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A Train Into the Hills

We spent our last day in Hanoi, perusing the giant indoor markets in search of more Project K9 goodies to send off to one of our readers with culinary inclinations.

For ourselves, we picked up a few of the famous and charming Bia Hoi glasses that were made from poured glass and featured a big H emblazoned on their bottoms.

A street-side cafe was eager to help pack them after we effectively communicated that we wanted 10 glasses of beer
(hold the beer).

With a large bag of spices and local cooking tools, and a heavy bag of Vietnamese glass, we headed to the post office, and made short work of dispatching the whole kit and caboodle.

Back on the road, we decided to indulge in a little bit of mid-afternoon wheeling through the steadily intensifying rush hour madness of Hanoi. This was enjoyable, but very high voltage. In fact, we were soaking wet with sweat and rather frayed at the nerves by the time we made our way back to the restaurant we had visited the night before.

The same adorably surly waitress was there, as though waiting for us. She gave us a huge grin and then snarled through the ordering process, pushing us to select certain foods and not taking no for an answer on the Bia Hoi. No sooner had our beers arrived than we were joined by yet another North Vietnamese veteran who happened to speak Russian. We sipped bia hoi, and ate with him, discussing his service as a fighter pilot, flying MIGs for the people of Vietnam, and allowing the conversation to deviate toward more relaxed topics whenever we could. In the end, we were all very good friends, and bid each other warm regards upon departure.

Back on the cycles, we returned to our beloved Liberty Hotel, where the staff bid us another warm goodbye, while we packed up our things and climbed on the Speed TRs, headed for the train station.

Our tickets that evening were on the “tourist train” to Lao Cai. Lao Cai is the border town between Vietnam and Yunnan Province, China. Since the train is really only used by tourists (foreign and domestic), it is a rather over-the-top train. Though not outrageously expensive, the train is covered with faux wood paneling; each room sports a vase full of fresh flowers, and the entire experience is groomed to be somewhat Orient-Express-esque.

We wheeled up to the station and waited outside for our train. While we waited, we passed the time joking around with the Vietnamese rail employees who had just gotten off their shift and were sitting on the steps of the station smoking cigarettes. A few of them spoke a bit of Russian, but they were less interested in chatting than they were in the folding action of the Speed TRs, and Scott and my own general pre-rail antics. When our train finally arrived, we hustled to get into our compartment and snag some of that prized under-the-bottom-bunk luggage space. This we were able to do with zero difficulty, for the train was almost empty. We were, in fact, one of perhaps four or five passengers in our whole car, and, of course, had a four-bed compartment to ourselves.

The beds were firm and comfortable, but for one reason or another, I did not sleep well. Perhaps it was the change in pressure as the train worked its way up into the mountains, or a strange but drastic oscillation in the ambient humidity in our car as we traveled. Whatever, it was, I awoke quite definitively, shortly before sunrise, and spent the next couple hours peering out the train window at the mountainous farm terrain that was being slowly but surely bathed in steadily increasing shades of gray sunlight. Despite the gray light, the land was startlingly green, reminding me once again what a splendid bit of land Vietnam had for itself. We snaked our way into the mountains, and the smell of pine and rice mingled in a refreshing bouquet.

We were pulling into a city that was large enough to be our destination just as the sunlight began to gain some hints of yellow. The train hissed to a halt, and Scott and I climbed out.

We showed our tickets to the ticket takers (here they use the Chinese system of showing one’s ticket only at the end of the ride) and exited the station into an early morning crowd of touts. It was a misty, drenching, muggy day here in Lao Chai. Just in the time it took to exit the train and make our way outside, Scott and I became completely soaked with sweat. We were getting hungry too, but the pushy nature of the many street vendors outside the station forced us to choose to simply unfold the cycles and head out in search of less pushy breakfast.

Pho was of course the goal, and since we were still in Vietnam, satisfying the urge proved quite simple. We were able to find a delicious spot, which was quickly filling up with locals catching an early morning breakfast before heading out to do whatever they did here on the border of China. It was also perhaps the cheapest bowl of Pho that we had during our entire time in Vietnam. The greens were fresh and delicious, and we were just finishing our bowl when a bus pulled up next to us.

A woman stuck her head out of the bus and called to us Sa Pa? Well… we were indeed trying to head to Sa Pa, and though on AsiaWheeling we usually decline solicitations for forms of transport, this one seemed legit. We made our way over and began the process of bargaining for a ride to the mountain outpost. Eventually we reached a deal, and Scott paid the Pho vendor, while I paid the bus driver and loaded the cycles in the belly of the beast.

The bus then left and we drove for approximately four minutes, before stopping again at the bus station, where our vessel duly waited for the next hour and a half, filling the rest of the way up with people. We were fine with this, for it gave us a chance to drink a can of coffee, use the truly hauntingly filthy bathrooms, and peer across the river into China, where we could see the border town of Hekou. From here it looked not dissimilar to Lao Chai where we were, except that the signs were in Chinese. Soon we would be wheeling in that glorious country once more, through that very border in fact. But first there was a little more to do in Vietnam…

Our bus wound its way up the mountain slowly but surely. The road steadily sloped upward and wound back and forth, climbing out of the sticky humidity into the clouds, which soon enveloped the bus, condensing on the windows, and running in thin streams down the panes. When we pulled out of the clouds, the mountain range was laid out before us, clear and bright, atop a bed of silky gray vapor.

The road wound a few more times around, taking us through an active construction site, and finally up into the village of Sa Pa. Most of the passengers on the bus were headed farther away to the city of Lai Chao. In fact, we were the only people to get off in Sa Pa. However, if you think, dear reader, that taking the local bus might have saved us from being swarmed by armies of touts once we climbed off, you would be sorely mistaken. One of them was so forthright as to even climb on the Speed TR and take it for a spin without asking! All said, though, it seemed to be a day for strange behavior on the part of the AsiaWheeling team, for not only were we swarmed by touts, but we actually selected one of them and followed her back to her guest house.

We pulled up, us on our Speed TRs and she on her moped, to a beautiful place, with an unencumbered view of the vast misty mountain range that surrounded us, and were shown to a room with three full beds, wireless Internet, and hot water all for $8.00 a night! On top of all that, they even advertised the cheapest coffee and cold drinks in town. Splendid.

Our tout brought us a thermos of hot water with which to make tea, and took our passports to go register us with the local tourist police. In the meantime, we slathered on a bit of sunscreen, cleaned off our Maui Jims and started preparing to wheel.


  1. Mark/Dad | July 4th, 2010 | 10:06 am

    Nice digs! And quite the bus!

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