How To Visit Vietnam’s Highest Mountain In An Afternoon
Did you know that you can reach the summit of Vietnam’s tallest mountain in just one afternoon and be back at the base in time for dinner? Located near the small village of Sa Pa in Lào Cai Province, Fansipan Mountain (Vietnamese: Phan Xi Păng) is the perfect day trip for anyone planning to spend a few days or more in this rural corner of Vietnam. At only 3,143 meters high, the mountain is easily accessible thanks to its relative shortness (compared to other mountains around the world) and a newly-built cable car that can take you most of the way up.
As part of my recent two-week stay in Sa Pa, I decided to spend one day visiting Fansipan. It was definitely one of the highlights of my trip! The top is home to a large complex of Buddhist temples and monuments, all of which are really beautiful.
Fansipan can also be hiked, but it’s quite the endeavor. I think it usually takes two days with an overnight stop somewhere along the way. Although that sounds doable, the main issue is that it’s quite expensive. It’s my understanding that you have to hire a guide (i.e. not optional), and this can cost more than 100 USD per person. Although I’m sure hiking the mountain is a really rewarding experience, I decided to save some cash and time by opting out.
This short guide is written for visitors who want to take the cable car to visit Fansipan. If you’re intent on hiking it, check out this blog post that offers more information about treks and tour options. Otherwise, read on!
Why You Should Visit Fansipan
Fansipan is worth a visit not only because it has some amazing views, but also because of all the Buddhist temples at the top. You’ll literally be above the clouds. Fansipan is admittedly out of the way, but if you’re already planning on coming to this little corner of Vietnam, don’t overlook this day trip to the mountain. Below are the steps to a successful visit to Fansipan.
How to Visit Fansipan
Step 1. Get to Sa Pa.
The small village of Sa Pa is much more famous for its stunning terraced rice fields than its proximity to Fansipan. Be sure to see both the rice fields and Fansipan if you’re heading to the area!
Step 2. Buy your ticket.
Your day trip will start in the main public square of Sa Pa town, or more precisely the Sun Plaza Sa Pa Station. This blocky shopping center towers over all the other buildings around it, and it looks wholly out of the place. The ticket booth is located on the main floor, and signs and employees can help guide the way if you get lost.
Tickets are expensive by Vietnamese standards. In spring of 2019, it cost 750,000 VND (approx. 32 USD) for a round-trip ticket. Compare that to the equally stunning cable car in Phú Quốc, which holds the record for the longest cable car in the world and only cost 150,000 VND (7 USD).
Step 3. Take the monorail.
At the Sun Plaza Sa Pa Station, you’ll first take a short monorail ride from the shopping center to the Cable Car Downhill Station. The train is elevated above street level and offers a first look at the kind of views you can expect to see as you ascend.
You can technically save yourself 50,000 VND (approx 2.20 USD) if you choose not to take the monorail. But the cable car station in Sa Pa is on the outskirts of town, so it would probably take at least half an hour to walk there from the main square. A taxi to the cable car station from town would almost certainly cost more than the 50k, so I highly recommend just taking the monorail even though it costs slightly more.
Step 4. Go up the mountain in the cable car.
After getting off the monorail, you’ll find yourself at the cable car station at the base of the mountain. Hold on to your ticket, which you’ll use to get on. Cars come into the station every few minutes, so you shouldn’t ever have to wait.
The ride up lasts about twenty minutes, and according to this website, earned two world records: the longest non-stop three-rope cable car and the greatest change in elevation of such a system, going up 1410 meters from the bottom to the top.
Views from the cable car are incredible. Most of the ride will whisk you high above a dense forest of trees below, with minimal signs of human activity or presence. In contrast, the bottom of the ride will allow you to see some of the famous rice paddies in Sa Pa from an aerial point of view.
Although the ride was amazing, there was a freaky thing that happened on the way down. Click here to skip below and read about that!
Step 5. Walk the rest of the way to the peak.
There is the option to take a short funicular ride from the cable car station to the very peak of the mountain, but I just recommend doing this last final bit on foot. You’ll save yourself a dollar or two, but more importantly, you’ll be able to explore the many temples and monuments here at your own pace. I think it’s about 600 steps from the station to the peak, but it’s worth it.
By the time you reach the peak, you’ll probably be ready for a little rest. The views are great, but don’t expect to be able to see all the way down into the Mường Hoa Valley below, even on a fairly clear day. The drop in temperature from Sa Pa to the peak is noticeable, but I would say a jacket isn’t necessary at least in spring and summer. A long sleeve shirt or one extra layer might be a good idea, though.
The peak is marked by a number of bronze pyramids which are great places for a picture. I figured there would just be a single one, but luckily there are a bunch, so you won’t have to fight with other tourists for the perfect shot!
Step 6. Repeat in reverse.
After you make it to the peak, you’ll just repeat the entire process in reverse, which is pretty self-explanatory.
One Freaky Incident...
In the spirit of full disclosure, I will let you know about one incident that occurred on the way back down the mountain. The cable car system apparently lost power while I was on it, suspended in midair, hundreds of feet above trees below. This caused our pod to lurch forward and down a bit before remaining stationary and suspended in the air for a number of minutes. Employees eventually radioed in to the intercom and explained (in Vietnamese only) that power had been lost, but luckily other people in my car were able to translate.
Obviously, no one got hurt, and a feat of engineering such as this should have multiple safeguards for cases of inclement weather or power failures. However, it was still quite a shock that left everyone’s hearts pounding!
You’re so high off the ground for most of it, and the truly massive distances between support poles will leave you wondering how the design is even physically possible. Sometimes five or seven minutes would go by without passing one, and in many places, the cable would disappear into the horizon because the next tower was so far away, such as in the picture below.
I’d say Fansipan is worth the visit, unless you think the cable car would give you a panic attack. So would you do it? Let me know in the comments below! If you’ve hiked this mountain, I’m curious about your experience as well! Thanks for reading and stay tuned for upcoming Vietnam excursions!