On the Road Again . . . .

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

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What I did
Thanh Thuy Restaurant

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Tuesday, March 12, 2013

When you are staying in such luxurious surroundings you just have to get up and enjoy them.  But when we awoke -- we weren't!  So we went back to Lenin's tomb and had breakfast.  An unusual one for us but not for Asia.  Some fruit and Banh Mi buns for a start, which are like soft French bread.  Then some soup, Bun -- chicken, vegetable, and noodle soup.  Really, not too bad at all.  And, coffee so thick that your spoon will stand up in the cup.  Vietnamese call our coffee flavored water.  They are serious about theirs, it is thick, usually drunk with condensed milk and sugar.  Start your day with a caffeine blast!  After breakfast, we took a quick walk over to the local market to say, "Hi!" to the lades and check out the local butchered pig's head prices.

We were out the door by eight with our first stop in town, a beautiful scenic overlook fitted with the most notorious prison in all of Indochina -- the Son La Prison.  It was the Alcatraz of Southeast Asia.  By 1930, the French housed their most notorious political prisoners here.  Then, in typical French logic, they put them all together in one area.  It became the "Communist University of Son La!"  Uncle Ho couldn't have asked for a better training ground for his troops.  The list of prisoners locked up there reads today like a Who's Who of the Vietnam government between 1945 - 1954.  It was an interesting stop and then we were off to Dien Bien Phu.

Along the way we found ourselves stopping constantly to take pictures.  It is rice planting season in the highlands and we couldn't be here at a better time of the year.  The rural areas are incredibly beautiful but this is something special. Today, we were in the ethnic areas of the White and Black Thai people.  They are one of the country's many minorities but they are a majority in this area.  We shot a mess of pictures.

For lunch, we stopped at a "nice" restaurant, a small town greasy spoon (really greasy) in the USA, but still "nice" here.  It was THE stop in Tuan Giao.  All four of us ate like pigs for $20.  The highlight of the stop was a search for an Internet connection so Dayna could drop a quick note to Amy.  Turned out the daughter of the owner is wired in but she was still at school and wouldn't be home for a few minutes. (Kids go to school here from about 7-11 & 2-5). So, we ate lunch while we waited.  When she got home from school we were ushered to her bedroom.  The family lives under the stilts of the restaurant.  Her "room" is a partially walled cubbyhole with the usual Asian platform with a padded cloth mat.  Her bed and her computer desk took up 90% of her floor space and she had a row of hooks as a closet.  If one of our kids had to have a room like this they would go live under the 4th Street viaduct with the homeless.  She was the cutest kid.  Probably about 15 since her e-mail address is something098.  I am positive she has never met any Americans before so she has something for Show and Tell this afternoon.  Her girlfriends will be so envious of her having Dayna as a Facebook friend.

As we neared Dien Bien Phu, Thuan decided we should try to find the village of Muong Phang. Off the beaten path?  When the guide and driver have to keep stopping to ask directions and you start out the exercise only 20 kilometers from the Laos border, you are at the end of the world!  Seems this little burg was the headquarters of the Vietnamese battlefield commander, General Giap.  Americans will remember that he was the commander of all Viet Cong forces when they kicked our asses 30 years later.  And, you will remember from previous lessons, that our guide, Thuan, had a grandfather -- the retired Colonel -- who fought in the battle here.  This stop was going to be special for Thuan as well as us.  His grandfather is alive, clear as a bell, and 88 years young, so Thuan was videoing the expedition for him.

We found the place, 17 kilometers off the main road (which itself is getting sketchy).  Beautiful little place and it turns out there is quite the park here.  The headquarters have been rebuilt and they are quite extensive.  Since a minivan is really more than the road can handle there were no tour buses!  Very well done park and nearly no one there -- including staff.  From the sounds of it, most all the men in town were across the street watching the cock fights. I wouldn't be surprised if we were the only Westerners to find this wonderful stop in the last year.  It's not in the guidebooks, there is NO sign in any language on the highway, and only the dedicated or foolish would drive 17 K, one way, to find this place.

Now here's the high point!  We walked across the "street", avoiding the cock fighting arena, to a little shop that sold drinks and some plant (and I'm not shitting you here!) that you have to peel all the way down to find a crawly caterpillar.  Our driver, Anh, who is pretty quiet and speaks no English is also a pretty cool guy.  Seems he wanted to buy one of these garden pests because if you pop it down as it is wiggling it is supposed to make your pecker perky.  Well, I will give you this, if you've got the huevos to peel a plant to eat a live bug you deserve to get laid!  Could there be any more excitement left on the day!

Then, we drove on to Dien Bein Phu, a rather nice little city.  I don't have any idea how big this city is, but I'll guess about 25,000. This was the final battle for the French in 1954.  Avoiding a long history lesson, this was a huge victory for Vietnam and a huge defeat for the French.  It caused them to sign the peace agreements and book it out of Indochina leaving the next foolish government to try their hand in the Southeast Asia quagmire.  What few tourists that are able to find the place on a map are mostly Vietnamese making the pilgrimage to "Mecca."  We went to the soon-to-be spectacular museum and a few other historic spots around town before heading to the hotel.  We saw a Dutch couple at one spot and that was about it for the foreigners.  The government has really done a nice job of preserving the battle sites but don't expect to see a walking guide or English signs to hep you out.  If you don't have a guide, you better read up before you get here.

Our hotel is far better than last night's hotel.  It is called the "Him Lam Eco-Tourism Area."  If you haven't figured out by its name, it is a government owned hotel, and sits on a lake.  The hotel has been built in stages over the last 40 years, or so.  New portions springing up as the older portions get more run down.  Our pretty little 4 unit lodge is kind of in the middle of that process. Ours has its own personality, kind of Catskills modern if you watched "Dirty Dancing" with Patrick  Swayze and Jennifer Grey.  When you're in the northwest part of Vietnam and only 10 clicks from Laos, you had better not be too picky.  It was, after all, your choice to be here.

Tomorrow we hit the road and really get to the sticks.  We have already been informed that we will be spending the afternoon on a dirt road before we pick up the pavement again coming  from the other direction. We will really be getting into the ethnic areas tomorrow .

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