Day 3 – Sapa Overnight Train to Hanoi
This was the first night with proper beds we slept on since we left home and obviously sleep was sweet, especially after the tough hike up from Cat Cat Village the day before. However, we did not have luxury of time to sleep much longer as we had another 12 km of trekking for the day before heading back to Hanoi at night. So we got up early, which was great to witness the dawning of Sapa from our room balconies. We went over to our children’s room and watched the mountains, valley and the city gradually lighting up to begin a brand new day of excitement for us all.
Then we went down to the restaurant for breakfast and for the last time drank coffee and tea outside the balcony of the restaurant to enjoy the splendid view of Sapa and soaked up this fabulous experience that would stay with us for quite a long time till we visit this place again in the future. During breakfast, we deliberated about the coming 12 km trek to Muong Hoa valley. Since we had already done 6 km of trekking the day before and had seen quite a bit about villages in Sapa, we were thinking of skipping the first 7 km trek and spending time in the city in the morning. We could do the last 5 km trek in the afternoon instead. So we approached the hotel staff and was told we could hire a van to send us to the village for lunch at 11.30 am and then join the rest for the last 5 km of trekking. The cost of hiring a van and driver was 300,000 VND for all of us and so we took the offer and stayed behind to explore the city instead. Our elder daughter opted to join the entire trek as she had skipped Cat Cat Village the previous day so she left with the local guide and we went shopping in town.
This turned out to be one of the best decisions for our vacation. This was a Saturday morning in Sapa and the whole city was a hive of activities with women in their traditional costumes gathering everywhere selling their stuffs. The city came alive so early in the morning which was interesting. First as we walked up the streets, we visited their local market which was not very big. Stores after stores with vegetables, meats and other daily necessities were displayed and locals did their marketing and going about their normal business ignoring the presence of curious tourists like us. This place reminded me of Chinatown in Singapore in the late sixties and early seventies where my dad and my late grandfather brought me to a place like this. In fact my late maternal grandma had a store selling vegetables in Chinatown so such a scene was nothing new to me. Back then we could watch slaughtering of pythons, monitor lizards and other animals on the streets where people bought such meats for food but over here we didn’t see any such stuff. Maybe we might be able to see such spectacle in other rural markets in Vietnam which no doubt would horrify our children.
After visiting the market, we went back to the shop nearby where we bought our jackets the day before and we bought some foldable caps, hats and gloves from the friendly sales ladies.
Next we roamed the town and watched the local women selling their wares with busy shoppers thronging the streets. It was a really colourful event. We were sure glad we skipped our morning trek and spent time in town instead and experienced the lively atmosphere in Sapa which we would otherwise miss had we gone on for the trek.
It was a bright day with clear blue sky and it was great to explore the city. The few hours passed so quickly and we had to return to our hotel to pack up and get ready to meet our driver to bring us to the village to join the rest for lunch and then follow up with the afternoon trek.
We waited at the hotel lobby and soon a minibus pulled up. The hotel staff ushered us to the minibus and wished us a great time. We drove along the winding road down to the valley and we could see the terrain of the valley outside our windows on the right. About half way through the journey, the driver stopped the vehicle along the road and let us alight at a lookout point to view the scenery and take pictures. This man-made lookout point offered a wide angled view of the surrounding mountains and villages below. We could even see tourists trekking below from our vintage point.
Local women tending to young children were trying to sell handicrafts to tourists. Some little kids with runny nose and unwashed face were running around and approaching tourists hoping to sell their trinkets. These little kids looked quite pitiful but at the same time they seemed to be enjoying themselves helping out with their mothers. We took a few pictures and soon were on our way down to the village.
The whole journey took about 40 minutes and we reached an open plain of Muong Hoa valley and our driver made a phone call to our local guide to come over to meet us. After a short while our guide came and showed us to the restaurant where our elder daughter and the rest were already waiting. The restaurant was next to a river and many other tourists were already having lunch with their own groups. We had a table for our group and lunch served was local dishes of vegetables, fried pork, Vietnamese spring rolls, eggs served with rice, soup and fruits. Drinks were not included but we could buy some at the restaurant.
After lunch, our trek began as we walked down the path passing villages and farms with mountains in the background providing a very scenic and leisurely walk. The first village to visit was Lao Chai Village inhabited by the Black Hmong people. There wasn’t any high hill or steep steps to climb up and down like the previous day over at Cat Cat Village as we were on the plain of the valley and of course there wasn’t any waterfall along the way to refresh our adventurous sights. We passed by a school which was empty being a Saturday afternoon. Along the way there were stores selling souvenirs and handicrafts and such. We also passed by a homestay which seemed to be quite serene where quests staying there should have a quiet and peaceful time to do some reading and writing or just while away the time watching villagers go about their business.
We went past another village, Ta Van Village where the Dzay people lived, and saw two little boys playing next to a pool of water and having a good time with a dog resting behind them. They had all the world to themselves without the pressure we city folks had to endure during our daily living and we could only envy their simply joy. As we walked further, we encountered more kids playing outside their homes and a lone farmer tending to his vegetable garden on that bright Saturday afternoon. There were more shops selling local stuff and handicrafts as we trekked along but we didn’t stop to enter any shop for a look. We saw ducks roamed freely in the village while some chickens were trapped in a cage waiting to be transported somewhere to be sold. There was a store with meat left in the open for sale. Such practice is certainly not acceptable to our modern urban standard of keeping fresh meat for sale.
We reached another school and saw some older kids playing in the empty school compound and some younger kids playing at the gate. This was indeed simple joy and happy time for them like what I did have during yesteryears of my childhood which my children probably might not understand. Another two teenage girls outside the gate were plucking shoots from some bamboo plants to prepare soup according to the explanation by our local guide.
After that we walked further down and reached another homestay where our trek was going to end. Further ahead was a bridge and after crossing the bridge, we would end our trek for the day and wait for our transport to send us back to our hotel.
We were a little early and so we had to wait for others before the minibus would leave. We took the opportunity to look around and took more pictures of the surrounding area and enjoyed the pleasant day on the plain of Muong Hoa Valley.
Finally it was time to go and everyone gathered and boarded the minibus. Thus we left this interesting and lovely area and went back to Sapa. In less than an hour we were brought back to our hotel. Immediately we went to our rooms for showers, repacked, checked out and rested at the hotel lobby waiting for our transport to send us back to Lao Cai for our overnight train ride back to Hanoi. These two days were truly insightful and interesting to see how these locals lived their lives in the villages and the equally fascinating and colourful Sapa town that offered us a roof over our heads while we enjoyed this scenic area during our short stay.
Soon a minibus arrived at the Sapa Lodge Hotel and the hotel staff gathered us to board the bus. They all came out to wave us good byes and wished us a safe ride back to Hanoi. These young people who manned the hotel were really friendly and kind to us during our stay. We would probably come back to stay here again during our next visit. So off we went to pick up other passengers in Sapa and in about an hour we arrived Lao Cai and it was already dark. A tour representative met up with everyone and we were brought into a restaurant in front of the huge car park in town for dinner. We all had our own tables according to our tour groups. Our Australian friends were also with us and they had a table to themselves. Dinner was local dishes of vegetables, pork, chicken served with rice which was good enough to last us till the morning. We took the opportunity to use the toilets at the restaurant as the toilets in the train would not be as good and clean. After dinner, we hung around the open car park area where we first arrived and waited to be brought to the train station for our ride.
Not long after, the agent gathered all of us and handed us our train tickets. We then marched to the station and boarded the train and entered our respective cabins. It was the same arrangement like we first came to Lao Cai. Our four children had a cabin to themselves while we shared a cabin with the same Australian couple again. The children were indeed very happy with the Sapa tour. It was an eye-opener for them and now another great time for them to enjoy themselves to have some games in the cabin before they called it a night. As we already met our Australian friends the first time we came, we had a nice chat for quite awhile sharing travel experiences before we all retired with greater expectation of more fun to come in the morning. As we chucked along on our rock and roll cradle beds, we tried as best we could to catch some sleep before daylight as we had another more exciting tour ahead at Halong Bay.
This trip to Sapa was very fruitful where our whole family could visit places together to experience something extraordinary with scenic beauty in a place we hardly had a chance to visit. With the highway from Hanoi to Sapa recently completed, there are now buses plying between Hanoi and Sapa directly which cut travel time to under 6 hours. The bus will pick up hotel guests at the Old Quarter early morning arriving Sapa around midday. This could be an alternative to the long overnight train ride to Lao Cai which could take a toll on some of us and affect our first day of activity in Sapa. Perhaps the next time when we visit Sapa we would probably consider this option and the cost is around USD 18 per person per way, less than half the cost for an overnight train ride. Moreover, Lao Cai is just a short distance from the Chinese border where buses and train rides are possible to travel from Hekou to Kunming. We might even try to move over to explore China on land if we have plenty of time to spare. Hence our trip to Sapa opens up new possibility for our future travel plans. Meanwhile we looked forward to having a great time with our children for the Halong Bay cruise.
Continue to Day 4 ...