the night train to the north country
23.03.2009 74 °F
Sa Pa part one:
The late (9:10PM) train from Hanoi takes 8 hours: of course you have to be at the station about 40 minutes beforehand. We needed all of that time to figure out where we were supposed to board, because it’s a bit chaotic, and apparently a mad rush to Sa Pa on weekends. A few travel tips: we used Pumpkin Travel, which has a private coach with soft sleepers. It’s relatively clean, with four berths to a cabin. We shared our cabin with a couple from Saigon. It was pretty comfortable in terms of SE Asian travel. The WC is a stainless steel floor with a handle in the wall (hold on tight, ladies!) and a hole in the floor. We both had to use it during the trip, so we tried to keep water to a minimum. L was in the upper berth, and she said she got cold because she was close to the AC and couldn’t find a way to turn it down. On the ride home, she’ll have her sweater handier.
We were quickly lulled to sleep, although the upper berth can be a bit bouncier. So, if you want a lower berth, ask for #1 or #2. 3 and 4 are the uppers. At around 5AM, the most amazing music started playing- acapella women’s voices that sounded so gentle and harmonious- it was like fairies were singing us awake. I think it was some music from the hill tribes. We arrived at Lao Cai Station, which is on the Vietnam/China border. Our shuttle driver was there to greet us, and we were fairly rapidly crammed into a 12-seater (I believe there were 14 of us). The trip to Sa Pa from Lao Cai is 28km and takes another hour. We couldn’t see much, as it was still early, and we were jammed in to the van. We ascended the winding roads, passing other shuttles, being passed by shuttles and motor bikes on their way up. As we got closer to our destination, the banana trees receded in the distance, and lush rice terraces and Asian pines came into view. When we arrived in Sa Pa, we saw a charming downtown area in where numerous hotels and restaurants are located. We stayed at the Pumpkin Hotel, where the rooms are clean and the amenities spare… I sat down on one of the beds, and it was like a stone slab. We investigated, and they were box springs instead of mattresses! There’s no air con, because it stays cooler up north. Despite the horrid bed, the room was tidy, and the staff friendly. We didn’t ask for another room- it was a weekend booking, and the town was going to be full. We'd been expecting cold and rain, so we packed sweaters and ponchos. Much to our surprise and delight, the weather was beautiful- sunny and warm with a mountain breeze.We were told by the clerk that breakfast would be at 8:30- time enough for people to rest and clean up before hitting the town. When we came down to the dining room (three flights of stairs, no elevator, but the ankle’s doing much better), there was a large contingent of Hill women in their tribal garb watching us through the hotel windows- just waiting for new tourists to latch onto. L & I each had a bowl of pho and a cup of hot Vietnamese coffee. My Hanoi friends will be pleased to know that their pho is superior!I grabbed my walking stick, and L got her camera. As soon as we opened the door we were surrounded by about six Black H'mong women selling their wares. We began walking up the street, and they followed us like an entourage. Several of the women had babies on their backs in slings fashioned from colorful blankets, and a few carried plaid umbrellas in case of rain or too much sun. Those who didn't have babies with them wore baskets on their backs, and those baskets were full of weavings, jewelry, needlework- an assortment of bright handicrafts. We noticed many other tourists who were moving through the town with their own entourages. It was not as overwhelming as it may sound- the hawkers in Hanoi's Old Quarter can be more aggressive physically and verbally. The H'mong and the Red Dzao people had more of an ease to them. The streets and steps in town are steep, but it's market day and we have a lot to see!
Eager to shed our entourage we sought out a place to rent a motor scooter. We noticed a couple of German lads on scooters and asked them where they got them. They pointed down the street, right next to our hotel, and told us that it was pretty cheap. We investigated and found a man eager to rent us a scooter for half the day. We paid the 90,000d (about $5USD) and headed off up the hill. Happy to be free we set off into the valley toward Cat Cat Village, a local Black H'mong tribal village. You pay an entrance fee on the road then park your scooter in a small lot and start on a stone paved, stair stepped trail down into the valley. It is the only way into the village. The going was hot and no shade available. S's ankle still being weak made for slow going but the view was amazing. We got part way down the valley and knowing that her ankle wouldn't be able to handle much more (she was such a trooper!) we rested and perused the few H'mong dwellings were they were working their trade: stone carvers, weavers, embroidery and clothing. We managed a peak through some huge bamboo stalks further into the depths of the valley and enviously watched a group of children playing the water of the river below. Knowing that the climb back up would take some time we turned around and carefully made our way back to the road. We were greeted by the proprietor of the scooter parking lot who invited us into her shop to sit and rest in the shade of her balcony with a view of the valley. With a fresh bottle of water we relaxed while we cooled off.
-S & L.