Our flight to Seoul was uneventful. Sometime during the endless flight, the two people separating me from freedom and the bathroom were fast asleep. I did have a moment of clarity when I realized that it is more important for me to be able to walk around and stretch and pee without climbing over people, then to have the coveted window seat and sleep, Rachelle was happily in her window seat on the other side of the plane.
We had breakfast around 4am Seoul time, and landed around 6am. The Seoul airport is a wonderous place for food, shopping and relaxing. We found one of the spas and our layover was long enough for a short massage and a Korean meal, the second of many meals today. They fed us again on the flight from Seoul to Hanoi, and as we gained two hours, we’ll call it lunch.
When we landed in Hanoi, we got in line to process our visas. Of course, we were in the wrong line, but the signs were identical. Someone kindly corrected us and then it was our turn to help out the next set of tourists who made the same mistake. Maybe the Vietnamese government just wants us make new friends!
An hour later, we were through customs, and we settled in for the drive into town. No waiting for luggage, we were proud to be part of that smug “we just do carry-on” elite.
The architecture might be unique to Hanoi. I’ll get back to you on that… The houses are at least 3 stories high, very narrow, and Asian, with upturned roofs and painted in striking color combinations. Some stand alone and some hug each other in larger or smaller groupings. As we got closer to the dense city center, the character changed and we saw more French colonial influence.
It was around 2pm and people were eating on tiny stools at short tables on the sidewalks. Sometimes there was a restaurant, sometimes someone dishing out food from a sidewalk kitchen setup. It all smelled great and, amazingly, we were hungry again.
At our hotel, La Belle Vie, we were greeted by Mrs. Pham Tuyet Nhung, the rep. from Getaway Halong Sapa Company, who helped us organize our trip. We made one last change, she was gracious and patient, and with our documents in hand, we were on our way – – to lunch. She recommended a lovely traditional restaurant, in one of those French Colonial buildings, a few blocks away. It was a perfect culinary intro to Vietnam, familiar food, but Hanoi influenced. Rachelle had a clear view of the kitchen, expect she’ll be cooking for you all soon. Thinking that was a late afternoon dinner, so the food we bought for the overnight train was a late supper, bringing the total meal count today to 5!
We had a hotel room for the day, so cleaned up and re-packed for the trekking trip. What to pack for 3 days of walking from village to village in Vietnam, near the Chinese border, when you don’t want to carry much and the weather is unpredictable?
It began when we were met at the hotel by a rep. from EcoTours. She arrived on a moped and put us in a taxi with instructions to meet her in front of the train station. Yes, we could have figured all this out on our own, but jet lag had set in and it was pretty nice to have someone walk us to the correct train, car and room. We are on the train now, it is 3am, and I can’t believe I am hungry! We have all 4 berths to ourselves (thank you Elan).
Naturally, the moment we put our stuff down, I went off to find the bathroom. First, I played charades with a woman who works on the train. I kept following her, asking for directions to the toilet and she kept shooing me away. Finally, she started making climbing gestures with her hands and funny repetitive noises. By now there were a few others also interested in finding the toilet.
Eventually she hid from me and I went off to find someone else to torture. This time, an employee showed me where it was but told me again with gestures, that I could not use it. Finally,
a Vietnamese tour guide came to my rescue and advised me that it was only accessible once the train was moving. Still don’t know why. But I do know the charade was a moving train with sound effects! We are arriving soon, the train is comfortable in a noisy, alive machine, kind of way, it’s been a good adventure aboard. Lots of trekkers from all over. Expect to meet them on the bus ride to Sapa.
Dawn in Lao Cai
Around 6am and still dark, we got off the train in Lao Cai and met Louis, our guide for the next three days. (Lao Cai is 2 km from the Chinese border.) He turned out to be delightful, smart and very sweet. He also speaks English beautifully. Our minibus ride to Sapa was great. We were in a cloud bank for most of the hour ride. Then as we ascended the mountain, the mist broke and it was a beautifully sunny say. Looking behind us, there were swirls of mist moving in the valley. Missed photo opp… Louis left us at a hotel where we could shower and have breakfast. We skipped the shower (made the evening one later that much better).
Breakfast was perfect, great coffee, strong sweet and endless. The spread was international, fromhard boiled eggs to fried rice. We found something that looked liketater-tots, but was really potato balls rolled in unsweetened coconut and baked. Ok, maybe fried, but who cares. We had banana crepes and chicken noodle soup with lime. Stuffed, we got ready for the 6-7 hour trek.
View of Sapa from hotel terrace at breakfast
Had to buy a few things we forgot. Turns out, it is unnecessary to bring a backback. The city is filled with North Face knock0ffs. My little daypack was not sufficient for our needs, so $15.00 later I had a padded pack with hip and chest straps.
Then we set off for the day.
Countryside view from Sapa
Roadside Bamboo in the morning wind