Four Strangers on a Train
I caught an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai to get closer to my destination of the week, Sa Pa. I’ve never taken such a train ride and expected the experience to be uncomfortable, but memorable nonetheless. The ride ended up being far more enjoyable than expected.
I shared a room with a middle aged Australian couple and a young Frenchman. We chatted like we’d known each other for years over cheap beer and coffee, as we repurposed our four cots into a lounge of sorts. I am energized by these interactions. I’m always able to find a common point of conversation with these strangers from across the world and it makes the world feel that much smaller.
The rocking of the train was like a lullaby and I slept for most of the trip and woke up in Lao Cai.
Land of Rolling Hills and Rice Paddies
Acting like a local, I hopped on a public bus outside the train station. The hour drive was beautifully green as we ascended up to Sa Pa.
I spent the day walking around the small town, looking at the handmade jewelry and cloth goods made by local tribes that trek down to the town in their native dress each day. Only the women make the trip, because the men don’t speak English. The women only know English from talking to tourists.
Since it’s pretty much their primary income, I indulged one persistent lady named Mimi. We chatted and walked for about an hour before I tossed a couple bucks her way in exchange for a bracelet and a few other trinkets. Her daughter, also my age, got married at 14 and started having kids at 15. This made me so thankful for my place in the world, that I have the freedom to not do this.
I learned that Mimi could speak Vietnamese, but could read or write the language. Girls in her generation were not given the opportunity to learn it in school. She assured me she made sure her kids, sons and daughters, had the chance to learn. I’ve never been so thankful for my education. I have certainly taken it for granted until now.
With a guide and a handful of others, I trekked a total of 32km through Sa Pa. It’s hard to believe that the infamous rice paddies you see in photos were ALL forged by hand. They’re so prevalent it seems like they’re a natural occurrence. A LOT of man hours went into this area, it’s really amazing.
Our trekking group got along really well, and I enjoyed many conversations with the middle aged Australian couple, the two German guys living in Switzerland, the two girls from Argentina, and the couple from LA. The quick bond we all formed over the course of two days was as beautiful as the scenery we walked through (h20 buffalos included!). Our homestay mom, named Pa, made the best Vietnamese meal I’ve had since I’ve been here. We shared a family dinner all together and talked and laughed as if we were at a family reunion. This feeling exacerbated itself as the rice wine, freshly made, started flowing.
The sunset that evening provided a great space to meditate. I don’t always close my eyes to do this. In this case I observed every color cast over the hills and reflect in the stream beside the house, while listening to each insect form a symphony of sound and the flow of the stream providing a constant hum in the background.
Rock the Cat Ba
Now that I’m an experienced overnight train traveler, the ride back to Hanoi was even easier than the one to Lao Cai. As soon as I arrived, I caught a bus-boat-bus excursion to Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay.
It’s a sleepy fishing town just big enough to warrant the renting of a motorbike. I spent some time (finally) at the beach. The LI snob in me first thought of how small they were, and how unimpressive the waves were. Then I took in this scenery behind the water and all was right with the world.
I sailed through Ha Long Bay with a group from my hostel, passing floating villages and seeing the BIGGEST fish I’ve ever seen captured at one of the homes we stopped in.
The sea is beautiful, with countless smaller islands with high peaks and heavily eroded undersides. Even on the cloudy day we had, I was in love with the view. I got even closer to the sea when I kayaked with a middle aged Russian lady, who was in awe that I was traveling on my own. Cue a larger group of older Russian women speaking at me in Russian, waiting for their one English link to translate. We stopped for a brief moment after rowing through a cave to an alcove and saw gratuitous amounts of cool looking jelly fish — no swimming here ;)
Before our tour ended, we stopped at Monkey Island for some trekking. I was sad to see tourists feeding the monkeys whatever they had in their bag. They are wild animals, dammit. Nonetheless it was nice to see an animal other than an h20 buffalo or a cow.
Nothing could’ve prepared me for the trek we embarked on. I loved every second of the quickly turned rock climbing trip, but I had no idea we had such an intense hike planned. It was mostly vertical, on jagged edged rocks. Some of group only had flip flops and quickly had to turn around.
I think I was sweating more from worrying I’d fall than the humidity. I made it to the top and let the wind cool me off before I took my glory pictures from the top of the peak.
Surprise — Another Trek
With just a day left in Sa Pa, I took my motorbike to the Hospital Cave, which was used during the war by the Vietnamese. Walking through the cold tunnels was eerie. The space had your typical office rooms, bunk rooms, washrooms, and of course, a cinema. That’s right, a massive natural cave within the tunnels served as a viewing space for movies #priorities.
After the tunnels I drove to the national park, enjoying the winding roads and wind in my face. These treks never get old to me. No matter what peak I’m ascending, I love the feel of sweat dripping down my face as I make my way to the top. As my group took a water break, I hurried up to the top for some alone time with the peak, only to meet someone else with the same idea. We enjoyed the space for a few minutes before the rest of the masses followed along. Greg, my peak mate, also quit his job to travel #solidarity.
Okay I’m in a hurry to catch an overnight bus to Phong Nha, so this is gonna be quick.
Ninh Binh is a small town with not much going on other than serving as a base for trips to Tam Coc. I coordinated a boat ride through a river surrounded by peaks and leafy greens. My rower, Lan, was sweet and chatted with me for about two hours until I convinced her to let me row for a bit (a welcomed break I’m sure). She pointed out a particular peak that a new King Kong movie was recently filmed at.
I can’t emphasize this enough, this country i s stunningly beautiful. I keep a more personal journal and the scenery is so inspiring for the ramblings in my notebook.
Today I spent a few hours driving through the countryside on my motorbike to go to Phuong Coc national park. The noteworthy things from this trip were up close and personal encounters with H20 buffalo, approximately 1 million (probably more) butterflies in traffic on my route through the park, and a super old cave.
Ugh, I don’t have enough time for this to properly document my experiences, but thanks for following along ☺