Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including a visit to the incredible Vietnam.
We had been in Vietnam for four days, and had already spent a rousing evening in Hanoi, and three days on an activity-charged cruise on captivating Halong Bay. Our next venture was an overnight train ride from Hanoi to Sapa, a mountain town in northwestern Vietnam, home to a variety of (exotic and colorfully dressed) ethnic groups originating largely from southern China, Thailand, and Laos.
My hope had been to schedule a daytime train to Sapa, however, the train timetables revealed nighttime train travel only. We were a bit wary, as we had not heard any firsthand feedback about this train ride. Would the train be safe, noisy, busting at the seams with people; sleep-worthy? Online research informed us it might be best to book an entire cabin, as otherwise we could be bunking with an entire family in a rather confined space. Communication with staff from the Elegance Ruby Hotel, our “home base” while in Hanoi, indicated that the Sapalay Express train, the train line we ultimately chose, was several tiers above the “Oriental Express” in terms of comfort and service, and only one tier below the highest rated train. This helped to assuage our concerns, and we booked our train travel to follow a day’s rest in Hanoi after our Halong Bay cruise.
After an evening meal of Bún chả; broth with bean sprouts, green salad leaves, noodles, and pork bits at what was becoming a favorite “hole in the wall” restaurant near our hotel, Bishara and I left for the Hanoi train station at 8:45 PM. A hotel porter was good enough to accompany us to the station. Virtually no one spoke English except for a smattering of western tourists; consequently, it was a relief to have our porter confirm our tickets amidst the throngs of people positioning for a spot in line or scurrying to find their train line and coach number. Our porter, baggage in hand, earnestly and expeditiously maneuvered through the hordes, located our coach, motioned for us to climb up, and then coolly hoisted our bags onto the train. Sensing Bishara’s concern, our porter promised, in purposeful yet limited English, that someone would be at the train station to assist upon our return to Hanoi from Sapa.
Securely on the train in our private cabin, I felt able to focus on the excitement of our imminent train trip. Our cabin was small with two sets of bunk-style beds, and although the furniture was somewhat dated and worn, the mattress, pillows and fluffy comforter were all surprisingly comfortable and cozy. Although Bishara and I had prepared to be up for a while planning our time in Sapa, and possibly reading while ingesting this novel train experience, our active day culminated in us both drifting into desultory sleep following a 9:50 PM departure time.
Despite jolting at every grind, stop and start throughout the night, I enjoyed a whimsical awareness during our uncommon ten-hour train excursion. Morning light peeking through the curtained window of our cabin lifted us out of our semi-conscious reverie at around 5:00 in the morning. Pulling the curtain aside, I was beguiled by the lush greenery of the expansive rice paddies framed by undulating hills and farm homes. We were nearing Lao Cai, our destination. A young man knocked on our cabin door with offers of Vietnamese milk coffee.
We arrived at Lao Cai train station at 8:30 AM, and shuffled through the narrow train corridor with Bishara lugging the heavier suitcases and me trailing behind. Swarms of people, once again, met us as we stepped off the train; train passengers fusing with those waiting to meet them. Amongst the masses, we spotted a man holding a sign that read “Bishara.” Feeling relieved, we scurried over; the young man gave us a cursory nod, snatched our bags, and led us to his awaiting van. We all piled in, and were soon on our hour-long ride from Lao Cai to Sapa.
As we departed the train station, the cityscape of traditional long, narrow and deep buildings slowly transformed to luxuriant vegetation hugging the surrounding bluffs. With each hairpin curve the mountain views expanded and village life became discernible. Lone ethnic Hmong women dressed in black with colorful trimmings and cloth shin guards emerged on the side of the road hauling plastic bags to undetermined destinations. Further on, glimpses of battered wooden structures with tin corrugated roofs, homes of the Hmong, appeared on mountainsides and along towering ridges.
Within the hour we arrived in Sapa, a popular destination in northern Vietnam for young Bohemians and retired tourist groups alike. Our van weaved through the narrow streets of the town until we reached our accommodations, the Bamboo Sapa Hotel, on the outskirts of the city. Our room, the Fanispan Suite, was an ample space with polished wooden floors and a breathtaking panoramic view of the Hoang Lien Son Mountains, or “Tonkinese Alps.”
Although weary and punchy after a sleepless night, we decided to push on and probe this intriguing town. We began with a breakfast of special order omelets with tomatoes and onion and milk coffee at a charming restaurant across the street from our hotel. Although our preference is to indulge in local fare, we felt compelled to order our “go to” heavy duty omelets to help sustain us through the day.
Breakfast was followed by a stroll through town; breezing by boutique hotels with multi-tiered balconies adorned with flower pots, cozy cafes, massage parlors, food marts, and the ever-present towering, slender residences. We finally bumped into the Sapa Market with vendors selling raw meat, fruits and vegetables, a variety of savory nuts and herbs, kaleidoscopic textiles/clothing, while aromatic grilled Vietnamese street food filled the air; a virtual assault on the senses.
Staff at the Bamboo Sapa Hotel had provided us with a map of the town and neighboring area when we first arrived, and recommended we visit the Ham Rong (Dragon’s Jaw) Mountain Park, a 15 minute walk from the hotel. After leaving the Sapa Market and stopping for a brief tour of the stone (or Holy Rosary) church near the mountain park, we began a considerable climb up Dragon’s Jaw; hundreds of stone steps and a cobblestone pathway. The expedition included the Fanispan View, a broad display of Sapa huddled within the mountain peaks, dazzling flower gardens, and the summit with more glorious views.
The walk down the mountain was only slightly less painful than the trek up. To soothe our aching muscles, we opted for classic Vietnamese foot, arm, upper back massages at one of the many massage parlors in town. The massages left us placid and languid, and at only $8 per hour, were an incredible value.
Glancing at our watches, we realized it was suppertime and not wishing to diminish our serene states of mind, we chose to dine at Viet Bamboo, a restaurant close by on the side of a hill, even though it meant climbing more steps. Our sore knees and tired bodies were rewarded with cordial service and some delectable starters, including pumpkin soup in coconut milk and potato soup with Vietnamese herbs, followed by chicken curry and fried rice with shrimp and pineapple. We topped off our meals with Hanoi beer, ginger tea, and exquisite fried banana cake with honey.
Making our way back to our room, we stopped in a café across the street from our hotel where “Play that Funky Music, White Boy,” one of my disco favorites, was blaring. Although tempted to dance the night away, we thought it best to get a good night’s sleep, as we wanted to fully enjoy our visit to a tiny nearby Vietnamese village the next day. . . . We couldn’t wait!