Published On: Mon, Oct 15th, 2018

The Great (Train) Journey – part 7

Dark clouds over our Ha Long Bay cruise - HH 20180926

By Hilbert Haar

Super typhoon Magnkhut has missed Hanoi and barreled into southern China, so Myriam and I feel confident traveling back up north with the intention to visit the mountainous region of Sapa. Big mistake; more about that later.

First, I’ll take a little step forward to the Sunday night when we arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. This is the ninth country we visit on our trip that began on June 26 when we left St. Maarten for Europe. Since then, we have been in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Poland, Russian, Mongolia, South Korea, Vietnam and Laos.

Some travel trivia. Up to Vientiane, we have covered 15,710 kilometers by plane, train and bus. We have handled seven different currencies: from the euros in Europe, to zloty’s in Poland, roubles in Russia, tughrik in Mongolia, won in South Korea, dong in Vietnam and kip in Laos. Every time we arrive in another country, we have to wrap our minds around the value of these currencies in an attempt to understand local prices.

To give an idea: one dollar equals around 8,500 kip, 23,270 dong, 1,112 won, 2,545 tughrik and 65.62 roubles.

Before we got to Laos, we traveled by train  and bus from beautiful Hoi An Ha Long for a two-day boat cruise; that was another disappointment, as the two-day cruise lasted just 24 hours and it was raining cats and dogs all the way. We declined to go kayaking in a downpour accompanies by a thunderstorm and even the tai chi session the next morning was cancelled because of the bad weather.

On to the Sapa region. As I stated before – big mistake. The region may be beautiful and offer stunning views, but you don’t experience anything of it when the weather offers fog and rain.

So we were quite miserable in this non-Caribbean weather conditions and we quickly decided to get out of there as soon as possible. We still had an interesting Saturday night in the quaint little mountain village with an excellent dinner at Little Sapa (highly recommended, if you ever get there) and encounters with members of some of the mountain tribes like the Red Dzao and the Back Hmong; the women make wonderful and colorful needle work. They sit on the side of the roads in the center for hours, doing their stuff even after dark with the help of a miner’s lamp on their heads.

The only disturbing sight is that of very young tribal children; most of them carry a little brother or sister wrapped in a cloth on their back, while they peddle colorful trinkets to tourists. “You shopping? You buy from me?” That’s their standard line.

Their little voices cut through your soul. As much as we wanted to, we do not need any extra luggage, so the kids got no business from us.

In the evening we encounter a colorful procession of brightly lit floats that assemble in the huge amphitheater in the center of town. I have not been able to link this event to any known Vietnamese festival; some participants touted Fansipan, with 3,143 meters the highest mountain peak in the Sapa region, while others prominently carried the Vietnamese flag and pictures of Ho Chi Minh.

Tribal girl peddling trinkets - HH 20180929

We travel back to Hanoi the next morning to catch our flight to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

Especially during our travels by bus I have often wondered why there are not more traffic accidents in Vietnam. On multi-lane roads, slower traffic does not automatically stay in the right-hand lane, as is the habit in Europe. No problem: buses swerve around slow traffic anyway they can, at times squeezing the countless scooter riders to the very edge of the road; overtaking on the right-hand side is common practice.

Colorful festival in Sapa Town - HH 20180929

That we haven’t seen any accident does not mean that traffic in Vietnam is safe. The latest data I could find rank the country among the most dangerous places on earth with a death ration of 24.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. For St. Maarten to match that number – based on an assumed 40,000 inhabitants – there would have to be 9.8 traffic casualties per year. As far as I know, the risk of getting shot in St. Maarten is higher than the risk of dying in a traffic accident.

Traveling as we do requires planning, as Myriam does not stop to remind me. So while I am writing this piece, she is researching the way to get to Luang Prabang, located in the center of Laos. A couple more days and we’ll be on the road again – but St. Maarten is never far from my mind.

Our first beers in Vientiane - Laos - HH 20180930

You may wonder why the word train is suddenly between brackets in the heading of this article; after all, our intention was to travel as much as possible by train. But circumstances have forced us to do otherwise at times and take a bus or a plane. So far we have resisted the urge to buy a scooter and use this as a means of transportation throughout Asia, and we are still waiting for our first serious boat ride as a way to get from point A to B.

Top photo caption: Dark clouds over our Ha Long Bay cruise; it was raining and thundering most of the time. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: A tribal woman carries her baby on her back in Sapa Town. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: Myriam debates with tribal women who attempt to make a sale; no cigar. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: A tribal girl enters a restaurant peddling colorful trinkets. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: Impression of the colorful street festival in Sapa Town. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: Our first beers in Vientiane, Laos against the backdrop of a colorful lit fountain. Photo Hilbert Haar.