"I will come with you to the train station. These are your tickets," said Ms Trang, our guide from Hanoi. She met with our group as scheduled, at Quan An Ngon, a recommended restaurant we had found on the Internet that served traditional Vietnamese cuisine in the capital city of Vietnam.
"The train ride to Sa Pa will take about eight hours. You will arrive at Lao Cai station about 5am the next morning," said Trang, gesturing to us to head to the train station.
Our group of 11 was on our way from Hanoi to our next destination, Sa Pa, a town located at Lao Cai Province, north of Vietnam bordering the Yunnan province of China.
From Lao Cai to Sa Pa, it takes another hour by car. It is best to spend a minimum of two nights in Sa Pa to explore the town at your own leisure.
Most of the activities in Sa Pa take place near the Notre-Dame du Rosaire, a church built in 1926. It is only a two-minute walk from where our hotel, the Sa Pa Elite Hotel, which sits on a hill slope overlooking the town.
No trip to Vietnam is complete if you have not tried the beef rice noodle soup. The rice noodle soup is known as pho here. We kickstart our first day in Sa Pa with a savoury bowl of pho at the Asimo Com Viet restaurant. A bowl of pho costs between VND30,000 (S$1.90) and VND50,000.
If you are a sports fan, you will be spoilt for choice here. Many outlets in Sa Pa sell hiking gear and sportswear at a bargain. You can find hiking boots, pants, wind jackets and walking poles. Sa Pa is also a popular stopover for mountain climbers scaling the peak of Phang Xi Phan in Lao Cai province.
"Even in the factory outlets in US, a similar backpack this size may cost up to RM150 (S$53)," notes my friend Lean Lee. The one I was holding cost only US$11 (S$15). This backpack is unique as it is cushioned at the back for comfort.
It is easy to explore Sa Pa on foot. Most shops and highlights of the town are located close to one another, near the church along Cau May Street and Thach Son Street surrounding the Quang Truong Square, the main centre of Sa Pa town.
As day turned to dusk, the sidewalks near the Square come alive with colours of the ethnic minorities, the Red Dzao and the Hmong women in their traditional costumes parading their handicrafts to the visitors near the Square.
"How much?" I asked, drawn to an authentic blue and green embroidered bag with beads, as the owner of the stall handed over the bag to me.
"The colour is of natural dye. This one is handmade," said Lean Lee, explaining that not all the bags were handmade. This was her second visit to Sa Pa.
VND200,000, the woman in black said.
"VND100,000," I offered, quickly converting the value into Ringgit in my mind. In less than two minutes, the deal was sealed at VND120,000. I later learnt the dye is made of plants and leaves and a coat of wax is layered on top to make the colours durable.
Most travellers to Sa Pa take the opportunity to trek to the villages and homes of the ethnic people residing near the Sa Pa Valley. You can enquire at your hotel or the local tourist office if you wish to make a trip to these villages.
Our group opted for Cat Cat Village where the Hmong ethnic group resides. We chose to take the van instead of trekking. Upon reaching the village, some of us who wished to experience the daily life of the village up-close, continued the journey by trekking further down the valley where the villagers' homes are. A few of us (including me) chose to explore the area around the point of disembarkation.
The word Homestay caught my attention. It was inscribed on an oblong stone at the entrance of an art gallery known as the Gem Valley Art Gallery.
I noticed streams of natural light flowing into the gallery from the front where I stood. Walking towards the source of light, I came to a door which opened up to a balcony overlooking a valley dotted with vast and rich green rice fields, ready for harvest.
"Any coffee for you?" asks a woman behind the cafe bar located near the entrance. She smiled and pointed to the menu above the cafe bar. "My husband painted all the art pieces here", she said.
"Yes, one iced coffee for me", I replied, walking briskly to the balcony. I sipped my coffee.
Ah, it is a beautiful day.
Please note: The Livintrans Express from Hanoi to Lao Cai is equipped with compartments containing four sleeping berths. The compartments are not gender-segregated. There is complimentary lotus tea and a bottle of drinking water on board
The road from Lao Cai to Sa Pa is winding. If you take a private pick-up, feel free to ask the driver to stop over at the best spots to take photos of the terraced fields.