Yesterday was a low, but I’m feeling pretty thankful today. I woke up really early yesterday morning and went to the train station to buy tickets for the night train to Sa Pa. The clerk informed me that there was only one soft-sleeper berth left. A quick debate ensued in my head, before I told her I’d take two hard-sleepers. Joylani and I went out to breakfast, but spent the rest of the morning in the coolness of our AC’d hotel room. A couple reasons for that. One, its been over 35C/100F degrees the past few days in Hanoi, which is made even worse my unbearable humidity. Two, we had to check out at noon and our train wasn’t schedule to leave until 10pm. I hate the days that we have night transportation (especially when its hot, which has been most of our trip), because its often a wasted day of waiting and killing time.
At noon, we headed out for lunch, followed by some che. Then to a café. Then to an internet café. Then to more food. It was typical time-killing day. Plus, it was sweltering outside and only one of the aforementioned locations had AC. Sweating profusely in the Hanoi heat and humidity with the knowledge that we had nowhere to shower that night began to demoralize us. Plus, I had no idea what a hard-sleeper meant. It was below soft-sleeper and above hard-chair, but what did that mean. I assumed it was just berths of wood with open windows to provide cool air. I had buyers’ regret all day: should we have paid a travel agent a hefty commission to score us some soft-sleepers? Should we have stayed one more day in Hanoi and bought soft-sleepers for tomorrow night? Maybe a chair car would be more comfortable…We were all sticky with a day’s worth of sweat, probably smelly, and resigned to our night’s fate by the time we reached the train station.
We got to the station early and set our bags down while we waited for our train. We met a couple of Canadian girls who we commiserated about our situation with. It made me feel a bit a better though. They had bought their tickets later than us and could only get a pair of hard-chair tickets. Forty-five minutes before departure, we headed to the platform and boarded the train. To our surprise, it was AC’d. Alright! Not only that, the groups of six berths were in enclosed compartments. Then, when we got to our compartment, there were cushioned mats on each berth! Much better than the straw mat on hard wood or metal that I was imagining. I was thoroughly impressed and even more grateful. Not only was it not bad, it was comfortable, contrary to what our guidebook and a few other travelers had said. I drifted off to sleep to the comforting sound and feel the train in motion, trading the reality of hot Hanoi for the dreams of cooler Sa Pa.
I awoke to Joylani poking me in the back at 5:30am. “Matt, Matt! Was that it? Was that stop Lao Cai? Did we miss our stop? A bunch of people got off there.” she said. How should I know? You’re the one who just poked me and woke me up. Instead of voicing my grumpy early-morning thoughts, I just said, “I don’t think so” and tried to go back to sleep. Not that I didn’t care, but I was pretty sure that Lao Cai was the last stop on the line and we were moving again. At 6:30, we did arrive at Lao Cai and jumped in van headed for Sa Pa. There was Dutch group already in the van, all which seemed pretty perturbed with the driver since they had been waiting an hour already. I assumed their hotel had hired van to bring them, but the driver was keen on making a little extra. They assumed we were scheduled to be picked up too, rather than just jumping in a random van as we did. But they got really mad when a bunch of locals jumped in too. They made sarcastic remarks in English and Dutch the whole way up, although I tried to ignore them, contenting myself with a two-foot long baguette I’d bought and the spectacular scenery as we wound up the mountainous road. The van ride isn’t really worth mentioning, except for an extremely gross and funny moment. Vietnam, like most of Asia, has water buffaloes and cows wandering all over the place. Seeing and avoiding big round green piles of dung when walking or driving has become second-nature. So, as a passenger looking out the front window, I noticed the van swerve a bit to the right to avoid the gooey pile of poo, not to mention an oncoming van. But as the van passed by us, I felt a spray of…no…couldn’t be…It felt like being splashed by water, but when I wiped my cheek and looked down at my shirt, yes, the oncoming traffic had sprayed me with cow pie. A couple seconds later, the old Dutch guy next to me said, “Oh, shit,” to which his wife replied, “Yes, it is.” Both the Dutch guy and I, and our wives sitting behind us had been sprayed, not to mention the driver and the whole left side of the car. Tissues were handed out and hand-sanitizer passed around, although we spent the duration of the drive with shit-smeared shirts.
In Sapa, we checked out a couple hotels and settled on a room on the fifth floor of a towering hotel that has commanding views of the surrounding mountains and valley. First order of business was to shower (sweating all day in Hanoi, no shower as we slept on a train, plus, now I had splats of dung on me) and change clothes, although after I was out on the balcony trying to capture the grandeur and beauty of Sa Pa. After a quick nap, Joylani and I headed out to explore a bit. The first thing I noticed: it was cool here. The first time since…Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao…for the first time since we were in northern Lao in January have we been in a cool place. For some reason, that was just mind-boggling to me when I realized that, but perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising since we’re relatively close to northern Lao, here in northern Vietnam. The weather wasn’t the only similarity though. The second thing I noticed here in Sa Pa was the preponderance of traditionally-dressed hill-tribe people, just as we’d seen in northern Thailand and Lao. Mostly women of all ages, from young girls to old toothless ladies, they walk around town dressed in their magnificent traditional dress. Most of them walked the streets hawking their wares (mostly traditional handicrafts), although there were some traditionally-dressed men which I’ve almost never seen anywhere. I mean, in most places we’ve visited, its not uncommon for women to dress in traditional garb, but men almost 100 percent of the time dress western. Back to Sapa, I’ve read that there’s three main hill-tribes represented in town; the Black Hmong, Dao, and Giay. The third thing that really struck me while walking around this old French hillstation was the excellent views. From almost anywhere along the main road, you could catch a glimpse of the amazing valley. And its not too hard to wander behind a building or find an opening in the trees to take in a full view of the valley below and cloud-shrouded mountains. Needless to say, Sa Pa is a much needed change from the rest of Vietnam and our past week in Hanoi. The mountains are always therapeutic in a way: cool fresh air, slow paced, mellow people, and beautiful surroundings. Tomorrow, we’re doing a day trek out to some villages and our last day will be spent at the locally-famous Bac Ha Sunday market. For now though, I’m just thinking about a good night’s sleep- its been a looooong two days.