After a groggy sleep at the cheapest guesthouse in Muang Khua, Randa and I woke early for the bus across the border. Buses in Laos are always unpredictable, and this one would be no different. Along with 6 sleepy backpackers, various locals jumped aboard along with boxes and bags of varying sizes. The bus crept through the winding mountain roads, and after a few new stamps in our passports, we were on our way into Vietnam.
The final destination the bus was the town of Dien Bien, although we would stop of at various points along the way, where strange packages, people and sometimes fist-sized wads of cash was dropped off. At one point, our grinning bus driver decided to halt the journey so he could join his family to inspect some colourful wardrobes on the side of the street. Fortunately it wasn’t too long before we made our way to the bus station ready to take our next step on the journey.
The transition from Laos to Vietnam is immediately noticeable. The simple towns and quiet environment quickly evolve into the bustling cities streets of Vietnam, where restaurant owners and street sellers are no longer afraid to approach you directly for your business. The first activity we undertook was to book tickets to Sapa, before taking over half of a local restaurant for the 6 hour wait before our bus left.
We arrived in Sapa at 4:30am, and were quickly ushered off the bus into the darkness. We marched wearily towards the city centre, hoping for a cafe to open early and welcome us in. Unfortunately this was only wishful thinking, so we parked ourselves on some benches overlooking the lake in the centre of town. When the sun finally rose, the surroundings were presented in majestic fashion. The nearby looming mountains brandished their peaks, only interrupted occasionally by wondering clouds. Over the last few years, Sapa has experienced a surge in popularity, with tourism now being a major supplier to the community. Local homestays had become a well oiled industry, and many of the once quiet surrounding villages had become popular destinations on the tour bus trail. Still, none of the increased tourism could detract from the stunning beauty of the landscape. The town and villages sit in a valley with the Hoang Lien Son mountain range towering above. Rice paddies sprawl organically across the slopes, each developed and managed by local communities. At this time of year, planting had begun, so the paddies shone with their lime green crop.
My first journey was to explore the nearest village, Cat Cat. Unlike villages further away, Cat Cat had been greatly developed, with cobbled paths weaving their way through the patchwork of fields. A river flowed at the bottom of the village, pouring over white rocks into the valley below.
Being so close to the mountains, Sapa was of course famous for its picturesque trekking routes. Mount Fansipan, the tallest mountain in Indochina, was positioned nearby and many would visit the area to trek up to the summit. On my first morning in Sapa I met a Canadian backpacker, Virginie, who was keen to do the climb. The challenge immediately caught my interest. However, the sky that morning and early afternoon had been filled with clouds that shrouded the highest mountains. On my return from Cat Cat however, wind swept the clouds by and the elusive mountain made its first appearance. Mountain Fansipan, which I had cutely named “Mount Fancy Pants” suddenly didn’t appear so cute any more. The peak launched itself above the rest, and I was swallowed up by its presence. I had to climb it.
A relaxed evening was followed by the first good night’s sleep in a while. Even a hard dorm room bed can feel like luxury every now and again.
The following day, we headed further afield towards the smaller villages nestled in the valley below Sapa. We rented some cheap motorbikes from a nearby shop, which were all equally battered from years of Sapa service, but all seemed to do the job. After 10km of rocky mountain roads, we arrived at the villages of Lao Cai and Tra Van, where the local communities would maintain the neighbouring rice paddies and corn crops.
By 5pm, we started our journey back to Sapa, where we were greeted by breathtaking views of the surrounding areas. The setting sun bathed the valley in warm yellow light, with the rice paddies shimmering and the misty mountains trailing into the distance. Only Mount Fansipan kept its head in the clouds; I would have to get a closer look when I started the ascent the next day.
The following morning, Virginie and I were picked up in a minibus full of bright eyed trekkers. On arrival at the start point, we loaded up on water, snacks and toilet paper for the overnight stay. After a few minutes of anxious waiting, we started our ascent through the forests of some of the smaller peaks. We would walk around 15km the first day to our camp which sat 300m beneath the top, before ascending the final steep climb the next morning. The group was a friendly mix which included several French, British, Polish and a South African who insisted on walking the first few hours in bare feet.
The trail continued through the undergrowth whilst the clouds crept overhead in an unthreatening manner.
Suddenly we were at the ridge of Mount Fansipan, ascending quickly in line with the lower clouds. The clouds would frequently charge into the ridge where we were standing, rise and then cascade down the other side like liquid. At other times, we would move into dense forest, where the drifting mist provided an eary atmosphere, and the trail evolved into an collection of boulders and broken roots that we clambered over.
After a long day, we reached the camp. It consisted of a couple of wooden huts; one for sleeping and one for cooking. We slouched on the wooden floors wrapped in our sleeping bags. Once daylight had passed, the cold gripped us – the first time I had felt cold for 10 weeks. Rain started to fall and a lightning storm flared up around us, with dazzling flashes erupting every few seconds. The group huddled around a headtorch hanging from a tripod and played card games until we all collapsed into a deep sleep.
It wasn’t long before the 3am wake up call. We picked our tired bodies up, packed our bags and convinced ourselves that our legs didn’t feel too bad. Following a warm noodle soup for breakfast, we trekked uphill in the darkness with our next few steps lit up by our headtorches. Slowly, a dim blue light from the early stages of the sunrise illuminated the mountain. After an hour, the Sun arrived when we were still 150 metres below the peak. This was better in some ways, as cloud had wrapped up the top of the mountain, so we still had a great view of the mountains and valleys below from where we were standing.
For some reason, the sunrise gave me a new burst of energy to reach the top as quickly as possible. I was under the impression that a few of the group were further ahead, so I pushed forward with new force in my stride. The problem with climbing in the clouds is you can never quite see the top. But finally, the end was in sight.
Somehow in the darkness, I must have misread the order of the group and I reached the summit alone. Cloaked in the mist, I sat wheezing at the top, trying to take it all in. Over the next hour, the other climbers joined, and we celebrated with tired excitement. For a few minutes, the clouds parted from where we were standing, and it felt like the view of the world around us stretched for a hundred miles.
We descended to the bottom with a shower being the glorious reward at our hostel. Definitely a few days to remember, and leaves me thinking… where’s the next mountain?