Dien Bien Phu to Moung May; crossing into Laos. Day 10

After 347 km, a major portion of which was spent in the mountains, my legs were begging for a full day of rest. But besides the remnants of a battleground, Dien Bien had nothing else to offer. If I were French and my father, or grandfather, had been in the thick of the battle, it might have been different altogether. But I was not and I was more anxious to see Laos instead.

And so, taking the advice of the guest-house owner who confidently told me that it was flat all 37 km of the way to the border crossing at Tay Trang, I decided to take a chance and go for it. And I was really taking a chance, as the information I had on the Laos side was quite sketchy. I wasn’t even sure about the exact distance to the first town in Laos once I crossed the border. But the spirit of travel and adventure is such; the lure was too strong; and so, even though I wasn’t fully rested, I left Dien Bien for Laos.

The predictable scenery around Dien Bien continued to roll itself out as I cycled on in a straight line out of the city. Golden fields of ripe padi looked even more golden in the bright sunshine, while some squares were refreshingly green in their immaturity. Bicycles carrying all manner of goods and little children filled the road, hurrying to their destinations, as did the motorcycles.

Threshing padi by hand

Sickles in hand, Vietnamese young and old were busy harvesting padi, bent over in back-breaking pose; some of them in long rubber boots, and some of them looking a little too well-dressed for such menial tasks.  A closer look revealed the reason — they were in their 9-to-5 work-clothes, mostly uniforms, and they were obviously obliged to contribute to the family farm before going to work.

Just out of town, I stopped at a little Pho shop for breakfast. It was the kind of shop that appealed to me when I’m on the road — only locals. Here, the patrons all looked battle-hardened; most of them tanned, with coarse hands  and leathery skin, and dressed in clean but well-worn and faded clothes. a typical picture of an agrarian society.

The husband-and-wife team who ran the shop along with their daughter were very friendly. Usually, the less contact they have with tourists, the more friendly and honest they are; and these folks were no different, even taking time out to chat with me, asking me the usual questions. Of course, I don’t usually pay tourist rates in places like this.

The friendly couple who ran the Pho shop outside Dien Bien. The wife was shy about having her picture taken.

It's always steaming hot when it comes to Pho, and this version was one of the best I had tasted in Vietnam.

It was a real luxury cycling on the flat road leading out of Dien Bien. I figured I would be in Tay Trang in 3, maybe 4 hrs. I didn’t stock up on any food and only carried a 1.5 litre bottle of water, plus whatever was already in the bottle on the bike. It was after all, only 37 km, and international border crossings were normally busy places, which meant there would be food and drink.

Pancake flat, and only 31 km left.

I was wrong. On all accounts.

I had been suckered yet again. I guess the old adage about being bitten once wasn’t true after all. In my case, it was twice bitten, thrice shy.

At exactly 17 km out of Dien Bien Phu, where a huge cement plant was located, the road started climbing, albeit gently … at first. Then it climbed, and climbed, and climbed. What’s more, there were many 10% gradient sections as well.

Note: If I ever visit Dien Bien Phu again, history will record another great battle  — The Battle of Dien Bien Phu’s Guest-house Owner Versus The Malaysian Cycle-tourer. And the Malaysian would win too, no doubt about it.

Now I knew what he had meant when he gestured ‘flat all the way’. He meant until the road started climbing upwards, wherever that point was. How typically Vietnamese.

Well, nothing to do about it then. Just keep pedalling and hope it ends soon. It never did, of course. I was to climb all of 20 exhausting kms. At one point, when it hit one of the 10% gradient sections, I decided to walk and push the bike instead. I looked at the speedometer and it was registering the same speed as when I was just pedalling.

There was no song in my heart today.

All this while, it seemed like I was the only person using this road; no cars, no trucks, no motorcycles. There were a few farms here and there but not many farmers to be seen. It was too quiet for my liking. Could I be on the right road? According to my GPS, I was. The Tay Trang waypoint was ahead, and even the milestones indicated as such.

Finally, after I had almost run out of water, feeling totally exhausted and extremely hungry, I came upon a grand building at the top of a peak. It was the Vietnamese checkpoint at Tay Trang. But, curiouser and curiouser … there wasn’t a single soul around. Now I’m really spooked.

Nasty surprise #2 -- there were no humans and no food stalls; the Vietnamese checkpoint was deserted.

See you again?...not likely.

Then I noticed a sign on the side of the building that pointed down the empty road – ‘Tay Trang checkpoint’. Now, why would they do that? So I pushed on. Less than a km away, an old yellow building, and an arch that was unmistakeably the Vietnamese/Laos border crossing, came into view. The whole place was empty save for a Vietnamese immigration officer walking across the road to another smaller, official-looking building. He gestured for me to go in there, obviously to do the paperwork.

I was the only customer that afternoon, and it only took a couple of minutes to write my details into a big ledger; and then, a solid thump later, my passport was stamped and my sojourn in Vietnam was officially over.

A lone cow welcomed me to Laos as I walked my bike across the border. I ‘walked’ because the Vietnamese border guards insisted on it. Weird…what about cars, then? Do they have to push it across?

Nasty surprise #3 of the day. The beautifully sealed Vietnamese road came to an abrupt end at the arch, and a cross-country mountain biking trail took over.

2 km of easy downhill later, the official Souphone Laos checkpoint appeared. It was barely 3 months old when I arrived in October 08; impressive, too, given the condition of the road that led up to it.

As I cruised into the equally empty compound of the Laos checkpoint, I was met by a young man in shorts and T-shirt. He spoke reasonably good English and turned out to be an immigration officer. He asked if I needed a visa.  I said “No, I’m Malaysian … ASEAN”.

Working life seems to be very easy here. I asked where I could get water, not really hoping for anything more than that, and he pointed to a small hut just outside the compound. “There’s a woman there. She can’t speak English but you can buy food and water from her”, he added. I was elated…food at last. The mystery of the deserted Vietnamese building was also solved when he explained to me that eventually the Vietnamese will use the new building. At the moment they had taken over the old Laos checkpoint where I had just crossed 2 km ago.

Cafe Checkpoint Laos. The chap repairing a tyre tube is the immigration officer.

The owner was sleeping when I came knocking. After my new Lao-government friend translated my lunch requirements, she got down to work getting ready my instant noodles with an extra egg.

The dining area of the unpretentious cafe...

and, a few feet away, the proprietor's bed.

After lunch, and armed with new information on my next destination, I set off for Moung May about 25 km away. The good news — it’s all downhill and flat to Moung May. The bad news — it was more of the same cross-country trail I had just biked through. Some how I believed my new friend. However, the only thing he didn’t describe to me in detail was the condition of the road. Until now, I had only seen one other vehicle going the other way – a Toyota Hilux. Well, I was going to find out very, very soon.

The road was like this all the way downhill. With panniers and a handlebar bag, I couldn't let go of the brakes and enjoy the downhill...very frustrating.

Then it flattened out, and it started getting a little rutty and muddy.

Then a river appeared, with a flimsy bamboo bridge clearly meant for 2-wheelers and 2-legged creatures. Anything else with 4 wheels had no choice but to drive across the river. Now, I understand why there were so few vehicles on this road...

... this was 4-wheel drive country! Not for bicycles with panniers and slicks! And, worse, this was just mudpool #1...

It got muddier and muddier, and harder and harder to cross. At one mudpool, I had to unload the panniers, carry them across to dry ground, then came back for the bike. After this pic was taken, I fell into the mud while pushing my bike across the next one.

Adventure, yes. Endless mudpools, no. This wasn’t what I had in mind. I was feeling quite defeated by the time I crossed the 5th mudpool. According to the cyclocomputer, there was about 15 km more to go, and if it was dotted with rutted mudpools, I was done for. There was simply no way I could keep pushing a fully-loaded bike across them. I was very tired, hungry again, and I was at my wits end. There was only one thing left to do — pray.

Help came in the form of a trio of Chinese engineers who were building a small bridge across the river. At first I didn’t know they were Chinese and I tried to ask for help getting to Moung May. It was no use. I couldn’t understand Lao and he couldn’t speak English. Then, after a frustrating exchange, he blurted out in Mandarin. Suddenly, my very limited vocabulary of Mandarin came into play. “Ah, ni shi chung kuo ren?” Hey, I’m Chinese too! In the end, we managed to arrive at some kind of solution.

They had a truck which would be passing this way again on the way back to Moung May and I could hitch a ride on it. Perfect. What more could I ask for? I was done riding, and pushing, through mud for the day. While we waited for the truck, there was nothing to do except chat with the 3 Chinese gentlemen…and what a conversation we had. They were downright friendly. They were also finished for the day ( it was that late) which meant they could afford to chill out and engage in friendly banter as well. I’m very sure I have never spoken as much Mandarin in my life as I did that day. And those who know me know how limited my Mandarin is. But we all seemed to hit it off and had a great conversation. At the end, they knew where I came from, how much I paid for my air-ticket, how much my bike cost, how a GPS works, how many children I had and how old they were, and on and on and on.

But the one thing that really surprised them was when I told them that my ancestors came from Fujian, China. Suddenly, we were friends for life. They even treated me to some sugarcane, and later, a steamed dumpling, which they were having for dinner. One of them insisted I had one. The freshly-steamed dumpling was plain with no fillings, but it was tasty.

Chinese blood brother #1

Chinese blood brother #2

As the sun began to disappear into the horizon, the truck finally came. It carried a full load of river sand, about 8 Lao workers, and many large pieces of dried wood. In Lao, dried wood is like gold. It’s the only cooking fuel they can afford. Gas is only available in the cities.

Darkness settled over us very quickly and after they unloaded the sand and re-loaded the firewood, everyone was ready to go, including me and bike. My new-found Chinese friend told the driver, a compatriot of theirs, to send me to Moung May’s guest-house and, for good measure, he reiterated that my ancestors were from Fujian, China. Well, that sealed it for him, too — no letting down our own countrymen here. We set off for Muong May. Incredibly, the truck had no working headlights but the Chinese driver could actually see where he was going.

A few more rutted mudpools and several kms later, the truck stopped at a junction. The driver got down and told this me this was it, and that Moung May was just a little way ahead. I loaded up my panniers, fixed my trusty Cateye to my helmet and I made my way to town. It was pitch dark, but I could see clearly with the help of my light.

As I passed a few dimly-lit houses, I stopped to ask a Lao man where the guest-house was. He pointed down the road and I continued, reassured. And then, I came upon it, a large, brightly-lit bungalow with a sign that proclaimed it to be Amphon Guest House. The perimeter was all lighted up, too, and it was quite surreal; a gaudy structure among the ramshackle shanties that made up Moung May.

(pic taken the next day) Main street, Moung May. It looked more like a slum to me.

Hotel Amphon, the sore thumb in the midst of Moung May's squalid hovels

I heaved a huge sigh of relief as I cycled into the courtyard of the guest-house. The owner, who was sitting outside drinking tea, got up immediately to greet me when he saw me coming in, covered in black mud, and totally exhausted. He helped me with my panniers and, without another word led me to my room.

The dinner of sticky rice with boiled bamboo shoots and vegetable soup in a cafe by the river never tasted so good. Tomorrow was going to be a full rest day; waking up whenever I felt like it. It was a blissful feeling and I didn’t quite notice the black-out that occurred at 10pm just as I was drifting off…

Next: Idling in idyllic Moung May

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RIDE STATS:
Dien Bien Phu to Muong May, Laos – 65km
Total ascent -830m
Total descent – 895m
Max elevation – 1170m
Total distance to date – 412km

Dien Bien to Tay Trang,  international border crossing Vietnam- 37km (17km flat, then steep uphill all the way to Tay Trang)
Tay Trang to Souphone checkpoint (Laos border crossing) – 2km
Souphone to Moung May – 26km, downhill and flat, country road, 1 river crossing, many mudpools (especially after rains, no problem in dry weather), rough and bumpy on many stretches.

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Moung Lay to Dien Bien Phu, in the footsteps of the Viet Minh. Day 9

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…

The Viets hold the dogmatic view that canine cuisine makes them virile, among other things...

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.

Nice doggies...

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!

Halfway 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.

A fresh landslide near Dien Bien being cleared. Notice the lady with her helmet sitting way up high?

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 after their defeat. They were outnumbered 4 to 1.

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.

Official Viet Minh army issue footwear made from old tyres...clipless they were not.

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.

The mountains near Dien Bien Phu

It's a long, straight and flat road that leads in, and out, of Dien Bien Phu.

Golden fields of rice being harvested. Some of these were fields of death in 1953.

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.

Next: Crossing the border into Laos

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RIDE STATS:
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