Ho Chi Minh Trail
Trip Start Dec 30, 2007
13Trip End Jan 26, 2008
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I wanted to take a look at the Ho Chi Minh Trail before we headed back to the coast and my guide book said that a small town called Xepon or Sepon was the best place to do this. Getting to Xepon was just a matter of catching a bus towards the border but the more local transport was going to be more difficult. We got tickets for a bus to Xepon but the luggage compartment was full of cargo so we had to put our packs on the back seat, for some reason the conductor insisted that we sit in the front half of the bus. As is usual, the aisle of the bus was covered in bags of rice and fertilizer but, as yet, there weren't too many passengers on the bus. Before leaving town we pulled into a warehouse and started taking more cargo on board. We just sat there waiting patiently to go whilst sack after sack of rice or fertilizer was piled up in the aisles of the bus. Eventually the sacks were above head height and we were completely enclosed in our seats with less than a metre of room to the roof. The people who'd got off for a smoke now had to crawl along the sacks to get back to their seats.
It was a half day trip from the Mekong to the border in the mountains. We stopped once for a toilet break at the side of the road, very amusing watching everyone, young and old, crawl along the sacks to get on and off. We wanted to get off at Xepon which was a way before the border. Being Westerners, everyone on the bus assumed that we'd be going to the border, it took quite some effort to convince everyone that we did actually want to get off the bus and weren't making a mistake. Some people seemed quite concerned. Of course, this meant crawling along with our packs. Xepon is nothing more than a village with a market place. The market has no character, with countless stalls selling spare parts for engines and cheap sweatshop clothing. I asked around trying to hire some form of transport, motorbike or pushbike, but it didn't seem like this was possible. We had no choice but to hike. Asking directions or getting information was nigh on impossible and the directions in the guide book were vague. It did however give me the translation and pronunciation of "old Xepon" which is what we were looking for. The original village of Xepon had been destroyed by the American secret bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, there were still remnants of the settlement, the bank safe and the façade of a Buddhist temple, but mostly it was just bomb craters. It's a 5 km walk down a jungle track. We met a couple of truck drivers, clearly doing something illegal just before the road disappeared and they assured us that we were heading in the right direction. Apart from that there was just the occasional peasant wandering around with cows who, apart from giving directions, paid us very little heed. This seems to be typical of Laos, in complete contrast to its neighbours. Laos would see far fewer foreigners than either Cambodia or Vietnam but the Laotians seem almost totally indifferent to foreigners. They don't even try to sell you anything, someone could have at least tried to rip me off. Bloody communists just don't seem to have caught on to the wealthy foreign tourist scam yet. We finally found old Xepon and there are now a few houses nearby. It seems a lovely, idyllic, isolated spot and then suddenly the horror of the past strikes you. The old village is just a series of bomb craters with a brick bank safe and the façade of a temple. People regularly get blown up around here trying to salvage scrap metal. It's difficult to imagine what it must have been like for the villagers here, quietly minding their own business when world affairs suddenly bring Armageddon to visit.
There was a newish house nearby with some people sitting at tables eating and drinking. I'm not sure if it was a café or just a private residence, but they sold me beer anyway and we sat there feeling like a part of the family. I maybe could have stayed for a bit of a session but for two reasons: (1) we were very short of local currency and (2) walking back in the dark could prove tricky. Fortunately we made the road in daylight. We stayed in a guest house opposite the market place and the local eatery was just over the road. Unfortunately, communist propaganda was continually blaring from loudspeakers. I couldn't understand the language but managed to get the gist of it. For some reason they didn't seem to want to serve us food, it didn't look the best anyway. We walked out of town and found a lively looking place with plenty of pissed locals eating and making lots of noise, seemed like my kind of place. Laotians are very proud of their local beer, Bierlaos, and seem to drink it all day long. It's quite good but a little strong for me, I don't think they've caught on to light yet. The restaurant was an open fronted building with the cooking done outside. These places are a set menu with two choices; food or no food. Considering that this place was our best chance of being fed we went for the food option. There was certainly lots of it but most of it was seafood; prawns and squid. Seafood can be dodgy at the best of times but in a landlocked country it certainly pays to be cautious. We sat at a table near the cook and piles of food started to arrive. Omelettes, rice, squid, prawns and various vegetables. We struggled a little with some of it so the cook sat down with us and showed us how to eat it. Then some old people came along and joined in. Nothing was wasted but I didn't eat much of it.
There was some sort of sixties - retro fairground in operation just out of town which seemed to be attracting a crowd but unfortunately we were a little low on local currency. The main attractions seemed to be various gambling games which attracted very young children.