Day 3 of the NW Adventure

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

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Flag of Vietnam  , Lai Châu,
Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Today we went from a town of about 25-30 thousand people at the edge of nowhere to a town of maybe 5,000 IN nowhere. Let me explain.

Dien Bien Phu, here after called DBP, is a cute little town of historic proportion.  Important world history happened here. Almost no one comes here because it is at the end of the world, or so I thought.  But, now I have redone my calculations and found that the end of the world is really about 150 kilometers northwest.

We started our day with a pharmacy stop.  With the help of our guide, Dayna is feeling much better.  (Thanks Amy!)  Then, off to our first stop of the day, the Victory Monument, towering over the town of DBP.  Impressive as monuments go and a great view of the valley.  Then we were off on another leg of the "Northwest Adventure Tour" as the brochure said.

Highway 12 would be classified as a "blue" highway in the USA.  Not a main road under normal circumstances, except this is the only road in this part if the world, so here it is a main highway.

As I mentioned before, we are in an area where there are few actual Vietnamese.  Most people up here are Black, White, or Red Thai, along with a big batch of Hmong people.  Our first stop was a Black Thai village.  I'm generalizing here, but my sense is that the Thai minority really know their rice and the Hmong people specialize in getting by.  They raise cattle, corn, and whatever else they can get to grow on the hillsides.  The Thai seem to be getting ahead in this world, the Hmong are just holding on.

Anyway, at this village we found them to be outwardly friendly and quick as a wink we were sitting around in one of those houses swappin'  stories and checking out the kitchen and checking the mattresses for firmness in case we got invited over for a sleepover.  These houses are a lesson on the 15th century clashing with the 21st.  Dirt floor pounded so hard over the years that it look and felt like concrete, one big room with storage in the rafters for every kind of thing needed to run a household -- or farm.  Wood sleeping pallets on the outside wall, wood stove in one corner with a few kitchen tools scattered around the area. In the center of the room, there was a coffee table, a hard-backed couch, two hard-backed chairs, and a flat screen television attached to a satellite dish.  I wish the man of the hovel was around so we could have talked NASCAR or NBA.  In the whole place, there was one lightbulb.  After awhile, what appeared to be the older son or son-in-law showed up smiling and carrying the biggest machete I have ever seen.  At that point the three of us decided that checking out the family pig sleeping just off of the front porch was a pretty good thing to do.

Our next stop was lunch in the town of Muong Cha.  The Lan Anh Hotel provided the fare.  A quick note for posterity.  This town is new, as is the dam that displaced all of the people in the valley.  The houses are all new for an ethnic people that didn't want and don't have a need for a new house.  But, the houses were a free gift from the government for destroying their valley and livelihood. These are Thai people.  They are not city dwellers and only want their rice land back. All the electricity produced by the dam was totally unnecessary up to a few years ago.  Welcome to the 21st century people!  Thuan said they will probably hang around until the government stops subsidizing their life and then move on trying to find a little spot of land to try to subsist.  After a lunch of beef and noodles for me and chicken fried rice for Dayna we hit the road, if you want to call it that.  We had 62 kilometers to go to our evening destination -- and it is only 1:00, no problem!

First of all, the guidebooks consider this road to be rough.  Sometimes guidebooks are right!  But, the guidebook forgot to mention that ALL 62 kilometers are completely torn to shit due to a road building project.  It is a Communist government project which means that nothing is happening on the half done project except for about a half a dozen spots where you can wait for 10 minutes, or 90 minutes, while two or three guys (working) with heavy equipment clear a blast site. We spent a lot of time meeting nice truck drivers (my specialty), a nice couple from Holland (who may have been the only other Westerners in that end of the world), and a shitload of motor scooter drivers. Except for the couple from Holland, not a one spoke a word of English.

At one traffic jam late in the day, we stopped into the local greasy spoon in Sin Ho for a potty stop and a cold drink.  The guide pronounced the can "acceptable," so off Dayna went.  I took pictures of the back area and kitchen of the restaurant.  When you see them you will understand why you never inspect a kitchen in Southeast Asia if you have any thoughts of eating there.  Hell, today at lunch we ate in a "nice" place and while we ate they got their delivery of chickens through the front door and the birds were still clucking!

After five hours of this madness we finally arrived at our destination in the little burg of Phong Tho.  Find that one in your Michelin guide book!  We are about 10 kilometers from the Chinese border, which until recently was a major smuggling route.  By this time we were feeling like a couple of bobble head dolls from all of the bouncing around.

Let me say one thing more here about Vietnam roads and drivers, even when they are only going about 10 mph over broken roads, if ever there was a country that needed a plastic Jesus on the dash board, this is it.  Except for riding with Bob M., I have never had my life flash before my eyes more times than on this trip.  I have never seen so many front bumpers up close while driving on various sides of the road, EVER!  I have always put on fresh underwear every day -- but here you have to!

Our hotel is another experience in life -- but a good one this time.  The hotel is older but built like an ethnic Thai stilt home -- all wood, open beams and posts. Frankly, if I owned about 50 acres in the  Maine woods, this is what I would build.  It has slate floors throughout and slate walls in the separate bath and toilet rooms, and a four poster bed to support the mosquito netting. It is a huge room with all the amenities.  I'm not complaining at all.  Of course, the plumbing and electrical work were done by Vietnamese artisans that live in stilt houses (good) that lack electricity and plumbing to use as an example (bad).  And, "House and Garden Magazine" is not delivered here, so wires and pipes go everywhere.  Still, it is quaint and we are happy and smiling and seldom does an hour go by that we aren't laughing about something.  We didn't come here to experience our normal.

Tomorrow we are back to civilization -- Vietnamese style at least.  We visit Sapa.  Only about 80 K of decent roads with Vietnam's highest mountain pass to come.  Light a candle for us!  And, say a prayer! Or, two or three!
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