HCMC Dining Guide

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Night Train to Lao Cai

The route from Hanoi to Lao Cai, and on to Sapa. Ignore the Day 1 etc. stuff.
My trip to northern Vietnam was possibly the best I've taken since coming to Southeast Asia. It included mountains, clean air, trekking, a spot of rice harvesting, urban traffic, rock climbing, and kayaking; as well as the usual multiple modes of transport that accompany travel in the region. The last day of the trip was illustrative of this: in order to get from Cat Ba Island back to Saigon, we had to take four taxis (one of which was driven by a complete asshat), three buses, a boat, and a plane.

As usual, I'm breaking things up into multiple posts, since it would be impossible to include everything in just one. The 'we' mentioned above includes myself; Tin, a Vietnamese-American dude who teaches in Saigon; and Jen and Rhona, two sisters from the UK, the latter of whom is also a teacher here.

We deplaned at fog-shrouded Noi Bai International airport in Hanoi, after which we grabbed a taxi for the hour-long ride into the city. The highway into Hanoi was lined with ugly concrete buildings, but as soon as we plunged into the Old Quarter everything changed. The neighborhood is a fascinating mix of French and Asian influence, and will be covered at length in a later post. We stopped at a travel agency to pick up our train tickets, where I had my first humorous miscommunication of the trip. The staff member that spoke the best English said many tourists walk around the Old Quarter, but we weren't going to do that with our heavy backpacks. I asked if there was a good restaurant nearby, to which he replied:
"Oh, it's Saturday."
"Erm...so there aren't any restaurants open?"
"Wha? Many people walk around the lake."
"Yes, but we're hungry, where is a good restaurant?"
"Oh. Take a right and go 200 meters."

His directions were off, forcing us to wander around in an increasingly heavy drizzle until we decided to just squat down at a hole-in-the-wall for some soup.
We still had a few hours to kill before our night train to Lao Cai, but the deteriorating weather was making life miserable. At this point I was worried that the whole trip would be wet and cloudy, a concern that did not come to fruition. After sitting around a cafe that looked like a mix between a temple and an opium den for a while, we headed to the train station.

Somewhat tipsy from a few beers in the station, we entered our 4-berth sleeper cabin, which had a fairly significant leak just outside the door. Right on time, the train shuddered into motion; Hanoi gliding past the rain-streaked window. This was my first-ever night train, and I quickly decided that they are amazing. The gentle rolling of the train lulled me to sleep on the outskirts of Hanoi, and I was still soundly asleep when Rhona poked me awake once we reached Lao Cai just after dawn. I usually have problems sleeping in or on moving vehicles, but this was lovely.
Lao Cai, a crossing point for the nearby Chinese border, was destroyed during the 1979 border war. Today, it is a fume-laden hellhole. Fortunately, we quickly found a van to take us to Sa Pa, a quiet mountain town up in the Hoang Lien Son mountains. Sa Pa, and the area surrounding it, is home to several of Vietnam's remaining ethnic minorities, such as the H'mong, Red Dao, and Tay. The hour-long drive was a preview of the scenery we came to know well over the next few days: jagged peaks, terraced rice paddies, small minority villages nestled in deep valleys.

The van dropped us off in the middle of the street (literally), and after checking into a hotel we decided to go for a bit of a wander. The skies were still cloudy, thanks to a departing typhoon, so the views were mostly obscured, but we were able to glimpse the occasional mountain. We came across a few farms and a cemetery before running into the entrance of a H'mong village, where a 40,000 dong entrance fee was required. We turned around and headed back to town, just in time to avoid a massive downpour; the last of the trip.
Misty Sa Pa

The valley below town

An example of the famous terraced rice paddies

Looks a bit like an Asian Austria

Refreshed from a nap during the worst of the storm, we ambled down to Cat Cat, the nearest H'mong (those of you that have seen Gran Torino will recognize that term) village to town. The hike down to the bottom of the village was fascinating: H'mong women in traditional outfits tended to babies while young boys wrestled in the dirt, and men washed the entrails of a slaughtered animal in the runoff from the paddies. Pigs, chickens, dogs, and ducks scampered over the path, and water buffaloes lounged in wooden shelters with rivers of shit flowing from beneath them. Smoke from wood fires belched out of wood houses. This was Vietnam at its most basic and agricultural. No space-age skyscrapers, no motorbikes, no iPhones.
Asian scarecrow

Yes, that is an albino water buffalo.

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We eventually reached the small river below the village, where a waterfall descended onto giant boulders, before hiking between more paddies under the clearing skies of the dying day. Upon returning to town after that incredibly interesting walk, we had a big dinner and went to bed early. The next three days were the main reason we had come to Sa Pa, and they would be demanding: climbing Mt. Fansipan, at 3,143 meters (10,311 feet) high the tallest mountain in Indochina.
Some delicious local goat meat

1 comment:

  1. Very amazing photos :-) Real countryside...

    My favorite is the one with Babes and Daffy ducks.

    We also have our own rice terraces in the Philippines, but I think the ones here in the photos are bigger (or, I think there are more rice terraces in Vietnam).