Night 9 & Day 10 Overnight to Sapa
Tien picked us up about 9pm and escorted us right to our cabin on the Hanoi-Sapa train – thank goodness he did because we’d have never found it otherwise. These trains offer several ‘levels’ of overnight accommodation – hard seats (think wooden bench) soft sleeper (think regular bus/train seat – certainly nothing like the long distance trains in Germany) and then sleeper cabins – 2 or 4 berth. Rather than have to share with some random strangers we opted for the 2 berth soft sleeper – which in fact turned out to be a 4 berth cabin with the upper bunks stowed.
Just cleanin' the windscreen on the Sapa Express
The train began rolling right on time and clattered its way out of the Hanoi metropolis. What started as a relatively pleasant ‘a-tick, a-tack, a-tick, a-tack’ and a gentle rolling motion soon became a whole lot else. The underlying rhythm and sway remained but every now and then came a whacking great clunk from the under-carriage – we really thought something was going to work loose and spear up through the floor. In the end we got used to it and managed to get some sleep having declined the invitation to join the train guard for a beer.
We woke about 5am to find ourselves snaking along the Red River Valley. The people living here eke out a living in really tough conditions, making use of every single bit of available land. It was quite strange seeing corn planted alongside bananas, alongside chrysanthemums, alongside rice, but this part of Vietnam seems to have a climate suitable for a very wide variety of crops. The people appear to be dirt poor and I wonder how they survive the winters (where temps get into single figures) living in houses with walls made of bamboo thatch.
The Red River from the train
Every bit of available land is used
This is a 'luxury' carriage
The train got into Lao Cai (on the border with China) around 8.30am. We hadn’t organised a transfer to Sapa (an hour away) so we took our chances with the minibus touts. The bus ride was through some spectacular scenery – incredibly steep hills, terraced for rice & other crops, past waterfalls & deep gorges. Paved almost all the way but only just two lanes, there were some interesting passing manoeuvres as we came across trucks & regular sized buses.
It seems the minibus service does actually drop you off right at your hotel (rather than being dumped at the ‘bus station’ and we were delivered right to the door. Since it was not yet 10am we couldn’t check in so we dumped the bag & our day packs and went off in search of a coffee. The $1.25 coffee we got on the train about 6am had long since worn off.
Sapa is a mountain town – it is literally perched on the side of a mountain range, and the only flat bits of and are those that have been levelled (and filled) for building hotels & restaurants on. Everything and everywhere in ton is either up hill or down hill, or up stairs or down stairs … this will certainly test Tony’s knee even though we don’t plan on doing any ‘trekking’
The view from our balcony at the Sapa Eden Hotel
Back to the hotel to check-in and have a nap before heading out for some lunch. Then it was time to check out the ethnic textiles. Tony graciously lasted 5 minutes and beat a hasty retreat. There is a section of the markets where all the old ladies and their fabric & sewing machines are located… for a fabric-o-phile like me it is like being a kid in a lolly shop. The trouble was, every old lady wanted me to buy from her shop… and there were dozens of them and they were relentless!!!!! Absolutely not for the faint- hearted, and I was dragged round all the shops and shown dozens of lovely pieces, some new, some old but all amazing.
This part of Vietnam has 2 main ethnic minorities – the Red Dao (pronounced Zao) and the Hmong – who are divided into the Flower Hmong and the Black Hmong. The Red Dao are easy to identify – bright red head-dresses set back on their very high foreheads, and predominantly black clothing – loose fitting pants and a jacket with embroidered panels on the sleeves & front.
After a lesson from one old toothless woman I can now tell the difference between the Flower Hmong and the Black Hmong. Flower Hmong wear colourful striped accordion pleated skirts whereas the Black Hmong wear black straight skirts and either go without head covering or wear brightly coloured checked scarves round their head… the Black Hmong also usually have blue hands – from dyeing their fabric with indigo..
These girls are Black Hmong .. complete with baby in a very nifty back-sling
I then had to escape – I bought from ONE shop, and now the rest of them wanted my cash! I beat a very hasty retreat! … and ignored the half dozen that followed me out of the market and onto the main street.
By now I was ready for a cuppa and the mist was rolling in. We’ll head out later in search of dinner – not that it will be a difficult search – the main street is lines with restaurants.