What Do Travellers Do All Day?: #6 – Trains RUS, Part I – Sapa, Bac Ha and Hanoi, Vietnam

6: Trains RUS, Part I

8 Apr 2002

It was really difficult to leave Hoi An after the laid-back atmosphere, good beach and cool sea. But there’s so much to do before the 7th of May, when I’m supposed to fly out of Bangkok to Australia.

We waited in Danang for a few hours to catch the train up to the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. There’s not a whole lot in Danang besides urban sprawl and industry, so I just walked the market. When Ben’s turn came to walk and mine to watch the bags, he got lost – and this is when I learned to take the navigational reigns. We debated what I would have done had he not turned up for the train, and I consoled him that I wouldn’t have done the dash and left his bags in the care of strangers. But in hindsight… he-he…

The train journey was really good, even though we only took the hard-berth sleeper option, which after a few homebrew whiskeys for only 4000 dong a bottle (under 25 pence sterling) is really quite adequate.

We were thrilled to find that we were the only farangs in our compartment of 6 berths, and so the struggle to communicate began. Four Vietnamese chaps were trying their utmost with the 6 English words between them to enhance international relations, and we moved from pointing at maps to distinguish “where are you from and where are you going?” to the international lingo of passing food and a bottle of whiskey around. In-between we read each other’s passports, thus falling under “where have you been?” and showed photos of friends and family (apparently my dad looks like a professor – I had to laugh!). The latter falls, I guess, under “nothing better to do, so do you want a good laugh at some of the friends and rellies?”

It was really great, but after a chilli sandwich from the “homeside” I couldn’t do much talking anyway. We had all tired out from the hours of nodding, oohing and aahing – so they slept and Ben and I sampled more of this great Vietnamese whiskey. We eventually retired to our pieces of hard wood when the locals were replaced with 3 huge French people – suddenly the cabin seemed like the house of the 7 dwarfs, and the air grew thin from lack of oxygen.

The next day went quite fast too, and we arrived in Hanoi to be packed in a taxi and loaded off into the centre of the madness. Little people on mopeds weaving in and out of each other like kids playing ‘Running Red Rover’ is something to really marvel at, if you’re not stuck in the middle of it all with them coming from all sides – like I got to experience on two separate occasions today.

We packed ourselves off to Sapa, in the mountains northwest of Hanoi the very next day, no time to stand still. The bus journey took all day, and we were wondering what the hell we had signed up for when we arrived in Sapa, a little town stuck in the clouds. But the journey was a breeze as I sat next to a really young, talkative peace-loving flower-power traveller from Melbourne, Australia. She was really cool to pass the time with. The mist rolled in thick and fast, once we got further up into the mountains and it got chilly and damp. We were greeted by the hilltribe people – the Black Hmong – so named for the way they dress in (shock me) – black clothing and black hat/turban jobbies with colourful inlays and embroidery. They’re little people with beautiful faces that sell sell sell lots of goodies, never take no for an answer but do it with a nice attitude. You just have to smile.

We trekked into their village the next day, a lot of up and a lot of down in this beautiful valley at about 1500m, but the real highlight was that evening.

Claire (Melbourne, Australia), Chris (also, coincidentally, Melbourne, Australia), Ben (Birmingham, England), Erin (Canada) and I were sitting having a meal, a few beers and some Red Plum Wine when we decided to invite these 2 little old village ladies in to have a drink with us. The restaurant owner and his family were a bit surprised, or should I say very, and they couldn’t take their eyes off this rare sighting, as tourists always seem to be running from these persistent little saleswomen.

Ma and Mai were there names. They were giggly and fun, enjoying our company as much as we were enjoying theirs. It was just one of those moments you cannot describe, but it will stick with me as I remember them walking us to our guest house in the rain under their brollies, which came waist high (to us), wearing their colourful traditional dress, the standard issue 2-sizes too small brown plastic shoes and full baskets on their backs.

The next day we packed off to Bac Ha, home to another ethnic minority group the ‘Flower Hmong’ – once again relating to their colourful dress. We did the usual trek into the mountain to see their village, but another experience gained by going off the beaten track is what I take away with me this day.

We found another village on our own (the 5 of us) and just walking around, one of the villagers invited us in for some oranges. With limited English we sipped Vietnamese tea, ate oranges and green peaches ,and all was well with the world as we met his family and made small talk, mostly with sign language.

Things took a turn for poor Ben when the man of the house, in awe of the hair and muscles, starting feeling his legs at regular intervals and making Ben feel his to compare muscle size. He was all but taken with the size of the muscle and seemed not to believe his eyes. Ben started feeling very uncomfortable after about 30 minutes of this, but we were all in stitches at his expense.

All went pear-shaped when he brought out this huge beaker holding remnants floating in this clear liquid. On first taste we took it to be “the work of the devil”, but on second and third we were convinced that it was more like aeronautical fuel. I somehow managed to get out of it with demo’s of vomiting, but sat back sipping my tea and laughing at the others’ fruitless attempts at avoiding the well-meaning top-ups of their cups. The sun began to set, and I walked as the others stumbled back into Bac Ha to line our stomachs – just a tad too late. It is extremely offensive to refuse on first offer, so I was pretty glad that this family hadn’t whipped out their opium pipe instead.

From there Ben and I said our farewells to the 2 ozzies and ran away from the most annoying Canadian we had ever met. My heart goes out to those Canadians who have this girl as their representative. She had to have been the rudest, condescending, patronising, all-consuming irritant I have ever had the displeasure to meet and hope that the locals do not judge all travellers by the ignorance she displays on her travels.

Halong Bay was just the thing to cleanse our minds of her.

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