We had 4 hours between returning from Halong Bay to our pickup for Sapa. Our first task was to change bags, or more accurately the contents of our small bags.
Wet swimming and kayaking gear was replaced with fleeces and Kagools for the anticipated harsher highland climate.
After some dinner nearby and grabbing some drinks in a shop it wasn’t long until a lone guy on a moped rocked up to tell us our shuttle bus was on its way.
Our destination was the city of Lo Cai, some 340km in the far northwestern reaches of Vietnam. There was only one way to travel in style and that was by locomotive.
We were given our info packs at the station and pointed to our platform. Carriage 15 was ours – the last carriage on the train. Berths 27 and 29 were assigned to us and as we navigated the narrow corridor we realised that this was the last cabin on the train!
In Halong Bay our guide jokingly referred to the train as the ‘Rock n Roll’ train. Standing on the cusp of our cabin we would find out how right he would be. Being the gentleman that he was, John took the top bunk.
Our fellow cabin mates were two Vietnamese Tour Guides who only spoke French. After the introductory ‘Salut..ca va.. Ca va bien’ they kept to themselves.
10 hours of rocking was made up for by the fact that these were real beds with a locked door and duvet. Not like India with it’s hard mattress and short beds that meant that John tripped up all the vendors as they tried to pass.
The next morning we were woken by knocks on the door. We had arrived in Lo Cai and we were the last ones left on the train. We rushed off to greet our guide but this was wasted as we had an hour of stewing in a hot minibus before we would be on our way to Sapa Town, high up in the mountains.
This waiting trend continued in Sapa as we had 3 hours of “we are leaving shortly” updates. At least breakfast and a shower were available. The reason for the delay was that most of our group were on the much delayed 17 hour Overnight bus from Hanoi.
As we were about to leave we discovered that we were booked on the extreme trekking group and not the tourist trail. This meant that we would be carrying bags for quite a distance and challenging topography. Being the gentleman John took the big bag.
Our guide was from the H’mong tribe and she was called Sue. She was ‘helped’ by another 6 women who tagged along for the journey. We would find out why later.
So here we were.. An Irishman, a Scot, a fräulein from Hamburg, a Russian, une femme Francais, a girl from Pittsburgh, who had apparently heard of Michael Tuohy (True Story!), and 5 Brits in matching t-shirts.. all headed for the Ta Van Village some 10km away.
As we trekked through some of the most amazing scenery I think we have seen the women guides weaved animals, tiaras and flowers out of grass while Sue told us all about the region and made us eat unidentified fruit growing on our route. We are still alive so must have been legit.
We saw dozens of Buffalo, pigs, geese, farmers of all ages, a headless dead snake and some great views all enveloped in a very atmospheric mist.
As 4pm approached we stopped for lunch and this is when our female helpers pounced. Out of every pocket and basket came a motley collection of bags and purses and hats and bracelets. Karen felt guilted into buying something as one of the older ladies had helped her down the mountain, and all those grass gifts started to feel expensive when faced with the request to buy!
That night we stayed in dorm like conditions in a nice family homestay which consisted of one big open air room. While the single bathroom provided a delay in showering for most they took it upon themselves to partake in spontaneous a yoga led by the American girl Alison.
Dinner was a big table groaning with spring rolls, beef and pork stir fry, tons of veg including some Potatoes (Yes!!!!!) and one of our new found delicacies, steamed (What’s the story..) Morning Glory. There was no nightlife and the only entertainment to be had was to watch really old Tom and Jerry cartoons with the small children of the household.
The next day was tough going. Trekking up and down a series of hills right on the edge of dirt tracks. By the time we reached the next village we were all wrecked.
After lunch 11 became 4 as most people headed back to Sapa. Only Sue, Grit ze Germann and the dynamic duo were left to carry on to the second homestay.
We slowed the pace down with the smaller group and this allowed us to enjoy the scenery even more. More unknown fruit was consumed, leaf sculptures attempted, leaf whistling tried and paddy fields traversed.
Our next homestay was in a Thai Village called Ban Ho. There we met another group of 3 travellers. Jakob (Austrian), Matthieu (Belgian) and Myles from Seattle were recovering from the forced march by their 18 year old guide, Na. She was very cheeky, combining the traditional garb with a pair of converse and mobile phone glued to her ear.
We spent the night playing cards, swapping stories and influencing future travel plans.
The last day consisted of a small trek up a hill before we all got the bus back to Sapa.
There was drama at the train station as we had trouble getting our return tickets. Vietnam is not a well joined up place. Eventually we got on the train and found out that we had our own cabin…result!
The train ride back was uneventful and we managed to not be the last off the train in Hanoi.
What a great experience and new friends made.
Especially these guys