The big Indochina trip: failing to reach Laos

The good thing with not making any plans is that you have the freedom to do what you want. The bad thing about not planning is that you can get into trouble which is exactly what has happened now. My idea was to ride down to Dien Bien Phu and cross the border to Laos from there. The night before leaving Sapa I googled for a bit and found out that it might not be possible to bring the motorbike across at Dien Bien Phu but that information was at least a year old and I figured things might have changed since then. The alternative border crossing they suggested was anyway too far away to reach before my visa expired so I didn’t have many options.

Renegade Wife is not joining the trip through Laos so we said goodbye and went our separate ways in Sapa. She got on the bus back to Hanoi and I got on the bike and headed down to Dien Bien Phu. It was cold and foggy at first but when I reached Tram Ton pass the sky opened up and I could see clearly again. 

Roundabout on the way out from Sapa

The view from  the top of Tram Ton 

From there and all the way down to the valley the weather was good and the roads were smooth. With spectacular views all along the way it was great for riding. The only thing that dampened my mood was that Renegade Wife was not sitting behind me screaming that it’s beautiful. 

After getting down from the mountains the road followed a river valley for a long time. Here there were some bumpy stretches of road but nothing too bad. Closer to DBP the roads got better again and it was smooth sailing all the way. 

Some views from the road 

Dien Bien Phu is a pretty small town so there’s not much to do. After checking in I went out for some food then just relaxed in my hotel room. The next morning I set out for the border with Laos, hoping I could get across. The man there told me firmly but politely that I couldn’t pass with the motorbike, so the information I saw on the web was correct. He told me however that I can cross at a place called Na Meo. It’s a fair distance and my visa expires tomorrow so I need to figure out a workaround to be able to bring the bike to Laos. I could of course try to sell it and go by bus the rest of the way but that’s not fun.

Since I had a bit of time to kill I figured I could go sightseeing. Dien Bien Phu was the sight for one of the decisive battles between the Vietnamese and the French colonists in 1954. The French lost the battle and were kicked out of Vietnam later that year. With such an important battle taking place here you would think there would be plenty of war related tourist attractions. There are some but not nearly as many or as big as might be expected. 

There’s the bunker of the French commander, the fortifications at A1 hill and, the Dien Bien Phu museum and of course the victory monument. They are pretty small, all four of them can be visited in a matter of hours. The bunker of colonel de castries is the smallest and not much to see. The museum is decent but can’t compare with the war museums in HCMC an Hanoi; sort of more of the same but smaller. A1 hill has a few bunkers and even some trenches, again, nothing compared to the tunnels at Cu Chi or Vinh Moc but not bad.

Monument at the top of A1 hill 

An old tank 

Bunker entrance

A trench snaking through the forrest 

Another trench 

Some of the tunnels near the top of the hill

They even had some barbwire fencing.

Last but not least there is the victory monument. It is a big statue at the top of a hill, with a great big set of stairs, almost like a pyramid, leading up to it. Judging by the size of it, I bet there are a lot of people there at certain times, now though, it was practically empty. 

The stairs up

The monument itself

That’s all there is to see in Dien Bien Phu. I don’t think it’s worth coming here just to see that but if you are passing by you might as well stop to see the sights. I know there are buses directly between Hanoi and cities in Laos like Luang Prabang or Vientiane but they often take up to 24 hours. You could consider doing it over two days with a stopover here. If you are going by bike, avoid Dien Bien Phu as you can’t cross the border anyway, at least not from the Vietnamese side.


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