1. The drive from Ha Noi to Dien Bian Phu (DBP) is an experience I will not forget. Travelling along Highway 6 and Route 279, the scenery was just awesome. I had put it as one of my favourite experiences for our trip so far.
2. We had taken this route because we chose Tay Trang as our border crossing to Luang Prabang, Laos. Our agent, Eviva Tours, had earlier advised us to cross at Nam Can, some 200 km to the SE of Tay Trang, a more direct route to Luang Prabang, an easier drive. We decided to go for the Tay Trang crossing because an easy drive was not what we were looking for. By crossing at Tay Trang, we were able to explore mountain regions of NW Vietnam and NE Laos. We did not expect an easy drive but we were looking for an experience we would not forget. The drive to DBP did not disappoint.
3. From Ha Noi, we were generally travelling in a NW direction to Dien Bian Phu. The drive took us through plains and crossed the mountain ridges which were often above 600 m high, going to 1000 to 1500 m for some stretches. In the valleys between the mountain ridges lied miles and miles of green padi fields. On the slopes of the mountains were cultivated patches of corns, sugar cane etc. Little land was left untouched. See the woman working on the hill slope in the picture above.
4. Scattered among the cultivated areas, either on lowland or hill slopes, were villages. With mostly wooden houses on stilts, these houses were homes of the farmers. We understand they were mostly of Muong, H'Mong, Tay and Thai minority groups. Because of the difficult terrain that they inhabited, they were left alone for hundred of years by powerful forces from the lowland. Today, they still lived their lives much the same way and women still dressed up in their colourful clothes with their distinctive hairdo.
5. To share with you the stunning scenery, here is the 1 min video I had taken.
6. Along the way, we managed to take pictures of a few kids; not shy, happy to pose for the pictures. In the first one, if you take a close look, the 2 boys were holding on to strings of dragon flies that they caught. Wonder how many of our kids have seen live dragon fly, let alone catching them They were elated with the Merlion souvenir that we gave them.
7. At one of the scenic spots, we stopped for a quick lunch. Here, the stalls were operated by Muong people staying in the nearby village at the foothills. They were selling the same things- boiling hot corns, rice cooked in bamboo tubes, some fruits, honey etc. By then, we were all hungry. I had a corn followed by the bamboo rice. In the picture below, you see the lady skillfully peeling off the dried bamboo skins to reach for the cooked sticky rice inside the bamboo. We were told that thats how the Viet Cong cooked their rice in the field during theVietnam War.
8. As we were covering the distance in good speed, we decided to head for Dien Bian Phu directly, as against our earlier plan of spending one night at Son La. We made it to DBP at about 8 pm and checked into Dien Bian Phu Hotel for US$20 a night. The last 30 km or so was after light fall.
9. Waking up the usual early hour and after breakfast at the hotel restaurant, we spent the morning blogging and emailing. Got a sketch map of DBP from the hotel reception. Staff advised us to have lunch first as the museum would not open until 2 pm, as it was lunch time. Thought thats not a problem and went looking for lunch. We strolled the main street in the direction of the museum for about a km but could not find a single eating outlet. The street was practically empty and the town looked like a ghost town. We backtracked towards our hotel and still could not see one. Popped into 2 restaurants and gestured that we needed food but the staff simply shook their heads. We guessed that it must be lunch time and everybody must have gone home for lunch or siesta. Back in the hotel, the staff said that in this small town (of 25 000) shopkeepers can choose to open or close their shops as they like. Also, at 1.30 pm, he said that we were very late for lunch and some restaurants might not want to serve. With additional direction, we eventually found a restaurant nearby which was still serving food. By which time, it was raining cats and dogs. Section of the main road was flooded by the time we finished lunch and we were wet when we reached our hotel to pick up the car.
10. To survive in Vietnam, we had learnt 2 important words - COM and PHO, which you can see on the side of the building. Its com for rice and pho for noodles. There was also a practice which required some getting used to. Restaurants and their patrons would simply throw the rubbish on the floor in order to keep the tables clean - tables must be clean but its okay for the floors to be dirty. After lunch, staff would then sweep the floor clean. We were pleasantly surprised with the restaurant that we just had our dinner. It had a basket for waste for every table. Sunny made a point to throw the rubbish into the basket.
11. We got to the War Museum by about 2.30 pm. Specially dedicated to the battle of DBP, this museum is located in the spot where some of the most intense battles were fought. The battle occurred between March and May 1954 and culminated in a comprehensive French defeat that effectively ended the war. This museum contained numerous pictures showing the various tactical battles, equipment used, a huge "sand-table" showing the terrain and layout of defended areas, and space for showing a 4-5 mins video. Directly facing the entrance was table with Ho Chi Minh and General Nguyen Vo Giap in deep conversation. For those who wanted a more indepth understanding of the Battle of DBP, the museum was on the thin side, especially on the strategic aspects of the Battle. Most explanation boards included English but maps and charts did not.
12. Directly across the Museum was the DBP Cemetery which commemorates the Vietnamese who died at DBP. More than 4000 Vietnamese died at DBP, with another 9000 or so wounded. On the French side, some 2300 died with about 5000 wounded among the 11 000 soldiers captured. At DBP, French forces mobilised some 16 000 soldiers for the defence of DBP, while Gen Giap moved close to 50 000 combat troops for the battle.
13. It was raining by the time we crossed the street to visit A1 (French called it Elaine) defended area, where some 2000 Vietnamese and 800 French soldiers lost their lives over a period of 36 days before the position fell to the Viet Minh forces.
The trenches, bunkers and wire fences had been preserved, with a French tank seating on top of the hill.
14. There were other war related sites and memorials which we could see around the town. As it was raining, we decided to call it a day at about 5 pm.
15. Will be off at 8 am tomorrow to get to Tay Trang border crossing which is 36 km from DBP. If all goes right, we should be driving towards Luang Prabang by late morning.