Snowshoeing in Vietnam. The concept sounds absurd, but the reality of snow in this southeast Asian country is definitely a reality. I was beyond thrilled when less than a week before my visit, snow blanketed the highest peak in Vietnam – Fansipan Mountain.
A few years ago, while researching unique places to visit in Vietnam, I discovered Fansipan Mountain. Officially called Sun World Fansipan Legend, this peak is a must-see of the area. It’s the highest peak in all of IndoChina, which comprises the countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
Since 1909, Fansipan sat at 3,143 meters (10,312 feet) high but recently recalculated at 3,147 meters (10,325 feet). Give or take a few feet, it’s still one of the only places in Vietnam where snow is possible, albeit it’s irregular. Historically, late December and most of January offer the best times for snow at Fansipan. Thus, I booked my flight to Vietnam just after the new year.
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Since I would be spending most of my month-long visit in the southern part of Vietnam, I initially flew to Saigon. A few days later, I took a two-hour flight north to the capital city of Hanoi. After a night in Hanoi, my Vietnamese friends and I took a five-hour bus ride to the town of Sapa. This town is just six miles from the imposing peak of Fansipan Mountain.
Located in the Hoang Lien National Park in the northwest portion of Vietnam, Fansipan and the surrounding area were affectionately referred to as the Tonkinese Alps by the French. The towering Hoang Lien Son Mountain Range that includes Fansipan is actually the tail-end of the Himalayas, and it provides miles of spectacular scenery (and sometimes Vietnam snow). This is the prize that attracts many hikers and trekkers from around the world.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, I had an immediate appreciation for the Sapa area. It bills itself affectionately as the “Northwest” in reference to its location in the northwest corner of Vietnam. Set near the borders of China and Laos, Sapa is one of those places where you “gotta wanna be there.” More than 62,000 people call it home, with many employed in the tourist industry. There are nearly 400 hotels and inns in Sapa. In addition, numerous restaurants cater to the many hikers throughout the year.
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Sitting at an elevation of more than 5,000 feet, Sapa’s beauty is augmented by its rural setting. Some of that beauty can be seen in the local residents. The area boasts a handful of ethnic groups, including the Hmong, Dao Do, and Giay. Hmongs are the dominant ethnic group. You can see them dressed in colorful attire throughout Sapa as well as nearby Cat Cat Village, just a few miles away. Though somewhat commercialized, this small Hmong village offers lots of character, entertainment, and colorful clothing for sale. It is definitely worth a visit.
Strolling through the Sapa Market, you’ll see various vendors selling fruits, vegetables, and spices. Plus, find an array of unique brocade attire in vibrant colors hand-crafted by locals. Throughout town, I saw many young mothers dressing their children in traditional attire. They would then turn these little cuties loose on tourists, who were eager to take their pictures. The kids were quite bold in their demands, as my friend found out.
While visiting the historic French Stone Church in the center of Sapa, there were lots of little kids dressed in colorful clothing. Chau eagerly snapped off several photos of a little girl who couldn’t have been more than four years old. After taking the photos, Chau gave the little girl a 5,000 Dong note (there are roughly 23,000 Vietnamese Dong to the dollar). We heard that was normally a good payday for these kids. However, the little girl insisted Chau pay her 10,000 Dong. She wanted 5,000 Dong for herself and another 5,000 Dong for her sister, who wasn’t even in the photo!
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French Colonialism in Vietnam
When the French colonial period in Vietnam began in 1887, Vietnam was referred to as French IndoChina. Even after the French left the country in 1954, several of their influences remain in architecture, food, and some language terms. For example, as mentioned above, the French often referred to the Sapa/Fansipan area as the Tonkinese Alps. The area looks quite similar to the European Alps, especially Switzerland, which borders France.
French architecture examples can be seen throughout the country. You’ll find it in The Hanoi Opera House and these structures in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, and the People’s Building. In Sapa, you’ll find the Stone Church and nearby Hôtel de la Coupole. The French coupole translates to dome in English; one look at this exquisite hotel, and you’ll agree it’s the perfect name. It’s also the only five-star hotel in Sapa.
According to historical information compiled by Asia Highlights, two main staples of Vietnamese cuisine include the Banh Mi, a Vietnamese sandwich, and Pho, rice noodle soup. Before the French arrived, the Vietnamese typically didn’t have bread in their diet. Thanks to the French baguette, though, Vietnam now has a similar version. Vietnamese bread uses rice flour instead of wheat flour, giving it a distinct texture and taste. Arguably Vietnam’s most popular dish, Pho, is a take-off of the French pot-au-feu, or pot of fire, which is similar to a stew.
Today, hot pot meals are a mainstay at many restaurants in Sapa. During my visit, I dined several times with a hot pot meal setting. The meal features a portable burner in the middle of the dining table and includes meats, vegetables, and seasonings simmered in broth. It’s a casual and fun atmosphere and makes for great conversations!
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The Roof of IndoChina
After a few days of touring Sapa and the surrounding area, I was full-on ready to conquer Fansipan Mountain. In addition to its natural beauty and status as one of the few locations in Vietnam where you can experience snow, Fansipan also boasts a few unique offerings.
Recently, they added a state-of-the-art cable car, suddenly making the area accessible to the masses. Prior to that, it took at least two grueling days of hiking in order to get from the town of Sapa to the top of Fansipan. By contrast, the cable car offers a quiet,15-minute scenic discovery. The journey features fabulous views of the surrounding Hoang Lien Son Mountain Range and picturesque layered rice fields.
At the same time the cable car was added, an incredible 70-foot tall (21.5 meters) copper Buddha was built at Fansipan. The new cable car not only took visitors to the roof of IndoChina but also provided access to the highest bronze Buddha on the planet. Ironically, Guinness World Records recognizes both the cable car and bronze Buddha. The addition of these two features drastically increased visitation to Fansipan.
With the Lunar New Year just a week away, many Buddhist visitors to Fansipan, including my friends, made a special point of praying to the copper Buddha before them. It was inspiring to witness first-hand their prayers to this particular Buddha.
On the day I visited Fansipan, many others dressed for a simple photo op. However, I dressed for a snowshoe outing. I could tell they were freezing their tails off. We had 50-60 m.p.h. wind gusts to go with temperatures in the low 30s. But as the clouds ebbed and flowed, they constantly treated us to spectacular 360-degree views of the natural beauty before us.
After strapping on my snowshoes, I immediately drew some strange looks from others. As the wind swirled and the sun broke through the clouds, I proudly posed in my snowshoes next to the 3,143-meter sign. Though I’m Catholic, I prayed like hell to Buddha on this day to deliver snow. Though I wasn’t granted that wish and didn’t find snow, I wouldn’t change one minute of the experience on Fansipan Mountain and Vietnam.
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