Hanoi First Impressions and the overnight train to Sapa

Last Updated on June 7, 2023 by Christine Kaaloa

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Day #5:

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.

Whatever. All I needed was get to the Old Quarter in Hanoi . I needed to get to the Sinh Cafe (aka Sinh Tourist ) office so I meet up with my 3 day and 4 night Sapa trekking tour !

Night train to Sapa… oh yeah, baby!  Trekking Sapa was something I was looking forward to.

counterfeit scam tourist agencies in Vietnam An example of a Vietnam Airlines mock tour office

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 . But here in Vietnam, there were two differences:

1.   I was the tallest Asian in the bus.

2.    They pull out a small plastic stool for aisle seating when the van seats were all filled.


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 delight. Tiny, coned straw hats dotted the rice fields, as rice workers were submerged knee deep planting seeds in the fields. Absolutely breathtaking!


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.

SAM 0459 Still, here is a shot of one of those buildings. They’re very common in Hanoi & speckled throughout Vietnam.

Hanoi Impressions

“Perhaps renting a motorbike…is completely out of the question” , I thought.

Motorbike madness

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.

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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.

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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.

Street food vendors pull makeshift restaurant seating, with plastic stools. Roadside seating is still a popular Vietnamese spectator sport as in Ho Chi Minh.

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!

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shopng 9 34%25202 (Above) Outdoor cafes; (Below) Hardware shop

Vietnamese Buddha
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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 Sapa trekking  homestay) I was ready to sing like Julie Andrews !

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Aboard the overnight 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: Sleeper Train from Hanoi to Sapa

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 to Sapa 

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.

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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.

Anyways, this was it– I was off to Sapa and going by sleeper train!

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Sleep was good, despite the violent rocking and intermittent screeching of wheels against the tracks…

But at 5:55am, wham! I woke up from my deep sleep hearing a sudden screechI had just enough time to stick a toothbrush in my mouth, while cramming my silk liner hurriedly into my day pack.

The train lurched to a halt at Lao Cai Station.  6AM.

Being separated from my trekking group was the last thing I wanted! My Swiss roommates were further behind schedule than me, though. No one was prepared for a quick evacuation.


“Forgotten” is the biggest fear of a solo traveler

Filing off the train in a backpacker’s fog, I searched the sea of backpackers for “familiar” faces.  Nothing. No one held a sign with my name or the name of our trekking group .

I made my way to the entrance gate of the station and looked out at the sea of cars and waiting taxi drivers. People started to leave. I was the only traveler in my group who was solo— who would remember to look for me?


|  A Korean family… 2 strapping young Australian lads … an older gangly Frenchman accompanied by a quiet elderly Vietnamese friend... |

These were the last faces I remembered from Hanoi.  My memory scanned the crowd of strangers for recognition.

Okay, maybe I didn’t remember those faces afterall.

In Korea, Caucasians are easy to spot. Here in Lao Cai, between a flood of  Caucasian tourist backpackers and tan-skinned Vietnamese, I decided the Koreans would be the ones to look for!   This was my genius logic at its best…

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20 minutes later…  Was I forgotten?  Abandoned?!  The crowd was thinning and it was clear there were no trekking tour gatherings.Within ten minutes of arrival into the train station, my group had disappeared without a trace!  Worse, I wasn’t given a hotel address or itinerary.

I was about to hire a taxi to God-Knows-Where-Sapa , when out popped the Korean father from the trekking tour. He came back to look for me!  God Bless Koreans!  I  boarded the mini-van bus and buckled in for the drive to Sapa.

We arrived at the Emotion Hotel, the hub of most trekking outfits and thus, trekking central.

My trek wouldn’t start until 9A . My itinerary for today was to trek Cat Cat Village and return to Sapa for a free day of sightseeing.

Though we arrived as a group, each of our trekking packages were different. The receptionist told us we’d be mixing groups, throughout seeing as groups ordered different activities in their package.

The Korean family’s 13-year old boy invited me to have breakfast with his family. My first inclination was to decline, until I saw the breakfast they were preparing-  Choco pies, a slice of apple and some water. Many Koreans have kind and generous hearts and will share what they have with others. I couldn’t refuse.  I pulled up a chair , attempting bits of mangled Korean.

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Check out these Sapa tour options I’ve curated:

Muong Hoa Valley 2-Day Group Trek with Homestay $38

Enjoy Muong Hoa Valley and stay with a Giay minority family, go for nature walks and forest treks in Hoang Lien National Park. Best seller for its price and diversity of activities


Sapa Waterfalls, Trekking and Tribal Villages Tour (Half Day Tour)$60

Sapa Town to visit the Silver Waterfall, Love Waterfall and Tram Ton Pass. Explore the area before leaving for the traditional village of Ban Khoan. The trek, about 4 hours and 15 kilometers (9.3 miles), takes you along mountain trails and through remote tribal villages.


2-day Sapa town stay, Cat Cat village and hike to Fansipan peak

Ideal for the traveler who is not into trekking but still wants to explore the wealth and hill tribe influence of Sapa.


2-Day Sapa Trek, Homestay, Sleeper Bus

Best for cultural and active travelers. From Hanoi, this tour takes you to La Cai where you will trek along the Muong Hoa Stream and see H’mong, Dzao and Tay ethnic people. Stay at Tavan village with Dzay people in a basic home and trek through rice paddies, bamboo forest to Giang Ta Chai village. Return to Hanoi. 9km hike


To/From Hanoi: 2-Day Spectacular Sapa Town, Trekking and Bus Tour

A bit of rugged for urban travelers.  Pickup/drop off Hanoi. Visit Sapa town and stay overnight where you can explore food and sights on your own. Treks: Cat Cat Village and Y Linh Ho. 9km hike overall.


3-Day Trek Mu Cang Chai Tour 

Perfect for adventure travelers looking to extend their trek of this epic, active and panoramic region.


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  • Hi,
    I’m going to Vietnam next month (flying into Hanoi) and I’d like to use Sinh Tourist to book a trip to Halong Bay and one to Sapa. Do you have contact details for them please? I can’t find them in the Lonely Planet and I don’t want to contact one of the imposter companies that you mention!

    • Christine Kaaloa
      July 22, 2016 1:39 pm

      The only contact and details I have are the links in the post about the imposter companies. That was my last update.

  • I’m planning to go to Sa Pa from Hanoi as well, although I’m not sure whether I’m going to take the night bus or the sleeper train. The sleeper train seems fantastic, as I’m planning to depart from Hanoi at night, is there any late train from Hanoi to Sa Pa and vice versa? Would really appreciate it if you can give me any suggestion.

    Thank you! 😀

    • Christine Kaaloa
      November 27, 2015 7:49 am

      @Marya: I took a night train to SaPa and I think one returning too. Can’t remember the times as I booked it through a tour to Sapa. I’m sure your hotel or gh can help with time schedules and tickets.

  • it’s also much easier to “make friends” since chances are, you won’t be seeing ’em ever again, no matter how fast they add you to facebook.

    Question: the train to Sapa, that’s not pix of the Livitrans sections, is it?

    • @SinoSoul: Interesting take on the making friends part. I guess sometimes when traveling we don’t do that whole selective process thing. Our filters are a bit lower and we’re more open to meet new people because we’re already in a foreign country. Our guard is down.

      Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that– about the Livitrans section. I was just given a ticket and there was no mention or writing on the ticket about the section. I guess if you purchase your train ticket, you’d need to know those details. Sorry.

  • OMG. I totally agree with everything you’ve just written. Traveling free’s you to just “be”. Brilliant! No pretense, everyone is just sort of wandering around looking for something new to experience. You take what you like and leave the rest. That’s why it’s called a vacation.You are entitled to that luxury.

    • @Chance: Yeah, I like how you put it “entitled to that luxury” of simply Being. It’s unfortunate we can’t sometimes, feel entitled to that when we’re home. Often there’s so much baggage that gets in the way– lifestyle differences, tastes, career goals & labels, financial statuses, etc… When you’re traveling, you’re really just a traveler. All that other stuff enters but peripherally.

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