One day is possible if you are fit

We paid $40 per person and did the climb in one day – a minibus picked us up from our Sapa hotel at 0600 or so, we started climbing at 0700, and we were done the climb by 1630 on a day with rather poor weather (nearly continuous rain and, closer to the top, hail). 

Our relatively fast trip is probably not typical – most people do it in 2 or 3 days, which has the advantage of allowing you to take a different route down than up, but the disadvantage of that you get to sleep in the mountain huts there, which, while if the weather is nice might be ok, when it’s cold and raining as it was on our day, is pretty unappealing – our group basically didn’t want to stop (we had to only because the guide was tired) in order to preserve warmth.

The climb itself can be broken into thirds: the first third (to the first station) is relatively flat – up and down gentle hills. the second third (is considerably more vertical and monotonous, and the last third features a surprising amount of descent (to get off a false summit) before making a final push for the Fansipan summit. there is some variation of vegetation over the whole trek, but not that much – the summit is only 3300m or whatever, after all. there is considerably more variation at Kinabalu in Malaysia (a hair over 4000m). what we did see a heck of a lot of us was mud – mud and water. your shoes will get soaked with it no matter how good they are.

I think key to success at Fansipan is this:
1. be realistic about your fitness level. don’t just assume that you are fit because you more or less have the body shape of a fit person. if you don’t exercise aerobically regularly (run at least 10km every 2 days), don’t even think about the 1 day trip and expect the 2 day to be hard. honestly, we were a bit slowed down because one member of our group was a bit behind in fitness – he did it valiantly, but suffered badly the next day – and he was actually in reasonably good shape.

2. have appropriate shoes. you can buy fake climbing shoes at sapa – probably it is far better to have brought your own from home. good hiking socks are a plus too. probably this means starting to think about Fansipan before you get on the plane to Vietnam.

3. pack light. there’s no point in carrying crap you don’t need. maybe everybody in your group doesn’t need their own camera, for example.

4. dress warmly. i have no idea what the place is like on days when the sun is beating down. i do know that i was very happy for having taken thermal trousers underneath my hiking trousers, a medium weight hat (with anti-rain brim), and a warm top. the trip would have been torture without these items.

Under ideal conditions, very fit people could probably take an hour or two off of our time easily. we really were in some pretty strong downpours and were slowed a bit by both our guide (who wanted breaks) and one member of our party. in other words, if you are used to hiking light and fast, this is not the hardest trip in the world.. however, if you mostly work in an office or in a store and so don’t regularly hike that much, this will be a big challenge indeed, and so don’t underestimate it. this includes the vast vast bulk of the Vietnamese population, the majority of whom are terribly, terribly out of shape (if you take issue with my comment, I suggest you wait until you visit Vietnam and see for yourself before you accuse me of making inappropriate generalizations here).

If i had to do it again, i’d bring a sack to collect rubbish on the route. there is a disappointingly large amount of candy wrappers, water bottles, and other junk on the path. as much as i love the vietnamese as a people, too many of them have no conscience of their responsibilities in this regard whatsoever. if you stray a bit from one of the hut stations, you will run into a dump where even the staff there simply dump trash on the countryside. if any fansipan official is reading this – your young adolescent porters routinely come down empty. how about enlisting them on clean up duties?

At $40 per head, our trip was expensive by Vietnam standards, but reasonable (or at least comparable) to how much other visitors pay. it is not clear what we actually paid for – the guide gets some, sure, but the food provided us was not worth than $1 or $2 in Vietnam. while we were shopping around for tours, some agents boasted that they provided enough food to give us an energy boost ‘every hour.’ had we done this, we probably would have killed ourselves from overeating. after a moderate breakfast, a single apple and some water are sufficient for fast hikers.
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