Sapa is a hill town in Northern Vietnam and the jumping-off point for people who want to ascend Mount Fanxipan.
You take the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, close to the border with China, a journey of about eight hours.
To travel on a Vietnamese sleeper train sounds exciting and adventurous but it is probably an experience that you will not be looking to repeat in a hurry.
The train carriage looks comfortable enough. Clean bedding and soft mattresses are provided in the four-berth, first class compartment.
But the whole journey is in the dark so there is nothing to see and the carriage jerks and judders, and is very noisy so sleep is next to impossible.
You arrive at Lao Cai station at 6.00am, and take a van to Sapa, and a couple of hours later you are transported to Tram Ton or Heaven’s Gate, the starting point of the Fanxipan climb.
Mount Fanxipan (sometimes spelt as Phan Si Pan) at 3,143 metres, is the highest mountain in Vietnam, and the highest in Indochina. The starting point is already over 2,000 metres.
A guide and porter are provided. The porter carries everything you will eat for the next two days in his basket.
After a gruelling afternoon’s hike you arrive at the base camp accommodation to rest up for the night.
The hut can accommodate up to 16 people sleeping sardine-like. The food is good, amazingly so given the primitive conditions in the kitchen.
The porters and guides will knock up an impressive meal which is washed down with generous gulps of rice wine.
The worst aspect of base camp has to be the toilet facilities which consist of a wooden platform built over a pit containing a large pig which will eat the droppings. Eco-friendly, but it makes you rethink eating pork again.
After an early breakfast you begin the final ascent to the summit of Fanxipan. It is one of the most exhausting things you will ever do.
Mud everywhere, oozing over the top of your boots. Muddy trousers, caked boots, shirt soaked with sweat, glasses steamed up, visibility zero. Lungs wheezing, heartbeat audible, leg muscles aching, hour after hour.
What are your feelings on reaching the top? Not really exhilaration. Relief to get a rest but tinged with anxiety about having to go all the way back down again.
It is not the best view in the world due to poor visibility but when the clouds part there are some impressive vistas.
On the way down your knees will probably buckle so be careful not to slip and injure yourself. At least your breathing will be easier going down.
Finally back down at the bottom you will feel strangely invigorated for several hours afterwards, perhaps due to the after-effects of prolonged heart pumping and the intake of super fresh air.
Back in civilisation, you are able to explore some of the charms of Sapa while recovering for the next stage of your travels.
This region of Vietnam is home to a number of ethnic minorities such as the Hmong who are happy to pose for tourists in their traditional dress and sell examples of their skilful handicrafts.
This article first appeared in http://thriftytraveller.wordpress.com