Saturday, 5 December 2015

A night in a 4 berth 'soft sleeper' on the train to Sa Pa

I'm not sad to leave the city of Hanoi. I've seen most  of the city highlights and the now steady rain would only keep me in my hotel room. But I'm  not too happy about leaving people I got to know here behind.  But  through recent experiences I have learned that organized tours are the best way to get to know more people.  

But the big reason that tips the scales and gets me going is this:

New experiences await  A sleeper car. In an overnight train!  To the mountains at the border to China no less!

showers visible in the lights of the highrise on the other side of Restored-Sword Lake

Having retained the room for the entire night allows me to take a shower at 8 pm. I'm sure there are no showers on the train and I don't know at what time tomorrow I will be seeing another hotel room.

When I arrive in the reception to check out, they instantly call me a taxi and one of the receptionists gets into the cab with me.  At the train station, he pays the fare (20,000 VND) and then walks to the train with me, waiting patiently every time I want to take a picture.  He babysits me onto the correct car and does not leave until he has found and shown me my bed.  Definitely the royal treatment, meaning very well, but completely unnecessary. After all, I won't have an escort getting onto various trains during the coming week, at least I hope not!

Not quite the Orient Express, but close ;-)

I'm in my compartment 50 minutes before the train leaves and I'm the only one in it so far. I have time to go out and take a few train pictures.

a compartment with 'soft seats'

While I'm typing this, I wonder who will join me in this tight space.  Will they be Asian or Western? Will they snore?  Will they be offended by my snoring?  These would all be questions anyone should ask themselves before boarding a plane but I never have.  Somehow the presence of beds renders the affair a tad more intimate.  Sleeping naked should be out of the question, but what exactly is the proper degree of undress when sleeping with strangers in a sleeper train?  I'm also hesitant to lay down before my co-passengers are here, so I still don't even know whether these berths are long enough for me.   And what about heating?   The train has air-conditioning, but the air coming out of the vents is no warmer than the chilly air outside on the station platform.  The blanket at least looks semi-warm.  

The previous monologue shows that I definitely have been dragged far out of my comfort zone.  Good !  That is one of the objectives of this trip. 

Still no one here, time to go look at the train again instead of sitting here on my berth looking worried ;-)

Another train has pulled in next to us and the passengers exiting seem to be exclusively Vietnamese.

 I take a peek through the wire mesh covering the windows (against thrown rocks explains an announcement later) and for the first time see the 'hard seat' available on Vietnamese Railways. That REALLY looks HARD!

Aren't new experiences fun?  In the blink of an eye I have I learned to REALLY appreciate my 'soft sleeper'!

My co-travelers have just arrived. 3 Vietnamese students in their early 20s; one male, two female.   

Within the first 5 minutes I learn that they speak excellent English and not actually Vietnamese but are from Malaysia ;-)  One of them brought a huge multi-outlet extension cord to plug in various devices. I ask her whether she brought a fridge as well and she has to giggle too.

20 minutes until departure. Time for one last cigarette. Smoking is prohibited in the compartment, but maybe allowed in the hallway?  I go out to the platform to smoke.

Then the train starts moving!

My jet lag comes in handy for the train journey. I find out that my berth has ample length and I'm out cold by 10 pm.

all night long ....

I wake up a few times to use the loo (conveniently located right next to my cabin) but always fall asleep again instantly.  At 5:30 am I wake up and feel wide awake.  The conductor knocks and unlocks the cabins from the outside 15 minutes later, announcing "Lao  Cai 10 minute".

This baby has an automatic hand-waving no-touch flusher  !!!!!

The still-half-asleep crowd oozes out of their cabins and the train doors and trots along the platform and out the station building.  

Only when I exit the train do I start wondering how to find out in which hotel I'm staying  tonight. A minute later I am much relieved when I see the forest of sign-holding people.  This is actually the first time in my 50 years on this planet that I have been greeted by a sign-holding person. A Personal First again ;-)

Seeing my name made me too excited to hold the camera steady ;-)

Lao Cai

We cram into a mini-bus and drive into the dark  .  

All I really notice is that the road continuously keeps going UP. For 50 friggin minutes the road goes UP

mountains !

Looking at a map later, I realize that we're about 5 km from the Chinese border!

Higher and higher 

 At some point we enter the cloud layer and everything turns fuzzy.  All I can see is the small signs Sa Pa 15 km. Sa Pa 7 km.


 At least the darkness lifts eventually, even if the fog does not.

Finally the bus drops 5 people from the bus in front of a hotel on a hill road. We trot through the breakfast area to reception, where I am informed that NO, I'm not staying in this hotel, but YES, I can have breakfast here, and YES, they have a room where I can take a shower and change.  And the tour guide to convey me would be here in about 1.5 hours

Breakfast is yummy and I even eat a piece of Vietnamese sausage, sticking my tongue out at internet stories about Vietnamese sausages consumed at train stations and subsequent 7 days of gastrointestinal HELL.  If I'm in Vietnam, I'm going to eat Vietnamese food.  If it goes wrong, I have antibiotics for just that purpose in my luggage ((Thank you Mrs Travel Doctor).

I take a quick shower and change my clothes in the room made available by the hotel.

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