After five days in Hanoi, we hopped on a rather bleak overnight train to Sapa in northwestern Vietnam for a day of hiking through terraced rice paddies, past fields of wild animals, small villages and the local black Hmong and red Dao tribes before catching the sleeper back to the capital.
We booked a whole cabin on the train (rather than only two beds and sharing the berth with two strangers) and after staying in luxurious five star hotels like the Intercontinental Asiana Saigon and Angkor Village Resort, I have to admit a basic single bed with a shared bathroom was quite a bump back down to earth. Still, no regrets - we left Hanoi at 9pm, arrived in Sapa at 5am, met our guide and went into town for breakfast to fuel up for a full day's trekking through the national parks.
Sapa is the tourist centre of the northwest, located 1500m above sea level in the Lào Cai province close to the China border, surrounded by dramatic scenery: rice fields ploughed by water buffalo, verdant valleys dotted with cascading waterfalls, impressive mountains shrouded in mist - Vietnam's highest mountain Fan Si Pan is the last major peak of the Himalayas - and quiet countryside hill-top villages with their colourful inhabitants. The small population is made up by diverse ethnic minorities: Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho, each with its own distinctive dress. Our walking guide was a teeny tiny Hmong lady, wearing black clothing she embroidered with stitches and patterns to mark significant stages of life. Clothes made of memories - how nice is that? After six hours of walking, stopping for a traditional Vietnamese food at a little lunch place and losing count of the amount of pigs, chickens, cows and buffaloes we saw, we headed back to the station to catch the eight hour overnight train back to Hanoi. Next stop: Halong Bay.