Escape from Sapa

Leaving Sapa was harder than we thought! We moseyed on over to the 'official' train ticket office to find that the fare back to hanoi was 50,000 dong more expensive than the fare to Lao Cai. When we started pointing to the price sheet and what not (amongst ourselves) wondering what up with the price hike, the woman about to sell us tickets walks over and says 'Full, go to Binh Minh hotel.' We ask 'Huh? Where? If it's full (it must have filled up since we walked in the door and the woman must be getting live updates from her telekenetic antenna) how can a hotel sell us tickets?' She gave no further information, as to how this was possible or where this magic train emtpying hotel was located.

Off we go back to our own hotel to ask them for tickets. 'We have tickets available,' they say, 'cost is 300,000 dong for hard sleeper.' Our hard sleeper fare from Hanoi to Lao Cai was only 140,000 dong for the top bunk, and we knew that the bottom bunk cost 170,000. We ask why is it nearly double the price and we are told 'booking fee'.

'Bugger that,' we say and head over to a mansion like building we spotted on our wanderings with a sign that read 'Tourist Information'. I'll take a moment to mention this as a wonderful haven of free internet, free maps, free museum, free booklets and acurate information that is not biased toward ripping you off. Amazing. This should be a tourist attraction in itself: honest organisation in Vietnam. Am I going to far there? No.

We approach a nice lady at a nice desk and ask if we can buy train tickets there. She says yes, but only super amazing private cars with schmancy wood pannelled walls and photographable bathrooms. Price, I will tell you, was 300 - 350,000 dong, the same price out hotel tried to sell us public dump tickets for. We say 'Oh. Too nice for us. What about the public hard sleeper?' She writes us a little note and pins it to our sleeve and then sends us to the lake.

We're told to look for Binh Minh II Hotel, which shares a building with the actually official government office that sells the proper train tickets and will even print the real thing out for you. Finally.

We find this building with not a lot of trouble (by now we're about 2 hours into our search for train tickets). The man behind the window bars, however, is less than helpful. We find out very quickly why the bars are there - so people can't leap through the window and strangle him.
'Hard sleeper?' we ask oh so politely.
'Full' he says.
'How about tomorrow?'
'How about thursday of next week?'
'How about mid april?'
He looks at us rudely.
'We're in no hurry.' I smile.
'Full,' he says.
This is when Paul cracks the shits.
We harrass this guy for half an hour, trying to get it out of him why he won't sell us a ticket. And why the only ticket he will sell (seat not sleeper) is twice the price it should be? This is where he goes all quiet and stops answering our questions. He makes a phonecall (to a hotel I think) and I speak to a nice lady who says we can come back to this guy in the morning and buy a hard sleeper then.
'He says it's full.' I say.
'He doesn't speak much English.'
Right.... 'How much for this ticket?'
'Can I speak to the man again?'
'You can't tell me the price?'
'I need to speak to the man first.'
Great. I hand the phone back to the man who says a few words and hangs up. I ask him the price and he says 'Full.'
We waste yet more time trying to unscam the scammer but eventually move on. We go around town looking for hotels with tickets for the train. All are redicously priced.

The cheapest we find is 250,000 dong. By now we have lost interest in saving money and decide to get this ticket. The woman makes us wait for a phone call and then we are told 'Full.' We get up to leave (no thank-you's this late in the day [did I mention it was the next day by now? Yes our search for tickets went for two days]) but another woman stands up and tells us to wait five minutes. The first lady says something along the lines of 'But I just told them it was full.' And they argue a bit, then turn to us and tell us two different stories. Paul has left but I stand my ground and try to get this straight. 'You say full. You say five minute wait. How is this possible?'
Suddenly the woman who says wait changes her mins and says 'Full.' She's lost paitience with me. Why not just tell me to get bent, get out of her shop? Why does she actually attempt to tell me the train is full? Again with the telekinetic antenna.
'It's not full,' I say. 'I will wait five minutes but I must go and tell my boyfriend.'
'No you wait here!'
'I'll be right ba-'
'Full.' She waves her hand.
I very nearly punch her but leave instead.

Our solution to the ticket hawking in Sapa was to catch the bus to Lao Cai without a train ticket and buy one at the station. Our suspicions are confirmed there, where we are told the hard sleepers are full. The railway must pre sell, or just reserve, every sleeper ticket for hotels and agencies to sell at double or more the going rate. How can one direction of travel be so simple, and the other be so corrupted? I cave and buy a soft seat ticket, proud that I have paid the correct price for at least something in Vietnam.

Prior to 2002, foriegners were charged, officially and legally, up to 400% the local rate for any ticket in Vietnam. This system was abolished, but I can see there was no effort needed in getting around it.

What gets me is the flat out lying to your face that we so often encounter from people. Of the three countries I have visited (whopping I know) 99% of this has occured in Vietnam.

Sorry to rant - but the people need to know!!! Try and buy your return ticket in Hanoi or good luck getting back without paying double.