Hanoi is a wet, cold, city. This is the first time people have been right about a place being cold. To the credit of the locals, people have only told us two cities would be cold. One out of two isn’t bad. Hanoi seems to rain endlessly. Since we had more time here than first planned, Bobbie and I immediately started looking into what we could do in the north of Vietnam. We booked tickets for a train to Sapa to go trekking. Bobbie had wanted to take me there at the beginning of the trip, but as we added countries and cut time in Vietnam, it fell out of our itinerary. Sapa is about 300km north of Hanoi. Overnight trains run daily to Lao Cai which is then about an hour bus ride from Sapa. The train takes about 11 hours to cover the 300km. At a blistering pace of less than 30km/h these are obviously not the slick high speed trains of Europe, although that does not stop travel agencies from depicting them as such on their fliers (caveat emptor reigns supreme here I suppose.)
We booked a “hard sleeper” for roughly 44$ each round trip. I was very excited to take my first sleeper train. When we arrived at the train station, we found we were firmly placed in the “scum class” with the very last car on the train. Sleeper births are the cheapest at the top, so naturally we had those. Each small room sleeps six, with each bunk having about half the height of the one below it. This left us with maybe sixteen inches of headroom on the top bunk. I had to perform contortionist exercises worthy of a Dan Carnahan warm-up to lay out the blanket on my bunk. At first we thought we might actually have the room to ourselves, but in about twenty minutes Bobbie pointed out there was 8 people in this 6 bed room. As the train got under way one person left. The car bumped and swayed fiercely, especially considering how slow it was moving. Bobbie commented “This is how we will die.” which is possibly the 15th time she has said this in many weeks. I thought the room started smelling like smoke. Later, we learned that the group in the cabin next to us had stayed up all night gambling, drinking, and smoking. We figured this out when we walked by at about 5 am to find them all shirtless, and the floor in their room, as well as most of the hallway, covered in cigarette butts.
Our train arrived about three hours late to Lao Cai. Our guide called us while we were still on the train saying something about not being able to make it because she was getting married. Of course we were confused by this because we had talked to her about two days prior and confirmed the date with her. She connected us with another guide who explained to us she got married last night, and in her culture the women doesn’t get to say “no”. They were both members of one of the ethnic minorities in the area where apparently a man has to simply grab your hand and say, “We are going to get married.” for it to be so. Our new guide explained that at 16 this would actually be the second time this girl had been married and she, “…cried like a baby” as people had to literally pick her up and carry her to the ceremony. Her first marriage ended with her running away at night to get away from her husband.
The weather was amazing, and we hiked two hours out of town together with six other tourists. Along the way, I noticed about eight other local women were walking along with us trying to make conversation. When we stopped for lunch we immediately found out the reason for our escort as they all started to shove trinkets and things in our faces, demanding we buy them. After a while, they gave up. After lunch we moved on for another three or four hours to another village where we would stay the night. Most of us managed to get a sun burn along the way. I think we all really welcomed the break from Hanoi’s gloomy skies.
The following morning we feasted on banana crepes before heading out for more trekking. The scenery was really lovely, steep hill slopes covered in rice terraces and grazing buffalo. Sadly we never got too far from civilization. We were reminded of this regularly by power lines and roads along the way. I got to sit on a water buffalo after I flailed my way up onto its back, which was a goal for Vietnam. I’m not entirely convinced it was alive though, because throughout the whole time of me sitting on it, it’s legs did not move an inch. Bobbie stepped into some deep mud around the paddies twice and each of her shoes were covered in mud. To which the guide commented, “You got new brown shoes!” Around one in the afternoon on the second day, we got to a third town where we had lunch and were beset upon by local women again selling us trinkets that were, “Cheaper for you.” Another bus ride later, we were back in Sapa.
After shopping a bit and finding Bobbie a sweet North Face jacket, we grabbed a van headed back to Lao Cai where the train station was. Several things to note about this transfer for your future travels… the price seems to be set around 50,000 Dong. We saw locals paying this amount in our van, although we did manage to make a scene and get it for 40,000 (I’ll explain in a moment). The operators will of course try to get you to pay 100,000. Walk away and the price will magically drop. We had one operator follow us for 15 minutes when we arrived in Lao Cai trying to get us onto his van. The van operator will try to get you to pay upfront. He then hops off as the van leaves. If anything goes sideways along the way, you are then SOL. This is probably a coincidence as the operator surely has your best intentions at heart. Don’t pay up front if you can avoid it. Which leads us to the last point, these vans only leave when they are full. If you are the only ones, and you pay up front, expect to be treated to a nice joyride as the driver takes you all over town looking for other passengers to fill the van. We didn’t pay up front and after the driver started to circle a second time, I got up and opened the side door of the van. The driver looked at me like I was crazy. We told him he could take us to our destination immediately or we would leave. He then took us to another van where we demanded a lower fare (at this point I was really glad we had not paid when they asked for money). Bobbie was fed up with this, and we walked away from the second van after we could not ascertain if they were actually leaving. We decided maybe we would give hitch hiking a shot or even pay for a taxi (gasp). We were over the vans. After walking about three minutes and having little idea where the road out of town actually was, the same van showed up again with more people in it. This time the driver told us we go now and told us 40,000 was okay. Not totally convinced we wouldn’t be dropped off in a completely wrong town, we got in anyway and started driving out of Sapa. We arrived in Lao Cai and waited a few hours before boarding our train. We got back to Hanoi without any incidents and managed to make it in time to catch our bus to Ha Long Bay.
Sapa was really lovely. We had great weather and would strongly recommend it to anyone coming through Vietnam. If we had more time we would have been interested in taking a longer trek. With that being said, we were pleasantly surprised by how much ground we did cover in the two day trip.