When I spotted the colorful flags decorating a boxy, concrete structure, I instantly understood that this is where the Hanoi trains to Sapa are. I approached the entrance and saw many people (locals and tourists alike) moseying towards the entrance. The sight of the Vietnamese transport hub provided absolutely novel feelings, being a perfect concoction of hectic and utilitarian. All the colors, shapes, and people overlapped into a kind of Venn-Diagram, which proved to me that this would be an exciting start to my first adventure in Vietnam.
I booked my train ticket from Hanoi to Sapa online, traveling with the Sapaly Express Train, and it cost me only $25 per person.
More often than not, I fall into the habit of worrying about my arrival to the station. The most exaggerated thoughts come to my mind and I end up coming early … way too early. This is really unnecessary though, in Vietnam. Coming half an hour, or forty-five minutes before is the best option.
Despite the old age of the station, everything is functional. It’s easy to find your carriage according to what is written on your ticket. Before beginning my journey in Vietnam, I wasn’t sure of what to expect from the voucher. I’m sure that any super-planner would love a glimpse into what vouchers look like so ch-ch-check it out below!
The rickety floorboards made it difficult to pull my suitcases along. Since I was traveling with a friend, it was easy to find something positive in every situation, especially through various jokes and quips. While tugging at the luggage, no “kvetch” was spared.
I approached the train to Sapa, and noticed a long line of blue carriages. It’s interesting to note that each block of two or three train cars belong to a different supplier.
It’s best to book your tickets in advance, since this way you will be guaranteed seats, especially during high season. Online booking also provides certain guarantees that in-person haggling cannot: Ease of understanding, in-advance confirmations, and around the clock customer support.
Ready or Not (Here I Come)!
I had the e-ticket email open on my phone, very much ready to go, but was kindly redirected to an information desk. When traveling by train in Vietnam, you may be asked for a printed ticket. So, we scurried over to some information desk that looked more like a kiosk and held on tight.
Part of me was worried, especially after a lifetime of hearing all the possible horror travel-stories; I was not in the mood for a bilingual argument gone-wild. Although the sweet old lady didn’t know much English, I managed to understand that I needed to wait a bit with my issue. After maybe two or three minutes of waiting, a nice gentleman emerged and solved our issue, providing us with printed tickets.
Oftentimes, locals may not know English so well. Nevertheless, we were able to make do and understand what was needed from us. Going against all of my worries, I understood that it’s important to not be afraid to ask for help, even with the language barrier. When navigating the platforms and service providers, common sense and fearlessness is necessary.
Vietnamese trains may look really simple on the outside, and you know what, that’s totally okay. Upon entering, we were greeted by lots of wood panelling, which is a groovy blast from the past. The insides are very clean, and in general, the journey is very convenient. Take the train, if you have the chance, as the ride is so much more comfortable than a sleeper bus. It may have ended up being slower than other forms of transport, but you’ll get rocked to sleep like in a baby-carriage.
After providing the ticket-master with your printed voucher we were allowed into the cabin and found our homes for the next eight hours. The cabin has four beds, two of which one has to climb up to get on. There’s no visible ladder to get on top, rather a step that needs to be popped out of the wall.
Each berth got clean sheets, and think blankets. The blankets were a lifesaver since, really, it was very cold on board. The air conditioner vents were next to the top bunks, so people that sleep on the top might have a much more uncomfortable and chilly time.
In every cabin there is a basic gift set for your travels: Toothbrush, toothpaste, snacks (a granola bar) and water. Once we set our bags down, one of the staff members stopped by and asked what’d we like in the morning: Tea or coffee.
We shared our cabin with one local lady, who was polite enough. She kept to herself the whole way, was quiet, and paid no attention to us. For me, it was quite strange to share a room with somebody who I didn’t know at all.
Sharing a cabin with a stranger obviously made my mind wander and worry about luggage theft. After some time spent with our neighbors, I relaxed a bit and understood that everything was safe (the lady fell asleep after a short video call). It’s simply important to practice due diligence and be hyper-aware of your surroundings.
One of the bunks was empty and it was quite curious for me to observe that once night-time came, a staff member came and used it as his bed (until the early morning).
Somewhere, Over the Rainbow
Since it was a night train, looking out the window proved to be fruitless, as darkness enveloped the countryside, I only heard the soft rumble of the wheels hitting the tracks. I would really recommend for every traveller to wake up a bit earlier, before arrival to the station. At sunrise, the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside before reaching Sapa is striking. I witnessed an orange glow take over the fields, which was a sight I will never be able to forget, one that summarized a very pleasant journey.
Eventually, the wheels of the train came to a screeching halt, and my friend and I looked at each other from our respective bunks. We put together all of our belongings and exited to the warm, sticky air of Sapa in September. One last thing was left to do: Get to our hotel. Beyond the turnstiles, a long line of minivans stood parked, with drivers waiting for customers. We picked quite randomly and were taken promptly to our hotel by a very friendly driver.