A thick layer of fog surrounded us in every direction as we trudged along into the mysterious morning haze in search of our guesthouse. It was 6am, frigid outside, but we had come prepared, layered up with all of our clothes including heavy jackets borrowed from Việt’s grandfather.
After a few hours’ rest, we rented a motorbike to visit Cat Cat, one of Sapa’s most touristy villages, but for good reason. The village was so popular due to its distinctive ethnic culture revolving around the region’s beautiful terraced fields and traditional handicrafts of twisting flax and weaving fabric.
We spent the morning and afternoon trekking through the area but unlike the photos we had seen online, we saw a completely different side of the village as it was hidden within the mist. The morning fog only grew thicker by the hour as the haze mystified the rice terraces and landscape beyond.
Before arranging our trekking tour, we stumbled upon a restaurant for lunch. Việt ordered exactly what I was craving: something warm, something filling, and ultimately, something tasty. Bánh cuốn chấm kèm thịt nướng và nước mắm (a very long name for the Sapa take on Vietnamese pork rice noodle rolls) blew all my expectations away and quickly rose to being one of my favorite dishes in the country. Fully satisfied and warmed up from the food and shots of rice wine we tried along with it, we stayed at the restaurant chatting until we were too cold and decided to get moving again. Next stop was the trekking agency office.
The hike would take 2 days. We were going to conquer Mount Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng), all 3,143 meters (10,312 ft) of it, and yes, that’s really the name of Vietnam’s highest peak. We’d start early the next morning, around 8am and hike until around 6pm where we’d crash for the night at the mountain’s base camp until resuming the hike to the summit the following day. After reaching the summit, the rest of the morning would be spent trekking down the mountain before our bus departed back to Hanoi.
The trek was supposed to be difficult, but with the amount of walking I had been doing, I didn’t doubt that I could keep up. Việt already had experience with long distance hiking from several excursions to Yosemite National Park while studying in California.
As for our gear, we had brought enough clothing to layer up for warmth and no additional gear was necessary. I already had a headlamp and a water bottle. We could also lock up our large bags at the tour agency, swapping them out for our smaller daypacks instead. With everything sorted, Việt and I headed back to our guesthouse, picking up mittens for the trek along the way.
By night we each purchased 2 packages of ramen but Việt promised to prepare it in a special way. I may have made a disgusted face when he initially mentioned the dinner idea since I had only associated the salty noodles with being a go-to broke college student meal. But Việt totally changed my opinion, ramen could be so much more.
Evading the frigid night in our somewhat warmer room, he taught me how to cook ramen topped with a poached egg using only a water heater, but, he didn’t stop there. Again using his cleverness, Việt managed to pop open a wine bottle with chopsticks since we lacked a proper bottle opener. What I first would have thought to be a not-so-appetizing meal was way more than I anticipated. We went to bed early, knowing that we’d have to wake up at the crack of dawn the next morning and spend the following 2 days intensely trekking.
I could see my breath in the air when I awoke. Were we really about to hike Vietnam’s tallest mountain, not only Vietnam’s but the entire region of the world? I didn’t think about it too much as I zipped my jacket and began to layer up. We each put on 3 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of pants, 3 shirts, and 3 jackets. I hadn’t experienced winter during my entire year but this was the closest I’d get. Feeling slightly heavier and much warmer from all of our layers, we arrived at the tour agency office and awaited a van which was to transport us to the start of the trek.
Fog obscured the true size of the beast we were about to take on as we were only able to see several meters ahead. The tree line faded into oblivion. Our group totaled 12, there were 4 foreigners including me, and the rest were Vietnamese. We had 1 leader who was 19 years old and then an elderly woman and man who carried the entire group’s supply of food for the next 2 days. As usual, Việt became translator. We began our ascent.
Within the first 2 hours of the hike, we trekked through a dense jungle layered under a thick cloud of fog. The vibrant, green nature occasionally caught my eyes through the haze. As we reached a certain altitude, the frigid temperature decreased and we all stopped to strip down layers. The sun was finally beginning to show as we trekked up and out of the seemingly endless fog. We continued hiking for half hour periods, then had a few minutes’ rest in between.
After about 6 hours straight of this on and off hiking routine, we took an extended break for lunch at the mountain’s first base camp. Waiting for our meal to be prepared we learned that it was supposed to storm the next morning when we had originally planned to hike to the summit. Our group unanimously agreed that instead of risking the storm, we’d bite the bullet and hike all the way to the summit after lunch.
Starving from the trek, the other foreigners and I were fascinated watching Việt demonstrate how to eat sticky rice with crushed peanuts. It was a simple combination, yet none of us had tried it before. Việt described how he used to eat the same snack while growing up with his grandparents.
Along with the sticky rice and peanuts were tomatoes, cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, baguettes, and a very scary looking dish of chicken that most didn’t touch. Split into 2 groups, it didn’t take long before most of the food from each had been scarfed down by someone. We rested for another half hour before embarking on the rest of the trek.
Shortly after leaving the base camp, we found ourselves continuing the hike under a bright blue sky. We had finally reached an altitude where the fog wasn’t present. We took a rest on the path, each hiker silent in their own thoughts. Gazing out, I watched as fog twirled in the distant valley below us where we had begun our hike from that very morning.
As we rose higher and higher, gusts of wind picked up and sent clouds of fog billowing by. We had to watch our feet closely as the path turned from a wide, fairly flat escalation to something much steeper, requiring us to hoist ourselves further up the narrowing path using built-in handrails.
When we reached the final base camp, we dropped off our bags and continued the trek onwards about another 2 hours. The final stretch involved hiking the very steep cliff of the mountain, up wooden staircases that were falling apart, and unstable ladders which I easily foresaw blowing away in the wind. It was too late to turn back. In recent years, a lift had been built spanning just over 6 kilometers to the top. Construction was still ongoing as cranes, wooden boards, and cement bricks remained littered around the area.
Việt and I regrouped before standing face to face with the final challenge: climbing up the last 3 flights of stairs. As we trudged along, exhausted and dirty from hiking the entire day, we were determined to finish our mission. Our eyes gleamed, our smiles radiated, we had conquered Mt. Fansipan.
We stayed at the summit for half an hour, trying to capture the moment to the best of our abilities. It was an intense natural high as we stood on the highest peak for thousands of miles, looking down at the towering, monstrous mountains, and knowing that we had started from Fansipan’s base that very same day.
We quickly noticed that we were not only surrounded by others from our hiking group, but also wealthy, well-dressed Vietnamese people who had paid to ride the lift all the way up the mountain. After watching some of them exhaust themselves on the stairs to the summit, Việt and I decided to make our descent. At this point, the group had completely parted and most of the others were either still at the summit or trekking back solo. Unfortunately the tour guide couldn’t keep the group together.
As darkness began to fall, Việt and I took our time trekking back down the side of the mountain, retracing our steps from earlier, except this time with much more energy as a majority of the journey back was uphill. We had needed to climb over another mountain to reach the summit. We trudged along, craving dinner, and some much needed rest.
When we finally arrived back at the base camp, it was nearly black outside so we put our headlamps to use. Việt and I settled in a small room with 3 other hikers, resting before dinner. We overheard hikers in the next room over who had chosen a different tour agency laughing and eating while we remained quiet, exhausted and starving. This unpleasant scenario lasted for what felt like 2 hours until our dinner was finally prepared and brought in. We scarfed it down with rice wine to keep warm since the tour agency took an additional 40 minutes to provide us with our sleeping bags. Once we finally had our sleeping bags, we fell fast asleep.
The morning air immediately woke me up as I left the inside of the cabin to brush my teeth. A half hour later and the group was ready to make the trek down. Before we knew it, we were at the mountain’s first base camp where we had eaten lunch the day before and took a small break before continuing onwards. The scenery of clear mountains cascading into the distance and floating above clouds faded as it was replaced again with a dense jungle immersed in fog.
Back at the very same place where we had started, we were each awarded a medallion before boarding back into a van to Sapa. We said our goodbyes to our fellow hikers, picked up our bags at the agency, and walked to a coffee shop to hang out before our bus back to Hanoi. Beginning to look at photos from the trek, the pictures that we had just seen in real life already seemed surreal. Việt was thrilled to have celebrated his birthday early by achieving something so challenging yet rewarding and I was overjoyed to be a part of it. We began to crash while walking to our bus.
About 6 hours later we arrived back in Hanoi. It was the first bus of many over the course of the next few days. With my plans spontaneously changing and the decision to stay in Vietnam longer, Việt and I now needed to rush back to Saigon to extend my visa an additional month before it expired. When we had been in Hanoi before, Việt spent hours calling different visa extension offices trying to find the best prices throughout the country then calling bus companies to try and book tickets all the way from the north of the country to the south (Hanoi to Saigon: 1,600km or 1,000 miles). With the end of Tết lingering, it made booking these buses nearly impossible but Việt’s Vietnamese couldn’t fail. He had managed to book the return trip, stopping for a day in Huế and 2 hours in Hội An, 2 additional Vietnamese cities that we wanted to see but had skipped since we had flown over them from Nha Trang to Hanoi. With the country’s highest peak conquered, our eyes were now set on traversing one side of the country to the other. The race to extend my visa was on.
Every Vietnamese post header image features a shot on film by Việt during our time together.