Saturday, August 22, 2015

Sapa Train Ride

In November 2011 my wife and I made our first trip to Vietnam. We decided on Hanoi because it would be cooler than Ho Chi Minh City. And I was taken in by the trip to Sapa, a hill station up in the north western border with China. The trip is no regular coach ride but an overnight train ride from the Hanoi train station to Lao Cai from where we took a car ride for over an hour to reach the quaint village of Sapa built by the French catholic priests.

The decision to go to Sapa wasn't easily made. After I googled for more information and sharing from bloggers I realized I need to made adjustments and prepare for some inconvenience. But the adventuring spirit in me captured my mind and I asked my Hanoi tour operator to include this leg into our itinerary. I understood clearly that it may be my one and only trip to Sapa and I was set to enjoy the moment of my life. I'm writing this entirely from memory.

We were driven from our transit hotel in a little car to the train station after dinner. Being total strangers in a city where folks don't speak English and signage were all in Vietnamese we were at the mercy of the driver. But thus far we were impressed by the kind and hospitable treatment from our Vietnamese hosts. Even though Hanoi is rather backward and disorganized it possessed an air of history and romance that travelers find it hard to ignore. The train station was old and noisy. Better that way than a creepy station with few people. It's true that safety is in crowds but alas the recent bombing in a crowded pedestrian area near a shrine in Bangkok quickly dispel such a universal expression. Safety is how you manage your chosen environment.

The driver bought our tickets while we sat on a bench watching locals and train passengers whisk by. Soon a young lady came towards us with the tickets and beckoned us to follow. We did without question. For almost 200 meters we walked with our individual bags following the lady who looked more like a teenage girl towards the train in semi darkness. I saw two trains but didn't know which one we would be boarding. Both looked very old. I accept their conditions as this was Vietnam and not a developed country. Suddenly we stopped at our coach and the girl motioned us inside and led us to the cabin where we would be sleeping during the journey. She then left us.

The cabin is a 4 bed bunker. We took one side and shared the other with an Australian couple I think. Each passenger was provided a complimentary bottle of mineral water and a small pack of tidbit. The beds were soft and clean. Above the pillow was a night light. A sturdy ladder at the foot of the bed allows access to the upper bunk bed which has a railing to guard the traveler from accidentally falling off either by himself or from the rocking movement of the train. I chose the lower bunk because I will awake several times in my sleep to go to the bathroom. There was a small closet to store our bags.

I was uncomfortable sharing sleeping space with strangers. That was the over-riding reason to reject going on this ride. However I felt the reward at the end of the ride would be well worth any discomfort. Thankfully our sleeping partners didn't snore. In fact I was more concerned with waking them from my frequent opening and closing the cabin door that night. Or if I snored at all. Thankfully the chugging and clacking noise as well as the shaking of the coaches kept us half awake to be bothered.

The train made many stops in stations along the way. I peeped out into the darkness and saw houses. I guess these stations must be close to residential areas and the folks there had to endure sounds from passing trains nightly.

I didn't sleep well. In part I was disturbed by passengers in the next cabin who were noisy. But mostly from a different sleep pattern and environment. Still I appreciated the physical rest offered by the bed. Soon the 10 hours ride ended at around 6 in the Lao Cai station. Our tour guide was waiting for us in his car. Being dark we cannot see anything outside but on our return we were amazed by the cultivated hillsides. Sapa is an agricultural area occupied mainly by the hill tribes who planted and harvested padi on the hilly slopes. While in Sapa we trekked from the hotel to the tribal villages to experience how they live. It was very humbling coming from a more progressive country and city.

The Sapa journey is forever etched in my mind.

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