I really didn’t know what to expect when I got on the day train for Hanoi. I guess I thought I’d go into a nice compartment with seats for six. What greeted me was a compartment crammed with at least nine other people in berths stacked three high on either side of the compartment! The conductor showed me to my berth (the lower one, thank Buddha) after he chased out three of the people who were apparently squatting on my berth!
After about five minutes, the man sitting on the berth next to mine began to speak to me in English. He introduced me to the other people in the compartment and it wasn’t long before we were all getting along. Mr. Dang was an interesting man. He was an officer in the North Vietnamese army during the war and now he is starting a factory to make a product to replace styrofoam by using natural products. He says it will cost about the same to make, but will decompose in three years. Our lower berths became the common area as the two in the upper berths didnt like being up there! I was sorry to see most of them get off at Vinh, about half way to Hanoi. Not to worry… there replacements were three women with three babies of various ages and dispositions plus two men and a couple that kept coming and going! As they entered the cabin one of them, “Ann,” and English teacher on her way tp take her master’s test in Hanoi gave me a cheery, “Hello!” It wasn’t long before the babies were all over the place. The two-year-old totally destroyed the compartment before we left it in Hanoi! They were fun though. I was just glad it was the day train! The other reason was because the scenery was amazing all the way up. Farming scenes, mountains, lowlands… The only problem was that there was only one reasonably clean window on the whole car to take pictures!
Got to Hanoi at about 9PM after a 13-hour ride. Said goodbyes to my traveling companions and was off through the surreal world of the Hanoi train station! Finally settled on a taxi for the ride to the hotel. The Blue Paradise was not what it claimed to be on the Internet! (Oiy!) The location in the Old Quarter was excellent, but the hotel was not great. (The buffet breakfast was three stingy pieces of fruit, toast and coffee or water). The other problem was that the hotel (as with most hotels) also doubles as a travel agency, so they were constantly trying to get me to take tours! Please! Happily I had most of my itinerary done on the Internet. The streets of Hanoi in this area are very interesting. Quaint tree-lines lanes and old buildings. Im the old days, people were taxed by the frontage of the residence or shop and not the depth, so it made for some very narrow and very deep buildings. Add the charm of the lanes and it could easily be a set for a movie. The traffic, as in Hue, is absolutely insane. Almost got killed a few times here already! LOL! There are no real areas to park motorbikes, so people use the sidewalks. That means you have no choice but to walk in the street. I will NEVER complain about New York or Bangkok traffic again! As a tourist, you are constantly accosted no matter where you go with rickshaw (Cyclo) drivers, taxis, the motorbike drivers on every corner, and every little old lady selling fruit, trinkets, books and whatever else can be carried in a basket! It was annoying, but after a while, I just ignored them. Next time I get here I am going to have a T-shirt made in the States that says, “NO, THANK YOU!” in Vietnamese. I’ll just point to it constantly!
I was very glad to get out of Hanoi for a few days and head to Sapa in the mountains. When the overnight train reached Lao Chai, the train depot, you have to take a taxi, bus or van to Sapa up a steep, winding mountain road. By the time you get to Sapa, you totally forget all your cares. The scenery of the mountains is absolutely the most beautiful, stunning topography that I have seen in SE Asia. High mountains with terraced rice fields and valleys with little villages along the route. All cloaked in clouds or mist depending on the weather. The Sapa Hotel, where I stayed, was disappointingly located on the small lake. Next time I will stay at the Royal Hotel with its view of the valley below. Sapa is a beautiful and charming town built on the sides of a mountain. When you see it from a distance, the buildings and houses are perched on the mountainsides with clouds hovering above them. I only hope that the pictures will do it justice. Checked in and called a contact in the city to arrange a driver for the next day. Sunny, the tour guide arranged for me to meet Hung, the driver, at the hotel that night. I got the contact through Brian, a “fellow traveler” in the States. (Thanks again, Brian!)
Spent the first day wandering the market in Sapa. A real rustic tourist trap it is! The highland women are crafty in BOTH senses of the word! They are amazing embroiderers and tough business women! They were constantly giving prices in dollars and then wanted to be paid in the Vietnamese currency, dong. So they would give you the final price in dong after you negotiated in dollars. Fortunately, I had a calculator watch so I could make the conversion. Those sneaks would always have you spending more (in dong) if you didn’t convert yourself! They loved watching me use the watch! And cackled when they knew I was on to them! It helped to use the few phrases of Hmong I recall from my refugee camp days! I was surprised that they use almost exactly the same language as the Hmong from Laos.
Hung met me the next day at the hotel. Little did I realize that I was in for the best day of my entire time in Vietnam. (And that IS saying a lot!) Hung is a really nice, easy-going guy who likes to laugh and have fun. We joked around the whole day going from one village to the next. Didn’t get the best pictures of people as they are very much against photography. (They think you are taking some of their spirit away.) I did get some good shots, but the landscape had my undivided attention anyway. Hung would stop whenever I asked– and that was often! We made our way along the often-rutted mountain road to the valley floor. There was a great little village that also operates as a trekker overnight stop. Hung had me up narrow hilly paths sometimes clogged with water buffaloes, over the crests of rice paddies, and jumping from one rock formation to the other with a twenty-five pound knapsack on my back! We finally ended up at a terrific little waterfall where we swam and generally vegetated for an hour. We then stopped at a shop in town and had an excellent noodle soup lunch before we returned to Sapa. We hung out at his place for an hour before heading for Lao Chai. Hung had to get the jeep washed first as the police in Lao Chai evidently ticket you if you have an overly dirty car—– now you can drive like a maniac on speed, but DON’T (God forbid) have a dirty car doing it!
Eventually, Hung got me down to Lao Chai. We stopped at a friend’s house. More tea and the bong of tobacco, a staple in a Vietnamese house offered to guests. We went to the Chinese border, a few kilometers away. We had dinner and Hung saw me off on the train during a torrential downpour. I hated to leave Sapa. I fully intend to return next year to spend a week trekking through those wonderful picturesque villages. Hung was not only a great driver, but became a good friend, too.
To make a long story longer, I’ve been in Hanoi for the past few days. Went to Halong Bay, which has some unbelievable Limestone karsts (thousands of them, big and small). We also toured a few interesting caves. Met some fun people on that trip. One bunch was a group of agricultural experts in Hanoi for a conference. They were mostly form India and Indonesian, very funny guys!
Today, my the last day, was largely spent wandering through the old French area (beautiful opera house) and going to the water puppet show which was the best deal in town! But my heart is still in the hills of Sapa……..
Now, it is back to Bangkok! Only one week more!