Hard seats vs Sleeper Berths:
When we arrived back into Hanoi from Ha Long Bay we were greeted by the extreme heat and 100% humidity much unlike the islands we had just come from. We had looked up that there were two train stations in the city and needed to get tickets for that nights sleeper train into Sapa, Vietnam. Once again we decided to take the cheap route and walk from the harbor to the train station to get our tickets. What felt like hours later we got to what looked like an abandoned station and bought our tickets just to be told that we were at the wrong station and had to make the trek all the way to the other side of the city. For the train ride that night we had a choice of three seat types, the first being a sleeper bunk, the next being a soft seat and the last one being the hard seats (obviously the cheapest choice). I was leaning towards the sleeper beds or at least the soft seats because after trekking around the city in the heat and ending up at the wrong station I was ready to pass out. Dylan, being Dylan, convinced me that the hard seats would be an experience and that we would just get a couple beers to bring on the train and fall asleep on each other. I caved and next thing I knew we were walking past all the tourist boarding the sleeper cars and being shuffled into the last car on the train with all of the local Vietnamese people. We were both really excited to be having this new experience so once we saw our seats we thought positively ‘hey not so bad we can do this after a couple of beers!’. That was a very short lived feeling. Within ten minutes every free space on the train was filled with a body or a sack of some dried fish or rice. One woman walked in with a huge plastic tarp and just laid it down under the seats across from us and slept the whole ride underneath a families feet. We were so exhausted that we both eventually drifted off waking up every couple minutes to move around positions. About half way through the ride we were shaken awake by one of the train conductors and we were asked if we wanted to move into a sleeper car for only 200,000 VND (original price at ticket counter was 1,200,000) Dylan who must bargain in his sleep reacted quickly and said, ‘No, 100,000 VND’. The conductor agreed and we followed him to a sleeper car with 3 other people sleeping in it already and squeezed together on one very small twin sized bed. The rest of the trip seemed like a breeze after being moved from the hard seats. We pulled into Sapa around 7 am and walked off the train ready for a new adventure.
Sapa Vietnam was one of those places you’ll always remember. A little bit like Disneyland for the first time as a child. As we started acceding up the mountain in our tiny little taxi bus the real culture of the old village life of Vietnam started to show more and more. A big river valley connects Lo Cai to Sapa. It’s scattered with farm huts atop each hill that overlook the family rice fields that are terraced about one after another through the entire valley. It was a beautiful way to start the morning after that quite terrible train ride. One thing stood out the most on that ride up the hill to the small town of Sapa. As our bus driver flew around corners and passes scooters one after another something caught both our eyes. A man was riding his scooter with a huge dead pig tied to the back, bleeding, probably smelt terrible, but none the less he just kept put putting up the hill to Sapa.
The Scooter from Hell:
When we had arrived we were on little to no sleep. When you haven’t slept much it leads to some pretty bad decisions as travelers, one being forgetting to grab money out of your bag when you leave your room for the day. We rented a scooter as soon as we arrived because like our time in Ha Long bay it seemed to be the best way to get around (which it definitely was). We hopped on and headed off, with about 45,000 VND in our pocket (equivalent of $2.25). We filled up with gas and now only had 15,000 left in our pocket. No biggy, things are cheap in Vietnam. We started mobbing up the hill towards the very top of Sapa where the waterfalls are. Just as we peaked over the hill our bike started to die… Little by little we came to a complete stop and were stranded with almost no money in the middle of nowhere. We pushed the bike about 1 1/2 kilometers to a guy who was selling petrol outside of his house. He had a little scooter repair spot in the garage as well. We gave him the last 75 cents worth of Vietnam Dong that we had and he gave us about 1/4 liter of gas. We try to start the bike and nothing… We start looking around at the bike and figure out that the entire carburetor had fallen off. Brant, Wyatt and I went 10,500 miles across America last year with little to no problems for the entire trip and in about 5 km’s in Vietnam our scooter is falling apart already. The nice guy who gave us gas took the side panel off and put the carburetor back on the bike strapping it down tight. We were off again headed back down the hill towards Sapa without reaching the summit and the waterfall. We headed straight for the hostel to grab money and were off again. This time we decided to head down the hill to the rice villages in the Valley below the city. As we’re riding down we got about half way probably 6km’s and the bike starts to die again. This time we had money, but there was nothing in either direction for quite some time besides one house on the edge of the hill side. A guy came out with his 3 daughters and 1 son, all must have been under the age of 7. We looked in the gas tank and nothing, after putting in quite a bit of gas only a few KM’s ago we were out. Apparently we had a gas leak from the carburetor as well. He took a water bottle and hopped on his scooter heading up the hill to the closest petrol station. When he got back we gave him a nice tip for helping us out which he was very happy about. It was probably more than his family makes in a few days of work. We headed out back to the hostel defeated. 2 break downs in a matter of hours without seeing much of the surrounding area at all. Things like this happen when traveling but its always good to remember tomorrow is another day and a new adventure is just around the corner.
Bahn Mi wrapped in newspaper:
Vietnam street food is quite good, most of our meals have been cooked on an open fire on some random street corner. Small red & blue stools scattered around is the best indicator of a good street food vendor. My favorite so far has been the Bahn Mi sandwiches stuffed full of all sorts of goodies – hot dog, cucumber, chilli sauce, tofu, fried egg, cilantro all wrapped inside of a delicious french style baguette that has become a staple of Vietnam cuisine since the colonies were here. After the sandwich is made its put back in the greasy pan and fried even more. Finished off with some random paper or a piece of an old newspaper to hold it all together adding up to a total cost of $1 USD. We would get one every chance we could. For every bus ride we had our bag of sandwiches, for every day trip we had our bag of sandwiches. Definitely a must for anybody traveling through Vietnam.
‘Dirty beer’ and BBQ:
Natalie and I try to stray away from the classy tourist restaurants as much as we can, sometimes it turns out to be a good choice but sometimes it turns out to be quite scary. The second night in Sapa we decided to do a street style BBQ. On the Sapa lake front street corner we found our man, serving an assortment of kebabs. He had everything from chicken feet to pork wrapped mushrooms, as well as an assortment of vegetables including peas, rice stuffed in bamboo, cucumber, mushrooms and much more. We picked out a bunch of different kebabs and he started cooking it up for us. Big blue kegs of beer were scattered about so we asked for a pitcher while we waited for our dinner. Vietnam has a few different types of beer, the ones in the large blue kegs we now know is called ‘Dirty Beer’ this being due to the fact that they pour back any undrunken beer from kegs or cups to be reserved the next day, week, month, however long it takes to get rid of the whole keg…. but for $1.00 a pitcher you can’t really go wrong either way. ‘Clean Beer’ is served in a small sealed silver keg (about 5 glasses same as the pitcher) but will run you closer to $3.00. And of course there are bottles which for a 24 oz you will be paying about $1.00-$1.50 each. After the pitcher of beer the BBQ was done and it was time to feast! 4 Chicken feet, 12 mushrooms wrapped in pork, 8 spinach wrapped in pork, tons of peas, bamboo rice, cucumber, breads, pork skins, etc. For a total of $10.00 USD we were stuffed full of BBQ and drunk off ‘Dirty Beer’ – At that moment nothing could get any better.
All in all Sapa Vietnam was a beautiful breath taking place full of wonder and excitement. The local Villages scattered around the surrounding valley and mountainsides let us experience how things for many families still are in these countries of south east Asia. It was a great learning experience and a beautiful place to visit.
Love Natalie and Dylan