The Great Northwest Loop Adventure

Trip Start Feb 17, 2013
Trip End Mar 21, 2013

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Where I stayed
So La Trade Union Hotel Son La
Read my review - 1/5 stars

Flag of Vietnam  , Lang Son Province,
Monday, March 11, 2013

Out the door at 7:00am.  We are getting good at this.  Our guide, Thuan, and our trusty driver, Anh, picked us up right on time. And, we were off on the Great Northwest Loop Adventure tour.  Getting out of town proved not to be as difficult as one would expect because there is a beautiful divided highway that took us at least 20K down the road toward Mai Chau.  By the time we hit the end of that road we were starting to see evidence of the changing terrain and beginnings of the hill country.  Already I am getting excited just getting out of the big city, any big city, and getting into the country.

Our first town of significance that we hit was Mai Son which is known for its black sugar cane.  We are finally hitting the countryside and it is beautiful out here. The road is, of course, busy, but we find that once we get off the road we are pretty much back into the 17th century.  The next little town specialized in orange production.  We stopped here to buy a bag of oranges to take with us.  A little while later we stopped for a potty stop and drinks and devoured the oranges. Hard to believe that these were the first ones we had seen since we got to Southeast Asia, and they tasted soooo good.

Dropping into the Mai Chau valley, we stopped for lunch in a little Thai ethnic village called Pom Loong.  This time of year there are almost no tourists in this area.  The Thai in this village are weavers and woodworkers, in addition to rice farmers.  Some of the homes specialize in "home stays."  The homes are stilt homes with living quarters on the ground floor until dark, then everyone moves up to the main floor where they sleep on mats.  The home stay houses are super clean and look like they would be fun -- if we were 20 years younger.  They cater to the backpack crowd.  Lunch was huge, more than we would ever eat for dinner, and delicious. Dayna bought a few trinkets from the ladies, who really know how to turn on the charm.  The Thai are not pushy people by nature so doing business was fun.  A little haggling but not much.

After lunch, we headed on to greener pastures.  And, it got greener.  We stopped at a Hmong village to see this people.  Their main crop was peaches and trash.  "Green" is not a concept that has hit these people.  They may be even filthier than the Muslim communities of the Middle East. Trash everywhere!  Our guide, Thuan, was making his first visit to this village.  He asked us if we saw anything that was not normal.  He told us to look at all of the fancy motorcycles that the local people had, keeping in mind that they are only peach farmers.  He thinks they grow opium in the hills way above the village.  Who knows?  The kids were sure cute though.

There was a lot of driving today, over 300K, about 200+ miles, but we made stops along the way.  The best stop was along the highway to see how farmers plant rice.  Who would know it could be so fascinating?  Another stop for a war memorial commemorating a victory over the French in 1953, just before the battle of Dien Bien Phu.

The town of Thuan Chau was memorable.  The score is car 1, dog 0.  

We are in Son La tonight.  This may be the biggest town in all Northwest Vietnam but I bet they roll up the sidewalks early.  This does not strike me as a party town!

Now for the hotel -- I told our tour planner that for tonight and the next two nights we required four things:  Clean, AC, western bathrooms, and a window.  That said, we are flexible otherwise.  (Note:  In this part of Vietnam, you either have to be a true backpacker or you have to rely on a travel service to organize this trip. We used AG Travel in Hanoi.)

This hotel is something else for sure!  Thuan called it a Communist Style hotel.  It must have been built with plans provided by Nikita Khrushchev, or maybe even Trotsky.  Our room is spacious to start with, then add in the 20 foot ceilings for added space.  Mosquitos get lost in here, and there are some.  We have mosquito netting which is in one of the pictures; Dayna is modeling.   There is a balcony with windows and doors salvaged from the wreckage of Leningrad in 1944.  The only two lights in the room, outside the bath, are about 18" from the ceiling.  You would have to put up scaffolding to change a light bulb.  One light looks like it, too, was from the Battle of Leningrad.  I will overlook the fact that it is about half full at the base with dead critters when I do my hotel review on Trip Advisor.  The other is one of those always classy 4' fluorescent tube lights that you may have in your garage over the work bench.  All that said, it did meet our four requirements.  Paint within the last 20 years was not one of them -- good thing.

Then we decided to go down for dinner.  By this time, you would have thought we had tied into the Russian Vodka, we were laughing so hard.  It got even better!  The dining room must have been 100' x 100' square, with long tables, most of the lights were turned off for economy, not for ambiance.  The ceiling had to be 30 feet high.  Picture 500 Red Army soldiers in uniform eating sausage and turnips and you have the mental picture.  This was wild.  Actually the food was OK.  It is hard to judge the service when not one of the staff speaks English.  We think we got what we ordered.  It was hot anyway!  Thuan stopped in for a few minutes while we ate and we had him in stitches in no time.  He's turning out to be a great guy.

Thuan, our guide, is quite an interesting guy.  We'll have to get him to spell his name tomorrow.  He was a part time history teacher in a high school while he worked, and is still working, on his archeology degree.  He decided that his family didn't need three generations of soldiers in the family.  His grandfather was born on 1926 and was an early follower of Uncle Ho.  He rose to the rank of Colonel in the Vietnam Army.  His father is also a Colonel in the Army.  Here's where it gets a little fuzzy. Either his father or Grandfather was in charge of printing South Vietnamese counterfeit (funny money) currency and then sent it down the Ho Chi Minh trail during the "American War," as it is called here.  At least that is how I understood the story.  He may be our "English speaking guide" but we only get about 60% of it without asking questions.  His father, today, is the local party head for the province in which he lives which, I think, is Thuan's hometown.  My guess is that Thuan is not a candidate for the Tea Party back home.

Time to crawl under our skeeter netting.  Tomorrow we head to Dien Bien Phu and the French debacle.  Nice to hear about somebody else getting their ass kicked besides the wicked Americans.  

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