It’s about 6am and we’ve arrived in Lao Cai! It’s the transit town where tourists hop off the train and into a bus heading towards Sapa. The overnight train that took us from Hanoi city centre to Lao Cai was excellent. A return ticket was USD58, and we had the standard 4-bed cabin to ourselves. Clean, cosy, and comfortable, it was the perfect virgin night train experience for me. I really loved getting lulled to sleep by the train’s gentle rocking.
It was a good decision to book the first leg of our Sapa adventure in Hanoi because the moment the train unloaded its sleepy backpackers, we were swarmed by persistent touts. Since our next transport was already settled, we could ignore all that and make a beeline for the guy holding up Rachel’s name. It was quite a messy situation. And at 6am, groggy despite the excellent sleep we got on the 9-hour train ride, the last thing we wanted to do was haggle with the locals and still end up getting ripped off.
The meandering bus ride up into the mountains gave us a spectacular preview of the region, and I was surprised by how vast the mountain ranges here were. I didn’t expect to see peaks in South East Asia that could compare to those in Europe, and that got me extremely hyped up thinking about the 3 days that we were going to spend here.
Yet again, we were faced with another mix up. Back in Hanoi, the tour agent secured rooms for us at a place which Rachel remembered to be Mountain View Hotel. Unfortunately, the receipt we got for our reservation involved half-illegible scribbles, so we couldn’t confirm if that was indeed the hotel which was promised. We were a bit unsure, but the staff of the hotel we got dropped off at confirmed our reservation, so we just accepted it. Our suspicions were only confirmed when we got back to Hanoi on the last day of our trip. It seems that the middle man made some private arrangements of his own, and we ended up staying at a hotel different from the one that the travel agent reserved for us. (Travel lesson: Always double check your receipts and call the agent up once you smell a potential scam coming.)
Oh well… That’s Vietnamese coordination for you. The hotel we got, Tulip Hotel, had spacious but subpar rooms with large toilets, and the staff weren’t the friendliest of the lot. At least we had a nice big porch with a heart-wrenchingly gorgeous (but slightly obstructed) view.
We then took a short stroll through Sapa town. It’s a sleepy town filled with massage parlours, shops that sold proper trekking gear, motorbike rental agents, and many European-styled cafes. We ended up getting lured into a cafe that offered an English breakfast set for VND70,000 (USD 3).
Out of a couple of motorbike rental shops we checked out, we sealed the deal with Vuong Tu Mobike on 4 Muong Hua because the guy, also called Vuong (he says he’s not the boss though), was friendly and not too hard sell. With him as our guide, we would be exploring the area by visiting a couple of waterfalls, and other scenic stops along the route were promised. The package, which included our masculine convoy of 2 autos and 2 semi-auto bikes, as well as the tour guide’s fee and bike, cost USD60 in all.
None of us have bike licences, but that didn’t matter because they don’t bother checking. The ride within the town centre was a bit scary because of the traffic, but we were soon out in the hills, and the only distractions were the beautiful views that unfolded with each turn. I’ve been driven around winding mountain roads with gorgeous views all around, but riding through it was completely different. A friend once told me that his best travels were those done on a bike because you were physically enveloped by the scenery, and I couldn’t agree more. It was a thrill unlike any other. Just thinking of the cold wind’s touch while zipping at a very responsible speed around nature makes me yearn for more.
I remember catching sight of the first waterfall as we came round a bend, and it was so gorgeous I couldn’t stop myself from exclaiming into my face mask. It was so beautiful I could cry. We stopped to get a closer look at the Silver Waterfall, but it was honestly much more beautiful from afar.
We left our bikes again to see another waterfall, and in order to arrive at Love Waterfall, we had to follow Golden Stream. Whoever named these attractions had an accidental sense of humour, and we acknowledged it with our immature sniggers.
The water was damn cold, but we came waterfall-hunting with the mindset of swimming in them, so we took a plunge.
We headed back to Sapa town at around 4 or 5pm, and was a bit bummed that we had to return the bikes right after the tour even though we were charged for a full day’s bike rent. But I had such a fantastic time already that it was really no biggie. A 1.5hour massage was next in line, and mine included a soak in a hot herbal bath before the Thai massage — and it only cost VND250,000 (USD12). Then we wolfed down some really decent lasagne and pasta for dinner at one of the many Italian restaurants around.
One thing interesting about this town in the middle of the mountains is that it’s so connected. Just call up the networks in the middle of the road, and a long list of wifi connections appear. The best part is most of them don’t password-protect it. I Whatsapped this interesting observation to Sis and she replied, “They’re communist what. I guess they believe internet should be for the people too.” Communism connectivity FTW!
It was only when we were back in our rooms to rest for the night that we realised that it didn’t have air-conditioning, or even a fan installed. Mel and I shared a room, and we decided to leave the door open to let the cool air in. We also let the bugs in that way, and we had to battle a cockroach with slippers and hair spray before shutting the door… Until we realised what our cheesy-looking bed veils were meant for.
So we put our trust into our nets, and left the door wide open and fell asleep listening to bugs buzzing around and hitting the walls. It reminded me of camping in school.
The next day, we continued to experience Sapa through a homestay in a secluded village. Here’s a preview of the spectacular views we got there…