Freezing in Sapa!
After leaving the comfort of the Silversea boat in Halong Bay, we jumped into the coach taking us back to the O'Gallery Hotel in Hanoi. At the time of our trip this took around three and a half hours, but that time has now been dramatically reduced due to the completion of a new motorway linking Halong to Hanoi. On arriving at the O'Gallery we were told they were giving us a courtesy room to allow us to shower or have a nap for the four/five hours we were there, and that the luggage we had left with them was already in the room. When we left to catch the over-night train to Sapa we should leave unwanted luggage in the room and they would take care of it until we returned in three days time, again totally unexpected and a measure of the standards of customer care they offer.
The driver came to collect us to take us to the train station and as usual was on-time, then Ngat from Travel Agent Hanoi met us at the station to give us our tickets and to make sure everything went smoothly. Hanoi railway station was a little bit of a confusing place and just to confuse things further there are a number of trains travelling the route of Hanoi to Sapa every night, we were on the Chapa Express. With Ngat guiding us there was little for us to do but wait a short while before we were allowed to board. The first class cabin had four bunks two lower and two upper, although there are other trains that would have six birth cabins with the addition of a middle bunk. The cabin was a little dated but everything was clean and each carriage had its own guard, we had stocked up on a few essential supplies and drank them before attempting to sleep. Being 5'8" I had no problem getting a good nights sleep, my friend however who I believe is 6'2" found it difficult.
Early the following morning and still in darkness the train started to come to life as it neared Sapa. Coffee and basic breakfast was offered for a small fee and this was eaten as we approached Lao Cai. Arriving at Lao Cai we were met by our driver who would take us on to Sapa. We had been warned that Sapa would be very cold at this time of year (late November) but it felt quite warm to us having come from the UK, on the days of our trekking the sun was out and it was actually like a nice summers day in England. After around one hours driving we arrived at the Sapa Panorama Hotel and had breakfast, while eating breakfast our guide came round and introduced himself and arranged to meet us downstairs a little later. We had a little time to burn so went for a quick walk outside of the hotel and started to price up the fake, but very good quality, North Face jackets and clothing that was for sale.
We then went to meet up with our guide and other people who would be joining our group for a days trek, the plan was that we would then be spending the night at a homestay and then trekking again the following day before returning to Sapa Panorama to meet our luxury minibus to head back to Hanoi. We walked through Sapa to get to the trails and the place looked beautiful, we half wished we had chosen to spend time in Sapa but the trekking was what we had come for, so off we went. We spent the next six hours climbing up and down hills, jumping over streams and clinging like mountain goats to steep rocky outcrops. All this while being accompanied by at least three middle aged local women carrying baskets of I dont know what, who totally embarrassed us by walking up and down like they were on level ground. This was not the easy stroll through the countryside we had expected but the scenery was stunning and we later learned that easier routes are available, it appears there was some confusion over this. November is also not the best time to visit Sapa if you want the scenery to be at its best as harvest time is over.
In the middle of the trek we stopped for a delicious lunch at the place we would be staying that night, our luggage had already been transported there and we were given time to freshen up before lunch. After lunch we then went on a much easier trek along some dirt tracks and through some small villages before being picked up in a van and returned to the homestay. The homestay was stunning and brand new, we were originally staying in a nearby property but Simon and Ngat recommended a very small upgrade pricewise to switch to Chapa Ecolodge, as with most things on this trip it was stunning. Six bungalows all with views to die for, made this resort special. During that evening we decided that rather than doing more trekking, if returning to Sapa for the day was possible that is what we would do.
The resort staff got in touch with the trekking company and arranged the change of plan and the following morning after breakfast we were driven into Sapa and spent a very pleasant day walking around the lake, drinking in coffee shops, and generally playing at being tourists. Cancelling the days trekking was not something we would have ever thought about had we not had a quick glimpse of Sapa, but it turned out to be a good decision and we had a fantastic day before going back to the Sapa Panorama to get our minibus to Hanoi. As with everything on the entire trip, the minibus arrived on time and we were soon on our way back to the O'Gallery which would take around five hours (it took eleven to get here by train and minivan).
So it's back to the O'Gallery and a final weekend in Hanoi before leaving for Thailand. Will everything finish as smoothly as it has gone so far? Coming soon.