Night Train to Sapa

In the Time of COVID. Day 94

June 20, 2020.

Night Train to Sapa

14 times zones west of California, we found ourselves bundled into a taxi. Evening was approaching Hanoi and the streets were frenetic with traffic. A mass of scooters with 2, 3, 4, and even 5 riders on each, a flowing logjam bunching and breaking into wild dashes to bunch again. Lines of pedestrians snaked cross the road as the stream of traffic continued unabated, flowing around the walkers like water around boulders in a torrent. Our taxi lurched and halted, sped to fill the available space and halted again. We passed along the darkening lanes and avenues with a destination of Tran Quy Cap. Hanoi Train Station B.

Street life Hanoi
Nights Train to Sapa

April and I were in Vietnam on holiday. Our daughter Christy had started her teaching assignment there, in August. Her school had let out for three weeks of winter break. The three of us decided to travel north into the Tonkin Alps. None of her friends had been up there. We were trail blazing. Up into the northernmost mountains. Up into Hmong villages. Up into the giant bamboo cloud forest by Dragon Mountain. In order to get there we needed to catch the night train to Lao Cai, the border town that hugs the Chinese border, to the north.

The Taxi stopped abruptly at the dimly lit plaza of the train station. All signs were in Vietnamese. Hundreds of people milled about. Along the edges were lantern lit stalls selling mementos and baguettes, candies and cookies, postcards and cigarettes, and homemade whiskey with baby cobras or scorpions embalmed in amber liquid in glass bottles.

We had reserved a sleeper compartment on the blue train. The computer ticketing process was confusing and there seemed to have been four or five trains all of differing colors headed north that night. We were to be met by representatives of our train. We arrived at the plaza 45 minutes before departure but no one came to greet us or direct us to the proper track and train. We were disoriented and looked about for assistance. Fortunately, in Vietnam, people are gracious and students try, at any opportunity, to practice their English. Just such a group approached us and asked if they could help. We were directed to a flickering, fluorescent lit cement block waiting room that crowded with families and a few groups of international backpackers. There was no signage to help us understand the arrivals and departures. A loud, crackling, female voice, made announcements over a microphone, in Vietnamese. We just had to trust all would work out.

A uniformed woman said “You go, you go now” and swept her hand toward a far opening in the wall. We hustled out and a conductor checked our papers and led us to a blue train car. There were other cars of different colors, just one train. We climbed aboard and were escorted to our compartment. We learned years before that when booking sleeping accommodations one should reserve the entire compartment. We had an extra berth on which to sling our bags. The train was narrow gauge. In the hallway my shoulders brushed the wall and windows so I had to walk slightly sideways . The bunks were about 5 and half feet long. There was a little wooden table and a lamp by our window. A conductor checked our tickets and a cart with hot tea , bottled water , steaming towels and sweet rice cookies was rolled along and we were served.

Our Compartment

Eventually with lurching, swaying and squealing, the train began to move and for the next hour we brushed by makeshift housing within 3 feet of our window. In those humble dwellings we saw people squatting to their evening meals or gazing at little tv’s. We crossed over the wide expanse of the Red River and out into farmland to the north. Occasional houses were lit off in the fields as night descended. We settled into our beds for the journey.

Night Train to Sapa

The food cart came by again in the early morning and we were offered hot steaming towels, boiled eggs, tea and a pastry. We watched the hills rise to the west and then, as we came into a small village, the train stopped. Several people got off and a few got on. There was general milling about by the tracks. But, the train did not budge. It was about an hour later that train personnel announced that the south bound train had derailed up ahead and they were not certain when our train would be able to proceed. I got off and talked with some French guys who had unloaded their bikes and were going to peddle on to Lao Cai. Some passengers were hopping on the backs of scooters with their bags and taking off.

Village Life along the train route

Catching scooter rides out to the road was an option. I talked it over with April and Christy and we decided to give it a go. This actually scared the shit out of me because a couple of years before I had shattered my elbow and if I fell it would most likely break again. I didn’t realize it before we left the train but April had my passport and money and day pack. I had a heavy rolling bag in each hand and no way to hold on to the driver. We mounted up behind the drivers and April’s and Christy’s drivers headed out each in a different direction and my guy took yet a different way. Crap, I had to hold the bags away from my body and the driver slithered and swayed along muddy lanes. Up and down through that rural village waving at his friends. Laughing kids ran along the side. We went along fields that had buffalo tethered off by noise rings, munching grass. I couldn’t see April and Christy anywhere. “Just hold on” I told myself. “Don’t loose your balance” I chanted, with gritted teeth and tense body.

Later, off in the distance, I saw the outline of the highway crossing over the gully we were riding in. There was no on ramp. That Village had been bypassed. We went under the road and my scooter driver turned left and gunned it up a dirt embankment and plopped us onto the highway. Across the road, April and Christy stood by their drivers. Everyone was all smiles. All we had to do was wave down a bus headed north.

Vietnam built that highway, probably for the Army. Very few vehicles used it. Out in that countryside it was scooters, ox carts and a few tractors. The scooter drivers waited with us until a large northbound Passenger Van breaked to a halt. It was full, but miraculously they made room for us. Our bags were strapped on the roof and off we went. The other passengers were sharing fruit and they offered us pieces. We had a big bag of cashew nuts and offered them around. Everyone smiled, the driver listened to loud local pop music and about an hour later we rolled into the shuttle bus queue at Lao Cai.

Lao Cai City is situated in a verdant valley. It’s elevation is about 800 feet with a population of 600,000. It is an agricultural and small manufacture City. Just across the border is Kunming, Yunnan Provence, China. The Red River courses through the valley fed by streams dropping down from the Tonkin Alps. Lao Cai has no touristic attraction, that was left to the Sapa highlands. Sapa lay atop a mountain ridge nearly 4 thousand feet above Lao Cai. We searched the offered shuttle buses for one that said Victoria Spa in the window. We showed our reservations, stowed our gear and climbed aboard.

The shuttle climbed out of Lao Cai and we wound along switchbacks up and up into a dense cloud cover. We could not see where we were and it was unnerving that the coachman talked on two cell phones, one hand on the wheel. Fog was so thick the wipers slapped back and forth to no effect. The interior was steamed up by the breath of 30 passengers, the driver constantly toweled his windshield. Buses and delivery trucks attempted to pass and did, grinding gears and accelerating though they were blind to on coming traffic. Downhill traffic came within inches of us and the journey took nearly 90 minutes. When we arrived in Sapa the cloud cover was so low and wet that the town’s structures were ghostly, hinting at form and then disappearing. There were four drop-offs before we climbed up a ridge to Victoria Spa. It was as if we were enveloped in a massive cloud with just the outer form of the lobby visible. When we entered, there were at least 50 Chinese in a tour group checking in. We took seats in the lodge chairs arranged around a massive stone fireplace, a welcoming fire warmed our bones. Large photos of the Hmong and Red Dao ethnic peoples were framed on the walls. Hot tea and steaming towels were offered.

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