Sunday, September 07, 2008

Midnight Special to Lao Cai

Last weekend marked the happy coincidence of American Labor Day weekend and Vietnamese Independence Day (September 2) – which for my USG employed friends meant a 4 day weekend, and for me, with the further coincidence of a planned power cut to our office compound on September 3 and a vacation day on the first – a five day weekend. Perfect time to plan a trip!

So after some back-and-forth and minimal planning, three of us purchased overnight train tickets from Hanoi to Lao Cai Province in the northwest with no plans other than to get to Lao Cai and figure out how to get some motorbikes and to get gone into the mountains.

First, this was my first experience on a sleeper train. I have no pictures to document it, so two words will have to do: déjà vu. I don’t know why I had this feeling – I have only been on a few trains in my entire life, and I have certainly never slept in one, or on any moving vehicle in a full reclining position that I know of, but the feel of the sleeper train was so familiar that it was like coming home. We were in the very last car and in one of the very last cabins and I was on the upper berth, so the ride was about as quiet as they could possibly come. The train is hardly a high speed or modern train, so the travel was relatively slow and sedate.

We had the “deluxe” air-conditioned cabin, which meant we had four people, each with a soft-sleeper bunk, blanket and pillow provided. As we were planning to travel by motorbike the coming days, our luggage was dwarfed by the total amount of storage space. The train was the late train, so within thirty minutes of setting out, everybody was retiring to their bunks and wrapping up and turning out the lights. I curled up and was rocked to sleep by the motion of the train, all the time utterly confused by the feeling that I’d done this before – and it was all very, very pleasant.

We rolled into the last station at about 6 am and had to wait about half an hour for the second train carrying our third party member to arrive.

Then the unplanned adventure really began. Or, not really. We found a place to have breakfast while we sorted out return train tickets and began looking at maps. We finally decided that there really wasn’t any option for finalizing return tickets at the train station. Irony of irony – you would have almost thought it to be Madagascar in the stone age! Train tickets are sent from the train station 30 kilometres down the road to the local resort town of Sa Pa where random travel agencies snap them up to resell to travellers. There’s no central clearing house for any of this information, so nobody really knows how many train tickets are actually left at any given time. So, onto a bus and off to Sa Pa for us.

This, happily, is where our good fortune begins. We randomly chose a name from the guidebook, and landed at a guesthouse managed by an English-speaking former tour guide who not only managed to find the elusive third train ticket for our return trip, but also advised us on possible markets and towns to visit, which roads were most passible and pleasant, and fed us and gave us a room for the night (okay, we paid for that service) when we decided we wouldn’t be heading out any more that afternoon.

Our first afternoon was spent walking around the villages near Sa Pa town.

The scenery is spectacular and the sun finally broke through in the early evening to give us good light for photography. Plenty of pictures were taken and I think it was a good choice to spend the first day on foot.

We also scored some good luck on our return to the town by catching rides with a tour operator who arranged for our motorbike rental for the next day and gave us further advice about possible roads and drives.

Sa Pa town is unique and a nice oasis of clean hotels and western food options in the middle of the mountains. But it is also a tourist trap. Women, fully dressed in their ethnic minority costumes, patrol the streets with bundles of handicrafts and will surround visitors as soon as they emerge from a hotel, restaurant or boutique.

We finally clambered our way free of the touts and hawkers and found our way to a mountain view terrace in a hotel where we enjoyed a quiet drink watching the evening roll in

Despite pleasant early-evening weather, that night we went to sleep to the sound of incoming rain, and, much to our chagrin awoke to a continued downpour. So much for our enthusiastic plans to set off early and catch the Sunday morning ethnic minority markets. So, we rested on our as-of-yet unearned laurels, hoping to shore up bank accounts of endurance for later.

By 10 am or so the rain had let up to a steady drizzle, so we ate breakfast and decided on a different route over better roads. We set off in damp, but high spirits and made decent time back to Lao Cai for lunch.

The rest of the day was spent heading north-north-north in much improved weather and on surprisingly good and untrafficked roads. That was the most pleasant discovery of our entire journey – not only were the roads in good condition, but the areas we chose to go to were almost completely vehicle-free. We met the occasional motorbike, but very few cars and no trucks hindered our progress.

Picture-taking started in earnest now. The route offered an almost pre-planned selection of vistas, arranged so that the impressiveness increased by orders of magnitude by each kilometer.

The road we would follow for the next few days began in generally steep and impressive farmed and terraced mountains and ended in sheer cliffs that dwarfed the human soul by their proportions. No, not the grand Tetons or even the standard Colorado Rockies, but definitely bigger than anything in Madagascar, and probably rivalling much of the Appalachian trail. Suffice to say, we were very happy to be on motorized vehicles travelling on a sealed road.

Further increasing awe and respect for the territory were the family groups of brightly dressed Flower H’mong people that we passed camped on almost every swichback wide enough to park a motorbike. These people live in and around and through the mountains, scratching out a living from their nearly vertical hillsides and carrying the resulting produce kilometres through the mountains to markets in distant valleys.

We also stopped briefly on our first day to hassle some tea-pickers along side the road. They humored us in showing us how to do the picking...and then took the baskets away when we started messing things up too badly:

Later we made a slight detour the morning of our second day on the road to travel up to the remote Vietnam-China border crossing in Muong Khuong District, Lao Cai. I now can claim that I have seen into China from five distinct points on the Vietnam border – but have not yet crossed.

We stayed in guest houses and ate in markets, shops and bars.

Our fast progress was only impeded at first by frequent stops for photography. I chose to ride ahead generally, as I was just soaking up the beauty of the drive. This suited everybody find, until on the evening of the second day out, we found ourselves mired in massive amounts of mud around the construction site of a massive new hydroelectric dam. I can now only imagine the scale of China’s controversial Three Gorges Dam when I looked out over the vast altitudes being encased in concrete around this dam, and the sheer volume potential they were planning on for this particular station.

We made travelled through the dusk to arrive cold and tired in the town we marked for our second night on the road. Unfortunately all these towns boast Sunday markets, so we knew we had missed the big event of the week. Since we arrived so late, we only had a few minutes in the morning before we had to get back on that endless high way in order to retrace the bottom part of our circle and return our bikes to Sa Pa, shower and catch a bus the 30 km back to the train station for our night train home.

All-in-all, we did quite well by motorbikes. We only had a few minor incidents, including a fall in the mud

and getting stuck in the mud the second day,

a flat tire the third day,

a skid-out the third day (scraped hands and a bent gear shift).

Miraculously, my trusty steed made it without incident.

We only covered about 100 km a day for three days, but our goal for this trip had not been speed. Rather, we enjoyed the journey and our opportunity to learn more about the western provinces, which do indeed face more developmental challenges than Cao Bang Province. Yet, there are many more programs already ongoing in these areas, and it is simply amazing the amount of English spoken in these areas – even by the littlest children! They also have the huge advantage of having the train – an easy and comfortable mode of transportation that I would have willingly taken advantage of had there been that option to Cao Bang!