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Dien Bien Phu

Dien Bien Phu from the top of "monument hill"
Dien Bien Phu from the top of "monument hill"

Dear Friends and Family,

Our first view of Vietnam was of towering, craggy mountains framed in fragrant pines.  The road from Laos dropped rapidly to a lush green valley where folks in conical hats planted or harvested rice, and water buffalo were in‑spanned to wooden plows.  Beautiful small wooden houses dotted the shimmering green landscape.  Men and women bent low to thin and replant the new season's rice crop.  Packed as we were on the bus, it was not possible to take photos, and we were distraught to think we were missing some great shots.  Not to worry, Vietnam's rural life extended far beyond the valley of Dien Bien Phu.

Our guesthouse, one of several off the main street
Our guesthouse, one of several off the main street

Once in town, we quickly located the one main guesthouse street, and some bargaining got us a nice room with a/c.  Sue's language skills got a real workout as there was virtually no English spoken, but luckily we could read the written language (unlike in Laos or Thailand!) even though we couldn't easily pronounce the words.  There were lots of coffee places on our street but not any sort of “upscale” restaurants, mostly just small stalls and holes in the wall advertising Pho and Com (noodle soups and rice).  Bravely we sat and ordered "kem" (spring rolls) and a big steaming bowl of pho bo (noodle soup with beef) which was seasoned with sweet spices, unlike anything we were to find after Dien Bien Phu.

French trenches on their "last stand" hill
French trenches on their "last stand" hill

We took a day of rest in Dien Bien Phu, and set out to learn something of the last battles of the French against the Vietnamese in 1954.  We climbed a high monument with a war‑scenes bas‑relief to a great view of the city, then found the austere and imposing Dien Bien Phu Museum on the main drag of town.  A nominal entry fee let us in to see relics of the 50's, dioramas of encampments by the French and advances by the Vietnamese.  Unfortunately some of the photos were displayed twice and had different captions each time, so things weren't always clear.  Also, they showed photos of a prop plane and claimed it was a downed B-52 of the Americans, a totally false caption that led us to doubt other photos' veracity even more.  But all in all, it was interesting.  We also visited the hill on which the last defenses were dug in, getting close to some of the old big guns, and enjoyed a good view of the valley and the city of Dien Bien Phu.

Mushroom vendors in the Dien Bien Phu open market
Mushroom vendors in the Dien Bien Phu open market

The French attitude of staying even when they weren't wanted helped us realize how much the Vietnamese people saw the French and later, the Americans, as imperialistic invaders.

Our bus left at 7am for Sapa, a main tourist destination in northern Vietnam, high in the hills.  We got good seats with windows in the minivan, and could enjoy the views over the river valley as we headed north.  We left the green rice paddies and ventured into hills which were less jagged than at the border, but still impressive.  There was some clear cutting, but some hills had enough height and steepness that there was forest above.

Dinner of Pho Bo (noodle soup) & Ha Noi beer with ice
Dinner of Pho Bo (noodle soup) & Ha Noi beer with ice

We passed an extensive road and dam-works area and were stopped for a while to allow a landslide to be cleared.  Here, on the side of the road, hill tribe couples sat on plastic sheeting selling tiny sweet pineapples.  The women wore flouncy pink and frilly skirts that swayed as they walked.

At lunch time we pulled into a tiny place with one PHO sign.  It was a complete hole in the wall, the kind of place we would probably never go into.  But there was literally, nothing else around, so we checked out the “pho” pot which was boiling, and ordered 1 big bowl for the 2 of us.  We augmented that with snack crackers, lychees, and bananas, which we had brought.  The pho was tasteless, but at least the Cokes were cold.  And best, our tummies survived.  The story continues on our Sapa page...

Hill tribe woman selling pineapples on the roadside
Hill tribe woman selling pineapples on the roadside

Fair winds and calm seas -- Jon and Sue Hacking

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