Another day wasted in transit.
My flight from Ho Chi Minh City was only twenty minutes late, but the $8 “Vietnam Airlines” airport shuttle took up to two hours.
With so many scam businesses using plagiarized signs of reputable companies, it was hard to trust I was boarding the correct shuttle at the airport.
Night train to Sapa… oh yeah, baby!
Trekking Sapa was something I was looking forward to.
Sandwiched between Vietnamese in a small old minivan while stuck in traffic, reminded me of my Supershuttle van days. I used to take the shared van to and from airports in New York and Los Angeles, but there were two exceptions, which made it different:
1. I was the tallest Asian in the bus.
The van was packed with all the seats filled; yet still had plenty of room, according to the Vietnamese. Where could you possible fit sit?
2. They pull out a small plastic stool to fit in the aisle.
On the drive into Hanoi
For twenty minutes, rice paddy fields and water buffaloes entertained my view. Squished and watching it over my neighbor’s shoulder through a dirty window was the way I was seeing it, but it still held me in delight. Tiny, coned straw hats dotted the rice fields, as rice workers were submerged knee deep planting seeds in the fields. It was absolutely beautiful.
Vietnamese architecture and the reason behind it’s peculiar shape
When we got closer to the city, the awkward architecture of the thin buildings stamped the land, like colorful Monopoly buildings. Narrow in face-width, but deep in length, the odd shape of these buildings are a result of Vietnamese escaping higher taxes. The building’s face has more taxable value than the length of it.
Thus, Vietnamese build their buildings long versus wide.
“Perhaps renting a motorbike…is completely out of the question” , I thought.
If I had any dreams of renting a motorbike here like I did in Thailand, the bubble went *pop*, the moment I saw the insanity of traffic.
Hanoi has a bit more car culture than Ho Chi Minh City , making traffic tricky, more chaotic and noisy. Vietnamese motorbikes still perform weave-dodge-honk maneuvers; but with autos sharing the streets, traffic is very …
Stop- Go- Honnnnnk! Hoooonnnk! Hoooonnnk!
It can be a bit much.
Which is why I definitely like Ho Chi Minh City more.
There’s a contemporary face to Hanoi
Hanoi , the capital city, has a proud and artsy flair woven into it’s culture. Past mixes with present in architectural beauty and crumbling erosion.
The skirts of the Old Quarter wears a serene style with Haon Kiem Lake , the Waterpuppet Theater and expensive designer label shops no one can afford.
The Old Quarter is Hanoi’s crazy old soul
But the heart of the old district is much older and crazier.
It’s narrow and winding streets are congested with criss-crossing two-wheelers, cyclos and tourists.
The French colonial architecture is polluted with age and streets have names, associated with products they once sold. Some streets have shops dedicated to selling the same thing, from statues and altars, hardware shops and silk to rice noodles, etc…
Mashed together, they all end up looking like junk!
The Vietnamese counterfeit company scams
Which is the real Sinh Cafe?
Vietnam really needs copyright laws when it comes to using plagiarized business signs!
My first mission in arriving into Hanoi was to find Sinh Cafe , a well-known tourist agency. I had booked a Sapa trekking tour with them and was leaving by train that night. I needed to find their office. One problem with Sinh Cafe and Vietnam…
In my first five minutes there, I passed at least four Sinh Cafes. Two of them were located directly across the real one!
Pham Luong Ngoc Quyen is the road that houses Sinh Tourist ( formerly the real Sinh Cafe) . I stuck to the street address I had written and followed it to the exact number on the sign.
And it’s only due to that, that I found them.
At the agency office, I could hardly wait to get to Sapa. Lush green mountains, terracing rice fields and valleys, divine waterfalls and villages…very Sound of Music . But Vietnamese style .
For a $107 all-inclusive package (transportation, two sleeper trains, trekking guide, food, a night at a three-star hotel and a home stay) I was ready to sing like Julie Andrews !
Aboard the overnight sleeper train to Sapa Valley
I met the group briefly and we were all shuffled into a van and sped off to Hanoi train station .
9PM: Hanoi Train Station
Touchdown at last and my tour was starting to take shape. The train was a combination of heat, sweat, crowds of local Vietnamese, backpackers and taxis vying for customers! It felt like India all over again.
The tour rep gave us our tickets, a quick verbal run-down of our itinerary and told us, we’d be picked up on the other end at Lao Cai Station. From there, we’d be taken to our hotel.
Not having a tour leader, an address or name of a hotel, anything… felt scary. I don’t have an elephant’s memory and was the only solo traveler in the group. Still, I assumed I’d just follow everyone else and trust the process.
Well, I assumed wrong. Just as we boarded, I realized we were divided in different directions; not even sharing cabins in the same car. Crap!
Still, I had traveler’s faith that I’d recognize the faces of the 10 minute “Hello. How are you…” friends I’d made.
Taking the overnight train was fantastic.
This was my first time sleeping in wooden cabins and the beds seemed clean and comfy.
My three cabin mates were actually, cute twenty-something Swiss guys, with much enthusiasm and an eagerness to chat about life and what they perceived of Hanoi culture. They were a group of friends traveling together.
Occasionally, I feel a grain of envy when I come across travelers like this. I feel like they’re having a party out of their backpack! Still I’m sure I’d never do it, unless I were in my twenties again. Fun drunken bonding, cat fights, trivial annoyances and loads of drama! Hard to focus on the sightseeing and culture of a place.
For the Swiss, this seemed the case.
Which brings me to #1 advantage of traveling solo…
Gray of SoloFriendly.com, recently wrote that she’s better at meeting people when she travels solo.
She couldn’t be more right!
It’s as if not having a connected history or background opens your freedom floodgates to just Be and live in the moment.
Often, I meet people I ordinarily wouldn’t meet in my daily life and I find that exciting. While some of us couldn’t be more different, we all share a common ground- vulnerability, a passion for travel and tons of stories, insights and tips we’ve learned on our travels.
How to Find Great Budget Tours in Vietnam
5 Risky Things to Do if you’re Solo in Vietnam .
5 things to know about Vietnam before you go .
Trekking tips for Sapa on a muddy and crazy hot day (Sapa tour: Day 3) .
Video: How crazy is Motorcycle Mayhem in Vietnam?