Friday, 9 January 2015

Dien Bien Phu

Edit 07/02/15: For a summary of the battle of Dien Bien Phu 1953-4, please click on the following link:

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu

This will be our last place to visit in Vietnam before going over the border into Laos, but its a significant one as its a place of historical importance and the scene of a great battle in 1954 between French colonial forces and Viet Minh, under the direction of Ho Chi Minh. The French were totally defeated and humiliated, which caused an uprising in French occupied Algeria and caused the end of the French fourth republic.

Our breakfast view, pity it was a bit misty
Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu sleeper bus
To get here we came on an overnight sleeper bus from Hanoi's My Dinh bus station, 11km west of the city and a taxi drive away through very busy Hanoi rush hour traffic on the first Monday evening after the holidays. We made it to the bus station in plenty of time and got on the bus to find it wasn't three single lines of double decker beds as we've seen previously, but two rows of two. They were 'cosy' to say the least and I was glad we were a couple as single people were quite snuggled up to the stranger next to them which, for a 12 hour bus journey, would be 'interesting'!

We watched the water buffalo on the river bank while eating our breakfast
I got more sleep than Jackie, but even then, probably only about 5 hours, so we arrived at 7:15am the following morning feeling a bit 'spaced out'. The driver was fairly good, he didn't constantly 'beep' his horn as a lot do and he drove fairly well. The problem was the condition of the road, which was in a poor state with a lot of pot holes, so we were swung about quite a bit, which isn't conducive to a good nights sleep, but overall it wasn't too bad.

The mystery first night meal: sticky rice, morning glory and some meat!
Arrival in Dien Bien Phu
Mr Bang's son met us at the bus station in a very nice new car and drove us the 6 or 700m to the Ruby Hotel, run by Mr Bang, a very nice, helpful man who laughs and talks a lot, but doesn't speak that much English. He always refers to himself as 'Mr Bang', as though he is talking about someone else, which we at first thought he was! The Ruby Hotel has a very high rating on TripAdvisor, and rightly so, its a fabulous place, with great views from our window over the town, the river and surrounding mountains, but an even better view from the top floor breakfast room.

Colonel de Castries bunker & headquarters
DBP Sightseeing
Despite feeling tired we went out for a walk and visited the Vietnamese war cemetery, the restored French headquarters bunker of Colonel (later General) de Castries, the French war memorial, the Muong Thanh bridge (of war fame) and the bunker of French Chief Artillery Commander Poirot, who committed suicide 2 days after the Viet Minh launched their offensive when he realised he had completely underestimated their numbers. 
Inside the bunker
A walk through the market, numerous strokes of kittens, cats and puppies, plus a couple of drink stops on a hot afternoon was enough. 
Evening meal
In the evening we came downstairs to ask Mr Bang if he knew where the restaurant was that Jackie had indentified on TripAdvisor. Lots of jolly laughing and getting his assistant to try to translate what we were asking, we finally got through to them and they pointed it out on a map. No problem, it was a 15 minute walk or so, but we knew where it was as we'd been right past it earlier, so off we went, only for Mr Bang to appear alongside on his motorbike saying he would give us a lift. We climbed on the back and the three of us set off down the road, weaving through the traffic. He wasn't content to just drop us off, but came in with us, ordered our meal, we don't know what it was, but it was very nice, sat with us, showed us how to eat it, got the bill and checked it through to make sure it was correct and then left us to it. How nice is that!

A museum recreation of the iconic raising of the flag on Colonel de Castries bunker when the Viet Minh finally overran the headquarters and defeated the French after a 56 day seige
Sunset from our bedroom window
More DBP sightseeing
Next morning, breakfast on the top terrace and then another walk to look at sights, the brand new, and only partly open museum and the really interesting A1 hill, which is one of the old French defensive hills that they called Elaine, and had the remains of the bunker, an extensive network of reconditioned tunnels and trenches, an old tank and a huge crater, cause by the explosion of 1 ton of TNT that the Viet Minh set off after tunneling under the French trenches. All very interesting. We also went up the many steps on one of the other hills to the victory monument, a huge bronze sculpture depicting three soldiers holding a girl and a huge flag up in a victorious stance. The view from the top is amazing and its built at the end of a broad avenue that looks up to the airstrip. Its a fabulous site, but it isn't even mentioned in our Lonely Plant guide.

The fabulous victory monument
Evening meal with Thanh
Our evening meal was even more eventful than the previous one. On going down to reception Mr Bang called us over and introduced us to a 16 year old young local man who is studying English. He introduced himself as Thanh, meaning 'success' and asked if we would go to his house with his family for a meal, so he could practise his English. He spoke quite well and within minutes his mum and sister appeared in a brand new car with leather upholstery, drove us to their very nice house and then presented us with the most amazing spread. His dad wasn't there, he was working at his electrical business (they have just completed the contract of wiring the new museum), his mum is vice president and they are obviously quite well off. Mum or sisters didn't speak any English although Thanh said they understand quite a lot and after the meal they went off, leaning us with Thanh and were then joined by another friend, a girl who is also studying English, so we had a good chat for the rest of the evening.

Jackie doing an impression of the small girl in the sculpture
Looking the other way to the airstrip
Wednesdays DBP sightseeing
They were both free the next day (Wednesday), so we arranged to see them, going to visit some of the more far flung hills used in the battle that I wanted to see. They said they wanted to as well, Thanh's grand father fought in the battle and subsequently for the Viet Minh against the Americans, so he knew a lot about it. They were all too far to walk, so Mr Bang got his son to drive us around in their nice new car, for a very modest sum, so we were dropped at the entrance to each while he waited in the car for us. We visited the largest wooden house in SE Asia, another Vietnamese war cemetery and Independence hill, or as the French called it, Gabrielle. 
With Ngan and Thanh at the big wooden house
The bunker and trenches on A1 hill
It was the scene of very heavy fighting and was one of the first hills to fall, opening the way for the Viet Minh to attack the airfield. There wasn't a huge amount to see, but we could see the remains of trenches and bomb craters and it was very sombre to stand on a very quiet hill with great views around and contemplate the events of just over 60 years ago. A trip to another hill, C1, a drink and then back to the hotel and goodbyes to Thanh and Ngan and then a hard afternoons planning for the Laos, plus a trip to the local jewellers to change our Vietnamese Dong currency to Laos Kip (don't ask!)

She bought the skirt but not the top
Third evening meal
We met a couple as we came in from the UK, now living in Perth, Australia and here on holiday. Turns out he used to live in Smallheath, Birmingham, so we had a good old chat before going in. For our final evening we went out to find a restaurant, walked round quite unsuccesfully and then went into a little open air place selling local food only to find the Perth couple in there. We joined them for dinner and had a great evening with them chatting non stop. What an eventful place DBP turned out to be.

Got back to find Mr Bang couldn't book the bus to Laos we wanted as it had broken down, so we would have to go on another bus to Udomxay in Laos that will still stop at our intended destination, Muong Khua. We had to buy tickets there and then, it was 9:30 at night and we needed to be on it at 6:00am in the morning, so off I went on the back of Mr Bangs motorbike to buy them, him arranging everything at the ticket office, me just handing over the money.

The monument on top of Independence Hill (Gabrielle)
The jewellers (also a dentist!) where you change money to Laos Kip
DBP to Muang Khua (Laos) by bus
So this morning we were up at 4:40am, dropped the key off, walked to the bus station and climbed aboard a smallish bus to go into Laos. We were wondering where the luggage will go when a man appeared, took it off us and up it went onto the roof with a tarpaulin cover. It rained, it got very wet and the computer was inside! Fortunately it was in a dry bag and well packed, so it survived!

Our bus to Laos
The journey into Las was quite easy. The roads weren't too good, but we were going over a high mountain pass so it wasn't surprising. The border crossing was also quite easy, we got off the bus at the Vietnam border, got our passports stamped and changed our remaining money to Kip, got back on the bus (in the rain) drove a couple of miles and then got off again for the Laos border. Filled in forms, waited in queues, paid over some money for our visa and off we went.

Mum and dad dog look out for their puppies
Got to Muong Khua at about 11:00am, walked up the road of the small, very poor riverside town in pouring rain with other French and Dutch tourists from the bus and found the guesthouse we had seen on the internet, but couldn't book (they're not that advanced) and got into an adequate room.
We were thinking of a river trip to Nong Khiaw tomorrow, but the heavy rain is set to continue until Monday, so were going to catch a bus to Luang Prabang instead. Jackie's trying to find a hotel and is not having much success, so I'd better go and help her!

By the way, you'll notice I haven't written much about the history of Dien Bien Phu and that's because I'm going to write something separately when I have time. I'll let you know when I've done it!

1 comment:

  1. Hi both, nice to hear from you.
    Can't understand the Jackie pictures doing the statue? Is she on a trampoline? Nice doggie family. Also, Mr Bang was rather lovely, if not a bit intense wasn't he, how nice to be so looked after! X