I loved my time in Sapa. How could I not? I trekked through some of the most gorgeous sights my eyes have ever seen, roamed through the quiet town of Cat Cat Village and even went on a day trip to the Bac Ha Market.
But it was time to go. Still wanting to stay in the north, I followed the advice of a friend from Ho Chi Minh City and decided to hoof it to Ha Giang, Sapa’s lesser known but equally breathtaking cousin. Beautifully unkempt and largely untouched by the mass tourism that has overtaken Sapa, the Ha Giang province is all sweeping views, astonishing fields and dominating mountains.
All I had to do was take a one hour bus to Lao Cai and then another five hour bus to Ha Giang. Simple, right? Oh dear reader, you clearly have never been to Asia. Below is an account of my adventure from Sapa to Ha Giang— vomit bags, sweet potatoes, Vietnamese cartoons and all.
“So how do I get to Ha Giang?” I ask my uber helpful friend at the reception desk of my hotel in Sapa.
“06:30 bus from Lao Cai.” she replies.
“Oh,” I say, “That’s early.”
“Yes,” she agrees.
“Is there a bus to Lao Cai in the morning?” I inquire optimistically, already sure of the answer.
“No bus. Taxi.”
Not wanting to even know the fee associated with such luxury travel, I try a different tactic, “Is there a bus in the afternoon? I will spend the night in Lao Cai and go to Ha Giang in the morning.”
“One night in Lao Cai— good idea. You can take local bus at the church. Cheaper.”
Ah, if it wasn’t a variation of one of my favorite words. It was settled. I would catch the local bus that leaves every half hour down to Lao Cai, stay over and arrange for a taxi to the bus station the following morning.
I collected my backpack and set off in the direction of the church. My directions were quite clear, “big red bus.” Finding a vehicle that somewhat fit this description, I dubiously asked a loitering man if it went to Lao Cai. He answered by pointing to the ostentatious sign that was taped to the inside panel right behind me. It read, “Lao Cai – Sapa 28,000.” Well, that answered both my initial and my second question. By choosing the local bus instead of the minibus, I was saving 22,000 dong! The net is barely $1 USD, but I was ecstatic nonetheless.
Knowing Vietnam’s proclivity for packing busses beyond capacity, I took a seat near the back next to a woman watching Vietnamese cartoons. A few more people filed in and chose adjacent rows in front of me.
Then, true to form, makeshift bags and boxes were tossed in and lined up along the aisle. As the bus began its descent, the loiterer jumped aboard and assumed his position at the door. His job was to spend most of the one hour trip leaning against the entrance/exit, hanging out of the bus to pick up passengers, collecting fares and chatting with the driver. He also slung the transport goods out at their designated stops.
About ten minutes into our journey, a woman joined us carrying a large bag of roasted soy beans. The sack made its way around the bus at first skipping me, but then coming back when my neighbor noticed my interest in the treat. We all snacked as the bus continued its bumpy ride down the mountain. At some point the conversation amongst the other passengers must have turned to me because they all stopped talking and each handed over their remaining beans in fistfuls to my outstretched hands. Good thing I liked them because my supplied had just quintupled.
The rest of the ride passed with little excitement and before I knew it, it was time to hop off.
First leg down.
The following morning I hurried down to the reception desk at 5:55am to collect my passport and confirm payment had been received for the room (I booked through a third party.) I had triple checked with the agent the night prior that someone would be awake to check me out and call a cab to bring me to the station for my bus at 6:30.
Despite the precautions taken and assurances provided, I was not at all surprised to find the desk empty when I exited the elevator. I looked around the corner and found a young man asleep on a cot. I called out to him, repeatedly, before finally going up and nudging him awake. He slowly threw his legs over the side of the bed, rubbed his eyes in confusion, trudged over to the desk and phoned a mystery person to help me.
The minutes ticked by and when the second hand hit 6:10, I lost all patience. I didn’t have time for this. Still not certain if my bill was settled, my only concern became retrieving my passport. After all, the hotel could always contact the third party and demand payment. I did my due diligence, the rest was up to them. I scrambled to produce a picture of an American passport on my phone and mimed my need for a cab. The first message was received and I was handed my passport, but the second fell on deaf ears. One thing at a time, I reminded myself.
Just at that moment, I spotted a taxi slowly making its way down the road. I abandoned my efforts of communication, threw on my pack and ran out of the hotel.
Retching the cab door open and throwing myself inside, the driver jumped at my abruptness. I gave him a second to collect himself and then provided him with my destination, or rather, a few words that I hoped made sense to him. They didn’t. 6:12.
We drove across the bridge and came to perfunctory stop in front of the train station. I looked out the window— no bus terminal. Realizing any attempt to ascertain the exact location of said bus station would be futile, I paid the driver and hopped out of the taxi with no idea which direction to head in next.
I tore down the street, barking “Ha Giang” at any person within shouting distance. Less than a block into this spectacle, someone miraculously caught on and pointed me in the correct direction. I thanked him and sprinted off. One more confirmation later and I had arrived.
I gazed up at a black board that amongst other locations and times clearly stated “Ha Giang 6:30 hr.” It was a tour shop on the corner three blocks from the train station. 6:22.
Second leg down.
I waited happily outside on a plastic stool as the owner made a few calls for my retrieval. As he did this, I absentmindedly wondered where the bus station was if it not within walking distance. Then I realized I didn’t care so long as I found myself on it en route to Ha Giang.
6:44. Three guys jogged up to my place on the corner and chatted briefly with the owner. The gist of the conversation indicated they also would be joining me on the trip from Lao Cai to Ha Giang. Well at least I wasn’t the only one.
Minutes before the bus materialized, the owner emerged from his shop with a boiled sweat potato and offered it to me. I graciously accepted the gift and thanked him for providing me the only meal I would have until well after one that afternoon.
Just as I was beginning to nibble on my breakfast, the bus rounded the corner and came to a stop across from our location. 6:47. The three men ambled off its direction and I hastily grabbed my belongings to follow suit. The owner’s teenage daughter assured me the bus would wait and that I didn’t need to rush, but her trust proved to be misplaced. Before the last words fell off her lips, the busses’ motor purred and it began to drive off.
I raced across the street and positioned myself directly in the busses’ path. It would either have to hit me or stop. Cries emanated from inside and the bus halted a foot from where I was standing. I rounded the side and prepared to step aboard, but just as I was extending my leg, the bus picked up speed again. I flung myself onto the first step and grabbed for the hand rails.
The door operator steadied me and gestured to an open seat a few rows back. I stumbled over each of the tarp-covered storage bags lining the aisle, threw my bag onto the bench and fell into my seat. Surely the rest of the journey couldn’t be this action packed.
It wasn’t. It was, however, very bumpy.
Not wanting to join the casualties of motion sickness, I had taken two dramamine that morning. The rest of the passengers? Not so much. Like a wave, each succumbed to nausea and ultimately, vomiting. I watched as the person next to me emptied the contents of her stomach into a little plastic bag on and off for two hours. Even with windows open and a breeze circulating, the putrid smell filled the air and affixed itself to my olfactory receptors. I could smell nothing else.
The good news? The bus had wifi! A pretty strong connection too. I didn’t take full advantage due to the aforementioned dosage of Dramamine, but this plus is still worth noting.
Including the two breaks we took along the way, this segment of the trip lasted six hours in total and cost me 120,000 dong. Would I do it again? Definitely. I’d just bring a nose pin next time.