06 April 2006

Night Train

My journey to Sapa began at 2pm on Sunday when I got in the taxi headed for the airport to catch my 4:30, two-hour flight to Hanoi. From Hanoi, I was to go to the Sinh Café travel office, arriving by 8pm in order to catch the 12-hour night train to Lao Cai. From there it is an hour bus trip up the mountain.

I had decided to fly with Pacific Air rather than Vietnam Air because it was $30 cheaper and I figured nothing could be much worse than Vietnam Air. I had wanted to get the earlier flight at 11:30am just to make sure I had enough time in case there were any delays, but that flight was sold out. When they announced that there would be a slight delay for the 4:30 flight, I started to get nervous.

At 4:45, every seat of the beat-up, old airplane was filled. This aircraft had been a former member of a Spanish speaking country, with bilingual cabin signs like occupied/occupado. The interior boasted its original everything, and I only hoped that they had spent any revenues on engine maintenance, since it obviously hadn’t been used on anything that I could see. Glancing at my watch, I willed them to shut the doors and take off. And just at that moment, I heard a thunder clap and the rain started to pour. Now I hoped that the pilot would do the smart thing and delay take-off. He didn’t, and we were soon in the air, cramped and uncomfortable. For the first time in my air flight life, I realized why those seats feel much worse than they probably are: it’s the seat in front of you. It invades your personal space and one is constantly trying to mentally push back from it.

Flight over, and at the baggage carousel, I met a woman from Zimbabwe who worked in Hanoi. We shared a taxi into town, which is an hour drive. She had recently been to Sapa so gave me a few tips. It was almost 8pm when I finally got to the tiny Sinh office. I had made it in time!

Shouldn’t we leave for the train station? I asked. “No”, the young office agent said, “there is plenty of time”. While I sat there I asked about who I would be sharing a room with, each berth having four beds. “We don’t know”. I asked about how many people would be on the trekking tours. “We don’t know, but not more than five”. At 8:15, I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut and asked, aren’t we going to miss the train? “No,” she said, “the train doesn’t leave until 10pm”. Well at least I was glad I hadn’t taken the 11:30 flight. But something didn’t make sense. If we left at 10, and it was a 12-hour trip, how was I to make the 8am breakfast and 9pm short trek? I asked. “The train arrives at 6am”, I was told. Things were looking a little better; it was only an eight hour trip.

At 8:30 the agent called a taxi over and we were off. A short drive later we picked up three other tour people, a Vietnamese woman in her 30’s and her parents. Arriving at the station I was once again glad I was not doing this alone. The streets were dark and teeming with people and taxis and motorbikes all making their way to the entrance. I secured my belongings with an iron grip and trailed closely behind the travel agent.

After passing through the ticket gate, we walked over to a poorly lit platform, squeezing through the crowds of loud people. One train had just arrived, the passengers moving towards us, making maneuvering even more difficult. We rounded the end of one train, then crossed over several tracks to another platform and waiting train, then down to the very last car.

When I got to my berth, I realized that the three people we had picked up were to be my cabin mates. Somehow, three of us walked into our tiny room at the same time and I had a near claustrophobic attack. Since two of our party were rather old, I said I would take a top bunk, dropped my bag, and went out of the train to clam down. I didn’t know how I was going to survive all night in such a tomb-like enclosure. I stayed out until it was time to take off.

Passing the other berths on the way to mine, I saw they were filled mostly with groups of foreign tourists, who seemed to be having a good-old time. Once inside mine, I climbed up to my perch, which didn’t even have enough space to sit up in. Surprisingly, once I lay down, the claustrophobia somewhat disappeared, even after the door was slid shut. I pulled out my book and proceeded to read. The cabin had a small table and lamp between the bottom bunks, and a small light over the door.

Around eleven, I looked down to see that my roommates were asleep, but had left the light on for me. I gingerly climbed down managing not to step on anyone, and made my way towards the bathroom at the end of the car. As much as I enjoyed the rocking of the train, I knew that taking a pee would be a challenge. The toilet was a squatter with hand rails on two sides, and as much as I did not want to grab on, there really was no choice. Squatting there, I thought of my friend who had done the trip while she was six months pregnant, getting up every two hours to use the facilities. I don’t know how she managed.

Back in the berth, I turned off the table lamp and tried to get comfortable. The bed was narrow, and I sort of wondered how many people had been railroad-rocked off the top. I moved closer to the wall. I tried everything I could do, but just couldn’t sleep, mainly because that damn night light over the door shone directly into my eyes. I fell asleep for thirty minutes and woke up with a headache, swallowed a pill and tried again. This basically went on all night, but I have to say it still beat the crap out of the same amount of time squeezed into an airplane seat. It didn’t seem to affect my roommates who were out cold all night. Finally, at 5:30 in the morning, with daylight breaking, I got up and went out to stand at the end of the car and look at the scenery through the cloudy glass and bars. I noticed that every exit from the car was either paddle locked or barred and tried not to think of cabin fires.

I figured we only had a short while to go when I met another passenger in the hall who said that the train was supposed to have arrived at 5:30am, but that the conductor kept adding hours. It was now due at 8:30. I was feeling rather rotten, so didn’t care that I might miss early morning activities in Sapa. Getting closer to our final destination, I put my hand to the glass window expecting it to be ice cold, but it wasn’t. I noticed the people we passed were not bundled up against the chill. I began to think about the clothing I had packed, and when I finally stepped off the train I said, Damn! Foiled again! It was pleasant and warm and I had all the wrong clothes.

Everyone I had spoken to who had taken the same trip had warned me that the bus up the hill from Lao Cai to Sapa was horrible simply because it was after such an exhausting train trip. I didn’t see it that way, even though I was sardined into a tiny fold down seat in a mini-van packed with twenty people. It was such different, beautiful scenery. I started to see people dressed in ethnic clothes which seemed odd and I couldn’t exactly explain to myself why I had this reaction. Maybe it was the sight of such completely different dress alongside western wear. Or possibly that they wore clothing one sees in postcards and books, but not walking around unless they are at some sort of multi-cultural festival.

We passed groups of water buffalo being herded up the main road along with people in various local dress with baskets on their backs; some filled with wood, others with vegetables, and some of them on motorbikes. As we climbed higher, I looked down the mountain to see hundreds of terraced farms, seemingly encompassing the entire valley.

Sapa is a small town, originally built as a “hill-station”, not that I am exactly sure what that is, other than a retreat for the Europeans wanting to escape the heat. Even with all the building that has gone on in recent years, it still feels quaint and peaceful. It was certainly evident that a booming tourist industry has taken hold. There are lots and lots of small hotels and café’s and gift shops. There are hundreds of tourists walking around and equally as many of the indigenous peoples either going about their daily business or trying to sell their wares.

I was the last person to be dropped off at my hotel, the Golden Sea. (I have no idea about the name.) It stood at the end of a road, with nothing around it but mountains. A young man from the office came out to tell me that I wouldn’t be in the main building, but next door in the Golden Sea 2, because they had a group of fifty arrive the day before. I followed him over to the other building and up to my room on the second floor. I walked in and noted that it was clean and new and completely adequate. The hotel guy opened up the balcony doors, and started to tell me about the plans for the day.

At this point I was feeling like total crap. Too many hours traveling, not eating, and then there was that altitude thing. I started to say something then stopped mid-sentence because I had just bothered to take a look out of the balcony and onto an unobstructed view of the mountains. It was absolutely breathtaking, and I was later to learn that I probably had the best view of any hotel room in town. Not only was there nothing to see but nature in every direction, there was no noise, only the sounds of people walking up and down the trail that lead to one of the villages.

I showered, unpacked, went to the main hotel to eat some very unimaginative food, then back to lie down. I really hoped I would feel up to the 2pm mini-trek.
And I was, but that will be told in the next chapter.