Journey Back

After spending the afternoon relaxing at the Sapa Rooms Hotel, it’s time for us to leave Sapa for the journey back to Hanoi. Similar to the travel coming to Sapa, we had the transportation arranged through the hotel. For someone who is used to plan everything in advance myself, it was a bit uncomfortable not knowing what the next thing that’s going to happen in this trip.

I asked Andrew and Cathy, the other Sapa Rooms guests who are also traveling back to Hanoi about how this would work, and they were not sure either. So we asked the hotel’s front desk person about this, and he told us not to worry and just be ready to leave by around 5 pm. A minivan that would take us to Lao Cai would show up, and once we get to Lao Cai, we would be dropped off at a place where we could collect our train tickets. I was so used to having everything planned out in advance, knowing the point of contact in the event of emergency, etc. — not just going with the flow. So even this explanation was not completely making me feel comfortable about the trip. At least knowing that at least there are other people in the same position made me feel a little comfortable.

Around 5 pm, sure enough, a Ford Transit minivan showed up outside the hotel. By then I had just finished settling the hotel bills, and the hotel manager told us that our ride to Lao Cai was ready to take us there. So we loaded up the van and got ready to leave. In addition to Andrew, Cathy, Kristi, and me, there was a family of four tourists that also went with us. The rest of the van were locals who were on the way to Lao Cai. We recognized one of the passengers; it was May our tour guide from the day before. She recognized us as well and said hi. I remembered she mentioned that her daughter stayed with her in-laws in Lao Cai during the week, so she was going to Lao Cai to see her daughter.

It didn’t take long to load the minivan and off we went. The trip was like the reverse of the ride coming in. We came in the morning when it was still dark when we left Lao Cai but then we saw the sun rising on the way to Sapa. For the trip to Lao Cai, we left when it was still light outside, but the sun set on the way there and by the time we arrived in Lao Cai, it was already dark.

The minivan dropped the local passengers including May along the way as we entered Lao Cai. The last stop was at a restaurant located right across the street from the train station. Apparently this was the drop off place for us, and someone from the restaurant had the train tickets for us. We got the tickets, and not long after, we were told to head to the train station with our tickets, get inside the station, and find the train car and cabin as marked on the ticket. Andrew and Cathy were assigned to different train car than ours, so we said goodbye to each other on the way in, and that was the last time we saw them.

The photo below was taken at the restaurant where we were dropped off by the minivan in Lao Cai. It wasn’t a bad idea for the Sapa Rooms folks to coordinate with this restaurant to help with the travelers’ logistics. This allow them to have someone helping in Lao Cai without having personnel going along from Sapa to Lao Cai. For the restaurant proprietor, I’m not sure if they got a cut from the train ticket purchase, but since we had to wait for few minutes before our time to head to the station, some other passengers ended up getting food to go from the restaurant to take during the train ride. For the passengers, the restaurant also had restrooms they could use before going aboard the train for the overnight journey.

Ticket pick up place

Morning Drive to Sapa

After few hours of sleeping in a tiny sleeper during the train ride between Hanoi and Lao Cai, we were woken up by the sound of the train stopping, followed by someone shouting outside. Then someone banged on our cabin’s door. When we opened the cabin’s door, we found out that we had arrived in Lao Cai, and the loud shout was to tell the passengers to get up, pack up their belongings, and leave the train. The time was around 4:30 am, so most of the passengers were still half awake. They slowly freshened up a little bit, gathered their belongings, and left the train.

It was still dark outside when we disembarked from the train. It was similar to the Hanoi Train station; we walked through a dimly-lit outdoor platform, pretty much following other passengers in front of us as noone really provided any direction other that we had to leave the train car (the lights inside the train car flickered several times as warning that they would be turning everything off soon, so we had better move out quickly).

We said goodbye to George and Gol, the couple who shared the cabin with us during the overnight train ride. Before we left Hanoi, Mr. Viet, the gentleman who arranged our travels between Hanoi and Sapa, told us that once we arrived at Lao Cai Train Station, on the way out we should look for a driver with a sign saying Sapa Rooms and my name written on it. As we reached the exit of the train station, sure enough, we saw someone with the sign. I used hand gestures to tell him that we’re the passengers he’s waiting for. He nodded and motioned to us to follow him to the parking lot. He had a minivan that was empty, and after loading our luggages, he asked us to get on the minivan. I was quite happy as everything seemed to work like clockwork. Or so I thought…

The driver then left us alone in his minivan to go back to the train station. We waited there for few minutes, until he came back with several more passengers (all foreign tourists) who had their luggages loaded and got on the minivan joining us. Then the driver left again… This happened for several times, until finally our minivan was fully loaded. So it seemed that even though the driver might be contracted by Sapa Rooms to pick us up, he was also trying to maximize his load by picking up other passengers there. This was the only means of transportation to get from Lao Cai to Sapa, so the demand for such service was pretty high especially everytime the train from Hanoi has just arrived.

It was already close to 6 am when we left Lao Cai. It was still dark outside, and it was quite foggy as well. The drive to Sapa took a little more than an hour, and it was pretty much an uphill climb all the way there. For the first half of the ride, it was still dark outside so we couldn’t tell what’s on the sides of the road, but what we could tell was that the fog was quite dense that the visibility was quite low. We could barely see any car or incoming traffic within 50 feet in front of us. But yet the driver was driving constantly at 60 km/h. Most passengers were pretty much going back to sleep on the drive there. I was awake by then, so I thought I tried to capture the experience by getting my camera out from my backpack. It was quite a challenge trying to get the camera out and changing lens to the one with the right aperture and focal length to use while being careful to prevent dropping the lens cap or anything else in the dark and crowded minivan cabin. I managed to take some shots; most of them ended up to be mostly dark scene, but they captured the moment of being in the dark, driving in a dense fog.

About halfway during the trip the sun came out and we could start seeing the scenery around us. The photo below was taken during the ride. It was my first glimpse of the mountainous region of Sapa that we’re about to visit. It could’ve been nice to see clear sky and the sun rising in the distance, but the clouds and fog slowly clearing up added a different dimension to the sense of place.

Morning drive to Sapa

Train Ride to Lao Cai

After boarding the train at the Hanoi Train Station, Kristi and I located our cabin inside the train car. Each cabin has four sleepers. When we booked the trip, we were faced with decision whether to follow the recommendation to purchase all four seats in a cabin (for privacy, security, and comfort reasons), or only purchase the two spots that we needed. In the end Kristi and I decided to get only two spots, and we would share the cabin with whoever other passengers who take the other two sleepers. It might be a bit ‘risky’ but we thought we would face the risk while traveling anyway.

When we found our cabin, the first thing we noticed was how small it was. there were four sleepers, two on each side, and they were designed for the local standard size (i.e., pretty short). For Kristi, it wasn’t a problem since she’s pretty small in posture. For me, it’s just about to fit. If anyone 6 ft or taller travels in this cabin, it would be very difficult to travel on the top sleeper. Even if you take the bottom sleeper, a tall person would probably need to sleep with his/her feet on the ground. Adding the constraint of the small cabin space was the space for luggages. You can slide the luggage under the bottom sleepers, but the space was barely enough for luggages from two people. Both Kristi and I each had a backpack. That we had to keep with us on our sleeper. I used it as extra head rest next to my pillow. Other than that, it was a clean cabin with pillows and blankets provided.

Not long after we settled in our cabin, the other two passengers in our cabin arrived. They were a couple from Montreal, Canada, named George and Gol who like us were in the middle of exploring Northern Vietnam. We had a fun conversation talking about our trips so far. George said their trip didn’t start well as they got stranded in Hong Kong for an extra day because their United Airlines connecting flight got canceled and they had to spend almost a whole day at the airport waiting for the next flight to Hanoi. After making it to Vietnam, the first part of their trip was to go to Ha Long Bay for a cruise, and they said they really liked it. They’re planning on spending some time in Hanoi when they get back from Sapa. So it was a little bit in reverse compared to our itinerary — we spent time in Hanoi, then Sapa, then Ha Long Bay. It was great though to hear that the next destination for both our parties were going to be good.

As it got closer to midnight, everyone was ready to get some rest and sleep for a few hours. We had the light turned off and not long after I heard George started snoring a little bit and I could tell Gol and Kristi were already asleep as well. Somehow I had difficult time sleeping, so I ended watching a movie that brought in my netbook and I wanted to watch before the trip to Cambodia, but never had a chance to… The Killing Fields. So there it was, I spent the next three hours or so watching this movie about the Khmer Rouge atrocity in Cambodia. Since we visited the Tuol Sleng Prison and the Choeung Ek Killing Field while in Phnom Penh, I had a better idea of what had happened in real life, and made me appreciate how well the movie was done to reflect what really happened in Cambodia. Eventually after finishing the movie, I got tired enough and could finally fall asleep.

The photo below was taken from outside the cabin looking in. You could see me in the middle of cabin in between the sleepers. I might look big here, but it’s actually the cabin that was small. For size comparison, you could also see my backpack on the top sleeper and Kristi’s bag on the bottom sleeper. I ended up taking the top left sleeper.

Train cabin