Vietnam: Trains of nightmares and heaven for hikers
AS I stare at the ceiling above my bunk bed and listen to violent snores of the man next to me, I realise the horror stories are real. The four-berth cabin in the overnight train to Lao Cai is confronting.
The charm of the train rumbling through darkness like a car struggling up a hill in the wrong gear has worn off. And the snoring grows so loud I wonder if this man is having some sort of terrible medical episode.
Luckily my destination of Sapa is worth the hassle of one sleepless night. The former French hill station shows off a different side of Vietnam, perched above dramatic valleys and mountain sides.
The ethnic minority, the H'mong people, live in small villages dotted throughout the misty mountaintops that form the border between Vietnam and China.
The H'mong people are famous for their clothes. The women wear brightly coloured handmade head scarves and intricate clothing.
Sapa is a hub for hikers and is the perfect spot to base yourself for a few days of adventure.
Around the main town are small farming villages surrounded by terraced rice paddies carved into the sides of valleys. Each village has its own unique character and is crying out to be explored.
The best way to experience the area is on the hiking trails. There's no shortage of potential guides approaching you on the street, often with a small book filled with notes and well wishes from previous customers.
My girlfriend and I organise a half-day tour that takes us through about 15km of stunning terrain. A beaming 24-year-old named Mao wanders around the steep and muddy tracks like a sure-footed mountain goat. Her friend drives us to the top of a mountain to see the view.
Unfortunately the fog is so dense we can barely see each other, let alone the sweeping vistas hiding under the clouds.
Mao says winter is plagued by heavy fogs and tells us to come back to see her again in summer. We give up on the lookout and start heading down the twisty mountain road.
Suddenly Mao clambers over a guard rail and sets off down a slushy goat track while beckoning us to follow. We weave our way through the forest, occasionally interrupting wild buffalo as they munch on the vegetation.
Mao talks about her family as she charges down the mountain, stopping every now and then to help us navigate the sketchy descent. She has a husband, three kids, and all sorts of animals including a few dogs.
I ask her what the dogs' names are, she shrugs and says she just calls them all "dog".
As we carefully follow our leader, often sliding on our backsides through the mud, we are overtaken by three village ladies.
Embarrassingly for us, they wear sandals and have enormous baskets filled with firewood strapped to their backs.
We move to the edge of the narrow path to let the ladies gallop past. They smile and wave as they make their way towards the village at the foot of the hill.
We follow, very slowly, and visit the local school to give the teacher some books and pencils we had brought along for the students.
Signs around the main town ask tourists not to give children candy, but things they can use. The teacher thanks us in broken English, pours us some tea and offers us a warm refuge to rest from the long walk.
The kids chase a bicycle tyre down the hill and enjoy their break from class. With our break over, we dust ourselves off and hit the trail, ready for the next adventure.
Shell out extra cash for a private berth on the train from Hanoi. The few extra dollars ensure you don't spend the night trying to sleep through the powerful snores of a berth buddy.
Stock up at the supermarket with colouring-in books, pencils and toys. Take them along on your hikes to give to the village children or one of the small schools.
The H'mong people are crafty sales people. They will bail you up in Sapa and try to sell you all manner of items. But you are better off buying souvenirs in the small villages. You can pick up authentic items from families who sell their craft outside their homes and they may even invite you in for tea.