When we were planning our trip around northern Vietnam, Sapa was definitely on our list and the best way (some would say the only way) to get there, we read, was by train from Hanoi. I read varying reports of the journey, some good and some not so good, but the consensus seemed to be that it was best to take the night train on the outward journey and the day train on the way back. This is what we decided to do.
You should be able to buy tickets in advance online, but this facility was withdrawn a few months ago so we had no choice but to wait until we reached Hanoi to book our onward train travel. We did this on our first day in the city, meaning that we were trying to buy tickets for a week hence. We assumed that this would be no problem, but we were mistaken. Tickets on the night train for our chosen date were all sold out, apart from a few that were in the hands of travel agents who wanted to sell them at more than their face value. In the end, we had little choice. The alternative was to go on the day train and pay for an extra night's accommodation, either in Hanoi or Sapa. So, we paid an inflated price for two bunks in a four-bunk 'tourist carriage' and wondered about who our travelling companions might be.
On the day of travel, we were at Hanoi's rather grim-looking station early for our 9.10pm departure and had to wait on the platform until someone came along to unlock the carriage doors. We found our cabin quickly enough and were the first passengers there. First impressions were good, with fresh flowers and bottled water on the table, but closer inspection revealed extremely thin mattresses on the bunks, grubby looking blankets and curtains that came away in my hand when I tried to close them! Our vain hope that the other two bunks might remain empty, was quashed when we were joined firstly by a lady and her crying toddler grandson and then by a middle-aged Vietnamese gentleman. Signs were that we wouldn't be getting much sleep, and so it proved!! Numerous trips to the bathroom by one or other of our fellow travellers, as well as the man's regular and noisy expulsion of mucus from his nose onto the floor, made for a restless night!!
I think we both finally nodded off in the early hours only to be rudely awoken, seemingly just minutes later, by a screeching railway employee informing us that we had arrived in Lao Cai and almost pushing us from the train! We emerged from the train into the still pitch dark and decidedly chilly morning and were herded, bleary-eyed along the platform and out into the car park where we were met by hoards of taxi and minibus drivers vying for our attention. It's about an hour's drive from Lao Cai to Sapa, which is the final destination of the vast majority of travellers alighting from the night train. We had pre-booked the transfer through our hotel so just had to find the one driver amongst the hundreds with our name written on his piece of card! Having done this, the drive to Sapa was uneventful, but not the scenic trip we had envisaged as it was dark when we set off and, as dawn broke, the whole area was shrouded in thick fog!
A few days later, we did the journey in reverse, setting off from our hotel in the early morning. This time, we were able to see a little more of the scenery and were impressed by the dramatic looking mountains and cascading waterfalls. Any hopes of enjoying lovely scenery from the windows of the day train, though, were soon dashed when we saw it. We arrived at Lao Cai station just as they were opening the doors on to the platform to allow the amassed throngs to surge through and take their seats on the train. We had allocated seats, so held back until the majority of the crowds had dispersed. Before getting close to the train, we could see that it had bars on all the windows as well as close-weave mesh thus obstructing the view and preventing any opportunity to take pictures.
Once on the train, we quickly found our seats and were disappointed, though not surprised, to see what a poor condition they were in. The whole carriage was dirty and the seats were draped in ill-fitting, torn, filthy covers. They were also in an almost prone position and the mechanism to change this had broken off. We were in for a long, uncomfortable day - and so it proved! The situation was not eased by the constant bombardment of very loud 'musak' being broadcast through the carriages! We finally arrived back in Hanoi 14 hours after leaving Lao Cai, with any ideas about the romance of train travel well and truly demolished!!