Sad and wet in Sa Pa

Trip Start Jan 15, 2010
Trip End Nov 09, 2010

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Friday, August 27, 2010

The storm that chased us home from Ha Long Bay to Hanoi followed us all the way to Sa Pa. We spent one night back in Hanoi after the excellent trip to the water, then took a night train from Hanoi to the far northwest corner of Vietnam. The train left Hanoi about 9pm, in the dark and rain. There wasn’t much to the train station there; just a small lobby of a ticket office and waiting area. Beyond that were mostly open and exposed, and very worn looking platforms. We had taken a taxi to the train station, which dropped us on the street outside the “gates” of the station parking lot. With the rain falling, we hurried into the ticket office. We had vouchers from the hotel for the tickets, but we needed to redeem them for the actual tickets. After some round about wandering, a guy selling snacks and beverages for the train travelers pointed us in the direction of the ticket counter we needed.

The people at the hotel had told us numerous times beforehand that we did not need to arrive at the station too early because it was close and we had tickets. Well, we did not arrive too early, for once we got our tickets and were pointed to our platform, we walked back into the rain in search of our platform and already waiting train. Too close for our comfort. Dark and wet, all the platforms are mostly on the same level as the tracks, and crossing tracks is literally just that - walking across the tracks between the trains. Nothing fancy like much of Europe with raised platforms, pathways over or under the trains. Safety didn’t seem to be a high priority here, or in our ‘follow the locals mode’ we just never saw the “safe” route to the trains, but I don‘t really think there was one. It was raining and we wanted to get there quickly.

Train found, we just had to find our car, which seemed to be at the far end from where we were, but we did and we climbed the steps up and boarded. It was a “deluxe” sleeper cabin, which meant we would be sharing with two others; four total in our cabin, two bunk beds. A bit surprisingly, and very thankfully, the beds (the only thing in the cabins aside from a very small table between the bunks) were very nice looking with very clean and crisp linens, comforter and pillow. Aside from the fact that we would be arriving in Lao Cai at 5am (ugh!) it appeared like we would have a comfortable journey.

The train began to chug its way into motion soon after we were onboard and we were on our way. Our bunk mates were some guy that was already sleeping when we got on (he would start snoring a little bit in the night which was a bit painful) and a girl from one of the northern Scandinavian countries I can’t recall. It’s train roulette when you go this way, but it seemed we had a pretty decent pair to spend the next eight hours with, most of which would be asleep. Tamara suited up with her ear plugs and eye mask and went straight to sleep. I read my book for a while and then did the same. The bed, comforter and pillow were in fact all quite comfortable.

As scheduled, the cabin attendant started knocking on doors at 4:30am to tell us we were approaching Lao Cai. Never figured out why they wouldn’t schedule the train to leave Hanoi later in the night (when its easier to be awake) so that it would arrive at a more “normal” morning hour (not the painfully abnormal hour of 5am!). Sure enough, 5am and we pulled into the station - in the same dark rain we left Hanoi in.

Hustling off the train to get under cover (in a train station that looked just like the one in Hanoi), we fairly quickly found our prearranged driver (holding the “Jeff Fisher sign”) to take us to Sa Pa. There ended up being about six of us in a minivan and off we went for the 30 mile drive up the mountains. 5am this time of year is mostly pitch black, so there was nothing to see and the rain didn’t help. One guy climbed into the vans back row and everyone else nodded off back to sleep. The ride though is pretty much straight up from Lao Cai, twisting back and forth in a switchback mode. Lao Cai must be at about 400 feet and Sa Pa is at about 5,000 feet. The drive takes about a hour, by which time daylight had started to reveal where we were going and ultimately where we were when we got there. For the most part we were in the middle of low hung, rain soaking clouds. We were in the mountains to be sure, but there were none to be seen in any direction!

Also for the most part, this is pretty much what we saw of Sa Pa for the next three days - clouds and rain. After months of constant heat though, the temperature was significantly cooler, which was our consolation prize. It was 6am when we arrived at the Cat Cat View Hotel (Cat Cat is the name of one of the local tribes in the region), but they were mostly ready for us when we arrived. Because of the daily train arrival schedule it seems all the arrivals in town occur first thing in the morning, so we were able to check in, have breakfast and then sit and look at the rain from inside.

We had planned (and paid) to do some hiking expeditions to and through some of the local/indigenous tribes that live in the region and are the reason many people go to Sa Pa, so we made inquiries about that after breakfast. Our first opportunity for that would be later in the day - after we had gotten settled and rested from the overnight journey. At the appointed 1pm meeting time, the rain was still falling, but we went to the lobby to meet our guide. I had already decided I was not going to go on an unknown hike in the cold rain - but Tamara had been very excited for this trip and decided to go. Her expression and comments when she returned several hours later, mostly dripping wet confirmed that “I” had made the right choice!

We had left our ponchos in a minivan in Hanoi the previous week, so we had no real gear for rain. The guide, a very petite native girl dressed in colorful, local attire and water/mud proof boots up to her knees assured Tamara she would be okay and would take her to get a poncho on the way out. They walked out the door into the rain and I went to the dry confines of our room to watch HBO movies. With three days of near constant rain, we would end up watching countless number of movies.

I was warm and dry, still lying on the bed watching movies a few hours later when the door opened, Tamara was dripping in the doorway and said something to the effect that she must have been crazy, needed to have her head examined and would not be doing that again! I laughed then just as I laughed now when I wrote this! I helped her with her wet everything and she proceeded to take a warm shower - and join me in movie watching - for the next three days.

That could pretty much sum up our three days in Sa Pa, but we did get a lucky dry few hours one day. We took the opportunity to walk around the small town, see some sights and try to dodge the ever present, always hustling sales people. You can’t walk out the door of the hotel, restaurant or shop without being offered something to buy. It very much takes away from being in what is supposed to be an “old tribal” community, when the now reality is that tourism has become so big here they all know it and try as much as they can to get you to “buy my things”. That’s what they say, not with a question mark at the end of the phrase, but just as a statement. Very pushy, very annoying after a while. Tamara said this was the same she encountered on the “three hour tour” she did with the young local girl. They walk you through the neighborhoods, but its in part a gauntlet of shopping opportunities.

Even with the partial clearing of one afternoon, the clouds never lifted high enough to see the peaks of the mountains. We did get to see a couple of good views of the terraced rice fields that make up a lot of the farming in the region, before the rain clouds lowered on us and started to rain again. Back to HBO - and wine with dinner!

A saving grace for the three days was that the food was good in the hotel, and they had wine! We had not seen much wine since leaving Europe, so this was a very nice treat.

Departure day, we piled back into the minivan in the early afternoon (yep, still raining) and start the 30 mile decent from Sa Pa back to Lao Cai for the night train back to Hanoi. Same time schedule, which will get us back to Hanoi at the still dreadful 5am.

A highlight (for me, since I didn’t get that nice rainy hike Tamara did) of the entire three days was about to happen. Driving in Vietnam is not like driving in - most anywhere, outside of Asia and China. Drivers will cross any lines, lanes, lights or markers if it will get them further along faster. There is no such thing as a no passing lane or for the most part any kind of “rule”. If they see a gap, they will honk their horn and make the move. Pedestrians do not have the right of way, and they better be alert. Half way down the mountain we were coming around one of the switchback turns when all of a sudden we come across about a half dozen huge water buffalo slowly lumbering down the middle of the road. Nothing bad happened and we didn’t hit anything, but it was just an amazing sight. We have seen them in several other settings, but never in the middle of the road like this (aside from the cattle on the freeway coming from the airport last week!). Usually you might expect some old shepherd/farmer man to be slowing walking his animals to/from the pasture, but these huge animals (they definitely look larger than cows) were being led all alone by a young boy that could not have been any older than 10-years old - and he was barefoot, holding about a two-foot long machete in one hand and riding on the back of one of the beasts down the middle of the road! No saddle and nothing to hold onto, and his short little legs didn’t even begin to wrap around the side of the animal. He was just straddling on top waving that machete, absolutely oblivious of all vehicles. I’m pretty sure our driver ‘has’ seen this before so we just swerved around them and cruised past as if it was the most common thing ever. It all happened practically in a blink of an eye and there was no chance of getting a photo of the moment, but imagine what you were doing when you or your kids were 10-years old and I’ll bet this would never be a scenario you or I would have imagined. It was an awesome sight.

Back to the Lao Cai train station, this time early enough to get some dinner (Pho noodles) across the street. Probably the same train, beat up looking on the outside, but the same “deluxe” beds for the overnight journey back to Hanoi. Walking to our train car we could see the “not deluxe”, six beds to a cabin section through the windows in the dark. They looked like the bunks in Alcatraz, so whatever small premium we must have paid for the deluxe accommodations was indeed very much worth it.

As planned we arrived back in Hanoi at 5am, still dark and still raining. Awakened by the same 4:30am knocking on the door pulling into the city. You know how there is an automatic road block gate that lowers when you approach a train track that has a moving train? Not in Hanoi. Looking out the windows as we slowly approached the station there was a person at each intersection and they were sliding metal gates on wheels across the road to keep traffic from approaching or crossing the tracks! There are a lot of new, modern conveniences moving into Vietnam, but there are still a lot of old school ways of life in place too. Get past the bombardment of people trying to sell you anything and everything and it was a great place to visit.

Next stop, China….
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Ken baker on

Cool, man! Love to hear how you pulled this trip arrangements off someday!

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