Getting from Hanoi to Sapa independently isn’t the easiest part of travelling in Vietnam, especially if you don’t know many Vietnamese words.
We did not want to face the prospect of a 10hr bus ride, hence travelling by train was the best option available.
We had not book tickets for the train journey back in Singapore, and immediately went to the Hanoi train station to book tickets upon our arrival.
We were there in January (it’s an off peak season) and there were available seats. (If you know a thing or two about the Vietnamese train system in the tourist peak months of June – September, please drop a comment below.)
Locating the train station was easy, thanks to Friend S’ good sense of direction. Though language was a problem I must admit.
That being said, booking train tickets in Hanoi is a much pleasant experience than doing so in India. Think about squeezing with men who stand too close to you – there was none of that. We went around asking the locals and gesturing towards the Vietnamese word of Sapa on our guidebook. Eventually we found the right counter to queue at. It was actually quite efficient. I remembered pressing for a number, and waiting for our number to be called on the large screen.
After not too long a wait – about 15 minutes, our number was called. We requested for 3 tickets to Lao Cai via the overnight train. Our order was keyed into the system and the tickets were issued. It was pretty straight forward. Until then, we had no idea what class of tickets we were issued. It cost us 500,000 dong per person (USD 23.50/ SGD30) which was pretty affordable. The train was set to depart at 9.10pm and arrive at Lao Cai at 5.25am the next morning.
We later found out that we had been allocated the hard sleeper class. Essentially it didn’t have frills of a luxurious soft sleeper compartment, but we had a private room of four berths to ourselves (there was just three of us travelling). The cabin was relatively clean, only that an insect ran over Friend W while she was sleeping.
The shock lasted for several hours. I must have laid down and fallen sleep for a brief moment, only to be awaken by a series of hard raps on the door, and a loud Vietnamese voice. We had arrived.
Half awaken, we struggled to grab our belongings and leave the train. When the train pulled into Lao Cai at 5.25am, it was bustling. People were busy disembarking, parents struggling with several huge suitcases and children in arm as they hurried to the exit. Tour guides working hard at selling taxi rides to Sapa. Our decision was not to hire a taxi until we were out of the train station.
Outside, a number of mini-vans lay await. Not all were going to Sapa and we had to observe and ask. There’s a higher tendency not to get cheated if you were to take a mini-van with many locals in it. We eventually found a mini-van with a local lady. The driver didn’t seem to care about us, and was having a puff. Sapa? We asked. Yes, and gestured towards the open van. We loaded in, happy to seek comfort from the warm vehicle, escaping the 10 degree temperatures outside.
We had to wait for more passengers to fill up the van before the driver would move off. Nearby, hawkers were selling freshly baked baugettes – they tasted super good, and was heavenly for three cold travellers who hadn’t the best of rest on the train.
At 6am, a militarilistic song sounded loudly through Vietnam’s version of a public announcement system. Sounded like their national anthem. And boy, it did give one a very authentic feel of Vietnam. It was then, with the aromas of a freshly baked baguette filtering through my nose, a piece of moist bread in my mouth, and milarilistic songs pounding through my head at 6am that cold morning did I feel that it was a truly authentic Vietnamese moment to behold.
As the sun rose, the van finally set off. We arrived at Sapa close to 8.30am in the morning. The ride took approximately an hour, up the nooks and crannies along the mountain road. It cost us approximately 50,000 dong (USD2.35/ SGD3).
Sapa is a very small town and we got off at the final dropoff point. (Finally!)
Check out the next post on our epic experience with the accommodation in Sapa, while trying to fight off close to sub zero temperatures at night.