.

second night hut

hut at the first campsite was more comfortable

morning, getting ready for the last leg

a riot of colours – morning, before the final charge

can't wait to get down

can’t wait to get down

all ready

in high spirits

1 hour to go

last charge

We reached the white house at 930am and by 10am, all had arrived. Hot shower, clean clothes, real food, massage here we come!

all washed and dry

all washed and dried

lunch @ trekking agency office

the last lunch @ trekking agency office


awards ceremony – they deserved it – for the most congenial group award


coffee break 1 at the banh cuon joint opposite the trek office

teabreak 2

coffee break 2 after massage in town

bye bye

what a difference a day makes

Much Ado About Nothing

Seriously, if we had known we could take a cable car up Fansipan, we might have dropped this trek totally.

Perhaps it would have been beautiful if the weather had been good but I believe it still wouldn’t warrant us risking limb and life to take the hard way up. Less than a month after we came back, we heard that Fansipan claimed a young man’s life after he had gone up alone. Enough to demonstrate that it’s not a trek to be trifled with.

Furthermore, if the trek agency that we used is the standard of Sapa trekking, then it sure fell far below those guided treks we did in Nepal, Taiwan, Malaysia etc. Not just in terms of comfort, but in terms of communication and safety. And safety is the one thing we ought never to concede.

So would I recommend this trek? Not when there are other, more beautiful treks out there.


Hiked 23-25 May 16
References: besthikescribble,snap,travel, post magazine


Categories: Hiking, Southeast Asia

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