From Hanoi to Sapa via Chapa Express - My first overnight train experience
Hey guys, here's a disclaimer - I was contemplating if I should change the title to "Hanoi to Lao Cai" because technically the train only brings you to Lao Cai. At Lao Cai train station, you would have to take a transfer (by bus/car/minivan) to Sapa. But since my end destination is Sapa, I decided to leave it at that :)
When Koon told me that we were going to take a 8-hr overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa, I was really excited but at the same time, I had a lot of questions in my mind. Is it clean? is it safe? Do we have to share our cabin with strangers? The answer to the last question is yes but thankfully, our cabin sharing experience was quite pleasant. I left the planning to Koon as he has been on the same itinerary before with his buddies. His first trip to Sapa (+ mountain climbing experience at Fan Si Pan) left him completely in awe and that was what made him decided to bring me there for our anniversary trip.
We made our transport arrangements with Sapa O'Chau and got our Soft Berth (4-bedded cabin) train tickets at USD 35 each. No deposit was required when we made our arrangements with them and payment was made at their office on the day we arrived. A quick check on this website shows the same ticket at USD 42 per pax (ding ding! we saved 14 bucks!). For people (like me, initially) who have concerns about cabin sharing, there's also the option of a VIP Berth (twin-bedded cabin) at USD 80 per pax.
We landed in Hanoi at 3.30 pm and made our way to Sapa O'Chau's office in Hanoi central to deposit our luggage. Getting to Hanoi central took us approximately an hour from the airport. Our train was scheduled to depart at 10 pm and we spent the few hours in between exploring the streets of Old Quarter and also made a trip to Giang Cafe for their famous egg coffee ;)
At Hanoi Train station (Ga Ha Noi)
Getting to Hanoi train station is easy (and cheap) via Grab.
Tip: Always wise to cater more time to get to your destination because the traffic in Hanoi can get quite bad.
Hanoi train station currently has 2 entrances and 10 tracks/platforms in service. It's easy to get lost in the compound because it's huge! We were given the directions by Sapa O'Chau to enter from Entrance B (also known as Trần Quý Cáp) and all we had to do, was to look for the service provider and exchange our e-voucher for the train tickets. Then, we're all set!
Here's how the 4-bedded cabin looks like from the outside. I must say, it was way above my expectations and very different from what I imagined it to be. The exterior of the train is literally the choo-choo train that we all seen from movies or television in the 1960s or earlier and never would I have thought that the interior would be done up so nicely. I didn't snap a picture from the inside out of courtesy as our cabin mates were already there.
random: it was interesting how the conversation between our cabin mates (a couple) and us started . The guy who is a Taiwanese, was shocked to hear Koon and I conversing in Mandarin and so he asked if we were Taiwanese too and after we told him we are Singaporeans, he was quite shocked to learn that we can actually speak Mandarin. Hahaha. Just in case you're a foreigner reading this, yes, most Singaporeans are bilingual in English and our mother tongue (mandarin/malay/tamil etc).
The guys, being the gentlemen, took the upper deck and poor Koon told me the next morning he couldn't sleep at all 'cus he feared that he would fall from the bed. The width of the bed is probably 2/3 the size of our usual single bed, so you can imagine how tiny it is for guys especially. Me, on the other hand, managed to catch a few good hours of sleep 'cus I was really tired from the full day of traveling. I don't know how to explain this, but the ride was strangely therapeutic and it feels as though I was sleeping in a baby spring cot. Plus, it was raining cats & dogs so you can imagine how cozy it was.
Provided in the cabin: Bottled Water, Toothbrush & Toothpaste set, Wet Towels and Peanuts
In case you're wondering, what if nature calls? Fear not, for washrooms are available and IMO, they are rather well maintained. I woke up in the middle of the night and made my way to it in a half-awake-half-asleep mode and I felt like I was in an s-curve obstacle because the train was literally moving in a twisting motion! Quite exciting actually... now back to the washrooms, it was genuinely ok in terms of cleanliness (thank god for the kind travellers on board). There is also a co-shared open area with basins and mirrors for you to do some basic washing-up.
In case you're wondering if there are any other modes of transport to get to Sapa, yes, you can book a car or minivan which will probably take you 4 hrs or so. But even the locals advised us not to, due to the high accident rates on the Hanoi-Sapa route for the rides are usually operated overnight.
Here we are at 6 am the next morning, at Lao Cai station (Ga Lao Cai).
From Lao Cai station, we took a transfer (via a minivan arranged by Sapa O'Chau) to Sapa and the ride took us 1 hr. Now, it may seem like a grueling experience to some - 8 hrs on train + 1 hr transfer - but ask if I would take this overnight train again, I would say yes and definitely recommend this to anyone planning to. Out of my mind? Nope but maybe Sapa town really did blow my mind away. Lol, pun intended. Stay tuned for my next post on our stay at Topas Ecolodge, Sapa! :)