We lingered too long at the vegan restaurant, and like tourist fools forgot to check the hours of the attractions we planned on visiting. We should have known better, as most government buildings close from 12-2pm for lunch. In this case, however, the museums and historical sites closed from 11:00-1:30pm. Why a 2 1/2 hour lunch break is necessary, I have no idea. It would be logical to stagger breaks and keep the attractions open, in order to make more money from tourists. Things aren’t logical in Vietnam, however, so this wasn’t a productive line of thought. Just an irritated one.
Briefly, Dien Bien Phu is famous for a battle that turned the tide of the war against the French. The French didn’t expect the Vietnamese to be able to haul heavy artillery up the mountainside. As a result, they didn’t take appropriate precautions and were roundly defeated. It was the beginning of the end for French Colonialism. We arrived at the Bunker Headquarters of Colonel de Castries, the French commander whose bunker was overrun by the Viet Minh forces, ending the battle. Luckily, they let us in (perhaps because it was a couple of minutes before 11:00) and didn’t charge us admission. It was definitely worth visiting, though I wished we could actually enter the bunker for full effect. Next we drove over to Hill A1, considered impregnable, and the most important French position in the valley. I had to beg at length for us to be let inside, as we arrived just as they were closing for afternoon siestas. I must have played my part well and looked as desperate as I felt because he finally let us in and allowed us a half hour to wander around. The French bunkers and tunnels have been recreated here, and a French tank stands at the top of the hill. The trenches, monuments, tanks and huge network of tunnels were truly impressive, though the signs provided no information about the battle that took place there. Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the Dien Bien Phu museum, which was under construction, or the war cemetery, which was closed.
We got back on the bike and began the 5 hour journey to Son La. The drive was all mountains, rice paddies and rivers – perhaps more beautiful than the day before. My butt, however, quickly felt sore and my muscles instantly stiff. After the previous day’s 10-hour drive I though I could endure anything but it was not so. My tolerance for time spent in the saddle actually seemed to decrease in the coming days.
Here’s a map of northern Vietnam. Our route started in Sapa, and looped North and Northwest, back to Hanoi:
View another great map located here.
We arrived in Son La without any problems and pulled over to look at the map on Colin’s phone. It seemed – quite mysteriously – that it didn’t get saved in the off-line maps. Once again, we had no idea where we were and the LP didn’t provide any map at all for Son La. We stopped at a gas station and asked directions from a taxi driver, who called our hostel and then drew us a map. From there we made our way back, but missed our turn because all the street signs are marked with the direction they head, or the nearest city, rather than the street name. We eventually located the road our hostel was on but still couldn’t find the place. I asked a security guard for directions and he looked at me blankly.
As it turned out the guest house was just up the street. That’s another example of the complication and frustration of not being able to communicate. That said, the Vietnamese people we came across often seemed somewhat reluctant to even try to understand.
We finally found the guest house, only after stopping at the Trade Union Hotel (also recommended by the LP but substantially more expensive) and being given very reluctant directions. I don’t know why, as they didn’t even have a room available for us. The guest house, Viet Trinh, recommended for cleanliness in the LP, was a complete dump. The bathroom was very dirty, with used toothbrushes and an open tube of toothpaste on the sink. There were dirty cups on the counter and the toilet had no seat. The guest house appeared deserted. Instead of a reception area there was a living room, where the family were sprawled out, having dinner. I’m not particularly picky, but a dirty bathroom’s kind of a deal-breaker.
We were able to find another guest house just up the road, directly behind the Trade Union Hotel. The sun began to set and we climbed a set of rock steps built into the hill-side behind the hotel. After about 20 minutes, we reached a pretty decent look out point, though it was a bit hazy. During our entire trip in northern Vietnam, I never saw the stars. Though we were pretty lucky weather-wise, the sky always seemed blocked out by a layer of smog-like clouds. Oddly, there was what looked like a French built guard-house at the top of the hill. After a bit of exploration, we headed down the hill in search of a cold beer.
We intended to have a drink at the Trade Union Hotel but were chased down by the receptionist, who told us we weren’t allowed unless we were staying there. Neither of us had ever encountered a hotel bar that closed it’s doors to non-hotel customers. Frustrated we left and as we rounded the corner a Vietnamese woman saw us and yelled, “Cold beer!”
So we ended up sitting next to the street at her little stall, which, we reasoned, was probably better than sitting in the noisy, brightly lit mess hall at the Trade Union Hotel. It was, however, ill-advised not to eat earlier in the evening. By the time we finished our beer and went looking for food it was late and we were hungry. We found ourselves in an area with no English speakers and I couldn’t find any veg restaurant recommendations anywhere on the web. We weren’t of a mind to go searching for another restaurant that the LP recommended. We also couldn’t just venture into a small, street food-esque restaurant because their one dish would undoubtably have meat in it. We were tired, stressed and short with one another.
In the end, we went to a small market and bought instant noodles, biscuits and yogurt. We walked back to the beer woman, who gave us hot water and another round of cold brews. We didn’t go hungry, though dinner left something to be desired.
The next morning we got up early and started riding toward Mai Chau. The drive was meant to be about the same length as the previous day (around 5 hours). We stopped first to get the bike’s chain lubed and tightened. It cost $.25, and the shop owners offered us tea afterwards, which we sat and drank with them (the silence broken only by occasional attempts to communicate).
We planned to stop in both Yen Chau and Moc Chau on the way. Yen Chau’s known for its fruit production and plum wine, but we didn’t know the first thing about finding wine in the sleepy little town. We continued on towards Moc Chau, known for its dairy production as well as tea. Apparently, Moc Chau provides the region with fresh milk and yogurt. We found a bakery and ate some yogurt while we waited for things to come out of the oven. We stopped at the local market and bought pineapple and oranges. Then we headed to a café for some tea, but the woman brewed it insufferably strong and ruined the whole experience. It was so bitter it was virtually undrinkable. We ordered coffee instead. As we sat there a serious mist descended. By the time we got on the road it was foggy and sprinkling.
If I didn’t trust Colin so completely I might have suggested we try to wait it out. The road was slick and gravelly on the shoulder. If I kept the plastic eye-protector down on my helmet, it collected rain and I couldn’t see a thing. Mini windshield wipers would’ve been ideal. At one point, a dog ran out to sniff something in the road. We couldn’t risk swerving to Colin honked the horn and held the course. Luckily, the dog didn’t move (nor did it even seem fazed when we zoomed by the tip of its nose). The gravelly bits turned into mud and the mud spit up on us. To top it all off, there were little patches of construction were the road turned into mud with deep tracks from the truck tires. Luckily, the buses and cars took the crazy passing down a notch. Hearing the cars honk behind me still made me jump. My mind turned to thinking about all the things that could go wrong as they weaved through traffic on that foggy mountain pass. It seemed to go on and on. We slowed down considerably and rode behind a couple other motor bikers (carrying wide-loads, no less). By the time the fog started to lift we were soaked, muddy and deeply relieved.