The Journey Begins
I arrived at Hanoi Railway Station in the dark in time to get on the night train leaving at 9.10pm and arriving in Lao Cai at 5.30am. It was quite a chaotic scene, once the ticket collectors let us through the entrance and onto the platforms. In the dark it was quite difficult to see where any platform was and which train went where, but the night train to Sapa is a well travelled route and it was easy enough to follow the crowd and find the right train, the right carriage (special ET Pumpkin carriage written on the side) and the right berth and soft sleeper.
I joined a jolly friendly couple from New Zealand (hello Steve and Veronica!) who were originally from England and we immediately exchanged life stories and bonded. The young lady from New York who entered the berth a few minutes later thought we knew each other already and seemed perturbed at the easy way the conversation flowed. Perhaps New Yorkers are more reserved?
The soft sleeper was soft enough and we were all supplied with water, a pillow and a quilt to keep us warm during the night. The train is air conditioned. It pulled away on time and we were on our way.
Rocking and Rolling
After about half an hour the speed picked up and the rocking started. And my goodness did it rock! I can only compare it to a fair ground ride which went on for hours and hours. None of the rocking or the metal grinding noises seemed to bother my three sleeping buddies who all settled down quickly and went to sleep. I watched Veronica across the aisle from me and I guess she was being nudged up and down with the motion of the train by about a foot each time. I could feel the contents of my stomach being shook.
The train arrived on time and all went to plan. We then took a mini van to the town of Sapa itself and as we pulled up outside the first guest house to let some passengers off what seemed like an invasion of screeching Black H'Mong women dressed in their traditional costumes came rushing across the road to greet the new tourists. At first I thought it would be a hard selling mission but actually all they wanted to do was accompany the travellers.
The same happened when I got off at Pumpkin Guest House. The H'Mong women gathered outside on the steps all giddy and excited to join the new people.
Breakfast was served, scrambled eggs but not the way I have ever had them before, that is not a positive comment and I thought about offering a quick cookery lesson...
By 9.30am our group was gathered and our friendly guide was leading us up the hill and into the vast valley of stepped rice paddies. Dih, the guide had excellent English and was able to point out all the important landmarks on the way. Surprisingly the H'Mong women and young girls who walked with our group, and I would say we had about 15 with us, had really good basic English skills. Enough to ask how old I was! How many children do I have and where I am from. Then they were able to tell me about themselves. Dih explained that none of these women or their daughters went to school but learnt English from tourists.
The weather was cool, drizzly and very slippy underfoot, especially on the downhill sections. I was well equipped as I had planned this in advance although for some of the group this must have been an afterthought as they had sandals with no grip or borrowed purple wellies also with no grip. This meant slow progress down hill as well as a few falls and muddy bottoms. Each time it got a bit tricky or slippy the H'Mong women were really helpful, assisting us and ensuring we didn't fall. Their footwear was merely plastic sandals and they do that walk every day.
The hike lasted until 5pm with lunch in a H'Mong village on the way which consisted of fried chicken, rice and salad and chocolate bar. This was eaten in a little hut, which had a tv, while we were viewed by the children of the village through the window. I felt like a novelty item or feeding time at the zoo but they were actually very polite children who then really nicely shared any food we didn't want between each of them very fairly which was lovely to see.
In the evening I was given a basic three course meal in the guest house and then had an exploratory look around the town which has typical shops selling Vietnamese style silk clothes and H'Mong items all embroidered in the traditional style. There are a variety of places to eat from Vietnamese to Thai, Indian and a few western choices too. Because of the French influence there are a few lovely patisseries.
The next day was a similar hike although it was shorter and was over by 12 o clock. Frankly the first one was the best and all the things we saw and were explained to us by Sue
We'd already heard the day before, plus the route was very touristy following concrete steps to a waterfall. The route was lined with market stalls for most of the way although they were not overly pushy. Of course if you go down hill you must go up again and that was a bit of a slog but we had a break and a cold drink and a lolly looking over the valley at the beautiful rice paddies.
ET Pumpkin, Ma May Street, Hanoi
I used this company for a two day hiking trip to Sapa in the North Highlands of Vietnam. Their website was clear and easy to use and the trip turned out to be exactly as it said in their information. It short it was a really interesting and very different holiday experience. I would have every confidence in recommending this company and would definitely use them again.
I paid for the trip in advance, before I got to Vietnam, by transferring money via Western Union, that was really easy and straightforward. Pumpkin acknowledged receipt of the money by the next day.
The price of the trip included an overnight train ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai Railway Station and then a half hour bus ride to Sapa itself. One night in a basic guest house, all meals and then an overnight train ride back to Hanoi. All in all I had three nights away.