At first I thought that Kin, our driver was simple. Turns out I was wrong- he is anything but- it's just that in order to keep the three of us alive he needs to put full concentration into his driving, leaving no energy for chit-chat.
And today, when we finally arrived at our hotel in Son La, I could have kissed him, as although the road trip from Dien Bien Phu was one of the most enjoyable journeys I can remember, I would have feared for my life on many occasions, had I not been so confident in Kin's driving skills.
Today started early. Silly early- 6am is too early for a "holiday", but I must keep reminding myself that this is an "experience", which is what I was repeating, over and over again in my head when I saw this morning's breakfast.
"Meat soup" avoided, and plenty of melon ingested, we left Dien Bien Phu via several tourist hot spots. Vung and I had fallen out over breakfast. He dared to suggest that the plan for today might be a bit much for me to handle with my Wally Boot. I argued my point, which involved me talking very fast and using animated hand gestures to suggest that he was being stupid and I knew best, until I won.
Our first stop was the French General's bunker- used during the war against France to secure independence. The french thought that they were clever by building a tunnel straight from this command post to the A1 Hill, the final place to fall to the Vietnamese on the 7th May 1954, during a 6 week battle. But let's face it, in war terms, that's like trying to beat Switzerland at "not getting involved"- the Viet Ming knew how to build a tunnel. And THEIR tunnels were FAR more impressive, but I'll get to those in a minute.
After going down into the bunker and having a wander through the open-topped tunnels, we hopped back into the car and drove a few hundred yards to the A1 Battlefield. This site is particularly fascinating because, after the 6 weeks of fighting, this was the last part of Dien Bien Phu that had not been re-occupied by the Viet Ming. In fact, for the last week, half the hill belonged to the French and half to the Vietnamese, with tunnels on either side (the French tunnels are noticeably taller!), and bombs being lobbed at random across the hill in a "if we throw enough shit..." style.
This battlefield seems to be the place that the locals use to commemorate the whole of Vietnam's independence- there are many tombs, statues and plaques honouring the dead, and if you are lucky, and you look carefully enough, you may come across a bit of shrapnel or a bullet- we left empty handed this time, but Vung has a collection at home.
I bought a nice silver bracelet from one of the tribes women who make the journey down from the mountains each day to sell their handmade wares and we met up with Kin again for a 2 hour drive into the jungle.
On the way to the jungle, where we were to visit the HQ of General Giap (auto-correct there suggested "Gimp" instead of Giap there, by the way. Mildly amusing), the dude who basically won the war of independence for the Vietnamese, we saw many people from the Black Thai tribe- a tribe that is indigenous to Laos but has moved to mainly be settled in Vietnam. I mentioned them in a previous blog- the women wear the long black skirts and their hair piled on top of their heads.
They sit by the roadside selling their handmade bags, skirts and herbal remedies- including one that Vung translated "was to give to my man to make me happy"- some kind of herbal Viagra, I believe. I informed them, through Vung that my man already made me happy, and I wasn't sure I would get a bag of green grass and bark shavings though customs in London.
The Black Thai tribe's houses are on stilts, with rooms, until recently, when the government has intervened for health and cleanliness reasons, below for their animals- pigs, buffaloes, ducks, chickens etc, and the rooms upstairs for the family. They have a very traditional way of life- the women are married off young, sometimes as young as 16, and the parents still arrange the marriages. So a bit like Croydon then. They speak a local dialect and their children only have eduction until the end of primary school- after that they need to be working on the farms that grow rice, corn, tarro (a type of sweet potato)- otherwise the families cannot feed them. No work, no money, no money, no food.
Vung helped me out of the car at General Giep's and we walked the 40 minutes (for cripples it's 40 mins, the rest of the tourists- not that we saw any- would take 20) through the jungle to the command posts- including the communication room. All very impressive. Until Vung informed me that all had been destroyed after the war and so these were all reconstructions. A little bit disappointing, but he went on to explain that thanks to America bombing the shit out of them for the next 20 years AFTER 1954, they were unable to save anything and couldn't even afford to rebuild until all that nonsense had stopped.
Still, the tunnels were VERY impressive- far better than the French's half-assed attempts- they had roofs, working stations built into walls, everything- I half expected a coffee machine in the corner.
We trekked back to the car and drove to a local restaurant for lunch. Desperate for the loo, I went out the back to relieve myself in the expected hole in the ground. After the indignation of pissing all over my own trousers and having to walk back through to Vung and Kin with said accident obviously on show, we settled down to lunch. It was only when I took a moment to take stock that I realised that, other than the 3 of us, it was all tribes people in the restaurant- this was their local lunch venue. And what an eyeopener that was. Vung explained that out in the countryside they eat dog and cat (there were kittens playing at my feet- "sweet" I said, "they won't be sweet tomorrow" Vung replied), and so to avoid any mishaps, he ordered for me.
Vung was in a chatty mood and wanted to know if I ever go to concerts in England. I told him I did, and asked what music he liked- anything western that I would know? "You like Westlife?" came the incredibly unexpected response...and for the first time ever, I found myself in a serious conversation about how Westlife were a great band, second only to the Backstreet Boys. Out of politeness I agreed and explained that my friend Claire liked the Backstreet Boys, but that she was a little crazy. It seems to me that any band that actually bothers to go to Vietnam has a large and enthusiastic following- I don't think they get to see a lot of live western music. I was just about to ask his opinion on 5ive, when we were invited to sit with some of the tribes men, who were smoking from a pipe- like I mentioned earlier in the week. They saw me as a bit of a novelty and several of them took pictures of me on their ever present mobile phones (yep, even the tribes have them!!)- and then the lead dude offered me some of his pipe.
When in Rome, I thought...after all, up until New Years Day I had smoked for 18 years- surely it wouldn't do me any harm?? And so, with Vung filming on his phone and Kin taking pictures on my camera, I got into a little smoking match with the tribal dude- who could breathe in the longest and make the bubbles in the bong squeal the loudest- he obviously beat me hands down- but only just, as he was laughing so much he nearly choked himself to death. I posed for some pictures and wobbled back out to the car. I have no idea what was in that pipe, but my foot stopped hurting and I fell asleep for the first 2 hours of the 4 hour drive.
The drive was full of fascinating sights- lots of tribe villages, traditional houses on stilts and village scenes- Vung said he wants me to take some pictures on tomorrow's drive as I was "making funny noises and lying down" for most of the drive today!!
And so now, I find myself in Son La, in a hotel that was described in my lying son of a bitch guide book as basic, but comfortable. My bed has no mattress top, just springs that poke through and are covered by a thick sheet, I have a fetching, if filthy canopy above my bed, the sheets are dirty and I won't take my socks off for fear of treading on one of the many unidentified dead insects on the floor. I have just been to dinner in the hotel restaurant that smelt like off milk (odd as they don't really "do" dairy out here), where I had noodles and cabbage as it was the only thing that didn't mention a non-animal specified "meat". I paid £1.50- for two courses, a beer and a water. Yes, I have resorted to drinking beer- there is no wine here and this hotel doesn't even have a vodka option. Oh hang on, sorry, my mistake- there is wine, snake wine, its kept in a large circular Tupperware pot with the (now dead and has been so for some time) snake still inside. Should have had that.
Dinner was served to me by a man with just one tooth and after I wiped my glass clean before I poured my water in, as Vung has instructed, my cardigan sleeve was so black that I am now going to have to wash it. Irritating as the water coming out of the tap in my bathroom is also brown.
Getting to my room was a challenge, not least because the top step is missing, so I had to perform a leap of faith up to the 3rd floor.It's chilly in my room, but that may well be because there is no glass in one of the window panes.
I'm going to bed now even though it's only 9pm in the hopes that if I take a sleeping tablet, I will pass out and not have to go through one more waking minute of being in this building that looks like a prime example of a hotel from those shows ten years ago where ITV went undercover to half-demolished holiday accommodation in Greece and Spain. Except worse.
Tomorrow I am going to a prison. Personally, I think they have mixed up the itinerary, as I am pretty certain I am already in one.
Over and out