10. Travelling into the unknown – From Laos to Vietnam

02/12 – 03/12

After a wonderful stay in Luang Prabang it was finally time to leave and head into new territory – my first visit to Vietnam.

My initial plan was travelling north to Nong Khiaw and then Muang Khuau to cross the northern border to Vietnam by bus to get to my first destination – Sapa. Due to my extended stay in LP I was not able to do this. Instead I had to get to Sapa via Hanoi.

This has left me with two options:
1) Take a bus from Luang Prabang to Hanoi. Cost: $50. Duration: 24+ hours. I also heard that there are no toilets on the bus, and that there are 3 scheduled stops. That didn’t sound too appealing to me
2) Fly from LP to Hanoi. There are direct flights operated by Lao Airlines and Vietnames Airline. Vietnam Airlines had an offer for $50 – unfortunately only for the Friday, but I wanted to leave Tuesday. Lao Airline flights were all around $150 plus some fees.

For both options I would jave to take the train from Hanoi to Lao Cai to get to Sapa.

In the end I chose convenience over low costs – the flight it was. I usually book flights online, but this time I wanted to check with a travel agent. I went to Naga Express Travel on Sisavangvong Road (the main road for the night market). They checked flights, and quoted me a total $139. This included all fees, and as it was cheaper than online, so I booked with them (and prayed that everything will go well). They charge a 3% fee if you pay by card though like most agencies in SEA. The staff at that travel agent was very friendly, and very helpful, and would recommend them for any trips or bookings.

The airport is a bit outside of LP, but not too much. I think it took around 30 minutes, and I paid 50,000 Kip (arranged by my guesthouse – but it seems to be the normal price as others have paid the same). The airport itself is not very big. Check-in was fast (though I realised once again that Asian people either don’t like the concept of queuing, or just ignore it, as they just walk past me in front of the queue – should have put my towel down first). You then go through passport control, where you get your departure stamp (if you leave the country obviously).

The departure hall consist of two floors, consisting of benches, a few souvenir shops, and one café that was open. The prices there are a bit crazy (like every other airport I guess). I paid for a tiny sandwich 20,000 Kip. I regretted that I haven’t bought any baguettes at the market before I left LP.
Also, as my departure day was a public holiday, the money exchange place in the airport was closed, so I had to exchange my remaining Kips (which was left after paying the overpriced drinks and food) at the café for a bad exchange rate (10,000 Kip = $1). Keep some money for Tuk Tuk and maybe a drink at the airport, but exchange everything else in LP.

Unlike the plane to Bangkok, which was announced to have a 3 hour delay (to the delight of a guy I met at the Icon Klub a few days ago), my flight was on time. The plane looked new with a 2 + 2 seating arrangement, and it was only half full. So lucky me got a window seat with no neighbour. Flight was eventless, got a drink and a snack, and we arrived in Hanoi in the dark around 18:30 – as scheduled. Overall Lao Airlines looked like a good airline to use.


A bus brought us from the plane to the arrival hall of Hanoi Airport. And here I realised that I was happy that I got my Visa already. If you arrive by plane you can get a VOA via a travel agent. I didn’t fancy the queue for that. Saying that, the passport control queue didn’t look any better. As usual though, you can kill time by watching people. And it was a bit entertaining. Whenever a new counter was opened, people moved from all other queues to the newly formed queue, sometimes though officials pointed out it is not open, and everyone had to move to their old queue – it looked a bit like a strange dance movement. Knowing my luck anyway, I stayed with my queue – wouldn’t make any difference anyway. And as expected my queue didn’t move – there must be a problem with the passport of one person, as the official at that counter had to leave with the passport 2 or 3 times. As usual I had to watch how every other queue got shorter but mine. After around 30 minutes I finally passed immigration with my new stamp in my passport, and got my bag straight away.

Now the next challenge was waiting – getting into Hanoi city centre. I was advised trying to pre-book a taxi, and I tried it. But I never got a response, and looking around the signs with various names, mine wasn’t one of them. Nevermind.
That gave me time for 2 things. Firstly getting to an ATM for some money. Thankfully, there are quite a few in the arrival hall. I found a HSBC one (yay – no fees) and withdrew some money. I only realised that I used the Kip exchange rate in my head, and only withdrew 3,200,000 Dong (21,000 Dong = $1). Well, HSBC allows withdrawal of 5,600,000 per transaction. I clearly needed to get the new exchange rate in my head sooner than later.

Next step was buying a Sim card. Making calls with your home sim card is rather expensive. So I went to the Mobiphone counter and asked for the option. They had an offer for 1 month unlimited Internet (it lasted over 1 1/2 months in the end), 40 minutes international calls and 50 minutes local calls – all for 500,000 Dong (so around $25 or £16). Not sure what the other deals were, but I was happy with it. Having constant internet access is rather a good thing while travelling in Vietnam, and having free minutes to call hotels or guides, or call home, is very helpful as well. I had to made quite a few calls to Europe, so I uploaded another 350,000 Dong for international calls during my 2 month stay.

Now being equipped with money and a Sim card I couldn’t avoid the inevitable – going outside to get a taxi. I heard absolute horror stories about taxis in Vietnam, how they rip tourists off, and how meters are not working properly. I was advised only to take My Linh or Vinasun taxis. I call myself well travelled, and never been scammed by taxi drivers. A few tried in Thailand, but it didn’t work. But still, I was a bit nervous. Feeling the sweat on my hands and face due to anxiety, wondering if the taxi drivers tackle you to get your fee – the first one getting you down wins – I finally opened the door and stepped out. Immediately I felt like a zebra in the wild, eyed by a pack of lions looking for their next innocent victim…

Two or three walked straight to me, offering me their service. Didn’t recognise the taxi names, so I choose the driver who looked the friendliest. Checked if he has a meter – yes he has. Ok, lets go (while I sent a few silent prayers towards the sky). ‘Where to?’ – ‘Train Station’ – ‘Address?’ – ‘Aehm, nae idea. Just to the train station’. Here waited the next problem for me. The driver couldn’t understand English. He wanted the card for the hotel. So a minute later I had his phone on my ear, and speaking to his brother. I told him that I need to get to the train station to get to Sapa. He advised the driver, who smiled and nodded to me. It seems he understood where to go now – he even managed go ask if he should drive me to Sapa. I declined politely.

During the ride I got a first glimpse of Hanoi – lots of motorbikes (was surprised that nearly everyone was actually wearing a helmet), lots of Neon lights, and it was raining. I also kept an eye on the meter. At the end it turned out I got one of the few honest taxi driver it seems. I paid in the end 400,000 Dong, which was only slightly higher than the pre-ordered taxi would have been charged.

I arrived at the train station about 20:00. The train I wanted to take to Sapa was leaving at 21:50. So I was hoping that the train wasn’t sold out. Went into the station and a woman on the counter was smiling at me and sent a local away from the counter (apparently tourists only – I wouldn’t have had a problem waiting). And the good news was, they still had tickets for the lower soft berth sleeper. The lower are a bit more comfortable, and less risky to fall out. The price was as expected – 595,000 Dong.

Now the proud owner of a ticket I decided it was time for my first Pho soup in Vietnam. Too lazy to walk too far away from the station with my luggage, I just went to a place opposite of the station. The food was actually good, but 60,000 was a bit much in my opinion. I learned two weeks later if you walk to the parallel street to the entrance you could find some much better places to have a quick dinner – and cheaper. Same goes for coffee…

While getting some drinks and food for the 9 hour train journey, I started to talk to a couple sitting next to the shop. It turned out they were Germans as well going to Sapa, and we were actually in the same cabin. Great co-incident.
From 21:15 you were able to get onto the train and make yourself comfortable. Bed was rather comfortable, bags can be stored under the seats, and there is some space for bags next to the upper berth as well – above the door.

Decided a bit later that I could actually need some more food for the journey. So quickly went back to the entrance area of the train station and was temped to buy a Bin Mhe (a Vietnamese Kepab), and was distracted by a stall at the gate selling corn of the cob. Ordered one, and asked for one of the little bread they had there as well. Here I learned my next lesson – ask for the price first, and never have your money out, as it was my first experience how some Vietnamese see foreign tourist – as a walking cash machine. I asked for the price, and instead of an answer of the woman who owns the stall an older guy selling drinks next to it came to me. I asked again, how much. He just pointed at my money, but no response. I asked for a third time, and instead of an answer he just took 200,000 Dong out of my hand, and gave it to the older lady. Well, $10 for one corn and one little bread was a bit much. Still bit surprised I opened my hand to ask for change, and both looked a bit confused at me. I asked for change in a slightly more direct way, and my hand remained open. After some hesitation she gave me back 120,000. That’s it. This was probably the most expensive corn I had in my life (and to make things worse, it didn’t even taste good). So here is an advise, avoid the two stalls next to the gate to the train station. Anyone scamming tourists (even though it was only for a small amount – it is the principle) should not be rewarded with business. This applies especially to the older guy sitting there selling drinks. Better to go to the shops inside the gated area of the train station who quoted normal prices. Also, don’t do the same mistake I did, and keep the money in your pocket until the price is quoted.

Slightly annoyed I returned to the train, and very soon we were on our way. After some chat the light was switched off, and I slept actually quite well in my soft berth, and woke up shortly before we arrived in in Lao Cai. Overall it was a pleasant way to travel.

And here I got my second experience of the reputation I heard about Vietnam in the past. Getting our staff together one local person came onto the train and asked if we need a lift to Sapa. We said we did, he nodded and went to the other cabins. Two minutes later he was back and just said ‘Hurry’. I was just thinking excuse me, you want my money and you want to rush me? Not a good start. Obviously not moving any faster (I might actually moved a bit slower) the three of us got out of the train, and the tout joined us, advising us that the minibus would cost 150,000 per person. After I laughed a bit I declined. He continued walking with us, before a group of other touts joined him – trying to sell us a seat in their bus. While we walked the price got lower and lower to 70,000 Dong per person. We didn’t agree to any offer, and stopped at the public bus that goes to Sapa (which is situated at the end of the square when turning left at the exit of the train station). There was a sign, clearly showing the price per person (28,000 per pax). Scarred of their business they told us with a smile that this is not per person, but per bag. Sorry, but how stupid do they think we are??? (that is a rhetorical question…)
I just talked to the other two when the guy from the train (who was on my bad side already), pulled my arm to bring me to his bus. Pulling or pushing me and interrupting a conversation I have is a big NO NO!!! Using my usual polite manner friends and colleagues know too well when I am not happy I just turned around and said quite loudly, and I must admit in a slightly aggressive way, to Fuck Off and to let my arm go. He looked surprised, let my arm go, and walked a few meter away. I know you should never raise your voice in SEA, never done it before during my trips, but then again I never have experienced this aggressive sell-technique before in SEA. He didn’t bother us again.
The three of us able to continue our conversation, decided that a minibus might be a better option as the next public bus was only leaving in 30 minute, and one of the touts who was a bit calmer than the others offered a seat for 40,000 Dong. That was more the price I heard about online before, and we took the seats.

The journey from Lao Cai to Sapa was only 45 minutes, and we were dropped off in the centre of Sapa. I was glad to be here at my first destination for my Vietnam adventure – after leaving LP around 18 hour earlier.
I must admit, I didn’t have a good first impression of Vietnam. I actually thought after a few hours in Sapa that I will probably hate my stay in Vietnam (that comes from a person who loves travelling and experience new places and travels with a very open mind). It was so different what I have experienced in Thailand, Laos or Cambodia. I fully understood after this first day why according to a research most people decide not to return to Vietnam after their first visit. In my case it took a few days to get my mind changed (not a love on first sight, more a love after a few looks and turns – something I would never tell a woman as it might be unhealthy), but not everyone does and decide that the hassle is normal in Vietnam, and not worthwhile to deal with it. And this is a big shame for this lovely country.

 

Recommendation:
Flying from LP to Hanoi is probably less adventurous than travelling by bus, but it is more comfortable, and saves lots of time. If you check flights with both Lao Airlines and Vietnam Airlines you might find some cheap tickets (sometimes maybe only $10 or $20 more than the bus).
Naga Express Travel was very friendly and efficient, and provided me a better price than what I saw online. So I can just recommend them
Travelling by train to Sapa is very comfortable. There are several public sleeper cars available, but they are more expensive than the normal soft berth. I found the soft berth comfortable, and it was clean (even the toilets). Personally, I wouldn’t spend more money for a cabin in a private car. I got a ticket the same evening, but there is always a risk that the train is sold out. So if you are in Hanoi a few days before the train leaves, it wouldn’t harm to get to the station to buy a ticket. If you buy from a hotel or agency you might pay a lot more (I met a couple who paid 50% of the price as a fee…).
Avoid the street stalls outside the train station. Not worth the hassle and the money.
Coffee and some snacks are sold in the train, but good to get water, a beer (or other drinks) and some snacks with you for the 9 hour journey before boarding the train – it is cheaper.
In Lao Cai be aware of the pushy and slightly aggressive touts. Minibus should only cost 40,000 or 50,000 Dong. Don’t pay more. Public buses leave every 60 minutes for 28,000 Dong
If you want to avoid the hassle, you could also get a taxi straight away. I was advised that will cost around 400,000 Dong. And if you see a younger man in a black jacket, looking for customers on the train, do yourself a favour and ignore him.

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