I am now in Bac Ha, a small town in the north of Vietnam, with a lot of minority people around in colorful dress. There is little traffic, and it is relaxing to be able to walk around without taking my life in my hands. Getting here was something of a trip (pun intentional).
I took the night train from Ha Noi to it's northern terminus. At the Ha Noi terminal, a young man grabbed my ticket and escorted me to my berth. He then pleasantly but firmly demanded $5, which seemed a little pricey, even for the states. However, I may not have found it otherwise, as it was about a quarter-mile walk, weaving between freight cars. His position seems to be semi-official, helping confused foreigners.
The train car was old but functional. "Soft-sleeper" class is definitely a euphamism; I guess "hard-sleeper" means no mattress at all! Nonetheless, the rythm of the wheels was soothing, and I did get some sleep. My cabin-mates were a young honeymoon couple, and a vietnamese man who sang quietly in a high voice before going to sleep.
The train arrived at 4:45am in heavy rain. I still had to get to Bac Ha, about 40 miles away. A minibus driver recruited me, but he wanted 500,000vnd ($25). I seemed to recall a much lower price from the guidebook, but he wouldn't come down, so I declined his services. I didn't mind paying if that was the going rate, but I didn't want to get ripped off. He very generously showed me where to catch the local bus, across from the train station. There was a tea stall there with a big umbrella, so I stayed dry. The vendors confirmed that the local minibus stopped there, and after 20 minutes, so it did. A man got off and requested 800,000vnd for the fare!! No way I was going to pay this - I didn't want to feel like a complete fool. But I couldn't get him below 600,000, and didn't have any other options (which I guess he knew), so I paid and got on. On the bus was a young French couple, who hadn't paid yet but insisted that it would be 100,000vnd, because that's what the guidebook said. I smirked, knowing better, but after much haggling and pointing at the guidebook, that's what they paid. By that time I figured my 600,000vnd was gone, and so was the guy I gave it to; I was probably lucky the bus driver considered me paid. An older (than me) couple got on, haggled for a while, and got off again.
The bus took off, but stopped every few minutes to take on more passengers and freight. It wasn't exactly a chicken bus, but it loaded bags of flour and veggies, buckets of paint, cartons of dry goods, etc. As they ran out of room to put stuff, I expected to get something on my lap; I was hoping it would be a young vietnamese girl rather than a sack of yams ;>). So, ever the savvy traveller, I eschewed the express bus in favor of travelling with the locals, at only 6 times the going rate! (Later I saw the older couple in town; they took the next bus for 50.000vnd; make that 12 times! And it was a chicken bus - they'd been on the top).