Hotel Lan Anh was run by typical Vietnamese; which means they won’t pass up on any opportunity to squeeze whatever Dongs they can out of their guests. In this case, it meant expensive room rates coupled with expensive food. After last night’s costly dinner, I decided to see what the town had to offer for breakfast instead. I hadn’t seen many shops as I rolled into town the day before but I was sure the morning scene would be different.
At 6am, after loading up, and paying for my room, I headed out through the gates of the hotel — the sun had just cheerfully cleared the horizon; the air was cool, and I had high hopes for another great day on the road.
A hundred metres from the hotel, I saw the first cafe, and as I rode up, I could see it was already busy with 2 customers tucking into their steaming hot Phos. There were 3 dogs tied up outside — and I thought the owners must be quite the dog-lovers. I parked my steed and stepped into the dark interior of the cafe. The proprietress gave me a friendly nod and, after acknowledging the other 2 guests, I pointed to their bowls of noodles and held up one forefinger. She smiled knowingly and disappeared into the adjoining kitchen.
It would seem that in Vietnam, it’s considered normal to add a little zing to your breakfast, usually in the form of rice wine. The 2 gentlemen below were doing just that and they were taking it very easy; constantly quaffing little tea-cups of rice-wine in between mouthfuls of noodles and what seemed to be a very serious conversation topic. As I sat down opposite them, they expectedly asked me to join them in their alcoholic carousal but I shook my head vigourously and gestured with my fists circling that I was cycling. I also enacted with my fingers extended in a flat palm how I would be moving in a zig-zag manner if I were to take up their offer. They laughed loudly and as the lady served me my noodles, they re-enacted the whole episode to her. More laughter … the mood was infectious, and that made me even more impatient to tuck into a hot meal.
As I took up a pair of ‘indisposable’ chopsticks (nobody disposed of disposable chopsticks in Vietnam; it just didn’t make economic sense), I took a whiff of the dark-coloured soup with familiar thin white rice noodles in it. I had never had such Pho before but as always, I was game for new flavours. I took a mouthful and thought ‘hey, it’s not too bad’, although this was the strongest-flavoured Pho I had ever tried yet. The meat was slightly tough to the bite and I wondered if this was a well-exercised kerbau kampong , or what we would call water buffalo.
And then, a horrible thought suddenly struck me … 3 dogs outside, one dog underneath the table even as we ate … could it be? Naaah… I paused and caught the attention of my fellow diners, pointed to my bowl and then pointed outdside and asked “woof, woof?”. They nodded with a smile and said “Tit Cho!” and gave a thumbs-up sign as well. My chopsticks frozed in mid-air for a few seconds…
Ok… “stay cool”, I thought. I hadn’t quite planned for this, but I’d already had a few mouthfuls of noodles. So what to do? I looked at the bowl of Pho and thought the best thing to do would be … finish up the rest of the noodles la! Just don’t touch the meat. I quickly finished it, paid, and I was out of there in a flash. As I kicked off the bike stand, I saw the sign outside clearly for the first time — Tit Cho.
On a bike tour, one is never fully satiated when it comes to food, and plain noodles alone just won’t do. So I did the next sensible thing. I went back to expensive Hotel Lan Anh (like a dog with its tail tucked between its legs). The staff there was a bit amused to see me back again. I acted like nothing happened and casually asked if the kitchen was alreay open. They said ‘yes’, and I ordered a bowl of Pho Ga … with emphasis on the word ‘Ga’, or chicken, plus my customary cup of coffee. That wasn’t going to be enough though, so I asked them to prepare for me 3 hard-boiled eggs, to go. As I paid for the expensive breakfast, the lady hotel-owner was suddenly very generous and gave me a few bananas, on the house. Well, extra food… great! Onwards to Dien Bien Phu!
Dien Bien, as most Vietnamese called it, was 108 km away. From all accounts, it promised to be another long and challenging day. As I left the town behind, the gradient dictated that I shift to a smaller gear. I settled down and mentally prepared for a long ride.
It turned out to be a 32 km climb, all the way to Ma Thi Do Pass. As I pedalled, I kept looking out for the dreaded 10% sign, but fortunately there were none. Anything but 10% I could handle with a smile. At Ma Thi Do Pass, it was downhill all the way to the town of Moung Cha where I stopped for a lunch of Pho (obviously) and iced coffee. It was high noon, it was hot, and it tooka great effort to tear myself away from my comfortable slouch and get back on the bike again. I had only done 47 km so I had to be cruel to myself …
It turned out to be an easy ride for the next 14 km until the rolling hills started again, and not all were gentle climbs either. At some places, the road even changed from smooth to bone-shakingly rough. At one point, it was literally a river-crossing, as a bridge was being built to replace the one that was probably washed away by floods.
4 days of mountains can take a toll one’s legs, and I was beginning to feel the fatigue and pain in my quads, calf muscles, triceps (from hours of holding on to the handlebar) and the most painful of all, my buttocks — not the muscles, but where the saddle meets pelvic bone. But I told myself, this was child’s play compared to what the Viet Minh went through as they prepared to do battle with the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1953.
As I neared Dien Bien, I had begun to recollect my visit to Hanoi’s military musuem and the ‘Battle of Dien Bien Phu’ AV show which employed an impressive diorama built on a low stage to tell the story. As the images came on screen, the lights on the diorama would light up and indicate the movement of both the French and the Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh army as they finally met in bloody confrontation that would last 53 days.
The French had been confident of crushing the Viet Minh rebels but they underestimated the resolve and mental strength of their opponents. Over months, the Viet Minh had stealthily moved a massive amount of heavy artillery through the jungles and mountains up to the hills that overlooked Dien Bien. It was clearly a logistical nightmare, as there wouldn’t have been nice sealed roads like what I was riding through now.
As I rode up and down the hills to Dien Bien, I could not help thinking about the sheer guts and determination that they had to have in order to prepare for such a decisive battle. And here I was trying to deal with the pain of riding up a few steep hills on a fully-loaded bike with 2 panniers.
The picture of Dien Bien Phu that presents itself to visitors today is a far cry from the badly scarred battleground in 1953. Most of it has been converted to padi fields although a portion of it has been retained for historical, and tourism, purposes.
As I rolled into town, dusk was beginning to settle over the skies. I was worn out and saddle-weary from 4 days of riding in the mountains and I could feel it in my body, which was pleading for a full day of rest. My dilemma — should I rest a full day here, or push on another 37 km tomorrow to Tay Trang, the international border crossing to Laos? I had no idea what the terrain would be like so I thought it would be wiser to ask the locals. When I asked the guest-house owner about it, he simply and very confidently swept the air with his palm down, indicating that it would be a flat ride. Fantastic, I thought. 37 km should take me no more than 3, maybe 4 hours max. So, Tay Trang it is. Tomorrow I would be in Laos — a different country, a different language and a supposedly friendlier people.
Muong Lay to Dien Bien Phu – 108 km
Total ascent – 1280m
Total descent – 940m
Total distance to date – 347 km
Muong Lay to Ma Thi Do Pass – 32 km uphill
Ma Thi Do to Muong Cha – 15 km downhill
Easy after Muong Cha until km 61, then rolling hills
Km 85-88, last uphill, rough road conditions
After km 88, downhill then flat all the way to Dien Bien Phu