After our adventures in Ha Long Bay, David and I had a big decision to make that night. Do we go south and chase the sun to what we have heard to be an amazing beach town, Hoi An…or do we go north to the mountains, to a small town we heard had amazing views and beautiful culture, Sapa. To go south to the sun or north to a chill?
We decided to go north to SaPa. Yes it would be colder, and yes some rain was scheduled to come….but we didn’t want to start to head south and regret that we missed this beautiful mountain town. We knew that the beach was in our future regardless, so we could put it off for another week. Now we just had to figure out how to get there…
We knew that we had to take the bus, boat, bus, bus combo back to Hanoi and then we just had to figure out how to get from Hanoi to SaPa….knowing we didn’t want to have to pay for another night in Hanoi (it is much more expensive to stay in the city for the night). We bought our ticket back to Hanoi through Captain Jack for 190.000 VND ($9) and talked to his travel coordinator about a trip to SaPa.
Her English was a bit broken but from what I could tell we were looking at about 450.000 VND ($25) for a sleeper bus. She urged us to take the bus over the train because:
1. The bus would drop us off in the middle of Sapa, the train would drop us off in Lo Cai 40 min. away where we then have to then take another minibus to Sapa for an additional 50.000 VND ($2.50) a piece.
2. The bus would be easier to sleep on then the train.
3. The bus is cheaper!
After doing research online it seemed we could book the bus ourselves for less than the travel agency, so after getting her info of where the bus picked up from (the same bus station we would be dropped off at) we decided to head to Hanoi and book the sleeper bus tickets ourselves once we got to Hanoi.
The next morning we were scheduled to head out on the 9am bus with a few of the same travelers we had gone to Ha Long Bay with. David and I woke up at 7am so that we would have plenty of time to pack our backpacks and have a leisurely breakfast. Of course nothing works out quite as planned…after a few hits of the snooze button we showered and began to pack our bags. I don’t think we have mentioned showers here….Showers are actually just shower heads in the middle of the bathroom. There is no tub or curtain or any distinguishing feature for a shower vs. toilet vs. sink area. It is simply a shower head and a drain. Note – don’t get your toilet paper wet, you’ll want that later. So after our showers we began to pack, this always takes longer than you think as you need to completely empty your packs and repack them to maximize space.
As we finished packing, I realized we didn’t have enough cash to pay for our room. As I had already packed my bag, it would be best if I ran outside to the ATM across the street. While all this preparing and packing was taking place it slipped my mind that we woke up without any power. This seems to be a normal occurrence for most of any of our stays in Vietnam. So of course when I go to the ATM it to is without the necessary power and thus not working. I look down the long cove of Cat Ba at the only other ATM and realize I have no option but to go there. Needing to make up lost time I begin to run, and in my head I start going through all the worse case scenarios if this ATM machine is also out of power. We might have to stay another night or we could ask to borrow money from a fellow traveler with the promise to pay them back in Hanoi. As I run down the cove, sweat gathering on my brow, Moto drivers keep flagging me down insisting on giving me a ride, that is until I yell back, “No money!” But as I run up to the building I hear the welcoming sound of generators blazing and to my relief I knew money will come. I rush through the transaction and sprint back to the hotel as David is just finishing his bag.
Knowing that David and I are once again behind schedule, we divide and conquer. David will pay for the room and I will go order our breakfast since we know how long it takes to get our eggs and toast in Cat Ba. When David goes downstairs the man at Sunrise hotel tries to tell him the room is now $7 instead of the $5 we agreed on three days before. After much arguing the man scribbles out the bill and tries to write another bill for about $6 a night, he tries to tell David it’s because of the exchange rate. More arguments ensue but again the man scribbles out the bill for the proper amount, 300.000 VND ($15).
David rushes to the restaurant where the bus will pick us up….but the food isn’t out yet. “Where is our food..?” Once again we are waiting on our eggs. And once again we have to shovel our eggs and coffee in two quick bites and a guzzle. David runs to the bathroom to quickly wash up before we leave, but it turns out the waterline wasn’t properly connected and before he knows it his whole right leg and shoe are drenched. So far the morning was off to a great start. Time for the bus!
The bus was pretty uneventful, saying goodbye to the mountains we had grown to love while driving around on the motor bike. As we arrive to the boat it is already packed with people and our bags gets haphazardly thrown on the deck. As we leave from the dock I urge David to check on our bags to make sure they won’t fall off the deck and sink to the bottom of the ocean.
Our next transfer is a weathered broken down looking minibus with almost half the seats stuck in the fully reclined position, but we squeeze ourselves into the back knowing this leg of the journey is short. Now at our last transfer we are happy to see a luxury bus with a plasma TV and colored lights. One of the other travelers toward the front of the bus is asked to select a DVD and finds a Victoria Secret runway show. As the electric boom of the blasting entertainment begins, we drive off toward Hanoi watching Hedi Klum strut her half naked stuff down the runway.
We have come to realize all the busses here also stop locally to pick up any deliveries that might need to head to the city. As if we are a DSL truck, we wind through town picking up packages. This always adds much more time to the retune to Hanoi as well. Once out of town the driver manages to make up time, passing other busses, blasting his air-horn, and flashing lights, we arrive in Hanoi on time.
Once at the station our new hurdle is to figure out the sleeper bus to Sapa. We quickly realize none of the buses head that way and no one at the station speaks any English. Luckily, I have a screen grab in my phone of a website that claims to sell bus tickets to Sapa and the address is a few doors down from our hotel we stayed at in Hanoi. Annoyed, tired, and grumpy we don’t want to stay at the bus station any longer, so we grab a cab to our old hotel the Rising Dragon.
Once there we are greeted by familiar faces at the front desk who instantly take our bags and ask how our trip to Cat Ba island was. “Grab coffee, go use the Internet, our hotel is fully booked tonight but what can we help you with.” It was an amazing feeling to be welcomed back. She offers to store our bags for the day while we figure out the transportation to Sapa.
After going to a few travel agents, one of which being from the website on my phone grab, we decide to book our tickets through our hotel. They were just so nice and accommodating, so if David and I had to pay anyone it should be them. In any case it was the same cost everywhere we looked. David and I were now looking at a four hour wait till the shuttle picked us up from the hotel. The ticket was a bit more than I had research, but since we weren’t paying for a hotel that night we paid the 400.000 VND ($20) each for the sleeper bus.
With the four hours to kill, David and I found ourselves back at our favorite little restaurant in the old quarter of Hanoi. We filled our bellies knowing we wouldn’t be able to eat again until the next day. After we wandered the streets of the old quarter to stretch our legs and tire ourselves out, we headed back to The Rising Dragon.
On the way back we went into a cool little art gallery where there was some really cool paintings done by a woman from Hanoi. David pointed to a small 1×1′ painting leaning on the floor and asked “how much?” The guy looked at us with a half smirked smile and said,”hmmm, well something like that would go for about 7000 US dollars” Jesus! Think we wondered into a much fancier gallery than we expected. Mai Anh, was the name of the artist and it turns out she is a very famous Vietnamese painter who sells most of her work out of Southern California.
We got back to the Rising Dragon 40mins early only to find our ride pulling up to the hotel at the same time. We quickly grabbed our bags and were then driven in circles through the old quarter picking up other travels for the same sleeper bus to Sapa.
Once we finally got to our sleeper bus, we were both completely shocked. Neither of us had ridden a sleeper bus so we didn’t know what to expect. The bus has rows of almost bunk bed like seats that fully reclined. There were even thick leopard fleece blankets for all the beds. David and I chose a top bunk on the right side and snuggled into our new home for the next 11 hours.
The bus made many stops along the way, again picking up deliveries to bring to the town. My favorite being, the huge bushels of roses and other bouquets of color that were nestled into the same undercarriage compartment as our bags. I imagined our bags would smell so nice after the ride, but a lass no fragrances were left behind.
At first the lights were on in the bus and the TV was blaring a Vietnamese sketch show. The guy behind us was loving the show, watching at full volume and belly laughing each joke….David and I quickly regretted leaving our ear plugs in our other bags. We began to bet on the time of the curfew for this eleven hour bus ride…the driver finally shut everything off around midnight. After that we both quickly fell asleep, it’s amazing how comfortable the sleeper bus actually was.
We woke up around 8am as our bus was pulling into SaPa. The skies were overcast, rainy and very foggy… Think San Francisco in July. David and I did not prebook a room this time as we thought we could get a better bargain in person. So we began our trek through the rain with our bags.
We were surrounded by guys trying to get us to go to their hotels and by H’mong women (one of the native cultures in these mountains) trying to sell us their goods. We wondered the foggy rain sprinkled streets barely able to see more then 10 feet in front of us while being constantly pestered by the locals….Sapa did not have a good first impression on us.
As we aimlessly wondered in and out, up and down the streets of Sapa’s rainy mountain town. Stopping to ask prices at different hotels, we quickly realized this was going to be more expensive then we thought. We headed down the main road and off the main drag of the town to one last hotel we had looked up, The Green Valley Hotel.
We were greeted by a smiling Aussie named Glen, who we later learned was one of the owners of the hotel. We had arrived to our new home for the next few days. Welcome to Green Valley Hotel in foggy Sapa, Vietnam. Here we shall wait for the clouds to part!