Sa Pa

Before going to Sa Pa I got us all to look at the plan for the remainder of the holiday as we didn’t have one and I very concerned that we had very little time so see a lot of things including the all important trip back to Bangkok through Cambodia and for me and Craig the highlight of the holiday, Angkor Wat. We sat down and had a big discussion looking seriously at the time we had left after Alex landed in Hanoi. We planned to travel several thousand kilometers in three weeks including visits to about five towns in Vietnam, a crossing to Cambodia a quick visit to the capital Phnom Penh and a journey up to Angkor Wat and on to Bangkok where both Tom and Craig were keen to spend at least three nights. I really didn’t think this was feasable unless we spent most of our time travelling and spent very little time (1 night) at the places we planned to visit. I also knew that Alex had just finished several months of solid work on her dissertation and probably needed a more relaxing holiday above anything else. We looked at where we wanted to go and how long we wanted at each place and all agreed that we had nowhere near enough time to do everything. This left us the options of cutting out a lot of the coast of Vietnam or cutting out Cambodia. While I really didn’t want to sacrifice Angkor Wat we estimated it would take 2 days travel to get there from Ho Ch Minh city and then 2 days to get to Bangkok. When you add in at least 2 nights in Angkor Wat and the 3 in Bangkok this left us about 1 and a half weeks in Vietnam after Alex arrived to travel almost 2000 kilometers and see the largest part of the country. Since we would be in a lot better position if we didn’t have to wait for Alex to arrive I offered to let Craig and Tom continue down the coast and I would wait for Alex. Thankfully they wanted us to travel together and after some discussion we agreed that the best plan was to sacrifice Cambodia, make a reasonable job of seeing Vietnam and fly straight from Ho Chi Minh city to Bangkok. This is a real shame but from looking at flights on the Internet we discovered that from another holiday in Thailand which both Tom and Craig are planning it is pretty easy to fly near to Angkor Wat straight from Bangkok. We decided to continue up to Sa Pa and make a proper plan when we got there but after discussion with Alex booked flights straight from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok as these might sell out.

We decided to get the night train to Sa Pa as it is a 10 hour train ride and a soft sleeper cabin only costs GBP 6 per person. The Hanoi guesthouse booked this for us as well as a taxi to get us to the train station which is luckily not too far from ‘home’. We were led to the train by a local kid who gave us no choice and was sorely disappointed with his 5000 dong tip (still pretty reasonable when you consider that many people get only 30,000-40,000 dong for a days work!) . We were in a four person cabin with the 4th person being either a Vietnamese businessman or a Japanese tourist. Either way he was as friendly as you can be while speaking not a single word of English and our 3 words of Vietnamese only solicited more smiling and head nodding. He did however lie down and turn off his light the second we left the station so we made a sharp exit from the cabin and went to look around the train. We walked down the train for several carriages until we encountered a guard who I think told us that there wasn’t a dining carriage or if there was we weren’t allowed to go there so we headed back the other way. Being first class our carriage was number 1 so we headed forward and found a storage carriage complete with floor space, guards and an open side. The guards wouldn’t let us sit down so we considered bribing them but having no cigarettes or spare drinks and worrying that money might get us in trouble we opted to head back to the carriage and sleep. Sleeper trains that I have travelled on in the past have been slow, quiet sedate affairs that mean you get at least an okay night of sleep. This train was a whole different story, it travelled at what felt like breakneck speed (probably only 30-40mph) and bumped, jolted and rocked pretty much constantly. Surprisingly I managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep, I only woke up a few times! Craig slept like a corpse as usual but unfortunately Tom didn’t sleep to well and was slightly rumpy the next morning as a result. The train arrived at Lao Chai, the nearest train station to Sa Pa, at 5:30am and we all staggered off the train half asleep to look for our pickup. Expecting a sign saying Tom Hopkins we were surprised to only see a sign saying Thomas held up by a driver outside the train station so we flashed the business card for the Royal Sa Pa Hotel, he told us to get in his minibus, we confirmed the price for the transfer (about 80p) and we climbed in. After waiting for the rest of the people that he was picking up we headed out of Lao Chai to start the 30 something kilometer transfer to Sa Pa. The road was small and mountainous but this didn’t stop the driver overtaking on blind corners (at slow speeds but still bloody dangerous). It was obvious that they had had some pretty heavy rain the night before and we regularly had to swerve to avoid rockfalls and mudslides that often covered most of the road. Eventually just over half way to Sa Pa our minibus came to a halt behind a queue of other minibuses, lorries and cars. The driver got out to investigate and after 5 minutes with no explanation we followed. We walked to the front of the queue to investigate. We saw some half finished concrete reinforcements that were being built to stop the rockfalls and mudslides. The heavy rain had washed lots of the recently disturbed mud over the concrete barriers where it had headed down and pooled in a low part of the road. The mud had been deposited on a 10-15m stretch of road and was about 1ft deep. One of the minibuses had tried to get through and had sunk into the mud only 2 metres into the muddy area. Motorbikes being lighter and better able to avoid it were just about getting through but were still struggling. At this point we resigned outselves to either a long walk or a long wait. Since it was raining and a walk could take hours on roads that were unsafe we opted for the long wait and estimated that it would be at least a couple of hours before we could cross. Luckily due the road works there was a digger at hand and it started scooping mud out of a section of the road. We thought this would still take ages but were amazed to discover only 30 minutes later that the digger has cleared enough mud for vehivles to start to cross so we climbed back on board and successfully crossed the mud. We arrived in Sa Pa 20 minutes later and were dropped off at the Royal View hotel which looked very expensive and most definately out of our price range. Our bags were whisked into the Hotel by a porter and we were asked to check in. Upon check we discovered that the booking for Thomas was only for two people and we insisted now for the 3rd or 4th time that we were booked into the Royal Sa Pa hotel not the Royal View hotel.  They insisted on calling our guesthouse in Hanoi who explained the situation to them and we were told clearly that we hadn’t already paid for our stay. We knew this already but it became clear that they were convinced we were on some pre booked tour like everyone else. Yet again I showed them the business card of the Royal Sa Pa hotel and pointed to the map clearly showing that we were not in this hotel. They suddenly realised their mistake and took us by minibus to our hotel, the cheap hotel in their family of hotels. We checked in to the correct hotel and were given a choice of rooms, one higher up with what we presumed was a better view but a double and a single bed and one lower down with the single beds. I hadn’t slept well in the massive double with Tom so wasn’t keen to repeat the experience but Tom and Craig wanted a good view so we checked out the room. The bed was a small double and the view was of the street rather than the surrounding countryside so we went for breakfast as the other room was still in use. After breakfast we went for a walk to look for a good tour agency and found Handspan travel as recommended in the guidebook, Tom was keen to do a 2 day, 1 night trek, Craig was willing to go with the majority and I, while willing to do the 2 day trek was concerned that it might be a little too hard sell touristy, and more importantly was very unwilling to go too far from a decent western toilet as my stomach was giving me some pretty serious problems, I won’t go into detail. Since it was the morning and we had most of the day we were keen to do some kind of day walk for the first day as we had 1 night already booked at the hotel. We were told that mine and Craig’s trainers weren’t up to the task while Tom’s being more sport trainers were okay. I headed back to the hotel to use the toilet and on the way was given the key to the downstairs room with the 3 beds. I visited the room which was big and had a great view so accepted it pending Tom and Craig agreement. Tom and Craig came back to the hotel and discovered that the hotel offered the same treks as Handspan travel for half the price. They also could hire wellies to me and Craig very cheaply which meant we wouldn’t have to buy walking shoes.

Our first trek for one day was with Hwan a guide provided to us from the hotel and was a day of walking around the countryside visiting villages of the White, Black and Red Hmong peoples who are ethnic minorities living in the area (the colours are of their traditional dress not their skin). The walk was good fun, if quite relaxed, but when walking through villages we were hounded by local women trying to sell us their home made traditional clothing. The women were persistant and would not take no for an answer. I found it easiest to resist having experienced this sort of persistant selling in Africa many times. I also knew from experience that if you bought something it would not satisfy them and they would just try to sell you more until either they ran out of goods or you ran out of money. After the walk we went into the town for some food where Craig tried wild pig (the more exitoc meats he wanted to try were unfortunately sold out) and I had some surprisingly good pasta as my stomach was still rough and they’d run out of tofu! After food we found a bar with a darts board, pool table and a computer where they encouraged you to choose your own music from a wide range of MP3s. We discussed what to do the next day. Tom had gone off the homestay idea after the persistant tactics of the very people who’s guest you would be and we could all see that as a captive audience we would very likely all come back dressed from head to toe in traditional Hmong women’s clothing. We decided to take another day walk followed by the night train back to Hanoi. The Royal Sa Pa hotel where we slept was an experience. The sheet on the bed was clean but the cover on the pillow and duvet (it’s cold in Sa Pa) looked and smelled like they hadn’t been changed for a while. We opted to sleep in our sleeping bag liners. The second days walk was much more interesting with fantastic scenery and a more challenging route. Unfortunately it was full of tourist groups and this time the local women actually followed us from the town along the whole walk trying to sell us their goods. Once we got near the end of the walk the most persistant of them insisted we bought something since they had walked all this way with us! Tom and Craig broke just after lunch and once Craig expressed a slight interest in a shirt one woman was selling they were litterally mobbed by over 20 old women all thrusting various overpriced but admittedly beautiful and skillfully made articles at them. I made a hasty exit, left them for dead and took a picture of them being surrounded which I’ll post up here when I get a chance. After about 5 minutes Tom and Craig managed to escape with their wallets only 100,000 dong lighter (about GBP3) and a couple of beautiful if useless items of clothing. To be fair Craig actually got quite a nice shirt. The second day’s walk was with a lone American woman in her mid twenties called Julia. She was very nice and we had quite a chat. I think she had been on her own for quite a while though as even when talking to me she did almost all the talking! We went for some dinner again to the same place as before with Julia joining us where I had a nice Tofu dish at a decent price. Unfortunately they were still out of the really exotic meats so Craig had to settle for venison. After food we headed back to the hotel for a transfer back to Lao Chai for an overnight train back to Hanoi, soft sleeper again that we booked through the Royal Sa Pa hotel. We got to the train to discover that our 20 dollar soft sleeper was actually the 13 dollar hard sleeper with 6 beds per cabin rather than 4 meaning that the bed was much like a coffin that you had to slide into sideways. Since there was also no luggage space Craig and I both had to sleep with our feet on top of our bags. We arrived back in Hanoi at 4.30am and got a taxi to the Hnaoi guesthouse to pick up some clean clothes. Since it was still closed and not wanting to wake the night receptionist we sat on the steps and watched Hanoi come alive in the morning. They guy opened up the guesthouse at 5:30am I used the time to write my previous post. Our next destination was Ninh Binh a small city south of Hanoi we decided that we would all go there together then after 3 nights I’d come back to Hanoi to meet Alex and Tom and Craig would continue down the coast a few days earlier stopping on the beach for a few days on the way (something that they were really keen on but I knew neither I or Alex would be). Before leaving we complained to the Hanoi guesthouse about the rip off train booked through the hotel that they had recommended. The Hanoi guesthouse are very trustworthy and Thin the lovely lady who works on reception in the daytime immediately phoned up the Royal Sa Pa hotel to complain for us. The hotel refused to refund our money and there is nothing more that we could do. Thin also waived the hotel’s commision on the next train ticket that we bought which was a very nice gesture. 

It is now several days later I have returned from Ninh Binh which I will write about later and upon my return I was told by Thin that they are going to refund us a further 50,000 dong since we were ripped off. They will take this money out of tour money that they owe to the Royal Sa Pa hotel and if the hotel doesn’t like it they will end all ties with the hotel! Whis now means we had just over half the money that we were overcharged by returned which is a nice bonus since we’d already written it off to experience.

Well I have been writing for a couple of hours now and am very tired and hungry I hope to write about Ninh Binh later or tommorrow so that I am up to date before Alex arrives as once she gets here I will have even less time and a busy schedule to see the remainder of Vietnam.

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

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