Early Morning Transit

We arrived back in Hanoi after the overnight train ride from Lao Cai at around 5 am. This was when another experience of dealing with the local customs/culture, experiencing the kindness of others, and overall being out of the comfort zone started.

After getting off from the train, we followed other passengers towards the exit from the station. There it seemed to be a little chaotic; it wasn’t clear where we should be going. I suppose this was normal at the Hanoi station; we didn’t experience this on the way out a couple of days before since we had someone arranging our departure. On the return, we’re pretty much on our own.

There were some taxis lining up inside the station’s parking area, but there wasn’t any clear sign to indicate if those are the official taxis to take (if such regulation existed). We decided to just continue walking outside the train station. There it was even more chaotic with people offering taxi service everywhere. I guess I was still half awake and not fully alert when I responded and followed one of the taxi drivers to his car, expecting it to be like what you expect in other countries — get in the car, tell the driver where to go, and then we would go with the taxi meter running. The driver loaded our luggage into the trunk, and we entered the back seat. I told him the address where we needed to go, expecting him to recognize it and start the meter. Instead, he told me a price for the ride that was clearly inflated. I wasn’t expecting to do negotiation at that moment, but even instinctively I said no and told him it’s too expensive. He did come down on the price, but at that moment I realized he got us captive since our luggage was already in his trunk. It was still a bit higher than I think the cost should be, but at that point we just wanted to get to our destination.

Our destination that morning was 6 on Sixteen, the new boutique hotel in Old Quarter Hanoi that was opened only a month before by the same proprietor as Sapa Rooms Hotel where we stayed in Sapa. We started our journey to Sapa at 6 on Sixteen, and we needed a pick up address for the tour company that would take us for the next leg of our journey, so we gave them the address of 6 on Sixteen. The problem was that our pick up time was not until around 8 am, and it was still 5 am. So we needed a place to wait for a couple hours in between.

Before leaving Sapa, I asked the folks at Sapa Rooms if it was okay to come to 6 on Sixteen in the morning as technically we’ve already checked out from Sapa Rooms by then and since we’re not planning on staying at 6 on Sixteen afterwards, they were not obligated to deal with us at that point. The Sapa Rooms manager said it’s okay and he would let the staff at 6 on Sixteen know about our arrival.

When we arrived at 6 on Sixteen, the place was still closed, and the area was practically deserted. The only people we saw on the street were traders who were on their way to the market in early morning, or some drunk foreigners who were on their way back after a night of partying. I was a bit skeptical whether the folks from Sapa did notify their counterpart in Hanoi about us. But we didn’t want to stay out on the street with our luggage, so I rang the entrance door bell to the hotel. After waiting for few minutes, a half sleepy gentleman came out. I told him about our story. I’m not sure if he did get all that I told him, but he nodded his head when he heard Sapa Rooms. He let us come into the restaurant/lounge area of the hotel, which was still not set up for business yet. As we sat down, he asked us if we wanted any drink, and he gave us the drink menu from the restaurant. We asked for a cup of coffee and a fruit juice drink. He nodded and went to the kitchen and made us the drinks.

We sat there and waited until a couple of hours later when our ride came and picked us up. During that wait, we saw the area came to life as the day broke, and more hotel staff came in to start the day. One lady later on asked us if we wanted to order some breakfast. I looked at the menu, and it said the restaurant opened at 6 am. It turned out the gentleman who opened the door for us earlier was one of the hotel staff whose job was to guard the door, not necessarily to serve at the restaurant (especially when it was after hours). So we actually experienced some kindness from a stranger and an above and beyond service.

We ordered breakfast, and around 8 am, a minivan showed up and a lady came in and announced my name. There was our ride for the next part of our journey, and I felt relieved that the transition worked out. That morning we had yet another negative experience dealing with taxi in Hanoi. The hospitality of the hotel staff that morning, however, offset the negative part of the morning and was one that I would always remember and it’s reason for recommending the establishment both in Hanoi and Sapa to others coming to visit the area.

The photo below was taken as we waited in the hotel for our ride. Here was Kristi killing time with her Blackberry (there was wi-fi at the hotel as well, so we could connect).

Transit in Hanoi

6 on Sixteen

After a full day of sightseeing in Hanoi, Vietnam, we were ready to continue on with the next leg of adventure during our Southeast Asia trip. So far we’ve traveled by air, land (car, light rail train, bicycle, tuk-tuk, minivan), and water (river boats). The next leg of the trip is to travel by overnight train, and continued with a minivan. That was the most convenient way of getting to our next destination, Sapa. But before we embarked on this adventure, we had to first get in contact with a gentleman in Hanoi who made the arrangements for our trip to Sapa. That in itself was an interesting experience.

After deciding that Sapa is one of our destinations in Vietnam, we started planning out the trip up there. The easiest, most convenient way of planning this would be to get a travel agency to arrange the trip for you. They’ll take care of the transportation and lodging arrangements. We decided to be a little more adventurous and plan the travel a little bit independently. I used TripAdvisor to look at various boutique hotels in Sapa to consider as places to stay. We ended up selecting a place called Sapa Rooms. When we looked at booking the room to stay there, they mentioned that they could also help arrange the trip from Hanoi to Sapa and back. The only route to go to Sapa (north of Hanoi, near the border with China) was to take train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, then take a minivan or bus from Lao Cai to Sapa. The train typically leaves Hanoi in the evening and arriving at Lao Cai in early morning. Then it’s about one hour drive up the mountains to Sapa. We thought we were adventurous, but trying to do all of these without anything pre-arranged would be a bit too much adventure to take. And trying to book the train ticket on our own was quite a confusing process. So we decided to just book our travel through Sapa Rooms as well.

It turned out that the Sapa Rooms owner, an Australian gentleman, also had a business in Hanoi. Few months before our trip (when we were in the planning stage), he had a place in Hanoi that was meant to be a quick rest stop for independent travelers to freshen up before they head to Sapa. But just shortly before our trip, that place was closed, and instead he opened up a new boutique hotel in the heart of Old Quarter Hanoi called 6 on Sixteen (they had only six rooms, and it’s on 16 Bao Khanh Street). This was the place that we were instructed to go to by a certain time to meet the gentleman named Mr. Viet who would get us to the train station, provide us with our train tickets, and ensure that we get on the right train to Lao Cai. I read many horror stories about people getting scammed at the Hanoi Train Station, so I thought even though this arrangement sounded a bit outside my comfort zone, it seemed to be safer than trying to do it myself.

We arrived at the Six on Sixteen around 6 pm, just like what we were instructed. As we got there, I told the hotel staff that we were there to see Mr. Viet before our trip to Sapa. The hotel staff mentioned that Mr. Viet will usually come around 7 pm, and in the mean time we were welcomed to hang out at their restaurant/lounge.

The ground floor of the small boutique hotel was pretty much a long, narrow room with wooden tables and benches and a bunch of plush pillows to sit on around a lounge table. Since we knew we’re going to travel overnight on the train, we thought it would be better if we had something to eat before we leave. I thought this was quite a smart arrangement by the hotel’s proprietors; get the travelers to come a little early before their trip, and offer them some food and refreshments before their journey. We ordered a couple of Vietnamese appetizers and some mixed fruit drinks (which we came to love during the next couple of days staying at Sapa Rooms/6 on Sixteen).

Around 7:30 pm, finally Mr. Viet arrived (after I got nervous and checking with the 6 on Sixteen staff several times). After quickly greeting us, he stopped a taxi cab, told the driver that we’re going to the Hanoi train station, and told us to get on the taxi and he would meet us at the train station as he rode his motorcycle separately. The memorable trip to Sapa then started…

The photo below was taken at the 6 on Sixteen lounge area while we were waiting for Mr. Viet to arrive. You can see the dimly lit area, and the long and narrow place.

Six on Sixteen