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TRAIN TO SAPA and VIETNAM’S NORTHWEST MOUNTAINS

Old Quarter- Hanoi-Vietnam

TRAIN TO SAPA and VIETNAM’S NORTHWEST MOUNTAINS

I never thought I’d be so thrilled to get back to Hanoi, especially since I’d left the city to escape its overwhelming noise and chaos. But by the end of my one-week tour of Vietnam’s NW mountains, I couldn’t wait to escape back to Hanoi. This time I hardly minded the roaring traffic in light of the ease of finding food, being able to communicate, and having interesting shops to visit.

My mountain trip hadn’t been all bad though. In fact, it had started out great. I’d left Hanoi by an all-day 10-hour train ride to the small town of Lao Cai on the Chinese border. Most of the day the train had rolled through lovely, endless flat rice fields in Vietnam’s perpetual haze, while Vietnamese country life floated past. Farmers, wearing traditional conical hats, both men and women, were diligently watering fields, gathering big bundles of greens, hoeing soil by hand, and plowing fields with water buffalo. Flocks of ducks paddled in waterways, people lazily pedaled bicycles, children romped about playing games.

train to Sapa-Vietnam

Sapa-Vietnam

low hills in northeast Vietnam

In late afternoon we began passing through low hills which gradually gave way to bigger hills. We ended the trip following the flat, muddy-brown Red River to Lao Cai.

locals en route to market near Lao Cai, Vietnam

I was heading to Lao Cai primarily to visit a remote mountain market town known for the variety of hill tribe people who shop, sell and congregate there. So the next morning I boarded a local bus and headed up into Vietnam’s rugged mountains. For three hours we chugged up steep, winding, narrow roads with sweeping scenic views over mountains, valleys and steeply terraced rice fields. As we grinded higher and higher into increasingly remote mountains, more and more local people packed into the bus. Even hill tribe people in colorful clothing climbed aboard. Each time we stopped to pick up passengers, they heaved packages, boxes or huge bundles of chopped firewood onto the roof.

Sapa-Vietnam

Sapa-Vietnam

sweeping mountain views in north Vietnam

I’m afraid our poor bus was way overloaded with people, firewood and packages as it chugged its weary way up the steep, winding mountain road. But we did finally reach the market and… Wow- explosion of colors.

Sapa-Vietnam

Sapa-Vietnam

tribal women at market in north Vietnam

Hmong women in very elaborate, colorful clothes and head wraps filled the market lanes. Their vibrant fabrics, bags, clothes and handicrafts were displayed everywhere. Being a giant sucker for neon colors and exotic goods, I ended up on quite a shopping spree. Oops. But, hey, I’ll probably only be there once and… Christmas was coming soon.

Sapa-Vietnam

Sapa-Vietnam

vibrant scarves, bags and hats at market

After a day enraptured by the stimulating market, I returned on a local bus down, down, down the mountain roads back to Lao Cai. There I cycled to the Chinese border though, disappointingly, I wasn’t allowed to cross.

Sapa-Vietnam

Sapa-Vietnam

border gate to China at Lao Cai, Vietnam

Instead, I cycled around Lao Cai town while all the locals nearly lost their eyeballs gaping at me. We all survived. Next morning I boarded a bus to my prime location for this journey: Sapa, a hilltop town in the mountains, formerly a French ‘retreat’ during Vietnam’s French colonial period.

Sapa-Vietnam

Sapa-Vietnam

view of Sapa from my balcony

Sapa, I discovered, is still filled with original Colonial French architecture plus lots of new fancy little hotels. It looks like it should be nestled in European rather than SE Asia. Sapa is surrounded by lush terraced rice fields on steep mountain sides, half hidden in fog, and quaint hill tribe villages dotting the deep valleys.

Sapa-Vietnam

Sapa-Vietnam

modern buildings in Sapa, on lake

I actually had been hesitant to visit Sapa since it’s the coldest, rainiest place in Vietnam, a weather combo I definitely do not like. Luckily, I’d decided to ‘bear it’ for a few days. It was not really sooo cold, especially after feeling chilly in Australia for 9 months. Besides, I had a fantastic room with a big double bed, cable TV, private bath and windows/balcony overlooking the hilly town plaza and surrounding mountains, all for $4 US. I must have had the best room in Sapa (or at least the best $4 room).

Grand Hotel in Sapa

Outside, along Sapa’s streets, a great variety of tasty cold-weather food awaited me: grilled sweet potatoes, corn, chicken, rice cakes, soups and more. Sapa, I found out, is known for its strong locally  made rice wines. A Sapa man shared some with me one night where I stopped to eat. Whew, strong stuff.

local houses and gardens in Sapa

For three days I explored the town, made discoveries, and hiked the roads leading out of Sapa.  Every day was an adventure: new foods, new places, new people, and funny or nutty interactions with locals, since I can’t speak Vietnamese. In fact, it was rather more fun to not speak the language. I often didn’t actually know what’s happening nor sure of information. I just had to deal with not knowing what was going on. Sure beat ‘dull’ Australia.

local tribal kids on road near Sapa

One day I took a guided trek through the valleys, visiting three villages of three different tribal people. I discovered that those villages, which from afar look like quaint, idyllic villages nestled in peaceful mountains, are a completely different matter up close. Narrow, muddy tracks full of animal shit lead between houses built of wood with no windows (read ‘dark’), no furniture, and sporting dirt floors. Not pleasant places. Must be hell in the rain. Despite animal stench and muddy shoes, the day was a great adventure. We returned to Sapa in the evening, where I treated myself to a ‘foot’ massage and sauna.

Lash in tribal village with kids near Sapa

The ‘foot’ massage turned out to be a whole body massage,which cost all of $4 US for an hour. Afterwards, I proceeded to the sauna place I’d seen… Hmmmm… red lights, a sleazy looking receptionist, girls giggling in an unseen room, a jacuzzi room sporting peeling paint, dirty curtains, cheap plastic flowers and cheesy pictures of semi-nude women… hmmm… I do believe I visited a brothel! Luckily (or unluckily?) nothing eventful happened to me there. I just relaxed in an herbal steam room, sauna and jacuzzi, while a ‘guard’ sat nearby. It was all a little weird but, hey, it only cost me $2 for that quirky adventure. And that was the grande finale to my visit of Sapa.

northern Vietnam’s misty mountains

Once I left Sapa my trip deteriorated rapidly. I could have returned to Hanoi the way I’d arrived, but I was set on taking the longer route back through Vietnam’s rugged northwest mountains, promised in guidebooks to have “the most beautiful road in Vietnam” and “the highest mountain pass in the country” and “villages set in lovely valleys”. How could I resist?

more mistly mountain views in northwest Vietnam

The next morning I boarded another local bus for an all day ride to a small remote village. I must admit that the steep winding roads and panoramic views were quite astounding. Vietnam’s Northwest mountains are simply gorgeous. Unfortunately for me, our destination was a total dump: a tiny filthy ugly village, where it was difficult to find food and locals just stared at me dumbfounded, not returning a smile or a hello. I suddenly remembered that such remote places usually don’t work too well for me with my piercings, tattoos and fuchsia hair. The village wasn’t quiet either. Despite it being a tiny village, it was practically quaking with horn-honking motorcycles and loud Vietnamese yelling continuously. If anything, I discovered, Vietnamese country folk are louder than their city brethren in Hanoi. I did have to spend the night there, but you can bet I got the earliest bus out the next morning.

locals along road in northwest Vietnam

That entailed yet another all-day bus ride on more winding mountain roads, up over one mountain, through the next valley, up over the next mountain ad infinim. Let me detail the bus experience a bit more vividly since that’s what I did for four full days:

We averaged about 100 km (62miles) in 3 hours. Yep, that’s right, 20 miles an hour. That seems quite unbelievable, I know, but strangely the buses don’t feel like they’re going slowly. They travel at a speed appropriate to the roads. It’s just that the roads are so steep, winding and narrow, and the buses so overloaded, that 35 km/hour is just about a safe pace. On top of that, local buses are not simply passenger buses but also cargo service.

more steeply terraced fields and mountains

Generally the aisles are completely filled up to hip level with huge bags. Passengers climb over them to get in/out of their seats. The roof is usually crammed with bags, packages, bicycles, boxes, whatever. Stopping to pick up or drop off a load takes a long time. Then there’s the 1 1/2 hour lunch break. And sometimes the driver stops to visit his mother or grandmother or friends while passing through. Not kidding. One driver stopped to chat with friends playing billiards, roadside. The bus driver’s goal is definitely not to reach the destination quickly or directly. Bus trips are an involved journey. While that was quite frustrating, I did truly get a taste for local Vietnamese life (maybe more like a bite). And, hey, I wasn’t in any hurry to get to… the next horrid town for the night.

That’s basically how I spent the next four days after Sapa: riding a bus all day, ending at some nasty dirty town where it was hard to find food, where I couldn’t communicate with anyone, and where the locals just gaped at me. Hey, I know I’m not a typical tourist, but they don’t have to stare.

Ah, yes, there was also the day I spent sick in Sonla town. I’d made a stupid food decision and ended up exhausted with diarrhea. At least it wasn’t too bad: no cramps or pain or feeling horrible. Exhaustion’s not so bad: just rest, sleep and read.

flat rice fields

Finally I recovered and set out for my last bus ride: to Hanoi. As you can imagine, I could hardly wait to get back to ‘civilization’. Food. Easy communication. Interesting shops. Happily, that bus made faster progress on flat roads through rice fields. But we still had our 1 1/2 hour lunch break, pee break in the forest, and even a stop to wash the bus. I almost lost the plot at the bus wash station. WTF? The bus needs to be clean for Hanoi’s polluted haze? How did my patience ever survive?

We did, in fact, eventually reach Hanoi. I was beaming. However, suddenly huge swarms of traffic engulfed our bus, masses of people crammed the sidewalks and the deafening noise of urban humanity assaulted our ears. Hanoi is truly overpopulated. I hardly cared this time. With a huge grin plastered across my face and eyes gleaming, I promptly visited my favorite fruit shake stall and local restaurant. Whew, out of the hills and back to civilization. Next time I’d leave Hanoi, I’d take a train.

peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

Next adventures coming soon… cheers, Lash

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Two Wheels & Rice Fields - ebook - positive world travel

Two Wheels & Rice Fields- The Ultimate Guide to Motorbiking Vietnam

My friends and fellow travel bloggers ,  Elise and Anthony Milotic of Positive World Travel, have written this excellent and very thorough guidebook to motorbiking through Vietnam  based on their own motorbike trip through the country.

If you’re planning to visit Vietnam and/or you love motorbike travel, check out their awesome guide to get started.

Read my review of Two Wheels & Rice Fields

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You might also like my own Vietnam travel tales and photo galleries:

Hanoi
10 Free Things to do in Hanoi
Trip Through Halong Bay
Photo Gallery: Halong Bay
Photo Gallery: Hong Kong Snapshots

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  1. Suzy

    I know what you mean about leaving the city for the country and then yearning to get back to the city. It's funny how we go to away and then after a time need that chaos.

  2. LASH

    Maybe as itchy travelers we just need change of scenery? Thanks for stopping by, as usual. cheers

  3. Marcello

    Wow sounds like you had an interesting adventure. We’re trying to plan a trip to Southeast Asia at the moment and Hanoi and Sapa are on the radar. Must have been some experience visiting those remote villages with no communication and difficulty finding food.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      HI Marcello,

      Welcome!

      Yes, I had many great & interesting adventures in Vietnam!

      I hope you enjoy Hanoi and Sapa as much as I did, despite the various difficulties. HAve a wonderful time in SE Asia! it’s pretty amazing there.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      cheers, Lash

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