Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Train from Lao Cai to Hanoi

We initially been bought tickets for train LC2, which departs from Lao Cai at 7 pm. We thought it's too early, so requested it to be changed to a later train. So we boarded SP2 train that departs at 8:50 pm. This SP2 train is more expensive express train service (Luc wanted USD $1 more, but I refused to pay, instead asked him to treat it as a refund for the below par standard of Halong Bay tour).

The SP (SP1/SP2) train is more expensive. It's widely displayed around travel agencies and tour agents in Hanoi as it has a more nicely looking locomotive. So I had quite an expectation for the quality of service and cabin. But it turned out to my disappointment. The bread was less tasty and the mineral water was smaller bottle (Yes, soft sleeper berth comes with a bread and a bottle of water free, everything else extra charge). Beside, the bed was not properly covered. On the positive side is there was personal lamp at each berth, and the wash room was much better than the train we took when coming to Lao Cai, which at times it was locked.

Painful Sunburnt

I believed I got severe sunburnt when drove to Ta Phin Village. Early morning the weather was still very cold and misty, but by afternoon, it turned up to be sunny day, but I forgot to apply any sun screen lotion.

I didn't notice that the sunburnt was so severe until I came back to Sapa town. By then it's too late. It turned out to be a very difficult day to me as I didn't even able to take a bath, and that made me felt very uncomfortable. And my skin was getting more painful.

Beautiful Vietnamese Girl

The bus reached Lao Cai at at about 7.30 pm. So we had about an hour to walk around (or more appropriate: waste) in Lao Cai. And the bus driver was smart too. Instead of train station, he stopped the minibus right in front of a cafe. We went to another coffee shop instead, and met with this nice Vietnamese lady Ha. Her husband Culi Cage owns Wide Eyed Tours, now mainly handling tourists from Australia. She shared with us lots of information about how tour agencies in Hanoi work, and helped me to order a rice wine too. The Vietnamese rice wine was pretty too strong for me.

Cute Hmong Girls and Small Tout

When the bus wanted to depart to Lao Cai, all the Hmong children gathered around the bus to bid the tourists farewell. Very touching if it's genuine, but I doubted so, seemed more like a marketing gimmick. They kept asking us to come back to Sapa, and of course also reminded us to buy things from them next time.

This little girl kept complaint about us for not buying from her, at the time we reached, and at the time of we going to left Sapa now. She even said some foul words to me (but I couldn't understand it, lucky her!)

Bus to Lao Cai

There were a lot of mini buses and vans running to Lao Cai until 4 pm. We also found a few mini buses that run to Lao Cai between 4 - 5 pm, but don't bet on it. The buses can be found at around the Church and Main Square. I saw a few mini buses who looked for passenger at around Royal Hotel / Mountain View Hotel too. After 4 pm, we didn't have much choice. Adeline found a hotel (most likely Queen Hotel) that has a bus to Lao Cai at around 5.30 pm. Other than that, the latest bus to Lai Cai was offered by Mountain View Hotel and Royal Hotel. We booked the tickets from Royal Hotel, as we didn't have pleasant experience with Mountain View Hotel. However, as expected, as sibling hotel, they shared the same bus, with the same price of VND 25,000.

Sapa Town

Street view of Sapa at junction of Pho Cau May and Muong Hoa. Here, there is high concentration of hotels and cafes. Buildings here are mostly French style.

Dinner at Royal Hotel's Friendly Cafe

We later had our dinner at Royal Hotel's Friendly Cafe. We met Gaynor here. She has traveled to a lot of place, including India, and will soon come to Malaysia. The fried rice costs me VND 15, 000. Sapa is really a very 'tourist' place rather than minorities place!

Experience with Mountain View Hotel

A lot of tourists recommended Mountain View Hotel. So did 1 of the hotel guest that came to Sapa in the same minibus with us. It was her forth time to Sapa, and everytime she had stayed in Mountain View Hotel, and even the Hmong children there immediately recognized her. Beside, the hotel locates at the wonderful place that it's possible to view the beautiful scenery of Sapa valley.

However, our experience there was mixed. In the morning when we arrived, the receptionist was so kind and friendly. As we're doing a day trip, so we're looking for a place to take a shower. So we requested if it's possible to do so at the hotel. She happily agreed that, provided we used any of their services.

However, when we returned in the evening, the girl wasn't available. Another receptionist simply refused to let us take a shower without paying USD $1 each, which I think was pretty expensive. Actually later I found out most other hotels also demanded USD $1 each just to take bath. But I still found the receptionist behavior to be simply rude, just showed us the style of 'if you don't like, just leave'.

We left soon afterward.

Sapa Markets

The Sapa markets had just a little stands on the day we visited, as it's on a weekdays. It's run mostly by H'mong minority hill tribe who worn their traditional costume. There was practically no other tourists at the day. As usual, it's very much geared towards tourist, so bargain hard, and I found nothing special about the market. There is also another market right beside the church, which to me was equally unimpressive, and I believed it's not ran by minorities hill tribes.

Where is Ma Cha Village?

I tried to find Ma Cha Village, which is supposedly along the road to Ta Phin village. But I unable to find it. It may seemed that what Let's Go Vietnam travel guide said is true, finding the way between the trailhead and Ma Cha village is difficult. To my surprise, I asked a few local people, and they seemed unsure of where is it too. It may be due to my wrong pronunciation anyway. So hiring a guide if you want to visit Ma Cha village is the better way. It's a small village housed mainly Hmong hill tribe.

Hang Ta Phin Cave

At the far end corner of Ta Phin village is Hang Ta Phin or Ta Phin Cave. As usual, with the commercialism of tourism, expect Red Dao women waiting there to promote you and plea you to buy their merchandises. Beside, the Dao children also surrounded us to rent us the torch light. The problem was there were a few of them persuaded you to rent from them, so Adeline did have a hard time figure which one to rent. The torch normally cost VND 2,000.

Note: The Red Dao is easily identifiable by the large red headdresses worn by many of the women.

Hang Ta Phin is just a small and unimpressive cave, and it's completely dark inside. Bring a torch, else make sure the torch light is bright when renting one.

Ta Phin Village

To enter Ta Phin Village, visitors need to pay VND 5,000. To me it was a no-brainer, just like you been asked to pay in order just to get into a city, much more like daylight robbery. Anyway I don't mind if the money been used to develop the village and their livelihood, which is very much still in native and primitive condition.

This abandoned old church was located off the road near the admission gate. We didn't pay much attention to it until a group of French tourists paid it a visit.

After the admission gate, there was still a long way to go before we actually reached Ta Phin village. Actually the village was spread over a long stretch of road. I only noticed that we already arrived at Ta Phin village when there were suddenly hordes of Dao minorities approached us to sell their merchandises. This Red Dao girl however, didn't join this crowd as she said she had to help her family in the farm. She was in Red Dao traditional costume.

Litigation system in the rice paddy field

Red Dao house in Ta Phing village

The man of Red Dao minority carried the harvest by simply walking on foot

Native Agriculture Cultivation

Water buffalos were still very much in used in Sapa to cultivate the land. After all Vietnam is still considered an underdeveloped country, but the method I think is too primitive.

The Way to Ta Phin Village

After a short rest at Sapa town, we continued to drive to Ta Phin Village. On the way, I asked this guy for the way to Ta Phin village, didn't notice that he was actually holding a snake.

To get to Ta Phin village we followed the road to Lao Cai, that leaded us to the awesome view of Sapa valley.

Much of the valley is been cultivated as verdant rice paddy field.

To get to Ta Phin village, follow the major road to Lao Cai. After about 5 km down the valley, we came to the first T-junction in sight. This is the turning to Ta Phin village. The junction was easily recognizable as they're few shops beside it, and it was the first side road after a long winding down road. After the turning, it was another long drive along a very narrow path.

Sapa Church

The church is located at the center of Sapa town.

Hoang Lian Hotel and Modern Girls

Hoang Lian Hotel is prominently located in Sapa town center, facing a grass field. Here at Sapa, other than some minorities, most people dressed modernly.

Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall)

Thac Bac Silver Waterfall is about 100 m tall

It's possible to hike to the middle of the waterfall via a series of staircase. But to climb, it costs VND 3,000, payable at the stall just besides the entrance, with no admission ticket issued. There is a bridge connecting 2 both banks of the waterfall, so we just crossed over it and came down on the other side.

View of Silver Waterfall further down the road

From the bridge the view to the Sapa valley was unique and impressive

"Protection Fee" for the bike

We then went to Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall). There were a lot of stalls lined up beside the entrance to waterfall, and they were not embarassed to ask us to park our motorcycle at their stall. The treat is, you have to buy something from them so that they will look after the bike for you. They all seemed know the rules, as most guide books mention about it. Even the guy who borrowed us the Honda bike suggested us to buy something for about VND 2,000, but we ended up paying much more than that.

We decided to buy a pork skewer from this stands. We initially just want tried 1 pork skewer for VND 5,000. But she just prepared as many as she could and pushed it to us. Ended up I ate 2 pork skewers and 1 rice covered in the bamboo for VND 14,000. Expensive!

Tram Ton Pass

Tram Ton Pass, the highest mountain pass in Vietnam is located 14 km from Sapa, 3 km farther toward Lai Chau from Thac Bac. Here was the view of the road towards Sapa from Tram Ton Pass.

Tram Ton Pass was nothing else other than just the road that cut across the mountain. But it was extremely cool when we tried to get here, and very misty and cloudy.

Bus to Lai Chau uses this road, and it's full of loads!

The view towards the Lau Chai side of valley after Tram Ton Pass. It supposed to be sunny, but on the day it's pretty misty.

On the way to Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall)

View of the Sapa valley beside Mountain View Hotel

View along the way, much of the valley has been cultivated.

Thac Bac or Silver Waterfall is on the road to Tam Duong and Lai Chau. It supposed to be a main road, but looks like a country road. Luckily it's not a dirt road.

Impressive view of the Sapa valley

Bike Rental

We tried to rent a bike at Mountain View Hotel. They insisted USD $10 for a bike per day. I felt that it's too expensive. Later a guy approached us on the street, willing to rent us his Honda motorcycle for USD $6 a day, or USD $7 inclusive of petrol. So we made a deal for the bike and petrol.

Later he told me that he needed money to eat today. So he hoped that I can paid him in Vietnam Dong for VND 110,000. He looked a bit pity, may be just a trick to get more in Dong, as exchange rate there were not so good.

Hmong Girls (or Child Exploitation)

We been dropped in front of Mountain View Hotel, right into a group of Hmong girls, which I believed employed by Mountain View Hotel and Royal Hotel, which both of them belonged to a same family. These kids basically persuaded us to stay at either one of these hotels. After they learnt that we're not going to stay overnight, they started to promote their merchandise, and kept haggling right until we left. It's a pity that they didn't go to school, but work as a child labor instead, although this may seemed to be entrepreneurship, but I rather treat them as child exploitation. May be the children just simply need more money, but I had to admit it's a very good business strategy that can easily win over any tourists.

Bus from Lao Cai to Sapa

The train LC1 departed from Hanoi at 10:10 pm, and scheduled to arrive at Lao Cai at 7:20 am. But it didn't arrived until 8:00 am. There was no sign that it's Lao Cai station, except for this label at the building. Announcement didn't help much as it's in Vietnamese, so your best bet will be the warden.

Outside of Ga Lao Cai train station, there were plenty of minubuses waiting to bring passengers to Sapa. However, we met a guy who went up the train carriage and asked us if we would like to take their bus to Sapa for VND 25,000. I agreed to take his bus after bargaining to VND 20,000. It ended up was the better bus with air-conditioning available, as it's the bus from Mountain View Hotel to pick up their guests.

The bus that brought us to Sapa. It was with air-conditioning, but it's useless, as natural air was even cooler when closer to Sapa.

With Tim and Yvonne. We stayed in the same cabin on the train from Hanoi to Lao Cai.

Soft Sleeper Berth

Typical Vietnam Railways cabin consists of 4 soft sleeper berth, 2 upper and 2 lower. A bottle of mineral water and a cake or bun are provided. There are about 10 of such cabin in a train carriage. Besides soft sleeper, there are also hard sleeper, where there are 6 hard sleeper berth in a cabin - upper, middle and lower berth on each side. Basically it's a soft sleeper without mattress, you'll sleep on a wooden bed. I also had a glance on a carriage which I believed was hard seat. I initially planned to travel on hard seat class, as it's so cheap. But I felt lucky I was not, as it's a wooden chair with separator in the middle which is unable to recline, and 2 person sit on both side of it.

Safety on Train

It's reasonable safe to travel with Soft Sleeper Class on Vietnam Railways. I read that the main consent was the belongings will get stole. But not in our case. In our carriage, there was a Vietnam Railways warden who slept on the carriage herself. Once the train departed from Ga Hanoi train station, she knocked each cabin, and demanded us to stored our luggage below the lower berth, and kept everything valuable under the pillow.

What she did next was to lock all the doors to the carriage! This effectively disallowed all strangers and possible thiefs to get into the carriage. Although at other carriages, they didn't seem to lock the doors. And from safety point of view, it might be a nightmare if anything happens.