Having completed an excellent trek through Sapa’s rice terraces and surrounding villages
, we still had two spare days of clear weather until our planned day spent cooking a Christmas feast. Coincidentally, and quite conveniently, two days is exactly how long we’d planned to spend trekking up to the peak of Phan Xi Păng (Mt Fansipan), the highest mountain in Indochina. Tourists aren’t allowed to walk up Phan Xi Păng except by booking through a tour company or hiring a local guide. Travelers often post travel plans online, saying they’re going to bribe the trailhead guards, and promise to update everyone on how to do the same afterwards.
Follow-up posts never seem to materialise. A tourist attempting to summit Phan Xi Păng solo, and getting lost along the way, prompted the Vietnamese government to tighten their control of access to the mountain. Given that search and rescue is non-existent here, a local accompanying every group of tourists is the only semblance of safety that can be provided.
We had no intention of pushing our luck with the guards, or the mountain. There was limited information available about the hike, we were trying to ascend the highest peak in the region in winter, and we didn’t have a tent or sleeping gear with us. Guided tours are readily available in Sapa, ranging from large group tours with an array of porters and a trained guide, through to solo or small-group private treks with just a guide and porter. We’d thoroughly enjoyed our experience trekking with a knowledgeable local guide, but couldn’t quite justify booking another private trek. Instead, we booked ourselves onto a group trek with an English-speaking guide, the provided meals and sleeping gear. At least, that’s what we were told when paying $65 for the two of us. The reality turned out to be quite different.
We rocked up to the desk of the Kenpas outdoor gear shop on the morning of our hike, our daypacks laden with a few unnecessary extras but still lighter by far than what I carry with me on a daywalk in Australia. The first warning sign that all wasn’t as it should be was when our “bus” arrived, a small taxi that could barely fit the two of us and our bags. Our “English-speaking guide” was the man sitting in the passenger seat, the staff at Kenpas assured us. We withheld our questions about the others in our group; we could always just ask the guide. Were we meeting everyone else at the trail head, we wondered as we squeezed into the car. Two minutes into the drive and it was clear that our guide spoke only a few words of English. It seemed more likely he was one of the group’s porters instead of a guide.
Our taxi sped past the base of “Silver Waterfall”, which is actually the not-so-impressive spillway of a hydro scheme, but don’t tell everyone paying for a ticket to take a photo in front of it. We were dropped at Trạm Tôn pass, with no sign of any other hikers.
Our porter donned a pack made from woven cane, passed us some bottles of water, and gestured for us to follow. “Where are the others in our group?” we asked. He pointed up at the slopes rising above us. Were we running late? The taxi hadn’t picked us up quite on time, but nothing in Vietnam ever runs to schedule so we’d thought nothing of it. Perhaps it was late enough that everyone else had already started walking. We had to settle for that much of an explanation. He took off without further comment, leaving us to either follow or be left behind. We followed.
Most of the track toward Phan Xi Păng clearly wasn’t maintained, being nothing but a channel worn through the vegetation into the clay below. But it was easy walking, and skirted around the steepest rock faces as it dove into a small valley, skirted along the bank of a river and climbed back out. After some time, a rhythmic noise started intruding on the quiet forest. It grew steadily as we walked until, nearly an hour later, it resolved into a concrete mixer chugging away in the trees near the path.
Workers seemed to be building something, but it was nowhere near the existing track. Was it a new track? We would have asked our porter, but he’d already vanished around the bend ahead of us. Instead we turned our minds back to the conundrum our situation represented. Had there been others on our trip, who had pulled out at the last minute? Was that why we had only a porter and no guide, as had been promised when we booked?
The track emerged into a clearing filled with builders and no sign of our porter. Foundation rings rose from the soil. Chickens ran everywhere. A man carrying a dog by its ears tried to stuff it into a bin. We stared. Everyone around us seemed to think it normal, and made no comment when he eventually let the dog go and it followed him away with tail wagging.
Our porter re-emerged, and offered us a plate of sliced salad, two baguettes and some fruit. “Lunch” he told us, gesturing for us to eat in an A-frame corrugated iron structure. It was stiflingly warm inside, and we weren’t nearly hungry enough by 10am to eat, so we assembled the rolls, bagged them up and stashed them in our packs for later.
From the clearing, the trail grew steeper. Parts of it were my favourite type of walking, using hands to scramble up wet clay banks by grabbing exposed roots. I find scrambling up these far steeper slopes much easier and less tiring than just trudging up a hill. We passed a series of small building sites, each accompanied by a long tarpaulin shelter that housed the workers. Each building site was the same, a square pit being dug deep into the ground. They obviously weren’t building a new track, but our guide around the villages at Sapa had mentioned plans to build a gondola to the peak of Phan Xi Păng. Perhaps these were foundations for its pylons.
We had our lunch when we stopped for a particularly impressive view of the valley below. Kicking myself for leaving my polariser behind, I grew desperate enough to try using my sunglasses as a substitute. They worked well enough to quell my frustration, but not well enough to take good photos of the scenery laid out below us. The valleys were spectacular, overlooking by craggy peaks while a haze slowly filled them beneath our feet. But the skies above were completely clear, and the harsh light didn’t sit well with my camera.
The harsh light also wasn’t sitting well with our doxycycline-dosed UV-sensitive skin. We kept our arms covered with long sleeves, and were in severe danger of over-heating as we set off up a section of exposed ridgeline. The thick pants we’d bought in Sapa, not to mention our merino thermals we’d carried from Australia, were starting to seem like overkill.
We reached camp in the early afternoon: a terraced amphitheater of old tent sites surrounding a new building. By then, it was clear we were the only ones on our hike, and there was no guide ahead of us who we could ask for information. We were shown to a room with a sleeping platform, and given our “good sleeping gear”, which turned out to be a 1mm thick closed cell sleeping mat each, and the lightest weight sleeping bags I had ever seen. The sleeping bags were little more than light cloth sacks with a zip down one side, and certainly didn’t contain any insulation. Maybe we’d be using all that warm clothing after all.
After a few minutes of sitting around, wondering what to do with ourselves, we tracked down our porter in a tarpaulin tent filled with other local guides and porters, a firepit at its centre. With three and a half hours of daylight left, and only a two hour round-trip to the peak, we wanted to make a dash for the summit. Once we managed to convey the message in a mix of English, our bare handful of Vietnamese words, and no small amount of sign language, he seemed happy enough with the prospect. We grabbed water and warm clothes (just in case) and set off.
The day was still warm, but it was clear that the night was going to be cold. Above the campsite at 2800m, large stretches of the path were frozen solid or coated with a thick layer of crushed ice. We passed another construction site (a particularly large pit dug into the bedrock) and saw Phan Xi Păng’s peak for the first time. A valley separated it from us, across which workers were tensioning a 400m long steel cable using a hand winch.
The path followed the path of the cable, with a whole lot more vertical included. It dove down into the valley between the peaks, and rose up a scree slope on the far side. Our porter ushered us through the scree slope, watching above the whole time. I could see why; a barrier presumably meant to protect the path from rockfalls formed a line of twisted broken metal across the slope, with fragments of its posts and mesh caught up in the scree strewn down the slope below.
A continuous line of construction works stretched to a plateau below the peak, where the land had been stripped of vegetation and the bedrock was being smashed apart and carted away. The area looked no wilder than any city building site, and was at odds with the rough track we’d had to walk to get there. We stepped around a drilling rig, stopped to let some workers carry a water tank past us and wove between their various accommodation structures (ranging from tarpaulin shelters to a prefabricated insulated building) to the final stretch up to peak.
The view from the top was spectacular. Craggy mountain peaks emerged from the spreading haze below, that stretched out to merge into the sky without ever becoming a horizon. The golden afternoon light cast its shallow rays across it all, throwing valleys and cliffs into sharp relief on the flanks of each peak.
Our cameras emerged and worked furiously as we shuffled settings to try to capture what our eyes could see. Unfortunately my eyes were giving some mountains a beautiful clarity by filtering out the reflected light with sunglasses. Once again, I tried taking photos through the lenses with mixed success. The air was still and surprisingly warm, given a forecast that had put it at less than 10°C. We might have stayed there until sunset, trusting in our ability to walk and navigate using headtorches, but our porter became increasingly agitated as the sun dropped. So we took a few final photos and started back down.
The construction site below was still alive with people, although most of the workers seemed to be taking a smoko further from the path than they had been. Without the stream of people bustling past carrying building materials or tools, Jess took the opportunity to take a few photos of the building works. Waiting for her, I stopped to examine the ground where a drill had been boring into the path as we ascended. The drill was gone, and thin wires now emerged from each of a line of holes beneath our feet.
Suddenly, the workers’ distance from the path, and our porter’s agitation, took on a new cast. The path beneath our feet was laced with explosives.
“Jess,” I called, trying to remain calm; surely they wouldn’t detonate it while we were standing there “we might want to keep going.” This provoked little response; and indeed there was still ample sunlight left to reach camp so there seemed little need to hurry.
“Jess,” I called again, noting how few people were still in the area, “You’re standing on explosives.” That caught her attention, and we were soon fleeing down the slope. We were as keen as our porter to get past the scree and on to the stable ground beyond before anyone detonated those charges. The slope hadn’t looked particularly stable as it was.
Someone approached us along the path, laying a cable out behind him. It led to one of the foundation pits, right above the scree slope, now sprouting wires from dozens more holes. Would they wait for us to get clear? Or should we wait and cross the scree slope after they’d detonated the various batches of explosives. Our porter made the decision for us, harrying us on to the precariously balanced (and poorly attached) ladders that led the way down.
We took our time crossing the unstable rock and gravel. The surface shifted alarmingly beneath each step, sending cascades of pebbles tumbling down the slope. We crossed safely though, descending a final ladder held in place with a couple of tack-welds to reach the comparative safety beyond. A shout echoed behind us, and we turned to see someone silhouetted at the top of the ridge. Two minutes later, a distant thump and the sound of tumbling rock signalled the detonation of one batch of explosives.
As we started to ascend toward the opposite peak, a deafening sound pressed into us, felt throughout our bodies. It was slightly painful to the ear despite the distance separating us from its source. We turned and saw a cloud of dust rising from the ridgeline. The scree slope below was alive with a wave of tumbling rocks and gravel.
From there, our walk back to camp was comparatively mundane. No further explosions shook the air. The path beneath our feet was marked only be ice, without a trace of detonation wires to be seen. We had no particular fear for our lives. It was all a bit too tame, really.
The campsite had filled in our absence, many of the building’s rooms now occupied. Food was served to each group in their respective rooms, so that we were all isolated from the other walkers. A few groups of Vietnamese gathered in the room beside ours, but Westerners all retired to their own cold rooms in silence. And the rooms were cold.
The Vietnamese use insulation and double-glazing almost as rarely as do Australians, and the high-ceilinged building quickly took on a chill air as night descended. We tried wrapping ourselves in the thin sleeping bags for warmth, but heat leaked out through them as easily as it did through the sleeping mats into the air cavity beneath them. Ultimately it would be our thick, daggy pants and merino tops that kept us warm through the night.
Dawn arrived unspectacularly, little colour accompanying it. I packed up the camera and went back inside. We had noodle soup for breakfast, packed our bags and set out for the summit again. Our porter let us head off on our own, seemingly satisfied that we’d be able to find our way there and back without assistance. Plus, if something were to go wrong, there was no shortage of other groups ahead of us.
Just the two of us to set the pace, not wanting to keep our porter waiting too long in camp, we pushed for the peak. Legs still sore from their unaccustomed effort the previous day, we nevertheless passed a few other groups before the summit. The path had moved in places, weaving around a few tumbles of broken rock that it had crossed intact the previous evening. Workers were already laying into the piles to clear the way for the next round of demolition, cutting the foundations of a building through from one side of the mountain to the other.
The view from the top lacked the glorious golden light of the previous evening. Instead, bright sunlight bounced off a blanket of white clouds beneath us. Occasional peaks broke through the cover, islands rising from a white sea. Sitting and taking in the view, we watched a group of researchers from Hanoi launching a drone from the peak. They were looking into deforestation by ethnic villages in the region, although we were fairly sure they were just launching the drone for fun while they were there.
We waited until they completed its short flight, then returned to camp for the long walk back. We passed lines of porters going the other way, all carrying bags of cement and lengths of reinforcing iron for the construction works at the peak. One thing was for sure, Phan Xi Păng’s peak was going to be unrecognisable to us if we ever returned.
For more photographs and her own tales of travel and adventure, check out Jessicas blog, Word and Wilds.