HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Night Train to Hanoi

One word best describes how I felt upon waking up the morning after we finished our trek: SORE. Practically every leg muscle hurt, especially when going down stairs. Renting motos still sounded fine to us, since that meant minimal walking. Plus, it appeared as though it was going to be a beautiful day, as we ate breakfast on the sun-drenched patio in front of our hotel.

We rented two bikes and took off towards a big waterfall outside of town. The weather had completely clouded over in the 20 minutes between breakfast and getting the bikes, and I was actually somewhat cold while driving, since I was only in shorts and a t-shirt. 

It took about 20 minutes to get to the waterfall, and I was surprised that the gearbox on my moto hadn't disintegrated by the time we got there. I'm used to driving a manual, but every other area of Vietnam that I've driven in has been completely flat. I wasn't used to having to think ahead about what gear I needed to be in as a climb or a descent approached, making for a jerky ride. 

We parked our bikes and paid to walk up the steps next to the waterfall. There was a sign next to the ticket booth declaring the regulations regarding the area, one of which was "No explosives, flammable items, chemicals, or cattle can be carried to the waterfall." This is one of those rules, like Singapore's 'No peeing in elevators' law, that begs the question: Did someone create the rule in a humorous authoritarian spasm, or did so many people attempt to carry cows to the waterfall that something just had to be done to stop them?

The waterfall was narrow, but it was quite tall - probably a couple hundred feet - so it was a pretty impressive sight. We took some goofy pictures, enjoyed the scenery, and set off once again on the bikes.

The Lonely Planet book had raved about the Tram Ton Pass, the highest mountain pass in the country, which the road to Lai Chau (which we had seen from Fansipan the day before) wound through. The road was epic - totally smooth, nearly empty, and surrounded by mountains on all sides. Sadly, that smoothness ended abruptly after about 30 minutes, when the asphalt turned into loose gravel. Such a surface is a nightmare to drive on with narrow bike tires, so we stopped to snap a couple pics before turning around.

While we were stopped, two motos carrying three Russians - a burly man on one, and another burly man with a petite woman (who had a bandaged knee) on another - pulled up. The woman asked if we spoke English, and they then spent five minutes figuring out how to say 'waterfall'. They were looking for the one we had been at, so we told them to just keep going up the road, you can't miss it. We couldn't really tell if they understood us, but at least they went in the right direction.

A little while later, we caught up to the Russians. Strangely, the two big men were now on one bike; its wheels sagging and its engine wheezing up the steep road. Farther ahead, the woman was on the other bike by herself, driving full speed ahead. What the hell had happened between the time they talked to us and us catching them up? Silly Russians....
The nice section of the road

The pass
Here's a rather shaky video of some of the views from the road.

We were all freezing by the time we made it back to Sa Pa, so we warmed ourselves up with some hot Indian curries before heading off on the bikes in another direction. This road ran through a large H'mong village, offering many fascinating scenes of daily life.

The valley was filled with dense smoke, as the farmers burned off part of the rice paddies they had finished harvesting. Bundles of rice stalks were being tied to motorbikes, packed onto trucks, and lugged down the road on the backs of villagers. Water buffalo stood in the middle of the road; oblivious to the traffic. The road gradually worsened, as we came across stretches with water swiftly flowing across the pavement, and other stretches that were completely washed out. We had to dodge a herd of skinny cows - one with a little boy riding on its back. We took a left at a fork in the road onto what turned out to be another gravel path. This was the most difficult moto driving I had ever done. The sun was starting to set, the haze from the fires was thick, and we were only getting farther away from any signs of development. So, we turned around and headed back to Sa Pa, passing more mangy dogs, children peeing on the side of the road, lazy buffaloes, and frenetic rice harvesting along the way.

The smoky valley

We returned our bikes and boarded a minivan for the hour drive back to the train station in Lao Cai. After an amazing five days in the Sa Pa area, it was time to head to Hanoi for the next leg of our trip. Beer-fueled shenaniganry took up the first hour or two of the train ride before we fell asleep.
For some reason, this ride was far rougher than the trip from Hanoi to Lao Cai had been. At one point in the night, we came to a sudden stop, throwing our belongings across the cabin and eliciting numerous expletives. The train pulled into Hanoi's station earlier than scheduled, and we were all still pretty much asleep. Some horrid Vietnamese music was being piped into the cabin - apparently that's how they awake passengers here - but we kept ignoring it until a conductor banged on our door. We threw all  of our stuff together while being shouted at and jumped off the train and into a dawn drizzle as they were turning out the lights.

It was so early we had to wake up the staff at our hotel so that they could check us in. It was also still raining, and it wasn't even 7am, so we decided to go back to sleep. By the time we got moving again, the rain had stopped - it would be dry for the rest of the trip - and we had a new city to explore.

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