I had gotten dropped off at the locals’ train station.
I didn’t even realize it until I was left at the glittery, neon-signed tourist train station when I came back hours later to catch my train in Hanoi. After trudging around the block to the dingy, quiet train station where I had bought my ticket, I realized that this was actually a win.
I had only paid $24 for a trip to SaPa – everywhere else online had told me it’d be $40. I worried about the quality of my bunk, but figured there was nothing to be done.
I was one of the first people on my train car, and I nearly jumped up and down clapping at the sight of the spacious 4-bed bunks. I settled myself in, claimed the charger space, and immediately made myself cozy. Fortunately, my only bunkmate was an elderly Vietnamese man with zero English. Unfortunately for me, he was a smoker in a country with zero smoking regulations.
I finally dropped off into a deep sleep a couple of hours after midnight, about halfway through the train journey. When I fell asleep, we were whizzing through the dark. And now all around us unfolded a misty mountain wonderland. Was I still in the same hot, humid country I’d left the night before?
I was glued to the windows as we passed through rice paddies with farmers already hard at work, their pointed hats bent over their labor, backs hunched. Mountains rose up behind them, the peaks shrouded in mist. Everything was green, bathed in that early morning glow that lights everything up from within.
As we changed from the train to a van, we wound our way up the terraced mountainsides, pine trees reaching for the sky. Soon, women in rich colors and patterns shuffled along the roadsides, dogs at their heels and children on their backs. They were shorter, their faces rounder, their eyes narrower. The Hmong tribespeople were a class of Vietnamese all their own, their very garments a celebration of a culture they refused to abandon.
SaPa was a breath of fresh air all it’s own – after weeks of heavy humidity, it was a blessing to breathe in cool mountain air. The Fan Xi Pan Mountains jutted majestically above everything, knifing the sky with it’s harsh crags. Waterfalls fell from the peaks, and trails beckoned. The town was curious mix of Vietnamese exotic and a typical mountain village — perhaps some things are universal, like the towering pines in the village center, or the log-cabin construction.
Perhaps if anything is universal, it’s the mountains and the feeling that they give us. Their forests wrap you in a hug, their peaks remind you of how small you are, and their valley vistas are the closest a human being can get to flying with both feet on the ground.
I hired a motorbike driver and we took off onto the winding mountain roads, stopping off to explore waterfalls, to gape at the mountain peaks, and to admire the geometric terracing that raced up mountainsides and across valley floors. All around, daily life for the mountain villagers carried on: women trimmed bamboo, a man herded water buffalo down the road, stall owners chatted with each other on the roadside.
As I descended the mountains a few days later, I knew I would miss the feeling of being wrapped so entirely in nature’s beauty. Little did I know that I was bound for a place where the mountains met the sea.