We took a very laid-back side trip to Sapa, spending two lazy days walking around town and then an 8 km round trip walk out of town along the road to Lao Cai. (Lao Cai is the train terminus for train from Hanoi and then it is mini bus for a switch-backed 34 km ride to Sapa). The town of Sapa is in the mountains north of Hanoi close to the Chinese border. It was built by the French for colonial R and R but the area around it has been populated by various hill tribe people for eons (the Hmong and others). If we had been looking for a trekking experience we would have chosen to be there for a week although most of the trips booked from Hanoi offer jam-packed one to three day itineraries. I would not have wanted to have foregone our time just wandering around on our own in lieu of more trekking time.
We enjoyed the mountain scenery including the clouds that roll in and change the vista every few minutes. The hillsides are mostly terraced and cultivated by the tribal people. The town itself has retained a French colonial feel and we noticed that new construction is following the same design – a good decision given the other model is communist block ugly. I also loved the urban gardens that were everywhere in Sapa (and on the train on the way up I noticed that people had planted herb gardens between train tracks in some villages). Vietnamese cuisine uses a lot of herbs and greens (which I love) and so people grow the stuff everywhere. We could learn from them…I got some ideas on growing mustard greens on Ian’s boat (to his chagrin) in styrofoam containers based on a little sidewalk garden across from our hotel in Sapa.
The folks managing our guesthouse in Hanoi (Madam Moon) arranged the trip for us, including getting the train and their sister hotel (Fanzipan View) booked in Sapa. Everything worked like clockwork and the hotel in Sapa was really nice with very attentive staff. I am glad though that we didn’t give into pressure to book the night train both ways as we enjoyed the ride up in the daytime in coach seats where we got to see the country side. I am also glad we didn’t visit a hill tribe on a trek as our experience of the hill tribe people in town was an endless and irritating sales pitch for handicrafts I didn’t want to buy and from what I heard, visits to the villages, although interesting, are more of the same and worse.
Our train back was for the most part fine although I think the quality of the trains varies between trains so even booking a night train with the same company can be hit and miss. There are a few superior cabins which are shared by two people but these are hard to book as there are so few so most tourists opt for a four person cabin. The bunks were big enough for short people (like me but not Ian) and the bedding was clean and fortunately our car was air conditioned as apparently not all of them are. The windows didn’t open on our train – I guess because of possible problems with air conditioning, but I would have foregone the air conditioning to have the windows open. My Argentinian roommate said they had a cabin on the way up without air con and where windows did not open – worst situation possible.
This is especially true for me this trip as I am still experiencing some problems with claustrophobia, an ongoing issue since we arrived in Vietnam. I was a bit worried about the night train ahead of time and so prepared myself with the Vietnamese version of Nightol (over the counter sleep aid) figuring that if the train did make me uncomfortable at least I would eventually sleep and not suffer for 9 or 10 hours. This turned out to be a good strategy as my room mate shut and locked the door of our compartment and then couldn’t get it open. (She and I had taken bottom bunks, her husband and Ian top). I got up and tried and couldn’t open it either…not a good situation to calm me down. To my credit I managed to get back on my bunk without saying too much and eventually said to the guys that we needed some help. Her husband came down and figured it out and once I opened and closed it a few times I managed to mostly forget about it. It still took three hours to get to sleep after that…even with the Nightol.
That experience and a couple of others made me decide to talk to a doctor as although the claustrophobia is relatively mild it is not fun. I’ve also had a minor sinus issue since being sick in the spring which has made it hard to breathe sometimes and that combined with humidity and generally smaller physical spaces than what I am used to in North America (and other parts of Asia) is what I think has created the claustrophobia problem.
My intention was to go to a clinic in Hanoi and talk to an English-speaking doctor but our hotel concierge in Hanoi talked me into a house call, telling me the doctor was very good and English speaking. He turned out to be very nice but his spoken English was negligible and when I realized he didn’t know what claustrophobia was I had to turn my computer on and resort to Google English to Vietnamese translations. The whole consultation then turned into a conversation where we took turns googling drugs and symptoms on my Mac…with me having to coach him on the Mac user interface which I don’t think he’d used before. It was kind of the comical side of a not so funny situation. In the end, he prescribed (and then went and picked up from the pharmacy) a bunch of drugs for the sinus inflammation (antibiotics and anti inflammatories and vitamins and antihistamines) and then something called Dogmatil which is an anti-psychotic for schizophrenia in high doses and a mild anti-anxiety remedy at low doses.
After he left (I paid him 50 US for consultation and then 50 for drugs) I told Ian I wasn’t planning on taking the Dogmatil as it was meant to be taken over a period of time to reduce anxiety rather than very situational claustrophobia (I just wanted valium or a derivative for emergencies basically but he wouldn’t prescribe that as he said it was too strong.) He phoned back in the evening asking for a second consultation and I was suspicious that it was a money grab; however, given he was a doctor I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and agreed. It turned out he had talked to his colleagues and wasn’t sure about the Dogmatil and came back with an even stronger anti-depressant called Zoloft. After a lot more googling and charades and broken English, we agreed I would take the Dogmatil daily for awhile and then use the Zoloft if I needed it for a particularly stressful claustrophobia inducing situation (although I have no intention of taking the Dogmatil but it was just easier to agree given the language problems).
In the end I admired his conscientiousness in talking to his colleagues and his concern (I believe he very sincerely wanted to help) but after more research realize he gave me a second drug that is not meant to be taken situationally and is actually quite dangerous for some people and really inappropriate for my situation. So a hundred more dollars later I will rely on Nightol to help me sleep on any long distance vehicles where I feel closed in and practice some of the cognitive therapy techniques I have now researched on the Internet. Meanwhile, my travel bag includes a whole pharmacy of drugs I will probably never use.
We are enjoying a new hotel in Hanoi that is quite luxurious (all that was available in our little hood where we wanted to stay.) We are paying 45.00 bucks a night! A fortune in Hanoi…but our bikes are on our balcony and we have a very nice tub and a lovely little room. This was the cost of the cheapest motel of our California trip…in fact the horrible motel where we stayed in shitty Crescent City was 45.00 a night. I love Asia :-0
We walked our cycling route out of the old quarter of Hanoi yesterday so we know exactly what we are doing on the bikes once we get on them. We were supposed to leave today but there were thunderstorms and torrential rain at 7 am just as we planned to leave. So we changed plans…so nice not to have a strict agenda…and I’m enjoying another day in Hanoi being a bit lazy. Weather looks better tomorrow so we’ll be off…the panniers are packed and we’re ready to go.