Towering 3,143 meters (10,312 ft) nine km from Sa Pa town, Fansipan is the tallest mountain in Vietnam and the second highest peak in mainland Southeast Asia. Known as Phan Xi Păng in Vietnamese, the peak referred to as "the Roof of Indochina" is a popular destination not only for Vietnamese tourists but for visitors from all over the world.
Ascending Fansipan is not a technical climb; it is simply a grueling version of Sapa low land trekking. The trail most commonly utilized from Tram Ton Pass is often wet, muddy and very slippery. Some rain is to be expected particularly during the rainy season when it will often rain virtually nonstop for days at a time. At higher altitudes climbers will often find themselves completed engulfed by dense fog or banks of clouds. Trekkers in reasonable physical condition can usually reach the peak in less than 10 hours. The most popular guided trek is conducted over a two-day period; the first day’s journey taking roughly 8 hours. The final ascent to the peak is made the following morning, with the goal of arriving just after sunrise.
These days the vast majority of visitors to Fansipan avoid hours of arduous trekking by simply taking the modern and comfortable cable cars operated by Fansipan Legend. Completed in February 2016 at a cost of $196.4 million US dollars, the system holds two Guinness World Records. Spanning a distance of 6,282 meters (20610 ft), it is the world’s longest three-rope cable car route and also boasts the greatest height difference between departure and arrival points. The 33-passenger cars cover this record setting distance in less than 20 minutes. Departing from the Sapa terminal, the view from the car as it passes high above the rice terraced village of Sin Chai is absolutely spectacular. As the ascent continues, the valley is left behind as the car travels over the densely forested mountain and up into the clouds.
Upon arrival at the Fansipan terminal the weather is noticeably colder and wetter than in Sa Pa town. Now is a good time to enjoy a coffee before breaking out a jacket and ascending the final 500 steps to the summit. 500 steps might not seem very daunting, but at an altitude of 3,000 meters air contains less oxygen than at sea level and most people will feel the effects. Signs posted along the route to the peak remind visitors to proceed slowly and take rest breaks. Emergency oxygen bottles are staged at rest stops and personnel are available to treat visitors who require medical attention.
At the mountain’s peak are an observation deck and two small monuments which confirm to visitors that they have indeed reached "The Roof of Indochina". Vietnamese flags are available, free of charge, for enthusiastic waving during picture taking. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the summit, clouds moved in and smothered the rocky peak. The visibility could not have been much more than a few hundred feet, so much for spectacular photos. Fortunately, located at the terminal, 500 steps below the summit is a very nice restaurant. How could anyone pass up an opportunity to eat lunch on Vietnam’s highest mountain?