- Accommodation: Cat Cat View Hotel ($28/night for a double with private bathroom) – Clean, comfortable and good location. Like the name suggests, there is a great view of the rice paddies from the upstairs balconies.
We booked our train tickets ahead of time when we were in Saigon through a travel agency I found online called Vietnam Impressive. Most things I read said that these trains often sell out so make sure you get your tickets beforehand and don’t just show up at the train station hoping to get on. Vietnam Impressive was really helpful and responded promptly. They seemed very professional and spoke good English. I paid for the tickets via Onepay, which is similar to Paypal, and you can use a US credit card. The train system here is pretty confusing so it’s probably best to book through your hostel or a travel agent. Basically there are the regular Vietnam government trains, which are cramped and crowded, but then private companies attach their own cars to the regular trains. These private cars are much nicer, but are obviously more expensive. If you can swing for the private car I would highly recommend it because they are sleeper cars, which is really nice for an overnight train. I later learned from speaking with another girl that there is a bus to Sapa from Hanoi that takes about 10 hours. She said it was fine and was a standard sleeper coach bus, but I can’t imagine the roads are very good. But I guess that’s always another option. So we figured we take the expensive sleeper train there and then take the regular government train back during the day to even out the expenses.
We ended up booking a private 4 berth cabin on Orient Express for the trip to Sapa (one of the private trains, I heard other good ones are Livitrian and Fansipan). The “VIP” 2 person cabin was sold out, so the travel agency suggested buying 4 seats for a 4 person cabin to ensure that we’d be by ourselves, which is the same price as the 2 person ones. We wanted to be by ourselves because I’ve heard stories of a lot theft going on at night, especially if you’re sleeping in a lower berth, and it’s also awkward to sleep with total strangers in an 8×10 cabin. It’s not like hostel dorms where the other people you’re sleeping next to are usually all young like-minded travelers, but on a train you can get total creeps! So anyways, we ended up paying $156 for the whole cabin ($39/berth) which is really expensive and totally out of our budget, but we kind of justified it by taking the regular day train back for $21/person.
There was never any announcement that the train was boarding. It was pretty chaotic with people walking all along the train tracks trying to figure out what train they were supposed to board in the pitch black. And then you have to figure out who actually works on the train vs the imposters who pretend to help you find your way to the car before they ask for money and steal your tickets. Tricky stuff! This guy asked to see Rosie’s tickets and so she assumed like any other normal person that when a person is acting like they work for the train company, then they actually do work for the train company. But I sensed this guy wasn’t for real so I said “No!” to him, at which point he scampered away before she handed him her tickets. You probably won’t encounter any problems as there are tons of other tourists around, but just be vigilant with your stuff and be a little more cautious to avoid being scammed.
The Orient Express sleeper car was awesome! We felt like we were headed to Hogwarts. The beds were comfy and it was relatively quiet. The bathroom at the end of the car was kind of gross, but overall we really enjoyed our first overnight sleeper train experience. We arrived in Lao Cai a little behind schedule at 5:45am (Lao Cai is the town where the train ends, it’s an hour drive from there to Sapa).
We arrived in Sapa a little before 7am from Lao Cai. We had originally booked a room at the Fansipan Hotel, but they emailed me the night before to say that there was a water problem in the hotel so they would put us up at the Cat Cat View Hotel and pay the difference. I didn’t care at all, so long as we didn’t have to pay more. They picked us up from the train station in Lao Cai for free. In the car to Sapa we met a really nice couple. The guy was from Boston and the girl was from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. They had just spent the past year teaching English in South Korea. This must be a pretty popular thing to do because we’ve met a lot of other people who taught English there as well. They said the pay is decent and you don’t have to know any Korean to teach. I still don’t understand how that works if you can’t speak the native language to communicate with your students, but they said the curriculum is pretty easy to teach.
When we reached Sapa the driver dropped us off at the Huang Han Hotel. We were so confused as to what was going on but we just went with the flow. We explained to the front desk our situation and even though they didn’t speak good English they understood what we were saying. They told us that we had a room at Cat Cat View but our room wouldn’t be ready until 10 or 11am. So we grabbed breakfast and walked around town a bit. I had read beforehand that the local Hmong people could be pretty persistent in trying to sell you their wares, but I was not prepared for this type of aggression. They try to engage you in conversation first by asking where you’re from, a seemingly innocent question. But then they use that to start a conversation and pressure you into buying something. And they’re relentless, they’ll wait for you while you go into a restaurant to eat and then follow you for miles even when you’ve already said “No thank you” a million times. You feel so rude ignoring their questions, but I just tried to smile and not say anything and keep walking. One time Rosie made the mistake of answering one of their questions and then the woman followed us around for a half hour, sometimes hiding behind things so she thought that we wouldn’t see her.
It’s actually a very sad situation. The tribal people are very poor and I don’t think they’re getting an opportunity to participate in the local economy. The money certainly isn’t trickling down. There must be a lot of corruption going on because the tourism industry seems to be thriving with lots of new hotels and restaurants being built, yet I don’t think the local people have seen any improvement in their standard of living. So they resort to selling trinkets that nobody wants, sometimes sending their young children to sell in their place. Then the children drop out of school to sell full-time and the cycle continues. I’m sure the same thing is happening all throughout Asia right now; tribal people are being excluded from making a place for themselves in this new, evolving economy.
After checking into Cat Cat View Hotel (not to be confused with Cat Cat Hotel) we got lunch at a place on the main drag called Viet Emotion. I had pasta, which was pretty decent. We realized that everything in Sapa was more expensive than elsewhere in Vietnam, probably because it caters predominantly to tourists so they know they can overcharge. It’s still far cheaper than anywhere in the US though! In the afternoon we walked to Cat Cat Village. The views on the walk down are pretty spectacular – rice terraces & green mountains. We took some great photos of the famous Sapa rice paddies. We were also lucky that the morning mist and fog had diminished. That time of year everything is often shrouded in fog so you can’t see any of the views.
The actual Cat Cat Village is a total tourist trap, and they literally force you to stop there. But you can avoid it by continuing straight down the road and telling the policeman that you’re headed to Sin Xhen, which is a town a little further down. Cat Cat Village is located at the bottom of the valley so if you don’t feel like walking up the big hill you can take a moto back to town. It’s not a far walk at all, less than 4 km roundtrip, maybe even less depending on how far you walk.
Basically all the restaurants in town are the same, a mixture of Vietnamese and Western food. So we ended up eating dinner at Red Camilla’s, which was decent, probably very similar in quality to all the other restaurants in town. While eating dinner we debated whether to go on a guided trek the next day, but we ultimately decided against it. Everybody we met had booked treks ahead of time in Hanoi through a tour operator, so we weren’t sure if it was possible to go hiking on your own since no paths were marked and maps of the area weren’t detailed. We both dislike large group hikes and prefer to walk at our own pace – plus it sounded like most of the guided treks took you through villages, whereas we were more interested in the scenery. I’m sure there are some great group treks, but we didn’t have the time to figure out which ones were best.
When we woke up the next morning it was really foggy and we couldn’t see any of the mountains from the hotel’s balcony. After breakfast we set out on our own with a vague idea of where we were trying to walk to after studying some poorly drawn maps the night before. We wanted to walk towards Bac Falls and we’d try to reach it by retracing our steps from yesterday and just walk further, past Cat Cat Village and Sin Xhen. After passing the “Cat Cat Village Tourism Center” you’ll come to a fork in the road – bear to the right here. You will then walk through the village of Sin Xhen – keep going straight until the paved “road” turns into a dirt road (more like a path). We just walked straight along this path through rice terraces, occasionally passing a villager or some farm animals.
Once we reached a bridge we crossed it and started to walk up a large hill made of boulders. We weren’t sure if we were still on the right path so I asked a villager if Thac Bac was this way. She pointed back down the hill and towards the left but there was no path there. In the end we stopped by the river and ate a snack before we began to head back. I’m pretty sure we were headed in the right direction across the bridge and up the hill, but maybe she just didn’t understand what I was asking. In total it was probably a 6-7 mile hike. It’s pretty easy except for the last part that goes up a big hill to get back into town, and if you’re really tired you can take a moto at that point. It’s a great walk and I highly recommend it to other people, especially since it’s not crowded and you hardly see any other tourists. We did run into a couple of people who hired their own private guide, which is also an option if you don’t mind spending the extra money.
After our hike we got a snack and coffee at a café called Baguette and Chocolat, and later we ate dinner at Delta. Lonely Planet said it had the best pizza in town. My expectations were low, but it was actually was pretty good! More expensive but worth it if you’re hungry ($5-$7 per personal pizza).
We woke up early the next morning to catch our train at 9:15am from Lao Cai to Hanoi. Miraculously the bill at Cat Cat was correct. I definitely thought we were going to have to explain the whole hotel swapping situation and how we weren’t supposed to pay the regular fare to a confused employee who didn’t speak English. But apparently somebody from Fansipan had called to inform them ahead of time. We took a mini-van to Lao Cai for 50,000 dong/person, which we booked through the hotel the night before. The mini-van insisted on driving around town for 45 minutes trying to find other people to take to Lao Cai too. The only people they could find was a man traveling with a bird cage and an ill woman who kept barfing into plastic bags and then proceeded to toss them out the window into on-coming traffic. I’m sure the driver in the opposite lane must have loved it when a bag full of vomit splashed all over his windshield. It was also very foggy that morning and the driver was driving like a maniac around hairpin turns. So after an adventurous ride we finally arrived at the train station with 15 minutes to spare.
The A/C soft seat car was perfectly fine at first. The seats weren’t too comfortable but definitely better than sitting on a hard wooden bench in the back of the train. There weren’t many people in the car so we were also able to spread out. Then about 2 hours into the trip we made a stop and hoards of people came onboard. Now I was beginning to understand why people said “Don’t take the day train!” All of the sudden the place was packed to the brim with people. Everyone was talking at an octave level akin to screaming. The guys sitting in front of us were all travelling together and they were blaring music and reclined their seats as far back as possible, leaving us hardly any room. Is was actually a great cultural experience, not one I’m looking to repeat anytime soon, but very fascinating nonetheless. Some things we learned about the culture:
- Things that we think are rude are definitely not rude here. Example: shouting and blaring music while others are trying to read and sleep. Nobody else in the car seemed to mind that the guys in front of us were blaring music through their speakers. But they were genuinely not trying to be obnoxious, in fact the one sitting in front of us offered us some of his water and popcorn, which was really sweet and generous. They probably thought we were the weirds one who just wanted to read and sleep!
- When you’re done eating something, everybody just throws it on the floor. I fell asleep for awhile and when I woke up there was food and trash all over the floor of the train. I saw a guy eating a piece of fruit and when he was done he just threw the core on the floor. I don’t know why that surprised me so much, I guess I’ve just never seen somebody do that indoors before, especially when you still have to sit there for another 10 hours.
- Strangers talk to each other! Unlike in the west where people usually keep to themselves on public transportation, everyone in our car was chatting it up with complete strangers. People seem very friendly towards one another, which is so nice. But I can’t stress to you the noise level of these conversations. If you didn’t know any better you’d think they were in a shouting match, especially since the Vietnamese language is very harsh sounding, but in fact they were just carrying on a friendly conversation.
- Nobody uses headphones! If you want to listen to music you just crank the volume up on your phone – sans headphones. It’s a strange concept for westerners to understand – “what if I don’t want to listen to that Vietnamese ballad blasting through your phone?” – but nobody else seems to mind, in fact I think they maybe enjoy it! It’s the same on the buses throughout Asia with the TV’s blaring throughout the night.
Overall we had a great time in Sapa and learned a lot about the Vietnamese culture. It was a lot more touristy than what I was expecting, but the scenery was beautiful. The town reminded me somewhat of Dharmsala in India. We were lucky that we had one nice day of no fog, but I think it’s really hit or miss that time of year, which is definitely something to take into consideration when deciding whether to make the trip up there.