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Sapa, Vietnam





If you have been reading my previous blog posts, then you would’ve read about my Trans Siberian journey. Because I used up a lot of my vacation days for that trip, and I’m also going to be heading to the Pacific Islands over Christmas, between now till the end of the year I will only be going on short weekend trips. And this trip to Vietnam was one of them. I’ve still yet to explore the whole IndoChina region, like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

There are 2 main destinations on this trip, one is Sapa, which is 380km northwest from Hanoi, and the other is Tam Coc, which is 100km south of Hanoi. I’ll be covering off Tam Coc and Hanoi city center in the blogs following this one.



Sapa, Northern Vietnam


Tam Coc, Nihn Bin, Vietnam




Pre Trip
After I had my hotel and flight booked, I did some research on tours in Sapa and how to get there. It seemed like there were 2 options, either a 5-hour drive, or an 8-hour overnight train. Since I’m obsessed with train rides, I went with the second option. These trains would leave Hanoi around 9pm and arrive in Lao Cai Station around 5am the next day. From Lao Cai, it’s a 1 hour drive through the mountainous terrains of the area to Sapa. The trains had 2nd class (4 berth) or 1st class (2 berth) cabins. We went with the 1st class cabins which are US $80 one way per person. These can be booked easily online, in this case we booked through https://www.hanoisapatrain.com/  Because I had also read about this bus scam online going from Lao Cai to Sapa, I also booked that in advance online from www.sapalytrain.com and was US $4 one way per person.
 
Next thing is to get my visa sorted. There are only a handful of countries that do not need a visa in Vietnam. But no worries, for everyone else, it’s easy to get online. I got mine from www.vietnamimmigration.org and it’s very quick. I filled out my details online and paid $9 US for them to process. It was given back to me the same day in the afternoon. I get a confirmation letter, which then I need to print and bring with me to Vietnam. There’s also another visa immigration form you need to fill out to give to the officials at the airport. You also need to bring 2 passport photos and $25 USD CASH only to the airport. I’ll cover off the process at the airport in the next section.



Off to Vietnam!
The flight from Hong Kong to Vietnam is just 2 hours, and there is 1-hour time difference. We landed early afternoon in Hanoi. The flight into Hanoi airport was beautiful! From the air you just see greenery everywhere and also a big river running through the city.

Immigrations was a bit of a mess. There was a big counter, and you hand in your application on the right hand side. They take the application and your passport, then they frantically process it. We had a flight of maybe 150 or 200 people, and I had to wait around an hour till I could get my passport back, even though I was one of the first in line to hand in my application. They had to register the passport, print out the visa stickers, and then they had this screen that showed your full name and passport photo to the whole crowd waiting. The thing is, there are agencies and individuals who pay a premium ($25 USD extra) to cut the line. It’s not that I cannot afford it, but I simply do not believe in this kind of system. Just as my name was called up and I was ready to hand in my cash and photos so I can get my passport back (I was very anxious), this Hong Kongnese lady ran up to the counter and started shouting at the immigration officials. Apparently out of her group, 2 people’s passports are missing and nobody knows where it is. I took my passport and just darted out of that whole drama. I was already an hour behind schedule and had a train to catch soon.

Downstairs at the arrivals hall, a taxi driver held up my name card. It was sent from my Hotel – Hanoi Meracus Hotel. It was a very pleasant drive into a city, which took around an hour. Along the way you can see the suburbs and gradually the city. Everywhere in Hanoi you see French Colonial style buildings, a lot of them newly refurbished. So it was not the typical Southeast Asian city where most buildings are rundown by the scorching heat and humidity. I was warned about the traffic in Vietnam, but wow, I didn’t expect it to be that crazy! As much as it is crowded with cars, scooters and pedestrians, everything seemed to work in it’s own systematic way. I didn’t see any accidents at all.

At the Hotel, we were greeted with some melon juice while the room was being prepared. The staff kindly showed us the different areas of Hanoi and recommended some good Pho places we can dine at. Our suite was at the top floor with a balcony. It does remind me a little of France.

We had around 4 hours or so before we had to board our train to go to Sapa. First we went to the Sihn Café to book our trip on Saturday to Tam Coc. This Café is a travel agency that is very highly recommended on Trip Advisor. Because the word had gotten out and all the foreign tourists are going there, when we got to the street where this place was supposed to be, there were 5 or so places that looked exactly the same with the same name. Talk about counterfeiting at it’s best. But I anticipated this so I had the exact address, so we found the right place. The tour to Tam Coc for the 2 of us was 1,198,000 VND, which is around $54 USD, so $27 US per person. It’s slightly cheaper than booking the trip online. This price includes pick up from hotel, a drive to Nihn Bin first to visit the ancient capital of Vietnam, buffet lunch, a boat ride in Tam Coc (aka Halong Bay on land), a bike ride through a rice field, and then drop off back at hotel in Hanoi.

 

After this tour was booked, we wandered around the lake area, had some Pho nearby, went back to grab our overnight bag then walked to the train station. The Sapaly train from Hanoi to Sapa was mostly for tourists. There were tourists from all parts of the world, like American, British, Dutch, Malaysian and even Taiwanese! 40 minutes before the train departed, we were allowed onto the platform area. I spent some time walking around observing other trains and passengers. Some had a kitchen car where you can see what they were cooking up in there! Most were long distance overnight trains with sleeping berths.


As I boarded the train, this strong Air Conditioning hit me in the face. I had gotten used to the 35C humid temperature outside. There were only 1 first class cabin per carriage and it’s at the end close to the conductor’s room. There were fruits, drinks, snacks, and water in the cabin. The interior was wooden and had a very Chinese feel to it with carvings. Hung next to the door on the wall was a painting. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I really liked the experience. Previously in Russia, the trains were running on 1.5 meters wide track gauges. In Vietnam, the track gauge was only 1 meter wide. This means that the track is much more narrower so the cabins needed to be more narrow. The beds were shorter, so anyone over 175cm tall probably couldn’t stretch their legs in the berth beds, and the train journey was a bit more shaky. I didn’t really mind, I fell asleep quickly with the rocking back and forth (or sideways) of the train car.

 

 


I was woken up by a knock, then shortly kicked out of my cabin around 5:45am in the morning. Our train arrived early at Lao Cai station. Lao Cai is a town boardering the Chinese town of Hekou. You can walk across the boarder, it’s that close. From Lao Cai, I found my bus driver with my name on the sign again, and we boarded a 15 seater van for the 1 hour drive to Sapa.


Lao Cai is just 86m above sea level. So the temperature there wasn’t much different from Hanoi. Sitting at 1,500m above sea level, Sapa has a comfortable average temperature of 20C during summer time. We drove up winding roads through mountains with beautiful scenery. There were already rice fields on the way. Some poor locals were sick from the car drive. I was too busy enjoying the scenery and the breeze coming in. It was just around 7am when we arrived in Sapa. The van was constantly surrounded by the local indigenous people, not because they had never seen a foreigner before, but because they were trying to see you things. Everything from bags, purses, to hiking tour packages. We skipped all of that and went straight to the Sapa Tourist Information Center. We were able to book a hiking tour from 9am – 3pm for a pretty decent price. The tour includes lunch and they walk you through the valley with rice terraces across 3 different villages, through a bamboo forest, and then dropping you off back at the information center.

We still had 2 hours to kill. But first, a hot warm bowl of pho. I was definitely not ready for 20C yet.

After Pho, we walked down towards Cat Cat village. Along the way was amazing hilltop views of the rice terraces. There were cows wandering around and many indigenous people working on the fields wearing their traditional clothing. I found Cat Cat village on a blog somewhere, however I’d say it’s a disappointment. It is a village that has been turned into a commercial place to use the local indigenous people and sell you items you probably don’t need. It’s a shame really, because commercializing such a beautiful area just destroys the experience. We left the village shortly and went back to the Tourist Information center. I sat down to have an avocado shake before heading out for the long hike!




 

The group we were part of had a Canadian couple, a Dutch couple, a Korean couple, and 2 British girls. The van dropped us off close to the valley. The stunning scenery cannot be described by words. You’ll have to watch my vlog and you’ll know what I mean. It was just so green and beautiful. There were layers, layers of mountains, and layers of terraces.





Again we were accompanied by some indigenous girls from the villages. They were following us the whole way, trying to sell us random things. We stopped by some small workstations where they showed us how the locals handmade their clothes and bags. There was also a small marijuana plantation. They said it was for some legal reason involved in the color dying business or something like that. I don’t remember, I think it’s probably an excuse and some people smoke it anyway!

We stopped at a local house for lunch. The food was pretty similar to Chinese food. Some tofu and eggs, pork and tomatoes, stir fried cabbage, and a big tub of rice. I was a bit sunburned at that point, you can never underestimate the sun in SE Asia.



After lunch it was the real hike. Unpaved roads, and right in between rice paddies. It was muddy at some point, but to be close up and right bang in the middle of all of this nature was amazing. The last part through the bamboo forest was tough though. The track barely fit one person and it was the muddiest mud I’ve ever seen. There were probably an inch of mud stuck on my sneakers by the time I exited that forest. Some of the local indigenous girls were helping people walk across the mud. How nice? Actually they asked for money and got all mad if they didn’t afterwards. It’s a shame really.

After a long day of getting sweaty, drying off, getting sweaty again and drying off again, I had given up on being bothered by the sweat. Another avocado shake and we took the bus back down to Lao Cai station.



!! Bus Driver Scam alert !!
I prepaid for my whole trip for the bus online. On the way there, no problem. We took a picture of the driver’s license plate and we agreed on a time to meet. After we got dropped off in Lao Cai, the bus driver demanded us to pay 100,000 VND. Again, it’s not like I cannot afford it, but I’m so sick and tired of this trying to trick and cheat on tourist shit. I opened full fire on this dude, refused to pay, asked him to call the tour agency online and walked away. I am more than happy to tip for good service and pay a premium, but this kind of cheap and shady action just disgusts me.

Nevermind the bus driver situation. We picked up our train tickets, but had another 2 hours to kill. We attempted to sneak into China, but as we walked towards the boarder, there was a big immigrations control building. The two towns of Lao Cai and Hekou were just separated by a 100 meter concrete road. On the Chinese side you can see tall skyscrapers and it was a big contrast of the short buildings on the Vietnam side. Not that one’s good and the other is bad, I think China simply has a larger population to accommodate.



We had some food across the train station, and again boarded the night train back to Hanoi. We were scheduled to arrive at 4am in the morning, and then picked up at 9am to go to Tam Coc. Best to catch some sleep!




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