Monday, July 10, 2006

Dien Bien Phu - the final frontier.. of sorts!

July 10th. OK - after 3 hours of sleep (thank you World Cup Final!), its off to meet Geoff and Mike (aka my new best friends from Canada) after saying a fond farewell to the wonderful Carolien and Pat. Feels wierd that i really prob. won't bump into them again on this trip as they are heading off to China but hey, I'll be in Holland in January so hope to see them then! Thanks so much for all the brillo tips folks... what will i do without you?

So, I sauntered down the hill to the boys guest house to meet up with them and start our adventure to Dien Bien Phu. Quick confession to make - until i met the boys i had no idea where this place was... never mind all the interesting historical background to it (and i had a hard time saying it too!). I think ive probably mentioned before, and im happy to say it again. In the travel world, there are 2 kinds of travelers; those who choose and enjoy to travel alone and then people like me - needy travelers who catch on and eventually stalk any half decent, semi-comatose person they can find to put up with them for a few days... no, i promise im not selling myself short. I am a travel stalker. Hmmn - not sure if i mentioned that to the boys before they agreed to let me come with them?

Anyway, as usual i digress! We met our driver, Mr Hom (think he might have been younger than me!) and we later found out he is a pretty crazy guy! Mr Doung was our "travel guide" - yes, there is a reason that title is in quotes. But we will get to that later. So we jumped into our flash Land Rover and we were off!

Day 1 was a long driving day. The boys did warn me that no-one else was willing to drive to Dien Bien Phu (from now on called DBP for short ok!) due to it being the rainy season and the fact its a pretty long drive away from Sapa but they knew a tour guide who said, no problem, he could organize it for them. Pity he wasnt the tour guide we had for the trip - but again im jumping ahead. At this point, we are happily oblivious to Mr Duongs travel expertise and capabilities (or lack thereof!). First stop was a beautiful waterfall just outside of town.....realised as we headed out after Mike picked up some sticky rice and peanuts for breakfast (see, i remember everything!), that this was going to be a great trip; lots of interesting, challenging, and thought provoking conversation....and we've only been on the road for 10 minutes! Phew - how will i keep up!

A wee bitta background on "the boys". Geoff is a teacher living in Capetown. He has worked in a number of countries in Africa including Ethiopia and Namibia and the way he talks about Africa; the people, the atmosphere, the outdoors; you just want to get on a plane and go there right away to experience it for yourself (those of us unlucky folks who haven't been yet!). Very descriptive and you can tell how much he loves it right away! Oh yes and he's also Mr Superfitness training for the next Ironman triathlon....but luckily he did like my peanut brittle so i didnt have to feel too bad about my couch potato tendancies! So Africa - a big change from Canada "eh" (teehee that was my Canadian impression - the "eh" that for some reason most crazy Canucks that ive met, love to use!). Mike has just finished working as an English teacher in Japan; enjoys the odd kareoke session and is very passionate about many things.. primarily in the social, anthropoligical and leftward leaning arena of life (although i know he'll probably hate any labeling of any sorts... reminds me of a conversation we had about the World Cup but that's another story!). Oh yes, and he loves to eat and floss! Their father is a dentist so they have no hang ups about flossing here there and everywhere! They have a lovely mum and a wee brother called Kid Ray! See what you learn about people when you travel!!! But enough of that - back to the trip at hand!

It got hotter and hotter today..especially when we arrived at a giant landslide and had to hang out for over 2 hours while the diggers shored up the road to let us past. Aah... the joys of traveling in the rainy season! Once we got across, we encountered - yup, yet another precipitious road where a wee man actually tried to ride his motorbike past what was obviously a dodgy bit of road, so he ended up falling down the side of the cliff!! Luckily a bunch of folks managed to pull him - and his motorbike - back up but it was quite scary to see (and im sure a lot more scary for him!).

Saw some of the hill people on our travels - Blach H'mong, Flower H'mong and Black Dao tribes among others! Our trip would take us from Sapa over the Tram Ton Pass (gorgeous) up 1,000m to Lai Chau and then on to DBP. Due to the rains, the Song Da river was HUGE.. looked like it was almost going to burst its banks! ...

So driving, driving, driving then oops - our lights go out. We have no lights on the Land Rover.. kind of a problem when there are no street lights (luckily for us the local police, who pulled us over later in the day for a routine inspection didn't do a thorough check!). Otherwise, Mr Hom would have been in big trouble - he was nervous enough as it was.. horrible to see actually. Big fat cats parading around in their uniforms, using their authority to make others feel so beholden to them. We were all quite outraged and felt very protective towards crazy Mr Hom but i suppose thats just the way things are here... actually that's the way things are everywhere right. Vietnam is no exception!

Coming into town the boys shone their torches to try and light the way ahead... didnt seem to make Mr Hom feel like driving any slower.. and we did fear for any child or animal who got in our way but luckily the roads were quiet! We began to question Mr Duong's travel guide expertise when we had a mini-showdown about hotels. Clearly he had one hotel in mind and we just wanted to check out other options (think i was spoiled my Luong and my Easy Rider experience - Mr Duong is no Easy Rider guide let me tell you that!). Anyway, long story a tiny bit shorter, we ended up staying at the hotel (which we later find out is right next to the massage parlour - code word for you know what!!!). And that's why Duong was so keen to stay here - hmmnn boys eh! It was pretty late and there were no restaurants open, however Duong (notice he's lost the Mr.... no need for that now!) managed to ask an old lady across the street to cook up anything she had left over for us for dinner. Thank goodness for tofu!! Actually it was a scrumptious meal and we had a full on conversation with the wee lady who was lovely - even tho' neither of us could understand each other. BUT sign language is amazing!

July 11th. Up early today as agreed - 7am. But no driver or guide.. too tired after their massage i think! Pouring rain - its been like a monsoon since 5am - ive never seen this much rain and im from Scotland! OK so they finally arrived and we headed off to the underground bunker the French used as their headquarters during the war. Probably good at this point to give you a wee background on DBP (which we learned more about when we went to the museum)...This site is famous for the decisive battle between the Vietnamese and the French. On May 7th, 1954 French troops were defeated by the Viet Minh, which essentially led to the end of the Indochine empire in this region of Asia. The battle took place in one of the most remote parts of Vietnam, 34kms from the Laos border, in the flat heart shaped Muong Thanh valley surrounded by steep forested hills. Over 13,000 French troops were killed or taken prisoner in and around their garrisons. The Vietnamese suffered 25,000 losses.....a huge toll on them, but they still beat the French, one of their crowning achievements in their quest to get their country back from "invaders". A huge surprise to the French was the fact the Viet Minh had a massive cannon which took them 8 years to physically carry by hand from Hanoi to DBP, to help them defeat the French (who thought there was no way the Vietnamese could beat them). So many died here; it is an integral part of French history because the positions were lost so quickly. The museum catalogued the battle really well (did i mention we were slightly worried about Duong's credentials as a tour guide! He quite happily told us he bought a DVD of the war story so he could "learn more"). Hey, isnt he supposed to know this stuff already?

After this we asked to go to the cemetary which is meant to be quite impressive... Surprise - Duong had never been there before! And Mr Hom didnt really want to stop.. ahem, 'scuse me! So off we went and it really was a beautiful place. Very sad obviously but beautiful too. We burned incense and said a wee prayer then off we went to continue our crazy tour. Visited the local market where the boys bought tons of longistines and rambutans (Mike LOVES rambutans!!).

Driving out of DBP - technically on our way back to Sapa (one more overnight stay then we would arrive there tomorrow - well, that was the plan!), we saw more incredible scenery and lots of Thai hillpeople - Dao, White and Black Thai, more H'mongs - so many tribes!!! When we stopped for lunch, Mr Hom did his usual and puffed away on his water pipe, so i thought i would have a wee try.. not bad i have to say, although to be honest not sure if i did it right!! Bit like a shisha water pipe - or hookah - that everyone smokes in Dubai. A strange thing happened on the way out of town. As we were driving off, a man appeared from nowhere and pressed his hand against the window next to Mike. Mike being Mike, he put his hand up to match the other guys.. then the stranger started blowing kisses at him. Next thing he is pretty much kissing the window as we are driving off...a tad wierd shall we say. Suppose you had to have been there but it was very funny .. and odd!! Duong said the guy wanted a lift to the next village but he was a bit of an opium head so we couldnt take him - ahh just another fun moment on this trip!!

As we drove, and Duong and Mr Hom continued to ask directions about 50 times and not actually listen to any of them, we three travelers chatted away about human rights, politics, immigration, your general state of the world today conversations you have while whisking around the northern Vietnamese highlands!

And then we arrived in our next town. The town that im not sure even Duong knew the name of. The town he had never been before; that didnt get tourists coming through, and that we had to move from the nice guest house (once we finally found it - where the family were essentially giving us their bedrooms to sleep in and were so lovely) to the hideous, awful, ugly stepsister house next door that was the "official" guest house in town that someone obviously tipped off the police who came by and made us move there! Huh! It was DISGUSTING! Wouldnt even show you a pic - so GROSS! No working toilet, the boys had termites eating away on their bedposts that they heard all night, poor Geoff had drips coming through from the ceiling and me, well, i just couldnt sleep in case a) a bug came near me - you felt they were everywhere.. or b)i needed to go to the loo. Impossible really! And it cost $6 - alot of money in Vietnam for a room and you usually get something really lovely for that! We couldnt go anywhere else cos this was the official place to stay so we decided to go out and check out the town (did i mention Duong was telling us that due to landslides and the fact he had no idea where we were, we would have to stay an extra night tomorrow which would of course cost more money etc etc.. and there were many back and forth phone calls between "the boss" and us all evening long.. aahh). But i digress. We went to check out the local market and it was fantastic. The people were lovely, there were amazing things to see; crickets to eat, crab kebabs, dyed silk worms for special rice wine. After this, we pottered around town then went for dinner at a local place where we drowned our sorrows (not really, it just sounds more dramatic!) in lotsa bia hoi, Mike tried some crickets, the boys ate rancid chicken, my order of tofu didnt arrive so i had some nice veggies, oh yes and we watched a large table of Vietnamese men get louder and louder as they drank more and more rice wine... And then there was the dodgy policeman we saw try to manhandle one of the girls working there. She dealt with him - sort of - but it was very nice to see that the boys would have come to her defence if need be...mind you, coming to her defence against a Vietnamese police officer in a town we didn't even know the name of.. not sure of the ramifications there but of course it didn't come to that, so all was good!

July 12th. Aahh - another day dawns with our intrepid tour guide Duong, now officially useless as he has given up the ghost and just has poor Geoff talk to "the boss" on the phone every time a decision has to be made.. how do we get back to Sapa with all the landslides, how much more money will it be, where do we stay tonight .. useless i tell you! But i have to say we had so many giggles about him, i think it was worth it ..gosh do i sound a bit rotten here! Don't mean to, we had a good few laughst with him too i promise you!

As we headed off on our "alternate" route, and asked for more and more directions, we decided we needed to pull out the big guns. Geoff's GPS thingy.. i was very impressed with it i must say.. but didnt really help us as of course we didnt have a clue where we were starting from.. Too funny really! Nice how Mr Hom kept pointing out the local ladies washing in the river to the boys - pervert! Anyway at last we arrived in yet another city which had been untread by the tourist trail (all of which we actually liked and was a new experience..). We were in Yin Bao, half way between Hanoi and Sapa. As i didnt need to go back to Sapa (although i was loathe to leave the boys cos we were having such a good time) it made sense for me to take the train the next day to Hanoi and they would head back with Mr Travel Guide and Mr Crazy Driver to Sapa, from where they were going on to China.

Did i mention how the boys bankrolled me lovely of them! I had run out of money (not like me i promise, mum!) but there were no banks or ATMS in the towns we had been in in the last few days, so Geoff very kindly gave me a wee cash advance which we agreed i would run away with and never pay back (oops i mean i would leave with their friend Max who runs Hanoi Backpackers for him to pick up when they got back from China!). After a wee relax for me, and a 20 mile run for the boys (are they mad, its hot here folks, i mean HOT!)....we all met up with Duong and Mr Hom and went for dinner at a wee local place run by this lovely family.
Duong thoroughly enjoyed chewing on a delicious chicken beak, after very politely offering it to all of us. Ahh, thanks very much but no thanks, we replied - even Mike who will eat pretty much anything!! And then there was Geoff looking for the dog restuarant....seriously Geoff, you should be ashamed of yourself. Did i mention that for most of the local restaurants, their fridge is usually a wooden dresser, where they keep their meats away from the flies - well, as much as they can. But hey, none of us had dodgy bottoms so it obviously worked ok (i did eat alot of tofu though on this trip, not sure if it had anything to do with anything!)...

After dinner, it was time for kareoke! The owner of the restaurant came with us and a mystery lady also joined us - we thought she worked there so we sang and chatted to her, bought her a wee drink or two, then at the end of the night she jumped on her scooter and buzzed off. Too strange - and so sad as we thought Duong was a tad smitten..... oh well. Kareoke was hilarious!

Mike was an old hand from his time in Japan and obviously the Vietnamese LOVE it as i mentioned before. And Geoff wasnt too shy either. Unlike the US or UK, you rent a room here (similar to Japan) and you have your own TV and drinks and whatever you want for the night. Hilarious! Duong jumped right in singing, or should i say screaming into the microphone. I tried to hide it but i couldnt stop laughing. I mean seriously people - we are talking SCREAMING!!!! Then Mike did a few classics then Duong wrestled the mike back and did an old army song that roused Mr Hom into action and the two of them gave it "laldie" (not sure of spelling but old Scottish word for "went crazy.."). After a few drinkies, i managed to squeak out a Madonna classic or two, its amazing how it actually gets quite addictive after a while. Such a laugh i have to say and a brilliant end to a fabby trip.....can't thank the boys enough for letting me tag along.. wouldn't have missed it for the world and will remember laughing my head off for 3 days straight (has it only been 3 days, feels like 3 weeks with Duong in charge!). Oh well, all brillo things come to an end... that's a travelers life eh!

Postscript - thank goodness i had a few drinkies - headed home to our really lovely hotel - honestly my room was really nice.. and saw two massive cockroaches run across the floor.. AAAAAAAAAHGHH thank goodness i was tipsy so jumped around a bit, to hopefully scare them away, then fell asleep. There's alot to be said for alcohol in times like these!<


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