I’ve Had Way Too Many Hobbies Over the Years

I love hobbies. After all, traveling and mountain biking are the reason I created this blog. Sure, I sometimes write about other things (especially electric cars with an increased regulatory in recent years).

I’ve largely stuck to my main topics. Now, I’d like to drop something in here to frame who’s writing all this stuff. The overall content here will remain focused — this is just a little something to shake it up. I plan to do this more, while still retaining my original focus.

Today, I’ll tell you about the other stuff that’s interested me over the years … how I started, how far I took it, why I don’t do it anymore, that sort of stuff.

If any of these activities make you say “wow, I’d really like to try that!”, feel free to hit me up to learn more about it. It might turn into a future post.

A Hockey Kid in 80s Arizona

Growing up, I was non-athletic. I had no instincts for any of the typical American kid sports. Then some acquaintance of my mom’s brought a bunch of old hockey equipment over. We’re talking old-school wooden sticks, real rubber pucks, even goalie gear — all the ancient Cooper stuff that you’d recognize if you ever watched Slapshot.

For some reason, my hands knew exactly what to do with every bit of this equipment. Snapping a wrist shot was as natural as breathing. The catch glove and blocker made complete sense to me.

I could go on about this at length. But I’ll keep it short. I wanted to play hockey, but that was in short supply in Arizona. And I knew my parents wouldn’t be up for the effort required to put me on the ice. So I just had floor hockey at school, which was the one time in PE classes when I got picked first for anything.

hobbies
The ASU Blade Devils circa 1993. Check out my old deer hair-stuffed goalie pads. Old school!

Well, I started playing floor hockey during my freshman year of college as a goalie. I caught the attention of the Arizona State University Blade Devils in-line hockey club, which meant I needed to learn how to use in-line skates. An intense boot camp with a classmate got me ready. And I just got it. I had help from more experienced teammates to help me fill in the gaps formed by growing up in Arizona instead of Michigan, but I caught up quickly.

For a period of about 10 years, I was The Guy in goal. Local teams bribed me with equipment and PowerBars to fill in for their goalies and play in tournaments. Other goalies would groan “oh, no” when I showed up to play their team.

hobbies
The later days of my time as an ASU Blade Devils goalie.

I still love hockey. But it conflicted with a lot of other things I like doing. And good lord, being a goalie makes you smell TERRIBLE! Roller hockey also fell out of fashion — and ice hockey is even more expensive and has ridiculous game times. So I eventually retired, if you will.

But damn, I still miss the feeling of making a save look effortless or robbing someone of a certain, can’t-miss goal.

A Displaced Curler in the Southwest

Whenever I’ve traveled, people have asked me if I’m Canadian. This includes other Americans.

Well, it’s starting to seem like I just might be. I mean, hockey came to me naturally. And now you’re finding out that I used to curl.

hobbies
My rink (that’s what they call a curling team) from a beginner bonspiel (that’s what they call a curling tournament).

It all started with a movie called Men With Brooms. Of course, I knew about curling from the Olympics. But Men with Brooms brought curling to a new level for me. My wife found a curling club at one of the local hockey rinks, and we took a learn to curl class.

Eventually, the Coyotes Curling Club moved to its own facility. It became one of the biggest clubs in the western US. I curled for a few seasons straddling the birth of my daughter. She was actually one of the first little people born to the club, if not THE first!

A baby and mom among the curling rocks.

If I ever came into a bunch of free time, I’d go straight back to curling. But crunched for time as I am now, I need to burn more calories with my spare time.

BONUS: My worst injury from my hobbies came while curling on hockey ice. My feet went out from under me, and I came down hard on my side. I’m pretty sure I cracked some ribs.

Cranking Up the Volume

Playing the guitar is a part of my identity. I first started when I was 15 years old after hearing The Scorpions album “Savage Amusement.”

My cousin was my first guitar teacher, and he helped me find a cool used sparkly white Charvel Model 2 and a solid-state Randall halfstack — totally 80s! I jammed in many a garage, but never gigged.

That changed in my 30s, long after I’d slide my last guitar — a red Charvel Model 4 — under my bed. A friend of a friend became my friend, then my bandmate, then a co-best man at my wedding (someday, I’ll tell you about how his pants fell off while giving a toast at the wedding).

hobbies
My old band, Hung Dynasty, rocking a venue that’s long since closed.

Our band, Hung Dynasty, played close to 200 gigs over 10 years — everywhere from places a karate dojo to the Marquee Theater. And we went from a slightly harder sounding version of The Refreshments to a band that someone said sounded like “Arizona’s Iron Maiden.”

Hung Dynasty disbanded when our much-loved drummer/flatulence aficionado moved to Colorado. I played in another band, but eventually parted ways with them. I came close to putting another band together, only for the drummer and singer to move out of state shortly before we were gig ready.

hobbies
This venue? Also closed.

Now, one of the members of that project is working with me to drag some former members of Hung Dynasty back into the fray.

I’d be really excited for my daughter (now 6) to be able to see me play a few of her favorite tunes. CUTE BONUS OBSERVATION: For awhile, she was convinced that I was the guitarist for a Finnish band called Nightwish. The guitarist doesn’t look a foot shorter than me in videos, but he is!

Living by the Sword

I’ve always wanted to take up fencing. It just always looked cool. There is a fencing club in my city, but it’s neither close nor convenient.

Well, one night while pushing my daughter through the park in her stroller, saw a bunch of brightly colored lights. As I got closer, I discovered a bunch of people swinging KED-powered sabers at each other. I hesitate to call them “lightsabers” just to avoid the wrath of Disney.

hobbies
It’s hard to take good photos of people dueling at night. So here’s a little girl with a lightsaber.

As it turns out, there’s a local club for this sort of thing. Some of the people are mostly interested in choreography, while others are more interested in combat (and still others are there for the social aspects).

They had loaner sabers, and I took some basic instruction before trying my hand at dueling.

Pretty soon, I was dueling regularly, though it was nothing like fencing. I favor a two-handed style of combat based on kendo and kenjutsu. The stabbing motion associated with fencing isn’t allowed for safety reasons; groups that wear protective gear allow it.

I’ve had an enormous number of insights about swordplay thanks to club members who have studied various sword-related arts for a long time.

As another bonus, I also got into the “build you own saber” aspect. Now I know way too much about momentary switches, sound boards, LEDs, and wiring gauges! I’m also far better at soldering know than I ever have been, which comes in handy for Halloween decorations and costumes.

I’ve been on hiatus since COVID lockdowns began. But I’ve had my first vaccination, so I fully expect to be dueling again soon.

The Hobbies I Haven’t Mentioned (Yet)

These are just a few of the hobbies I’ve enjoyed over the years. I also played tennis for quite awhile. I’ve practiced yoga since 1999 and have dabbled in various types of weightlifting from CrossFit to HIIT. There’s also the usual reading and cooking stuff that many of us get into as a necessity.

I’m probably leaving some out. And there’s probably a hobby aimed at me that I don’t even see coming right now.

I Rode a Singlespeed for 3 Years. Then I Tried Full Suspension Again.

[I originally published this hardtail versus full suspension bike blog post in March of 2020, right when COVID-19 started to hit. It just got a major update. Read on for the fun!]

I’ve been riding a singlespeed mountain bike for the last three years. During that time, my 2011 Santa Cruz Superlight sat in the garage doing absolutely nothing.

A recent ride with a friend made me wonder what would happen if I:

  • Pulled the Santa Cruz out of deep storage and ran a lap on my local bike/equipment test track.
  • Rode the same on a modern slack-angled full-suspension bike.

During the ride with my friend, I noticed our bikes were the exact opposite from each other: My Domahidy Ti belt-drive bike has fairly traditional geometry. My friend’s bike was carbon fiber with barely any stem to speak of — and a generous amount of travel. I noticed where our bikes excelled and fell short (see the video for some of the fun we had).

And I got curious.

Hardtail Versus Full Suspension for a Day

I topped the Superlight’s tires off with some Stan’s sealant and checked the shock air pressure. Then, it was time to ride.

I’ve been on the Domahidy 29er since I’ve been using Strava heavily. I have a ton of data on it from my local trails. So this would be a perfect test for my Superlight.

I felt like the more slippery climbs were a bit easier on it. I definitely felt faster on one particular rocky descent.

new mountain bike
My Superlight when it was still considered a modern bike instead of a throwback.

Overall, the Superlight didn’t feel as stable or as quick to handle as the Domahidy. That titanium hardtail holds its speed and accelerates with tons of punch.

And there I was thinking about gears again. Especially cumbersome with a 3X9 system versus the modern 1X systems. With a singlespeed, all my concentration is on picking the line and braking.

Enough Feelings – What About the Data?

My Strava times shocked my gizzard. The Superlight was nowhere near as fast on this ride as my top times on the singlespeed (which is also slightly undergeared). It was 52 seconds slower over my nearly 4-mile lap.

That rocky downhill I mentioned? It tied my typical time on the singlespeed hardtail versus full suspension. No faster even over chop and small drops.

I felt like I was working hard, but not worked over (I’d ridden 40 miles on my road-plus bike the day before).

This bears mentioning: I admit that I’m kind of a chicken. My priority is to finish every ride in one piece. So I ride in control, more Iceman than Maverick.

What I Expected

My prediction was that the Superlight would make me noticeably faster. Maybe by as much as a minute.

hardtail versus full suspension

I expected its top-end speed and ability to crunch over some of the rocky sections to win the day — even against the Domahidy’s efficiency.

What about weight? I have no idea what either bike weighs. But the Santa Cruz Superlight has always been a light-ish full suspension bike. Certainly lighter than the slack dropper-equipped trail bikes of today.

What I didn’t expect was for the longer 29er to carve corners so much better and to give up next to nothing to the Superlight in rocky downhill bits. I’m at a loss for words.

There are still question marks with the singlespeed hardtail versus full suspension issue: How would I do riding the Santa Cruz on long rides, like the Fat Tire 40 or the 50-mile Tour of the White Mountains? (The answer to that: If it rains beforehand, the belt drive singlespeed will straight-up murder every other bike I could pick. The mud up there can change the game.)

hardtail versus full suspension
This bike is unstoppable, especially in wet weather.

What Next for Hardtail Versus Full Suspension?

I’m eager to repeat this experiment with a modern bike.

I may also rent a bike to test somewhere like McDowell Mountain Regional Park. The Long Loop there is currently in chewed-up condition. During the Cactus Cup and Frenzy Hills races, I got rattled pretty hard back there.

I’ll update this post with more info and data when I have something to add — I hope that’s soon!

THE UPDATE

Finally Testing a Modern Dualie

Almost one year after the quarantine scuttled my plans to demo a full-suspension bike with this new “progressive” geometry, I finally got my opportunity.

The Rocky Mountain Demo Tour made a visit to Rage Bicycles, just a few miles away from my home in Scottsdale. This also meant an apples-to-apples comparison on trails I know well — Papago is a short pedal away from Rage.

rocky mountain demo tour
The friendly Rocky Mountain Demo Tour van.

The bike closest to my preferences was the Rocky Mountain Instinct Carbon 70, a nearly $7,000 monster with a Fox 36 EVOL fork. That’s 150mm of travel in the front, 140 in the back. It was set up tubeless, with some CushCore type of insert in the tires. It also had a dropper seatpost.

I spent about 90 minutes/16 miles on the Instinct. It made a good first impression with crisp shifting and a pretty efficient feel as I cruised on the canal bank to Papago. I noticed that it responded to small amounts of handlebar input, probably because of that super-short stem.

My first real dirt was at Hole in the Rock, a well-known short climb followed by a short rocky downhill. It took zero concentration for the Instinct to handle the climb. It also knocked off the downhill easily, and this was the only time I deployed the dropper post. But when I got the numbers from Strava, the Instinct was nearly 10 seconds slower up the climb, and a second slower on the downhill. This would become a theme.

Taking Aim at My Record

My real test for the Instinct was the 3.8-miles Pivin Loop, a handy litmus test for messing with bike, tires and suspension.

I was definitely running the Instinct hard. Big suspension, big tires, outstanding brakes. Why not?

Apparently, those big treads don’t like loose rocks. The front tire washed, causing me to dab. Obviously, this was not gonna be a record-setting loop. Sure enough, I was nearly three minutes off my best time.

Rocky Mountain Instinct 70 Carbon
A look at the Rocky Mountain Instinct 70 Carbon I demoed.

I did a second lap, concentrating on riding clean. It was the slowest lap I ever turned at the Pivin Loop, nearly 5 minutes off my best pace and about 4 off of a typical run.

So it suffices to say that, on my Domahidy Ti singlespeed and even my outdated 26er-wheeled 27-speed Santa Cruz, I would handily beat my doppelganger who’s on an Instinct 70 on the type of terrain I usually ride. So that’s two major points in my hardtail versus full suspension debate.

I think it’s fair to expect that I’d get faster on the Instinct as I got used to it. I also think riders with different skillsets might get more out of it than I did.

So Why is This Bike So Slow?

This is actually a very good bike. I want to get that out of the way. I can think of a bunch of black trails at Brown’s Ranch and South Mountain where the Instinct Carbon 70 would be an asset with its dropper and long travel.

But that’s not my type of riding. I am not the kind of guy who has a quiver of bikes. I want something that can let me haul ass when I race and requires minimal maintenance.

And honestly, there’s just a fun factor in that belt-drive singlespeed that makes no sense on paper. It makes me feel like flying a Colonial Viper every time I ride it.

I did notice that the Instinct Carbon 70 was a hefty bike, probably exacerbated by the CushCore inserts dropper seatpost. A lot of the weight seemed concentrated to the rear, giving that bike one hell of a bodonkadonk.

Rocky Mountain Instinct Got Back!

I’m very curious about what I’d think of an Element Carbon 70, which is far more race-oriented. I also don’t want to give the impression that I’m slamming Rocky Mountain: I’m willing to bet that I’d have the same issues with any trail bike.

The Conclusion: Hardtail Versus Full Suspension

This makes me go back to a point I’ve made many times before: Someone needs to bring back the lightweight, cost-effective, short-travel dual suspension bike. At one point, Santa Cruz made a $1,700 Superlight dualie that was about 28 pounds. Someone needs to bring a bike like that back. I realize it’s not 2005 anymore, sure. But could you get a light, responsive, modernized XC speed machine for $2,200? I’ll bet someone out there could do it.

I think that, to be as fair as possible, I also need to do another demo with something a little more race-oriented.

Keep in mind, this might be exactly the bike you need. But if your preferences are more like mine, you might have to swipe left on this one.

7 Things to Know about Mountain Biking at Brown’s Ranch

Brown’s Ranch Mountain Biking at a Glance

  • Four Trailheads
  • More than 165 miles of trails
  • Well-constructed trails
  • Endless Options
  • eBikes are Not Allowed. 
  • Watch for hikers, horses and wildlife

If you want to start a great argument, ask mountain bikers from the Phoenix area to name their favorite trail network. There will be shouts of “South Mountain” and “Hawes” accompanied by cursing.

For me, though, it’s Brown’s Ranch, hands down.

I can already hear everyone warming up to tell me that I’m wrong. That’s fine. The points I’m about to lay out here will tell you why I like the Brown’s Ranch trails so much.

Before we go further … if you’re new here, my only mountain bike is a singlespeed hardtail. I rarely put in less than 25 miles, and I do some fairly long races on it.

Brown’s Ranch = Tons of Trails

According to Trailforks.com, there are 165 miles of trails at Brown’s Ranch. And trust me, there are more going in all the time. There are four types of trails: Purple (unpaved access road), green (easy), blue (intermediate) and black (hard).

The massive number of trails and miles means that you’ll have no problem putting a ride of any length together, no matter which of the four trailheads you start from.

brown's ranch

There are so many trails here that you can actually connect to McDowell Mountain Regional Park or even the Maricopa Trail. If you want to unspool an epic ride, you will have no problems doing it here.

Don’t Believe People Who Say It’s Not Hard Enough

The biggest knock on Brown’s Ranch is that it doesn’t have enough climbing or isn’t hard enough. This is complete bollocks.

It has plenty of climbing. During my 32-mile ride the day before I wrote this, I climbed more than 2,000 feet. Yeah, I had to cover a lot of ground to make that happen. But I also did it on a singlespeed, which is bound to make it more interesting than have a 48-tooth low cog.

As for “hard enough.” There are some fun black trails that have excellent technical challenges. If you’re riding a dual-suspension bike with 150mm of travel and a dropper seatpost, maybe these will still be easy for you. I dunno.

I’d also add that, unless you can clean the switchbacks at the top of Brown’s Mountain, these trails aren’t too easy for you.

Bring Water

Not all of the trailheads at Browns Ranch have potable water. Be sure to show up ready to go. You will find bathrooms at the trailheads, but they currently have sanitizer rather than running water.

The facilities at Pima and Dynamite are still under construction. We’ll see what happens when that’s up and running.

Avoid Any Trails with the Word “Wash” in the Name

There are a few trails out there that make use of washes. They are a sandy mess. Avoid them at all costs.

The best you can hope for is to not get too much sand in your shoes. The Dove Valley Trail has some very sandy bits to the east, and I recommend avoiding them.

Expect Lots of Hikers and the Occasional Horse

Hikers love these trails, for good reason. The views are amazing. There’s plenty of wildlife. There are plenty of places to crawl around on boulders.

brown's ranch

Be kind. Yield the trail. Slow down as you pass. I also use a bell to give hikers a friendly audible signal that I”m approaching.

As for horses, I typically communicate with the riders to see what their horses want me to do. Some pull over to let me ride past. Some riders on skittish horses will ask me to dismount as we pass each other. No problem for me either way.

eBikes Are Not Allowed

Back in the old days, mountain bikers used to share these trails (then known as Pima and Dynamite) with motorcycles, who probably made most of the early trails.

Then Scottsdale got hold of the land (I believe from the State Land Department because it was once State Trust Land). They turned it into a preserve and then bounced all the motorcycles north to their own OHV area.

Now, we’ve got eBikes.

I don’t have a problem with eBikes. They’re useful in their time and place. And Brown’s Ranch is NOT their time and place. There are signs at every trailhead announcing that eBikes are not allowed.

And still, I see eBike riders poaching these trails every single time I’m there.

What to do about it? I remember when the Sedona Five poached trails at the Grand Canyon, the feds confiscated their bikes and helicoptered them out in leg irons.

Expect Some Wildlife at Brown’s Ranch

Brown’s Ranch is the only place I’ve seen a gila monster in the wild. I’ve also seen countless snakes here, along with eagles, vultures, what I think was a deer, and all sorts of smaller creatures.

There are Plenty of Maps and Signs

Trails markings at Brown’s Ranch are plentiful. Many of the signs even have a QR code you can use to download the City of Scottsdale map – if you can get cell coverage. This can get challenging further north.

There are also paper maps and permanent maps at every trailhead.

I tend to use the Trailforks app on my phone, instead.

What are the “Can’t Miss” Trails at Brown’s Ranch?

It’s almost impossible to pick just a few. But I’ll try to share the trails I always look forward to:

Hawknest North to South — A gentle downhill with plenty of turns and dips. High-speed fun. The whole thing is 10 miles, so it’ll keep you entertained for awhile.

Renegade — This 2-mile trail on the north side is stupidly entertaining in any direction.

Axle Grease — About four miles of south-to-north warmup to take you away from the trailhead. To get even further north, grab Stagecoach or the West Express. Easy riding, but twisty enough to be fun.

Diablo North and South — One of the newer technical areas. You’ll have to shimmy between some obstacles or hit the occasional drop-off. Riding a cross-county bike makes these more challenging.

Dare-A-Sarah — Rippin’ good fun. There are two steep sections that combine with rocks and turns that will keep you on your toes. All the other challenges are mostly squeezing through tight areas.

Scorpion — There’s some hard stuff here … like “exactly where is the trail here?” kind of hard. But it’s all well-designed, not neglected and stupid like some of what I’ve seen at Estrella Mountain Regional Park.

A Few Final Thoughts

It’s impossible to not have fun here. I’d love it if riders were able to get water from the trailheads, and I’d love to enjoy some race action here (there have been races here before). This would be a perfect place for an epic night race. I can’t imagine how beautiful it would be to ride here during a night event.

 

EV Versus Gas SUV: The Numbers Don’t Lie

EV Versus Gas SUV: By the Numbers

2016 Subaru Forester: Holds 534 kilowatt hours of energy. About 464 miles of range. That’s .868 miles per kWh.

2014 Toyota RAV4 EV: Holds 40 kWh of energy. About 144 miles of range. That’s 3.6 miles per kWh of energy.

I am going to lay out some information about electric cars in a way you probably haven’t seen before.

There are two cars in my household: One is a 2016 Subaru Forester (base engine with a continuous variable transmission). It’s all-wheel-drive like all Subaru vehicles. It’s rock-solid in rain and snow.

EV versus gas

The other is my 2014 Toyota RAV 4 EV. It has front-wheel drive and requires a more deft hand in rain. I’ve never driven it in snow. It’s a bit roomier inside than the Forester. It also will hand the Forester its ass in a quarter-mile. The electric motor spins up at a rate the Forester can’t match with its CVT.

These vehicles are similar in size and weight. That makes them perfect for comparing an EV versus gas SUV.

Crunching Numbers: EV Versus Gas SUVs

But you absolutely wouldn’t believe the difference in energy capacity and efficiency. I say “energy capacity” because clearly only the Forester can carry fuel as we know it.

After a trip to the gas station, the Forester has 534 kilowatt-hours of energy on board. That’s based on the calculation that a gallon of gas is equivalent to 33.4 kWh of electricity.

The RAV4, on the other hand, has 40 kWh of electricity after charging fully.

EV versus gas

The Forester can go about 464 miles based on the car’s calculation that my wife averages about 29 miles per gallon. I have to say, 29 miles per gallon is solid for an all-wheel drive vehicle its size.

The RAV4 will go about 144 miles on its 40 kWh battery, based on its historical record showing an average of about 3.6 miles per kWh.

Let’s put it another way — by looking at how many miles each of these vehicles goes on 1 kWh of energy:

Subaru Forester: .868 miles per kWh

Toyota RAV4 EV: 3.6 miles per kWh

That makes the RAV4 EV 4.147 times more efficient in energy use than the Forester. When it comes to the EV versus gas question, it’s not even close.

Old EV Tech Beats New Gas Tech

Keep in mind, the RAV4 EV is generations behind in its technology. It doesn’t have adaptive cruise control or seats that automatically adjust to a driver’s profile. There’s no “infotainment” to speak of. It doesn’t have fast charging.

Its utilitarian body, though, has more usable interior room (more than 73 cubic feet) than a Tesla Model Y, Ford Mach E, Nissan Ariya or VW ID4. It’s listed as having 5.9 inches of ground clearance, but I don’t think that’s remotely accurate. The regular RAV4 is listed as 6.3 inches; I know the EV version was lowered for efficiency, but it wasn’t lowered that much.

Though its battery is small by current standards, the RAV4 EV is still impossible to beat as a city car. It’s easy to park, yet can handle all the hardware store runs you can throw at it. Toyota made a huge mistake by dabbling in hydrogen power instead of pure EVs.

EV versus gas

The Impact of at Least One EV

Two-car families aren’t unusual. And if you have one electric car, you’re still going to cut your costs significantly. There are plenty of places to charge cars for free – and charging overnight at your home is convenient and cheap (overnight rates are amazing).

I know some people can’t make this happen. They live in apartments without outlets in the parking lot. Or they live in some far-flung ranch.

These are niche cases. Most people average less than 40 miles per day. Plus more workplaces have free charging – and chances are, you can at least find a 110-volt outlet in every parking garage so you can at least some juice during your work hours.

I also wind up driving the family around in the RAV on nights and weekends. That means the Forester gets fuel maybe once a month. It’s a huge difference.

Any two-car household needs to think seriously about an EV next time it’s time to replace one of the current occupants of its garage.

Two Nights on the Fanxipan Express

[I originally wrote this as a guest post for a website that no longer exists. I’m republishing it to preserve one of my more interesting travel experiences.]

Vietnam taught me one important lesson: For every blazing-fast maglev train or smooth-riding KTX or futuristic Japanese bullet train, there’s a Fanxipan Express.

Fanxipan express
Departing from Hanoi

I experienced an overnight trip from Hanoi to Lao Cai and back during my two-week stay in Vietnam. The bottom line – the Fanxipan Express sways its way along the tracks, creaking and lurching … but there’s arguably no better way to get to Lao Cai and then onto the popular mountain destination of Sapa.

Some part of me really enjoyed the novelty of the rickety Fanxipan Express, if only to feel a little better about my own country’s Amtrak; enjoying rail travel in South Korea or Finland can give an American a serious train inferiority complex.

Let’s take a look at my time on the Fanxipan Express.

Booking

It’s entirely possible to book online far ahead of time. My wife and I left some room in our schedules, though, so we could evaluate our side-trip options in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. While staying at the Rendezvous Hotel in Hanoi, some references to homestay hiking trips around Sapa — near the Chinese border — caught our eye. We booked through the hotel, with a price that included train travel. The Fanxipan Express website lists a round trip in four-berth “Superior Cabin” as $45 US person, one way. So call it $90 for a round trip per person.

Fanxipan express
Old school vibes.
The Rendezvous website lists our trek as $185 per person including fare for the train … but I recall us paying less than that. Nearly every price in Vietnam is negotiable, and you’re more likely to swing a deal in-person.

The Rendezvous staff dropped us off about 90 minutes before our train’s departure time – plenty of time to get acquainted with the train station situation, and overcome any language barrier problems.

Aboard the Fanxipan Express

Soon, we were aboard the Fanxipan Express. The strains of a super-schmaltzy ballad echoed throughout the cars (maudlin sounds of this magnitude transcend languages) as we found our room, a wood-paneled, four-bunk affair we’d share with two strangers.

Well, we lucked out. We enjoyed the company of a teacher and an engineer who spoke excellent English. The four of us chatted a good bit before hitting the lights in an attempt to search for sleep.

Fanxipan express
A four-berth compartment. Expect at least six to occupy it.

I did manage to fall asleep, but the swaying and creaking jolted me awake more than a few times. I spent a lot of time in that gray area just short of full sleep. I’d call it a combination of the train’s swaying and being a 6’2, 200-pound person jammed diagonally into a bunk not really intended for my frame. I was relatively clear-headed when we arrived in Lao Cai, and I handled the next three days of hiking just fine … so I guess I got enough rest.

Conductors checked our tickets, and an attendant with a snack cart rolled by a few times. To be honest, I had little interest in snacks or drinks. I just wanted to get to Lao Cai, so I didn’t indulge.

Don’t Miss This Tip

Now, I need to tell you something absolutely vital about the Fanxipan Express – it’s time to talk toilets. Western-style toilets are getting more common in Vietnam, but you’ll definitely find more squat toilets. The Fanxipan Express has both types, which my wife didn’t realize. She found the squat toilet first, and assumed all the train’s toilets were the same.

So, if you don’t favor a physical task that’s like playing billiards on a roller coaster, keep walking until you find the Western-style toilet on the Fanxipan Express.

Wrapping up 16 Hours on the Fanxipan Express

We returned to Lao Cai on a chilly evening a few days later. There are plenty of cafes nearby where you can enjoy a cafe sua da (the delicious iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk that’s so popular here) before boarding the train. We spent some time strolling about Lao Cai, but didn’t wander too far because … well, we’d just hiked for three days and were feeling the weight of our packs. That, and the clock was ticking.

Our return trip was much the same as the outbound leg. This time, three other passengers jammed into the four-bunk cabin. My Vietnamese-language skills allowed me to offer some greetings, but that’s it. No cross-culture connection this time. The Fanxipan Express creaked, we tried to sleep … and we arrived back in Hanoi. We said tam biet to our bunkmates and headed off to our last few days in Vietnam.