Saturday 29 June. Dien Bien Phu. 0 km.
After 6 days on the move, we decided to have a rest day, which I was very glad of as yesterday I completely flagged as we arrived into Dien Bien Phu. Our general experience of border towns hasn’t been great, so we didn’t expect much of Dien Bein Phu….but our homestay accommodation was fantastic and the town itself is steeped in history so in this instance I think we chose well.
After a fantastic breakfast of omelette baguettes we undertook the usual first-day-in-a-country-chores of supermarket shopping (always exciting in a new country), getting SIM cards and local currency. (We are still millionaires!) Then we set off to discover some local history.
Dien Bien Phu was the battleground where the French lost the First Indochina war (Indochina was the area in SE Asia colonised by the French) in 1954 to the Vietnamese communists led by Ho Chi Minh. It ended an eight-year-old war and led to Vietnamese independence. Shortly afterwards when France agreed to withdraw from all of its colonies in French Indochina, Vietnam was temporarily dividied into North and South Vietnam. One year later when North Vietnam tried to gain control of the South, the Vietnam War (also known as the second Indichina war) started.
We visited A1 hill in the town’s centre, which is a reconstruction of the actual Dien Bien Phu battle site – complete with French trenches, bunkers, a giant bomb crater, barbed wire and an old French tank.
It also gave stunning views of the town and surrounding area including the hills that we have to get over in the next few days!
We also visited the victory monument on hill D1, which apparently is Vietnam’s tallest brass statue ….
…so in a few hours we definitely felt like we got a flavour of some local and national history!
After lunch we noticed that the entire town seemed eerily deserted. We know it’s hot and humid, but in a town with a population of over 70,000 people we expected to see a few more vehicles on the main road….
….and as most of the shops were also closed, there was nothing for it other than an afternoon snooze, which is what we assume the locals do!!
After our lucky escape from “dog for dinner” last night, we opted for a vegetarian dinner, which was by far one of the best meals we have had in a long time. And then is was another day over and time for bed. Even on our days off, time seems to fly!!
It’s interesting that although we are only 40km over the border from Laos how different everything in Vietnam feels already. It’s that invisible barrier that we have talked about before….and it’s very bizarre how things can be be different over such a short distance. But it is – the people seem happier and much friendlier, the food is completely different, the writing is different (they only use Latin script but nothing is written in English), the pick-up trucks that were everywhere in Laos have completely disappeared and everything just has a very different “feel” to anywhere else we have been on SE Asia so far, which has really surprised us.
Sunday 30 June. Dien Bein Phu to Tuan Giao. 75 km.
Our lovely homestay host got up at 5am to make us breakfast before we left, so we were sufficiently fuelled up when we left Dien Bien Phu on a quiet Sunday morning. Once again the weather was in our favour – dry and overcast, although it was very humid.
Our route took us over some biggish hills over the course of the morning, but they were in short, sharp bursts so the pain was relatively short-lived. And that was all completely out-weighed by the amazing scenery from the minute we left Dien Bien Phu until we arrived at destination. It was everything we had imagined rural Vietnam to be….spectacular rugged mountains with hundreds of wide-open paddy fields below. The paddy fields were being worked by the locals and everything seemed to be in bright green, although the photos don’t show it that way!
We passed through loads of small farming villages with lots of friendly “hellos”and “Sin Chaos” from both adults and children – many of the children were just so excited to wave and say hello to us.
And lots of beautiful, traditional houses…
We knew we weren’t in a particularly affluent area, but they still seem to have much better quality housing than they did across the border in Laos. We did encounter a few menacing dogs, but even that didn’t break the charm. Definitely one of the nicest rides we have had in a long time!
Got to base, found some basic lodgings with the all-important aircon and set off to find lunch. It’s still early days for us and only our first proper day on the road in Vietnam but already food appears to be a bit of a struggle. Firstly a lot of places seem to be closed at lunchtime – and by that I mean after 12.30! Pho is the one food item we know, which is noodle soup – and if a restaurant doesn’t have that we get stuck. Many places don’t seem to have menus or offer fixed meals as such. It seems to be that you choose ingredients from a menu board and say how you want it cooked….which is difficult when we have no local language, the locals don’t have much English and Google Translate is rubbish. The second issue is that they seem to eat ANYTHING…from the pictures on the menu board we could see tortoise, frog, chicken, pigeon, dog, cat some other animals and fish that we couldn’t identify. We ordered chicken and we got served a plate of a hacked up old bird…including the head, beak and feet. It takes a lot for me not to be able to eat, but I just couldn’t. There was rice and veg as well so I didn’t starve, but it was a sorry end to what had been an absolutely brilliant morning. Food is the one thing that can make or break a day for us, so we are just hoping we have more luck. Unfortunately that didn’t happen over dinner ….I opted for rice and eggs, while Nigel persevered with chicken. The below is what he left on his plate after his meal as it wasn’t properly cooked…..
Oh well. Bread, rice and eggs might have to be the diet for our time here!
Monday 1st July. Tuan Giao to Son La. 82km.
As we started loading our bikes at 5.30am the heavens opened…and it pretty much stayed like that for the day! Not ideal conditions for a day in the hills, but we have been lucky with the weather for so long we just had to grin and bear it. And once we were on the move we just got used to it – even the thunder and lightening!
Another spectacular route through the hills, but we didn’t see as much as we would have liked to as we were right in the rain clouds for most of it.
But once again we were in lush hills, passing through lots of small villages inhabited by tribes…mainly Thai ethnic groups, which we find surprising and a bit confusing as we are so far away from Thailand.
We reached the first sumit, the Pha Din pass, around 10am and decided to change into dry clothes and put on our rain jackets to avoid getting cold on the downhill. At this stage our hands and feet were both VERY wrinkly from the constant rain….and it’s the first time in a long time that we have both felt cold. A poor teenage boy got a right eyeful of me changing my top as he turned a corner ….and is probably still traumatised as I write this!!
On the downhill, the rain cleared up for a bit so we did get so the bright green terraced paddy fields and other crops. Really lovely.
We reached our destination Son La around 1pm, which was good going considering the hills and weather. Found a place to stay and the usual routine of shower and snooze, when we both completely conked out for 1.5 hours!
I am glad to report that we had two successes on the food front today. The first was cycling through a town around 11am and I noticed a street cart similar to the first meal we had in Dien Bien Phu where they sell freshly-made Pate and omelette toasted baguette. We ate one there and bought an extra two to carry with us, chuffed to find something tasty and hot. While we were waiting on them to cook we had a lovely conversation with a local boy, around 10 years old, who wanted to practice his English, which we said he learns from books and English cartoons! Our second food success was dinner in Son La. Althugh I was adamant that I was only going to eat rice and eggs, we came across a shop that sold Bun Cha…no idea what it was but we googled it and it’s a typical Vietnamese dish with barbecued pork balls in soup, with noodles and fresh herbs. All the elements served individually so you mix and match for the flavour and consistency you want.
We decided to give it a try as we could see all the ingredients and it looked OK….and so it was. In fact it was more than OK – it was really good! We were pretty chuffed with ourselves that we managed to find something we liked and after a tough day it was just what we needed – both mentally and physically! And it’s a dish that we will know again for the future. A few more dishes like these and we can feel more confident in the food department!
A couple of things that we have observed already, which are quite important for us when we are on the road.
The first is that everywhere seems to shut for a few hours in the afternoon – restaurants and shops, so we will have to eat lunch around 11.30/12 pm or else carry our own and eat when we reach base.
The second is that many food places only sell one thing eg Bun Cha, rolls, Noodle soup, rice etc….so we have to learn what each food item is and look for the appropriate shop. You can’t get fried rice in a Bun Cha shop, which is what I tried earlier!
And the third is the polite procedure for handing over money. In Myanmar you always gave money without your right hand and held your right elbow with your left hand when paying for something. This continued into Northern Thailand but less so in Laos, although we were still in the habit of doing it. Here it’s more like in Japan where you hand over money (they only have notes!) with both hands and a bit of a head bow. If you don’t have two hands free, the left hand on the right elbow is used, but it’s mostly with both hands. And they do seem to appreciate the fact that we do this, which is nice.
2 July. Son La to Na Khai. 62km.
It was dry when we headed off around 7.30am and apart from one quite heavy rain shower we had a morning of dry cycling. We can tell that we are getting near Hanoi as the road was very busy when we left Son La with lots of trucks and buses and hundreds of scooters.
The early part of the ride just seemed to go through a succession of small to medium-sized villages, but eventually we got into quieter countryside, The terrain was much more manageable than the last couple of days, but just as spectacular, green and lush. It’s hard to explain because in the photos it looks pretty similar to other countries that we have travelled through, but it definitely looks and feels very different to us – and we both really like it!
The French influence is very obvious with the many bakeries and cake shops exist in every town, so for us that means cake watch is back – hurrah!! And we stopped off to indulge under a park shelter en route….
Arrived at our planned destination before midday, found accommodation and followed the usual routine of wash and snooze, followed by a lazy afternoon. We thought we were in a small village with nothing here, but when we ventured out for dinner in the evening there was more going on than we expected….including a food market with lots of friendly locals! We especially like the ladies’ traditional head attire…
We don’t think the get many tourists here so it felt a bit like a celebrity walk-about (minus the paparazzi!) with all the waving, smiling and hellos we did…but we thoroughly enjoyed it and has confirmed the fact that we are already loving Vietnam.
And having had two further successes on the food front today we are now confident that we won’t be restricted to a diet of bread, eggs and rice over the next 6 weeks – more reasons to love it here!