Trekking in the Vietnam mountains was an epic adventure to be always remembered. Yes I know, the idea of going on your own to the mountains in such a distant place sounds intimidating but for actually it can be entirely possible and enjoyable. Indeed, a person must have certain basic knowledge and previous experience of such activities, but it really can be done in a pretty safe way. Let’s say I encourage adventure but cannot be responsible for any decisions you take, I am only keen to present my story here.
It started with us taking a night train from Hanoi to Sa Pa. I had a mythical idea of Sa Pa being a small and cozy mountain village full of trekking opportunities. On arrival, I soon realized the place has become a highly discovered tourist destination full of new development, more than ever imagined. It’s all good but my main intention here was to climb the Fansipan mountain, camp and record nature sounds. But after coming in touch with reality, I lost inspiration. At least that much to not go over formal things of getting permits and guides. Going there “illegally” but feeling uneasy and risking to get caught also didn’t feel right. Don’t get me wrong, I love to support local communities and people, especially if their actions are aimed friendly towards the environment – but this time, we were really after a more deeper experience. We decided to soon continue our way towards the surrounding area. Still, let me say that Sa Pa and Fansipan is definitely a beautiful place worth a visit.
We continued our way without having any high expectations and then…
The journey continued and the path led us to the Lai Chau region (by walking from Sa Pa). After stopping a minivan full of locals we finally arrived at Lai Chau town. With the help of the internet and Backcountry phone app, we managed to find some inspiring, potentially suitable mountain peak to do some trekking freely on our own. Lai Chau was again a much bigger town than ever thought but at least there was no sight of any “made for tourism” life. We decided to book a cheap but fine hotel room near Lai Chau bus station so we could get some proper rest and organize our adventure.
We found out about a potential great peak which is almost as high as Fansipan but seemed unknown, away from all the crowds. It was mentioned in a blog post and is known mostly by Vietnamese people (from cities) that are into trekking. People from Vietnam countryside usually never go trekking for fun like we do, only to hunt or gather wood!
The next day, we left our cozy hotel room all packed up for the adventure and went to meet our two moto-taxi guys, which we manage to “book” the previous day at the main bus station in town. We jumped on the bikes and started driving towards the mountains, trying to keep in balance with our heavy packs on our backs. The ride included quite some adrenaline, surely a good substitute for a morning coffee. A classic taxi here would be definitely a more safe, recommended and easy solution for anybody more normal than us.
Driving for about half-hour we reached one of the mountain villages, some 10 km uphill from Lai Chau town. After paying Dong to the friendly moto-taxi drivers, we were on our own. We began walking through the village towards the path that was going on the mountain. Here some modern tools – a smartphone with a Backcountry app – were really useful and even critical for finding the trails. The blog post previously mentioned contributed to us being pretty confident in finding the way on our own. Without this initial info, it would be a lot more difficult to discover, find and keep directions to these unknown places.
We Supported locals even by trekking without a tour company or local guide
It came into our realization that the way to the way closer to the mountain was still pretty long and while crossing through remote villages, we decided to try to find some additional transport. There was two guys with motorbikes hanging out at one of the local bamboo houses which we approached them and ask them for a ride up the mountain. They looked at each other and smiled us back “yeah sure!”. Now, these people got some serious skills riding motorbikes pretty much everywhere, as we learned! We had a half-hour drive on steep and curved, narrow forest trails and having a backpack full of equipment on us made things even more adventurous. As you read this you might start to think to do some hiking in Vietnam you need to be a crazy person that goes largely out of its comfort zone. The fact is, I believe that trekking in Vietnam can be done in a much easier and comfortable way than we did. It is all about basic organization and be willing to spend some extra money (which will end up in local people’s hands).
A starting point, trekking, and wild camping
We finally reached the right path, according to the maps. It was about 2 hours walking from the nearest mountain village at 1500m, at the end of a narrow path used by locals with motorbikes. From here it started the real trail, deep into the majestic forest.
From now on, it starts the pure joy of hiking in North Vietnam with astonishing views at the wild valley. At the end of the day, that’s what is all about! Our plan was to wild camp with a hammock for the night somewhere on the way up, so we were in no rush. After trekking for about 1 hour we reached a hidden waterfall nestled in the middle of the forest and it was here that we decided to make a camp for the night. We have put the hammocks on the trees and made a little campfire with some scrap wood we found lying around. Making damage to the environment or leaving any trace, as always, was out of the question. And so should it be for you. It was a long day and after cooking some chestnuts on the fire, we soon sneaked into our cozy hammocks. With the dark arriving and you being all by yourself in the mountain forests, you can start to freak out and imagining all sorts of things. The truth is, I believe there is very little danger from people or any animals (animals here were nonexistent).
Second day at the mountains
After a peaceful night during which we both got some good sleep, it was time for new day adventures. After packing back all our stuff and making sure to leave the area without any trace, we continued our way up. The small path was cutting through the very lush and diverse forest and the scenery was breathtaking. Pure nature and authentic experience on our own. After about 1 hour of hiking, we paused at a wooden hut we found nestled between all the vegetation. The area, after all, was not as deserted and wild as we thought, there were signs of people walking here regularly and even doing some wild logging. I guess, to us Westerners it can all seem so remote but for the locals, it is normal as for us going to a local hill.
The one simple path that was easy to follow until now, started turning into many small paths going all around in different directions. For some time I was confident we were on the right way but It soon came to the point at which we realized it might not be so easy to navigate the right way towards the peak. Having a Backcountry map navigation was useful so far but on such a small scale with so many paths, it was not to be trusted anymore. After a half-day of hiking through beautiful mountain forests, we decided not to continue the way and while soaking all the beauty of the place we started to go back.
Walking back where we came from for about half-hour we discovered the right path leading to the peak. At this point, being already quite tired (also from our previous multi-week wild campings around Vietnam) we decided to leave the actual peak for next time. The biggest factor here was the food, as did not found any quality, nutritional food around countryside markets, even in Lai Chau town. Being vegetarian also did no help. I felt a bit unhappy to leave this amazing area without reaching the actual peak we aimed for but then I took a moment and realized that the whole experience was already an amazing unforgettable and we came a long way on our own.
If the focus of this journey would be other than recording nature sounds across Vietnam and with having more funds, I would surely keep on exploring and trek many of these hidden yet doable peaks in North Vietnam. I believe there are many you can access on your own with a bit of an adventurous spirit, some basic planning and good trekking experience. Although we did not reach the desired peak in the first attempt, I still wanted to share my experience with you. Trekking on less known Vietnamese mountains without a guide can be safe and enjoyable if you take the necessary precautions. But it can be also dangerous, mostly for you to get lost or in trouble due to really bad weather. Therefore never underestimate the journey you take, plan good and be prepared. Most likely you will have a good time and one priceless travel experience. I would suggest you have basic equipment and be ready to camp at least one day of your climb. You could have your adventure also just in one day but you will need to take a quicker or shorter approach and be familiar and sure of the trails.
Few useful tips: