Don’t let anybody — not even your most trusted bestie — tell you that the overnight trip from Hanoi through rugged, forested mountain country to the provincial city of Lao Cai, on Vietnam’s north-western border with China, is one of the great railway journeys of the world, even if you are riding in a carriage quite ludicrously named the Orient Express.
Firstly, the narrow bunk in the four-berth cabin really is only just comfortable enough to get some reasonable sleep, especially with the constant banging of the door — or was it the window or a shutter? — against the outside of the train as it lurched nearly 400 kilometres towards the station where a driver would meet us for the hour’s trip further into the mountains to our real destination ... the town of Sapa.
Secondly, it is an overnight trip, after all, and it starts and finishes in darkness, so all you see are the burbs of Hanoi and a few ramshackle sidings. And no glasses of champagne or tinkling of the ivories here, though you can grab a cheap bowl of pho from one of the many hawkers plying the platforms before you steam out of Hanoi.
Also, a word of advice about Hanoi Station. Make sure that you have a guide who clearly understands which train and which carriage you’re in — and that they take you to that carriage, not just to the station. Finding your allocated cabin may require clambering over tracks and weaving around other trains.
But it’s a journey I’m very glad to have made, because it is the only realistic way for Western travellers to get to this quite remote, fascinating corner of the world, which seems occupied mostly by splendidly garbed tribal groups — Black Hmong, Red Dzao and Flower Hmong among them — driven out of China some 15-20 generations ago, and earnest young European backpackers off to do some serious trekking indeed.
Strangely, Sapa reminds me somewhat of the largish towns in the Yorkshire Dales and the English Lakes District — lots of shops selling walking boots, bars selling beer by the pint, and restaurants trading in all varieties of food.
Yes, it would be easy to dismiss Sapa as a touristic curiosity, but in ways that’s what it’s always been — a hill station established in the early 1920s by French colonials as relief from the stifling summer heat of the Vietnamese lowlands.
Our trip has been organised in Sydney through Selective Tours and the Sapa end certainly seems under control. The driver meets us very early in the morning just outside the station, exactly as arranged, in a large, very comfortable vehicle and the hotel in Sapa, the Sunny Mountain, is modern, clean and comfortable ... and extremely well located, just an easy stroll from the town’s bustling restaurant and market district.
The rising sun has provided a glimpse of the mountainous topography and it’s confirmed by walking directly from the street into about the sixth floor of the hotel, with the lower floors cascading down the side of the hill.
The views from the restaurant and terrace, over the valley towards Fansipan Mountain, Vietnam’s highest, provide a spectacular backdrop to breakfast while our room is being prepared.
We spend our first day taking in the town, and taking it a bit easy, knowing that the following day will bring quite a bit more exercise as we head, mostly on foot, into the surrounding countryside.
There’s plenty to see and do. The clothing and handcraft stalls in the markets are run mostly by women from the ethnic hill tribe groups, mainly Hmong and Dzao of various colour persuasions — red, black, white, green/blue, largely dependent on predominant dress colours, but all culturally quite different and all magnificently dressed in intricately woven materials.
The walk around the Ho Sa Pa Lake is extremely pleasant and you readily see why the well-to-do — for that read merchants and Communist Party officials — choose to live on its banks.
And the Sapa Culture Museum is well worth an hour or two.
Restaurant-wise, there’s plenty of choice, but my advice is to stick with local fare, which is cheap, nutritious and mostly good. Straying into cuisines such as Italian — what were we thinking? — seems to bring nothing but disappointment and higher costs.
Wine, as everywhere in Vietnam, is problematic, despite the country’s strong French connection. But the beer — such as Hanoi and 333 (‘ba ba ba’) — is plentiful, cheap and eminently drinkable.
Next morning we meet our guide, a young Red Dzao woman who married a few years ago, has a couple of young children and lives nearby with family. We head off with our driver, but soon it’s on foot, never alone, always accompanied by women and children keen to practise their English and, yes, hopeful of selling a few trinkets or getting a tip for their local knowledge.
But it isn’t a hassle, certainly nothing like in Beijing or Shanghai.
The countryside is an eye-opener. We’ve all seen the gorgeous photos of intricately terraced fields of rice ascending otherwise lush, green mountains, but it isn’t until you’re close up that you fully realise the work and skill that goes into growing and harvesting the daily meal.
And that’s essentially what it is in this part of the world. The north-western corner of Vietnam is a poor country. It’s a colder, less fertile spot than, for instance, the Mekong Delta a couple of thousand kilometres to the south, and can generally only yield one crop of rice a year, rather than the latter’s three.
That means there’s much less chance of a surplus to sell and a consequent way out of the subsistence cycle. And the work required is obviously much more strenuous.
We walk past many farms, stop and buy some exceptionally fine and colourful local weaving and have some delicious pho for lunch, with a can of Hanoi beer to wash away the dust.
Everywhere you go, they make the most of flat space, with rice being dried by the roadside, for instance. And everywhere you go, the emphasis placed on education is so very obvious. These people know that the future lies with the citizens of tomorrow.
A highlight of our stay in Sapa is a visit to the Can Cau Saturday market, a couple of hours by car along some dodgy roads but it’s well worth the excursion to wander around so many stalls selling such an incredible range of foodstuffs, clothing and tapestry-work.
Our guide haggles for some vegetables to take home. We mostly just soak up the atmosphere and are bewildered by such a frenetic scene.
Meanwhile, down the hill a bit, there’s a constant parade of livestock being sold, swapped or just admired.
And then it’s back to Lao Cai, where we have time to look at the bridge that constitutes the entry point to China, have a couple of dishes of noodles with pork and vegetables and have my shoes polished, before heading to the station for the overnight journey back to Hanoi.