[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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