Leaving on the Night Train to Sapa (Vietnam)

I have always dreamt of traversing the great corridors of the world by train—tackling Lake Michigan, Yellowstone National Park, and Mount Rushmore on one jaunt then the Swiss Alps, Lake Geneva, and the Italian Dolomites in another. While riding the Orient Express still remains an ambitious goal on my “back in time” travel adventure list, my recent journey to Hanoi, Vietnam provided me with a glimpse into overnight train travel.

Overnight train travel through South East Asia is commonplace and provides an individual with a veritable way of exploring and delighting in authentic local culture and customs. Furthermore, overnight train travel is incredibly economical and provides great flexibility for the cost- conscious traveler, unbound by time and circumstance.

Although Hanoi has that  “big city” magnetism that draws the masses, it is the ambience of the countryside that gives one a convincing impression of Vietnam and its people, whose simplicity, piety, and hospitality is awe-inspiring. It would be remiss of anyone to visit Vietnam without experiencing a trip to the Northern highlands, where rice fields infinitely span the countryside’s terrain and are as ubiquitous as the “non la” (the cone shaped hat worn by farmers and locals to shield themselves from the sun).


Coincidently, an excursion to the rice fields of Vietnam was on my “must experience before departing Hanoi” list, this past July. With a plentitude of tour offices offering the gamut of half and full day excursions to the unsuspecting tourist, it is often difficult to determine if you’re truly getting a “great bargain” or are being hoodwinked. I considered myself fortunate to have been able to secure a stellar deal without being besieged by unsolicited calls from tour operators.  The Hanoi Star hotel (www.hanoistarhotel.com) where one of my college classmates stayed in the historical center of the city, offers both night and day packages to indulge every type of traveler- from the cultural explorer to the free spirited “theme traveler”.  For just $110 dollars, you can book yourself for a two day, three night (due to two overnights on the train) journey to Sapa, replete with meals, accommodations, and tour guide. Mike, a local whose English language skills would astonish most, takes care of all the remaining logistics-train reservations and ground transportation. All you will be required to do is  “show up” at the Hanoi Star hotel in the evening around 8 pm for taxi transport to the train station.



Boarding the train and locating my cabin was hassle- free due to the knowledgeable, well-trained, and amicable staff. The cabin, although not luxurious, was equipped with 2 double bunk beds, a -13 inch flat screen TV, night table, and was notably immaculate.

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If you are a lone traveler (such as I was), it will be difficult to predict whether you will be in the company of the shrewd backpacker or the non-threatening commoner en route to work, as the train berth pairings are done arbitrarily. I assume that special requests are dutifully honored when traveling in pairs, trios, or quads. Fortunately, I was joined by two young women, a social worker and a Math teacher, two best friends who were on week # 7 of an 18th month long jaunt, willing to put their ten year relationship on trial.

Approximately 9 hours later at 7:45 a.m., the train pulled into the Lao Cai train station.

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We were given specific instructions to locate a man hoisting a “Sapa Summitt Hotel” sign, where after having your credentials checked (nationality/passport info), you will be ushered to board a mini-van to embark on the one-hour journey into the highlands. The main thoroughfare from the train station to the hotel is a good stretch of winding uphill roads requiring the stealth of a seasoned driver; approximately 10,000 people die each year on the roads of Vietnam making the trek into the mountains an often treacherous one. Ascending the mountainous region into Sapa would also not be the opportune time to figure out whether you are unjustly plagued with altitude sickness, for Sapa lies at approximately 1,500 meters above sea level and is home to the highest mountain range in Vietnam. Valleys and gorges dot the skyline, making the views along the road splendorous and dramatic.

Approximately one hour later, you will arrive into the heart of Sapa, a town bustling with members of the Black Hmong tribe, a minority ethnic group who also reside in the mountainous regions of China, Laos and Thailand. The Hmong tribe are renowned craftsmen and women who delight in casting their goods (belts, skirts, local garb, bangles, earrings, handicrafts) on arriving guests.




As there is much to feast your eyes on, I would recommend reserving your purchases for the second or third day while you’re in town. Everything is affordable and is especially appealing to those with “short pockets”; I was able to buy a hand stitched, multicolored textile that could easily function as a duvet cover, for only $30.



Upon check-in, you will be given the itinerary for the duration of your stay. The Day 1 and 2 itineraries required rather strenuous hikes into the villages of several Asian minority groups and required appropriate hiking gear that is waterproof and breathable. The weather can be quite fickle -abundant sunshine one moment then portentous clouds and rain another moment. You can rent rain boots from the hotel for approximately $2 a day and purchase a “knock-off” Northface parka for $25, which will be a worthy investment.



The Day 1 itinerary, which involved a four mile trek round-trip, included a visit to Cat Cat Village, home to the Black Hmong tribe. It was not uncommon to observe children frolicking alongside the water buffalos, providing glimpses of man in complete alliance with beast, and women siting at the loom, meticulously weaving geometric patterns with bold contrasting colors on cloth.




The trip culminated with a visit to a cascading waterfall, which provided some respite from the unrelenting heat and humidity in late July.

The Day 2 itinerary entailed an eight mile trek to Y Linh Ho, Lao Chai and Ta Van villages, home to the Black Hmong and Dzay minorities. We descended upon many picturesque views of rice farmers weeding and foraging fields, leaving us with arresting impressions of “man submerged in nature” and a renewed respect for all harvesters of rice.


Navigating through the villages can become increasingly complicated as you may feel obligated to purchase something from every woman and girl who approaches you; “You buy from me? You promise, you buy from me”.  The undue pressure can become awkward. You simply have to sternly tell them that you haven’t got any more money, or there will be a stream of girls accompanying you along the road until you acquiesce. Despite, the moments where you might feel hassled, the journey to Sapa will leave an indelible impression upon you.

Although there were moments where I had relished the thought of having company along this journey, traveling alone allowed for a natural unveiling of things and allowed me to interact in valiant ways with strangers; I became fast friends with two women from Israel. As one travel writer famously wrote, when traveling alone, “You see more, you hear more, you move faster, you are less noticeable and most importantly, you don’t have to worry about your traveling companion wearing the wrong shoes”. That was definitely one less worry for me.



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