Friday, May 22, 2009

The "Road" To Dien Bien Phu

Dien Bien Phu is the Vietnamese town etched in history as the site of the epic battle that the French lost. It forced the French to give up their colony of Vietnam.

The victory of the Vietnamese over the French in the battle of Dien Bien Phu was made possible by the Vietnamese hauling heavy artilery and supplies over the mountains of Northwest Vietnam and neighbouring Laos, a hazardous exercise considering that mountain roads turn into mud holes and torrential streams during the rainy season. We were to go through the same experience as we begin our journey on the "road" to Dien Bien Phu...

The 3 of us had reached the small village of Muang Khua of Phongsali province, deep in Northern Laos. The next day was to be a one day bus trip to the Sop Hun (Lao) /Tay Trang (Vietnam) border to get to Dien Bien Phu. A quick look at the pier for tomorrow's crossing of Nam Ou river.

Tomorrow had come and we boarded the boat to get over to the other side of the river. The bus was already waiting. The ladies with hair in top-knots are Tai ethnic minorities from Vietnam. They were returning to Dien Bien Phu after a round of shopping of local produce over in Laos.

The bus service from Muang Khua to Dien Bien Phu runs something like 3 times a week while the one in reverse direction run on the alternate days. Only 1 bus a day, so if you miss it, you have to wait for 2 days!! The bus is a reconditioned Korean bus. The driver (also owner) is the Vietnamese man on top of the roof while his wife is the lady with the pink hat. There was another Vietnamese lady who seemed to be their relative... looks like a family business here...

Off we went... packed like sardines with goods & stuff completely filling the back and the floor of the bus (any excess was lashed onto the roof!!); and with passengers standing where space was available. Besides an American couple, we were the only foreigners (non-Lao & non-Vietnamese) on board.

The bus had to make several crossings over small streams that had turned into flowing torrents. We had to dismount the bus twice for deep crossings like this one!!

The road was of earth and the condition was made worse by the ongoing rainy season. It was time to chain up the wheels to cope with the coming onslaught of mud.

We trudged up to meet up with our bus. It had just managed to thrash past a long nasty patch of mud. The Laotian young man in the red jacket is rushing to his college in Dien Bien Phu to continue with the next college term. He had travelled all the way from his home in Luang Prabang.

This was where the bus couldn't make it, despite repeated shoving, pulling and digging to dislodge it. We were left with a choice; either to overnight inside the bus or follow a group of local passengers who walked onwards. Perhaps they knew something we didn't....

We decided to follow the locals and after a walk of over 5km, we ended in a small Khmu ethnic minority village. The folks there were very intrigued with us foreigners stopping over their village. We had instant noodles for lunch here; there was no food stall here so it was the only palatable option for us.

However, as this village had no guesthouse or food stall, it was not a place to put up for the night. We heard there was a bigger village with guesthouses about 30km away. After some negotiation with the help of our Lao student friend, we paid the villagers to send us by motorcycles to this supposedly better village.

Enroute, we stopped to fill up on petrol, to enjoy the mountain views and to look at cucumbers & melons of different shapes & sizes sold by locals.

We arrived at Muang Mai village and put up a night in a guesthouse. What was supposed to be a night spent in Dien Bien Phu was spent in a remote village that was not even marked on our map!! If our bus fail to reach Muang Mai village tomorrow, our only alternative was paying cut-throat prices to hire motorcycles or a car to Dien Bien Phu!!

This colourful billboard in Muang Mai shows some of the various ethnic groups in Laos.

Our guesthouse faced the river and the next morning, we heaved a sigh of relief when we saw our bus on the opposite bank. The driver had managed to dislodge the bus and driving it up to this point but will he able to ford across the swollen river??

Oh no! The bus's engine died mid-river.

Thankfully, the bus (a bigger one) heading to Muang Khua from Dien Bien Phu had arrived at Muang Mai and was on hand to tow our bus out of its watery predicament.

Our driver spent time tinkering with the wet engine. After a few unsuccessful attempts to start the engine, it roared into life. When asked, the driver nodded that the bus was ready to go...

After a few more muddy stretches and small streams, we made it to the Lao/Vietnam border. We heaved a sigh of relief, grateful that we made it. We were thankful too that with typical
Vietnamese tenacity, the bus driver (and his wife and their lady relative; both had worked hard with shovels to dislodge the bus) had managed to overcome the impossible. The driver had good business acumen too, as he collected extra 20,000 Dong (approx USD 1, as 'service charge' for digging the bus out of mud holes and charging it across rivers!) from each passenger BEFORE reaching the border!!

Sop Hun Border Checkpoint, Laos

At Tay Trang Border Checkpoint, Vietnam; looking towards Laos, nearest arch is the Vietnam arch and the Lao arch further behind.

End of the journey: Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam

For photos of Dien Bien Phu, visit

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