Fanxipan Roof of Indochina

Fanxipan from Sapa

Fanxipan from Sapa

Fanxipan  is located within view of the hill town of Sapa in Lao Chai province in north-western Vietnam. As the sobriquet suggests Fanxipan at 10,312 ft is the highest mountain in Indochina and the last major peak in the Himalayan range. I define Indochina in the strict sense of those countries comprising the territory of the former French Indochine, i.e., Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

After disembarking at Lao Cai station from the night train from Hanoi we were soon winding our way through Sapa and on up the Tram Ton Pass, the highest in Vietnam. At Heaven’s Gate  (5,905 ft) we started to walk. I will stop the journey temporarily there…………………

For an excellent account of the climb I would refer you to my fellow traveller’s post:

In fact it was after reading my friend’s blog that I realised I did not wish to attempt to describe what was essentially an analogous experience. At the great risk of creating reader ennui I shall instead digress into matters environmental and flora.

To augment my meagre and amateurish observations (I wasn’t taking notes at the time nor did I ever imagine that I would write-up my experiences) as to the impact by man upon Fanxipan and its environs together with a brief description on its flora I did some research. I came across a couple noteworthy items.  The first an article from Shan Tuyet a website about the people, country and tourism of Vietnam.

To paraphrase the article, Dr Tran Huu Son, Director of Lao Cai Province’s Department of Culture, Sport and Tourism  had recently stated that climbing Fanxipan was hazardous to the ecosystem. To quote Vietnam’s Rooftop is extremely rough[true], especially when tourists have to pass through the base zone of primitive forest [part of Hoang Lien National Park] and impact the ability to preserve the valuable gene source for plant and animal systems. For these reasons, the Culture, Sport and Tourism Branch in Lao Cai Province is discouraging people from climbing Fanxipan. However the article went on to say that this coming October 2010, The Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism is cooperating with the People’s Committee in Lao Cai Province to host a climbing competition to determine who gets to plant the Vietnamese flag on top of Fanxipan. The article concluded saying that Mr Pham Van Dang, Director of Hoang Lien National Park, had previously stated tourists’ impact is not as worrisome as the local people setting fire to the forest.

Some mixed messages and actions there. Without doubt climbers are being discouraged. Not outright refusal – there seems to no problem in purchasing the necessary climb permit – but by sheer mismanagement and neglect of mountain infrastructure. All but a few (you can if you are extremely fit and in  a hurry climb up and down in a day from Heaven’s Gate) usually have to spend one or two nights on the mountain. We spent two (“two too many”). Accommodation is extremely limited and filthy. In my view the camp represented an extreme bio hazard in itself and we were more in peril there than anywhere else on the mountainside. That is saying something because it is a dangerous mountain (with annual fatalities) and the climb itself being no “cakewalk”. I read somewhere that some 2,300 climbing permits were issued in 2007 (the year of our climb) and not all would have reached the top (some no doubt will have turned back once they saw where they had to sleep!). For such an iconic mountain in a highly populated country this is a very low number. In 2008 Mount Fuji was climbed by 430,000 – now that is a real eco-problem caused by visitors.

Left: Toilet. Right: “Downstream” Pig Stockade

The environmental impact of climbers vs the local residents. The obvious and visible negative impact caused by climbers is the rubbish which is strewn around the camp – of non-biogradeable and biodegradable kind. The latter comprising raw sewage was only partially dealt with by a couple of strategically positioned pigs below the main (but not only) “latrine” area (though latrine does imply something a little more sophisticated). In fact the latter really were as “happy as pigs in ……” I can’t resist showing you my  friend’s photo of the official “arrangements”.

Yes quite and moving swiftly on.

Climbers of course need to be responsible themselves but you cannot rely on this alone there has to a proper system for rubbish collection and waste disposal – there appeared to be none. The other obvious impact that visitors have is the requirement for wood for cooking. On the very long first afternoon spent at base camp, to kill time I went for a walk to the trail above the camp. There I came upon, what is I know as, Montane grassland. Swathes of grassed areas on the hillsides interspersed with dead, but still standing hardwood. Whilst the grass had disguised signs of scorching the area had once been subject to fire whether deliberately or naturally instigated. Not much of the wood had been cleared for firewood purposes, judging my the large number of still standing  dead trees,  but rather the area provided good grazing for domesticated buffalo of which there were sightings and plenty of evidence. The conclusion of all this is that I would agree with Mr Pham’s sentiments that there are more problems caused by local populace encroachment upon the park area (a worldwide phenomenon and not easy to resolve – the local hill tribes do after all need to make a living). Vietnam is not an economically rich country and I would appreciate they have only emerged in the last decade after a century of wars and economic mismanagement but they are a resourceful people and certainly can do better with Fanxipan with the will, a little more money (and pigs?) directed to the right places and a well implemented policy which manages the, often conflicting, interests of tourism, local residents and the environment. I feel that the authorities in Sabah, West Malaysia have managed Kinabalu Park extremely well in this respect and this could be a good model.

 Leading on to less controversial (I hope) matters. The second item I came across was a paper entitled The Fanxipan Flora in Relation to the Sino-Japanese Floristic Region written by Professor (actually he was not so entitled but I will confer that anyway) Nguyen Nghia Thin of the Department of Botany and Herbarium, University of Hanoi. A scholarly, if not gripping, 14 page tome written in immaculate English (and Latin). Now there were two plants that caught my eye and imagination on the route to the summit.

Turmeric Plant

  Firstly within the forested area of the lower slopes our guide pointed our attention to small  clumps of Turmeric. Now I had never seen a Turmeric plant before nor, not being a cooking type, the derived spice in the kitchen. Occasionally I recall encountering a jar of it at the local supermarket as I rummaged, upon my good wife’s instructions,  through the spice counter in search of some other such as parsley or sage. It needs a considerable amount of rainfall and a well-drained slope to survive – Fanxipan has the ideal conditions. It’s rhizome is commonly used in curries in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines. In fact it is part of the ginger family. The locals deem it so valuable, and it is an important cash crop,  that near to its maturity and harvest they live out in the forest in small wooden shelters to zealously guard over it. So where does this link with Professor Nguyen’s paper? Well I read the paper through and through and could I find mention of it or Curcuma longa (to give it its Latin and binomial name)? The paper was peppered (sorry could not resist the pun) with Latin names but not a trace of Curcuma longa. Strange I thought the good professor has missed a plant or I have made an important scientific discovery.

Let’s try another plant I’m bound to have more success here.  Bambuseae yes Bamboo. It was omnipresent. Down in the heavily wooded lower valleys and high up on the slopes of the mountain in great forest swathes. We trudged through miles of it on our weary way to the summit. It made up the roof over our heads at night, we slept on it, I had a bamboo walking stick, it provided the material for a basic corduroy road  on the boggiest tracts of the way. Could I find it in the good Professor’s paper – again not a trace.  Another new discovery!?

I had better come to my point and then I shall go on to defend Professor Nguyen from my own frippery in order to articulate his. The research paper was an objective and informative treatise on the diversity of plant life on Fanxipan as it exists presently. The subliminal (Vietnam is still not a country where you can freely state your mind) message was however that the original flora of Fanxipan had been seriously destroyed and replaced by secondary growth and “alien plants” and that there was serious danger of further degradation.  Unfortunately being a scientific paper it is so stuffed with scientific nomenclature and Latin names it makes for a difficult read. Literally “you cannot see the wood for the trees”. The only plants that I could just recognise were Clematis, Magnoliaceae and Rhododenron.  Steven Hawking was once told that his readership would half with every formula he put in Brief History of Time – so he put none.  The same must go for the use of Latin names and I have been guilty of that. If scientists and intellectuals wish their work to be more widely accessible and understood they need to make their papers readable to lay people such as myself.  And so what of Turmeric and Bamboo? After further research I discovered that they are actually part of the Ginger and Grass families respectively. Back to Professor’s paper and yes he records the family types Zingiberaceae and Poaceae. Yes you have it – Ginger and Grass (sounds a bit like a gangster and his moll).

Now in defence of the Professor. If you can recall from your schooldays the proper ordering of the biological groupings used in taxonomy is as follows: Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species. Incidentally my younger son said he was given the following mnemonic device at school to remember it by: King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti  (well that is not exactly what he told me but it is politer).  Now the professor in his paper only went down as far as naming Families (there are some 228 plant families on Fanxipan) and consistently throughout (so as not to upset certain sensitive plants I suppose) no individual Species (some 1,659 on Fanxipan) was highlighted, i.e. Turmeric and Bamboo.  I can’t help but feel however that writing a paper on the flora of Fanxipan and not once mentioning bamboo is like describing the geological features of a beach and not mentioning sand.

 ……………….and after that long very journey we reached the top. The rain stopped, the clouds lifted and the wind died. A still peace and a glorious vista spread before us.  We were truly on the Roof of Indochina.


About The Weary Traveller

I like to walk up and down hills. I've been so very fortunate to have lived most of my life in the Far East (Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and the Middle East (Qatar, Oman and U.A.E). I now live and work in Bangkok. I'm past the half century now and can't help but feel that some of the mountains that I've climbed lately I should have done yesteryear. The mind is willing if the legs are not always so. Here are some stories and realized dreams of hills climbed and, dales and deserts crossed. With a bit of art thrown in. I hope you might enjoy.
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3 Responses to Fanxipan Roof of Indochina

  1. Julian says:

    Amazing to see the vestiges of ancient fauna on this photographic record. I even convinced myself I recognised a couple – the lesserspotted Qatari Mayfly and the very shy (and rarely flush) highland tosser (cf Viet. Pathaan Pathaanus). Shome mistake surely….

  2. Antoine says:

    You seems to be an expert in this field, great post and keep up the good work, my friend recommended me it.

    My blog:
    Meilleur taux aussi comparatif Rachat de Credit

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