A guide to trail running in Vietnam (Mt Fansipan on your own)
Before the Thailand Ultramarathon, I had to travel in order to do some hill training and conquer those 2500 meter elevation (always the same story when living in Kuwait). And so, a month before the race, I landed in Vietnam, the land of conic hats.
I joined two friends that had arrived from France and after visiting Ha long Bay, we took our bikes and headed to Sapa as a base to play in the mountains. The first thing we did once there is what I am about to narrate and probably the best thing to do in Vietnam if you are a trail runner or a mountain lover. To climb Mount Fansipan, the highest summit of Indochina with its 3143 meters.
We arrived in Sapa and we were informed that taking a guide was compulsory for any kind of trails/treks you do in Vietnam unless you get a special permission from the state office for tourism. And since we have revolution in our blood (as french) and don't like stupid rules we tried to figure out a way to avoid spending 50 bucks per person in a tour guide (mostly we are very stingy).
We found a map of the city, its surroundings and the position of the Fansipan was on it. Then we found out from some locals that we had to go passt the silver waterfalls to the golden waterfalls, 15 kms on the west side of Sapa. And that's just what we did. We took our bikes and drove all the way passed the silver waterfalls and a couple 100 meters after, on the left, we saw the entrance of the golden waterfalls which is also the starting point of the mount Fansipan trail. There was a little cabin with two guards in it. They came after us while crossing the beginning mark of the trail and obviously they wanted 100 bucks black money to let us pass because we were not allowed (What a surprise !!). After an hour of negotiations and countless hand signs, they wouldn't go below 50 so we left to Sapa furious and frustrated; we had wasted a whole day for nothing.
Back to Sapa, we thought this through and came up with a solution after we visited countless tourism agency. All the treks don't leave before 6 am, so what if we went there at 3 in the morning ? There would probably be no one there. Guards gotta sleep some time (even if you're a communist). So be it! We had a plan.
We relaxed the rest of the day in Sapa and discovered this city packed with tourists and with the usual business it involves. But let me explain how this was a bit different. While walking the streets, numerous local women between 15 to 70 go around tourist and ask if they want to trek with them to their home, spend the night and leave the day after for 50 bucks. WTF ?! This was for me very similar to prostitution. I mean I don't know what happens up there, and, most probably sex is not involved, but packed groups of women in the streets, shouting at every tourist they see, and asking for money against a personalized trek to their home, well, it was kind of weird to say the least.
Anyway, the day was ending and we had to get ready for the long awaited Mount Fansipan trail-gasm the next morning, so we slept.
Early morning rise at 2.00 am. We took an early breakfast, grabbed our bags, left on our motorbikes and drove until we would reach the Tram Ton Pass, where it would all begin. It really is an incredible feeling to drive on Vietnamese roads in the mountains at night. Everything is dark but there is just sufficient moonlight so you can distinguish the mountain ridges. You are alone on your old destroyed communist bike feeling like you lived "Good Bye Lenin" or "Die fetten Jahre sind Vorbei"; those german movies that describe life before 1989.
We arrived at the Tram Ton Pass, there was no guard like planned and we started hiking the trail. It was very easy since the path was made and there was only one way. We thought that we would go back or wait for hikers in case we'd encounter an intersection but none of this happened. The most difficult was to find the way after a river crossing and this usually involved 5 to 10 minutes of looking around until we'd have found where to go.
It was a 13 kilometer climb until the summit but, man, it was steep. Even on the Transvulcania race, ascents were not that inclined so we ended up walking most of it and we ran only on some flat areas, so useless to say that we almost didn't run. We power walked through jungle in the nights (photos were taken when we came back). The jungle became rockier and from what I could see with my lamp, trees were becoming smaller and vegetation less dense. We passed a little camp and continued in the darkness. There was no noise, it was very cold and frankly the route was tougher than expected.
See, most of the people said it would take 6 hours to get to the summit if you were well trained, but we knew, being ultra marathoners that we would probably need half of it. But after enduring that terrain we were really not sure anymore. The path became very narrow, creating a way in between a sea of green bushes and after 2 hours of intense hiking we stopped at a second camp. This one was at 2,800 meter height, and from there the hike was supposed to be easier to the summit. We were still in complete darkness and continued to walk and past the jungle we arrived to a huge rock-slip. From there it was kind of tricky to find the way as it was a little lower behind it but we passed it and continued.
We were walking for almost 3 hours and the sky was getting a little brighter. The sun would be out very soon. We started running again, hoping to catch that sunrise,
and overtook a few trekkers that had left the camp at 2800 height early morning. A couple 100 meters left and the sun was starting to rise already. We went faster, pushing on those calves, breathing heavily and knowing that we would suffer later for this, but once at the top, this made it all worth it. We were above the clouds with a clear view on the orange colored horizon and, "Damn", that late sunrise was beautiful.
It was time for a little reward and we had brought a beer particularly for that occasion. No need to explain the absence of bubbles, it is pretty self explanatory but even without carbon dioxide, we appreciated every bit of it. Al least it was cold ;)
We needed 2 long hours to come back and we crossed many hikers on that last stretch. They probably hate us now for telling them it was not that far anymore =) Karma is a bitch. I twisted my ankle.