Off to the mountains

It’s Sapa time! Sapa is a village in the northeast of Vietnam, known for its views of the valleys below and its proximity to the Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak at just over 3,000 m. It’s also very close to the hometowns of one of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, the Black H’mong (so called because they dye their clothes black).

There’s no direct route from Hanoi to Sapa; there are trains to Lao Cai, a town within one hour’s drive of Sapa. The train ride takes a really long time, so what most people do is book an overnight train, which leaves Hanoi at around 21:45 and arrives in Lao Cai at around 05:30 the next morning, and that’s what I did.

I booked a packaged trip for this part of my holidays, because there are a lot of moving parts (trains, transport to and from stations to hotels, then trekking tours…) and I was just about done with booking the rest of the trip. So I’m booked for return-trio overnight trains, one hotel night, transport, and two guided treks.

I’m glad I delegated this part of my trip. The train station looked pretty chaotic, with barely any signs (and the few that were there were in Vietnamese only) and lots of people coming and going. Thankfully a hotel employee took to me directly to my own cabin! There seemed to be one big train that went to Sapa, but inside that train different wagons belonged to different private companies and varied quite widely in quality and looks. The lower-end ones looked pretty dire, but further ahead some had velvet curtains and flowers on the windowsill! Mine was the Fanxipan Express, which was okay. I shared a cabin with a polite German couple and one Asian lady that didn’t say a word the entire night.

I was pretty apprehensive of the train ride, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared. Everybody was very quiet, I didn’t hear any snoring, and thanks in part to my cumulated fatigue I fell asleep fairly easily. It’s true that the train shakes a lot during the journey, in all directions: side to side, backwards and forwards, and even up and down! How does that happen? I don’t normally get motion sickness, plus I took a preemptive dramamine, so I felt fine the whole journey.

We were woken unceremoniously by a rapping on the door at about 5:25, just minutes before the train pulled into Lao Cai station. By the time I finished rubbing my eyes I could already see people getting off the train!

When I got out it was still nighttime and it was raining -and I mean pouring, the kind of rain where you run outside for one second and on the first step you can feel chilly water dripping down the back of your neck.

The adventure started when the crowd cleared and nobody at the station had a sign with my name, despite having booked a pickup. I discovered with horror that my phone was at 13% battery, despite having left it at 70% in battery saving mode six hours earlier. I snooped around the waiting room until I found an electrical outlet behind a door next to a fire extinguisher and plugged the phone before calling the hotel in Hanoi to check what was up.

Eventually someone appeared with my name and summoned me to a van that they then filled up over the next half an hour with orher people who had been on the train with me. I knew I had everything booked, so I was fine, but these people were really at the end of their tether.

We drove for an hour up the mountain. At first everything was lush, green forest, but eventually the leafy mountain slopes gave way to tiered rice terraces, forming the landscape you immediately associate with Sapa. Unlike the rice fields between Hanoi and Halong, these are empty, the rice apparently already having been harvested.

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