Cabin Sharing

When it came time to board the train for our journey back to Hanoi, we walked on the dimly lit platform at the Lao Cai train station to find the train car that we’re supposed to be on. Fortunately there was only one train in the station that was about ready to leave, so there was no mistake of getting on the wrong one.

After finding our train car and cabin, Kristi and I started to settle inside our cabin for the overnight journey. The layout of the cabin was similar to the one we occupied on the way to Lao Cai a couple of days earlier, a small cabin with four bunk beds that were designed more for Asian-sized passengers (less than 6-ft tall). We only purchased two seats, so we would be sharing the cabin with two more people. When we got to our cabin, there was noone else there yet, so in my mind I was hoping that may be we got lucky that the other two seats were not occupied for this trip (like on air flights, sometimes the middle seat next to you might not be occupied so you could stretch a little bit). But no such luck as few minutes later a couple of gentlemen in their 50s came into the cabin to take the remaining two bunk beds.

After getting their luggage stowed under the bunk beds, one of the gentlemen said hi and introduced themselves to us. His name was Eyal, and the other gentleman was Avi. They were from Tel Aviv, Israel, and they were business partners who were in the middle of a three-week trip in Southeast Asia, visiting Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. They were still in the beginning part of their trip — Sapa was the first destination in their itinerary to visit. They said they did many treks to the villages like what we did, and they also did whitewater rafting. I didn’t know that there was an option to do that activity in Sapa area.

From Sapa, Avi and Eyal were going back to Hanoi and after spending a day there, they would continue down to Central and South Vietnam before continuing on to Siem Reap in Cambodia and ending their trip with some time at the beach in Phuket, Thailand. So it sounded like they had quite a packed itinerary for their trip. I asked if they’re traveling independently. Eyal said it was sort of independent, as they were not part of any bigger group, but all of their travel arrangements were done by their travel agent.

We had many hours to spend in the train on the way to Hanoi. So the conversation continued with us sharing our travel experience so far, which drew their interests as we had gone to Thailand and Cambodia before coming to Vietnam. Eyal said that he’s been to Thailand before, but not to Cambodia yet.

They also shared about their family. Eyal had a family with three daughters back home. He showed us the photos of his daughters. This trip was meant to be a ‘scouting’ trip to check out the places before possibly coming back again to visit with his wife and daughters. He wanted to make sure he knew the places and activities that they would enjoy. Avi said he had two grown children, and his wife didn’t really like traveling, so that’s why he went with his friend for the trip.

After chatting for some time, it’s time to get some rest and we each occupied our little bunk bed to try sleeping for several hours before reaching Hanoi. This time I was able to get more sleep time than during the trip from Hanoi to Lao Cai, probably because I was already tired after doing the trek during the day. Few hours later we were woken up by some noises and feeling the train slowing down. Apparently it stopped a couple of times at stations near Hanoi. So we knew it’s getting closer. Avi was up before everyone else, and when I got up and saw him already sitting and reading a book, he smiled and offered me a breathmint as he took one himself; that was a good way to freshen up after the rough sleep in a moving train.

Once we arrived in Hanoi, we bid each other goodbye, and we continued on our trip with the next segment of our journey.

I took the photo below from the hallway outside our cabin just before the train started to move. Avi and Eyal were on the left, and Kristi was on the right. You can see the small size of the cabin that we occupied. We didn’t get to occupy the whole cabin for ourselves, but instead we had good conversation with travelers from other part of the world.

Avi and Eyal

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

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