Off the Beaten Track: The Dien Bien Phu Loop, Vietnam

We arrived in Sapa and immediately sought out a cafe for brunch and coffee. We picked a French restaurant with a deck where we could soak up the sun and do some internet research about where to stay. Feeling rejuvenated from our pizza and lattes, we headed to a hostel I picked out using Trip Advisor.

The Green Valley Hotel, owned by an expat and Vietnamese woman, was a good value, nice location, and clean. The expat, however, was skeptical when he heard our motorbike route. The plan was to do one epic drive day down to Dien Bien Phu (approx. 10 hours), then over to Son La, Mai Chau, and back to Hanoi (4 nights, 5 days). In his opinion, getting to Dien Bien Phu in one day was impossible (though he’d never tried, and didn’t know anyone who had) and began to suggest other options. It being late, and feeling quite tired from the day, I found it overwhelming to consider completely revamping our plan. Instead I suggested a stop over in Muong Lay. If we reached Muong Lay at a reasonable hour we could continue on. If not, we could stay the night and cut over to Son La the next day. 

We got up early the following morning and headed out into a chilly mist. The previous night Colin bought gloves, warm socks, and I bought a slightly ridiculous pair of fleece-lined, checkered pants. We were both wearing nearly every piece of clothing we brought, just to keep warm. Our breakfast stop was supposed to be at Lai Chau after crossing the Tram Ton Pass, the highest road pass in Vietnam. Unfortunately the pass was covered in a thick, soupy fog. We could not see Mt. Fransipan, or any of the massive mountain range, or much beyond the front of the bike. It was hard not to get too down-hearted about all the beautiful scenery we were missing. I consoled myself with fantasies about hot coffee and breakfast in Lai Chau. I knew it was meant to be a rather industrious little city and much less touristy, but still thought there would be some good places to eat. 

We were thoroughly damp and hungry by the time the roads widened into a four-lane highway and we arrived in the provincial capitol. Lai Chau is large and empty with an industrial feel. There’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about it. We drove around for 20 minutes just looking for a proper restaurant. Most shops had the lights off and looked closed. Businesses that looked like they could be restaurants were dark inside, even if there was an open sign. No one spoke English. There were Pho – noodle soup – stalls in abundance, but the soup’s made with beef or pork. It was puzzling, frustrating and crushing, since we so eagerly looked forward to it. We went into a coffee shop (the lights were off here too) but they had no menu, and since I couldn’t communicate, not even by making silly eating gestures (the woman just watched me, tilted her head and smiled uncertainly) we will never know if they actually served food. We went to a “nice” hotel listed in the Lonely Planet as having a restaurant, but went inside to find men sipping mid-morning cocktails. Again, we were told they weren’t serving food. 

There was a little market that had one street food vendor. Colin managed to get an egg sandwich by pointing and gesturing, though sadly it came without the fabulous sauces they slather them with in Ho Chi Minh. Also, the vendor tried to charge double the going rate for the sandwich, so a small argument ensued once it was made. We spotted a bakery and were thrilled to find warm croissants, which we devoured. Satiated at last, we drove on. 

The day’s challenges had only just begun. The road quickly deteriorated, or rather the pavement disappeared right around the time Colin said, “The roads have been really good so far, with only small spots of construction.” An absolutely massive dam-building project was underway, with many roads and bridges being built in preparation for the reservoir that will flood the valley. We were stopped at least three times and made to wait while workers blasted or cleared rubble. A hazy, humid heat descended on us and the road was dusty and pockmarked. Often, whatever vehicle was in front of us spit up a thick cloud of sand that blocked all view of the road. Soon everything was just a mess of gravel, rock and sand that Colin masterfully maneuvered us through. Like driving on the moon, he said. Dusty and sweating, there was no place to stop off and change or get refreshments. Needless to say it was tedious, and driving up rocky make shift roads made me nervous. Colin, fresh on the first real day of driving, seemed to be enjoying the challenge. 

The road did finally improve and stopped at a cafe that looked relatively promising. We changed, splashed some water on our faces, and I enjoyed one of the most refreshing Coca-Colas of my life. We reached Muong Lay, where we meant to spend the night, earlier than expected. Standing at the side of the road, we talked it over and decided we had enough daylight left to continue on to Dien Bien Phu. The roads were in good condition, we reasoned, and we thought we would be able to cover 100km in 3 hours, reaching the city by 6:30pm. 

The final leg of that day’s drive was beautiful but also painful, as cramps in my legs and butt began to set in. The hardness of the seat, coupled with the vibrations of the motorbike, caused my muscles to ache. By the time we reached the last 20km, we were counting down. We felt eager to arrive and triumphant at having made the drive – achieving what we were told wasn’t possible. Those moments of ecstasy were short lived. 

As we were rounding a corner towards the city centre, a big truck was also coming around at high speed, in the middle of the road, headed straight for us. He swerved hard to avoid hitting us. The back of the truck, laden with rocks and uncovered, wobbled and two rocks were jettisoned through the air. The road was narrow and it would have been unwise to swerve so Colin held the course and the rock crashed directly in front of us as he steered gently around it. The second rock hurtled through the air and crashed somewhere right behind our bike. Hearts in our throats, we cursed the truck and continued on. 

Reaching our hotel in the dusky twilight was also a challenge. As we didn’t think we’d make it to Dien Bien Phu, we had no plan for lodging and no idea where to go. We stopped and consulted the Lonely Planet (which had a laughable map) and tried to get our bearings. Once again, no one spoke English and three times we were pointed in the wrong direction. Finally, a Vietnamese family having dinner on the floor of their karaoke bar went above and beyond. They called our hotel, and then drew us a map, taking us out into the street and pointing where we needed to go. 

With their help, we made it to the hotel and got settled in. Our third obstacle of the evening was finding a decent restaurant. Again we consulted the Lonely Planet, which, in hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend. In fact I wouldn’t consult the LP unless there were no other resources available. The restaurant they listed required us to get back and the motorbike. When we arrived, it was closed. There was another restaurant, which was more like a giant cafeteria, next door. There was a decent crowd inside, all Vietnamese except for three westerners sitting off to the side. 

We went in and were delighted to find the menu had English translations. When we ordered draught beer we got warm, bottled beer and a cup with ice cubes instead. We tried to order off the menu, but our server shook his head at what we wanted and went back to watching a Vietnamese soap opera and picking his nose. We flagged down an older woman who looked like she was in charge. We tried to order. She shook her head, indicating they were out of everything we wanted. She provided no alternatives to the dishes we selected. We had no idea if they were actually out of what we ordered, or just didn’t want to make it, and I suppose it didn’t matter. We tried pointing at different things but she kept shaking her head.  No, no, no. She walked away and came back a short while later with pen and paper. She indicated for me to write down what we wanted. I did, and she crossed it out. Then she suggested beef or pork dishes. It was my turn to shake my head. Then she walked away. 

Finally, near tears and in desperation (having only eaten a croissant all day), I approached the French family also dining in the mess hall, and enquired as to whether they’d been able to order. They had. I explained our dilemma. The young woman returned with me to our table and went over the menu with us, pointing out what they successfully ordered. We called the waitress over and tried one last time. We agreed to order something she’d written on the paper that was, we deduced, a fish dish. Then we pointed willy nilly. Fried corn? Yes. Fried rice? Yes. Omelette? YES! Great success. 

We drove back to our hotel after dinner and showered in our less-than-hygienic bathroom. Hair ball on the windowsill, safety pin on the floor…no matter. The next morning we meant to get up early and take plenty of time meandering about the city, and enjoying the rich history  of a city we had worked so hard to reach. We slept in a little too late, however, and then lingered too long at a delightful vegan restaurant where we took our breakfast. 

The vegan restaurant was located on the main road, right around the corner from the Binh Long Hotel (where we stayed) on Duong 7 -5, called “Quan an Chay, Yen Ninh” and written beneath that “Vegetarian Restaurant” on a sign to the right of the door. I spotted it the night before when we were looking for the hotel, but foolishly we didn’t go back and look for it because we though the Lonely Planet restaurant was a sure thing after a day of disappointments. Happily, we found it for breakfast, and the woman who runs the restaurant was an absolutely delightful conversationalist. She spoke English fluently, and we chatted about how difficult it can be to eat against the norm. The food was fabulous, a vegan Pho with tofu, soya and chili. Vegetarian, Vegan, or neither, if you ever find yourself in Dien Bien Phu I highly recommend this restaurant. Between the food and the warm hospitality of the owner, dining there was one of the highlights in our journey.


One comment

  1. Fabulous! Wondering if at some point you could post a map so we could either SEE where in Vietnam you were or how long the trek?

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