The lure of traveling on a train was strong for me, and I’m pretty sure it’s from watching too many movies.
So I was all too happy to learn that the best way to get from Hanoi up to the famous misty mountains of Sapa in Northern Vietnam was to take an 8 hour train. Adding to the mystique is that the train left at 10p. So it was a night train.
(Quick cut to Spotify to find some Gladys Night & The Pips famous song Midnight Train to Georgia) Turns out the train to Georgia isn’t anything at all like the night train to Sapa.
My imagination went bonkers of course. I was thinking I wouldn’t be able to sleep the whole way there with all the intrigue bound to happen around our sleeping compartment – the dining car, the drinking car, the smoking lounge and all the spies.
All the beautiful tuxedoed people adjusting cuffs and applying lipstick after carefully sipping their martinis in opulent rooms. Groups of people playing cards and smoking cigars with fights erupting over a bad deal or politics. You name it.
But in reality, the only truly exciting part (besides being closer to China than we had ever been) was that we would be paired with two strangers that would sleep next to us in the pair of bunks opposite. Where would they be from? What brought them to Hanoi? Would they have whisky? Would they be like Crazy Eyes in Orange is the New Black? Would they try to shiv us in our sleep?
Our companions were none of those things. They were, however, an interesting German couple taking the night train to Sapa to hike around and had no plan but to get there, find a map and proceed on their own.
We tried to explain to them where Minnesota is located in context of the other parts of the United States they’ve visited. They claimed to have traveled to Minneapolis for work, but it turns out it was Indianapolis. An honest mistake I told them when they apologized. They had also traveled to a wedding in Oklahoma, but beyond that, the middle of the United States remains a big blank block of farmland.
We all laughed when she tried to get a picture of her husband and photo art directed not his smile or hair but suggested he bring his beer closer to his face, otherwise people might not recognize him.
Then we pulled the curtains and turned out the lights.
I was right about one thing. I wouldn’t sleep. But it wasn’t from a brawl or espionage. It was from the constant grating and clacking of the train wheels paired with the lurching and bumping that nearly threw me out of the top bunk! Many restless hours later, I fell into a fitful sleep.
You would think that a train full of passengers would awaken (if they were even asleep) by the halting of the train. This is not the case in Vietnam. Instead they blast some kind of propaganda announcement complete with music directly into every one of your pores.
There is absolutely no way that you can mistake the message. Get the hell out of bed and off the train. But if you want, you can have a crappy cup of coffee first.
You have arrived. You are now in Sapa.
If you are planning to take the night train to Sapa (and you totally should do this) there are some things you should know.
Let’s call this your Night Train to Sapa Travel Kit!
· The night train leaves on time. I’m not sure if this is all the time, but we were thinking it would be late like other trains in SE Asia. We left at 10p on the dot.
· You are likely to be in a cabin with strangers, so bring beer or whisky or buy it from the carts that roam the platform before you depart. This will help ease tensions and helps make friends.
· If you are hungry, the options are few. Luckily these same entrepreneurs with the drinks generally have food. Nothing spectacular, but it would sustain you till morning.
· If you are a light sleeper, bring earplugs to block the metallic grinding and potential snoring of neighbors. Bring an eye mask to block out the lights from passing towns or from neighbors who like to read late into the night.
· Snag some hand wipes when you are eating around Hanoi. They are a great addition to your night train to Sapa travel kit. It’s nice to wake up in the morning and have a little cat bath in your train compartment.
· Above all, bring a positive attitude. Our experience was great, but the train could have been late and our bunk mates could have been loud or rude. Your positive outlook is a shield.
Our ride back was much less eventful. We took the night train again, but I took a melatonin and sacked out. Our travel companions were a mother and daughter from Japan, and they spoke very little English, and since I speak no Japanese, we didn’t have much to say to one another.
I was very interested in the amount of lotion and potions they used on their skin, which as a result made the tiny cabin smell fresh.
For the most part I was transfixed by the view from the window of Hanoi approaching in the dawn, filled with street lights and smog even at that early hour.