Muong Lay Town, Dien Bien Province

Motorcycle Adventure Vietnam North West: Dien Bien - Part 2

Leaving Hill A1, I proceed to Hills C1 (Eliane 1) and C2 (Eliane 4). The two hills are on the 2 sides of a road running from the east to the west. There are not many vestiges left of the horrendous battles in the past here. Trees and grass cover most of the hills making it not possible to stray from a paved path to the top of each hill.

The four hills of the Eliane Group were less than 1km from the Central Zone at Muong Thanh were of vital important in protecting the French Headquarters. The hills of Eliane had fire support for one another and were supported by fire from distance, this made them dangerous to any Viet Minh attacks. It is still very amazing how they were brought down one after the other....

Knoll C1 at Dien Bien Phu
Knoll C1 at Dien Bien Phu

 

 

Hill C2 at Dien Bien Phu
View from Hill C2 at Dien Bien Phu to C1 and the road in between

 It is nearly 11 A.M now and I have a few minutes left to walk through the Commander Post of the French at Dien Bien Phu before they close it at lunch time. It is a huge bunker semi-underground and divided into sections. The middle one was where the French Commander in Chief of Dien Bien Phu, Christian De Castries, commanded the troops from. The top of the bunker was made of thick timber wood, thick steel sheets, sand bags which made it shell-proof.

French Commander Post at Dien Bien Phu
French Commander Post at Dien Bien Phu

 All of the former French camps of the Central Zone at Muong Thanh were semi-underground. In the dry season it was fine; but not in the rainy season. Walking around the Commander Post, I can't find out how they dealt with rain water as there seemed nothing of a drainage system here back then. While both sides actually suffered from the rain during the battle. But Viet Minh was the one that besieged Dien Bien Phu and the French was surrounded. The French had huge difficulties with the wounded and the dead that contributed to the fall of Dien Bien Phu.

Inside the French Commander Post at Dien Bien Phu
Inside the French Commander Post at Dien Bien Phu

They are about to close the place for lunch break, so I'd better leave the Commander Post. The sun is getting very strong and the heat is building up quickly. It is amazing that the Lao wind that is blowing through Dien Bien Phu now is so dry and hot. I feel my skin is getting darker every hour... I don't want to rush in the afternoon when it is even hotter, so it is better continue the visit to Him Lam (Beatrice) which is about less than 2km from the Central Zone. 

Map of the northern strongholds of the French at Dien Bien Phu
Map of the northern strongholds of the French at Dien Bien Phu

 To protect the Hedgehog of Dien Bien Phu from the north, the French had fire-bases at Him Lam Hills (Beatrice), Doc Lap Hill (Gabrielle) and Ban Keo Knoll (Anne Marie). Him Lam was to prevent infiltration from the north-east via former Route 41 to Tuan Giao (Route 279 nowadays). The outposts of Him Lam Group were arranged on the 3 hills one next to another numbered Beatrice 1, 2, 3.

Path amid the hills of Him Lam (Beatrice)
Path amid the hills of Him Lam (Beatrice)

 The entrance to Him Lam Group is well hidden in a residential area and I have to struggle a bit to find the way to get there. It is over 11 A.M now and the whole area is empty. The sun is strong. The hills look deserted with high grass. I follow the visitor path heading north-west to Beatrice 1 first. Beatrice 2 and 3 are on the right and left respectively. Beatrice 1 is the hill to the north-west of Him Lam Group.

Signpost at Him Lam Hills
Signpost at Him Lam Hills

 Beatrice 1 was the strongest of the Him Lam Group. From the top of the hill, there are good views of the road to Tuan Giao to the east and of the Nam Rom River to the west. Viet Minh did have a lot of difficulties and suffered with high casualties crossing the Nam Rom River to attack Beatrice 1 in the Dien Bien Phu Battle. Him Lam Hills are strategically located and it is no doubt that the French arranged fire points here to protect their troops at Muong Thanh.

Beatrice 1
Beatrice 1

 Except for some recovery works to the collapsed trenches and bunkers by Viet Minh artillery during the battle, all is kept intact after decades of the Dien Bien Phu Battle. It is easy for me to recall what happened here back then looking at the bunkers and trenches. Normally, tourists don't visit this site, I guess, as all looks like a deserted area with high grass everywhere.

View heading west from Beatrice 1
View heading west from Beatrice 1

 I have a look inside the commander bunker which was partly destroyed in the very first barrage of Viet Minh artillery which fatally wounded the Chief of Him Lam and imagine how horrible it was here under point-blank fire.

Commander Bunker on Beatrice 1
Commander Bunker on Beatrice 1

 It is a long walk from Beatrice 1 to Beatrice 2 in the strong sun. The trenches and bunkers here are really well kept, too. From this hill, I can have a good view of the surrounding area. Near the top of the hill, there is a bunker that caused a lot of difficulties to Viet Minh and that was where the brave and national hero Phan Dinh Giot sacrificed himself to block the French fire from an embrasure for his comrades to advance.

Having a minute to pay respect to him and his fallen comrades, I have some heavy moments recalling his life when he was a servant for all his early life in the village, and when he was in his tattered clothes registering to become a Viet Minh soldier fighting for independence changing his life and his country's fate... He and his comrades were never aware that they were writing one of the most glorious chapters in the history of Vietnam. Rest in peace, my heroes. Your great service will never be forgotten. 

View to Beatrice 1 from Beatrice 2
View to Beatrice 1 from Beatrice 2

 

 

Monument to Phan Dinh Giot at Beatrice 2
Monument to Phan Dinh Giot at Beatrice 2

In contrast to Beatrice 1 and 2, there is no path to visit Beatrice 3. I have to clamber on a slippery and grassy hillside to get to the monument. There are a lot of craters left from the past which are hidden under the thick grass and which make it dangerous to move around the hill. Having taken a photo of the monument, I slide down the hill and conclude my visit of Him Lam Group. It is about mid day and it is hot, so I pull in the restaurant I went to earlier for a simple lunch. Then comes siesta, it is the best thing you can do at this time of the day here!

Rice fields at Muong Thanh Valley
Rice fields at Muong Thanh Valley

 Awaken when it is nearly 3 P.M, I had a great sleep. Looking out of the window, the sun is still strong but the wind makes it much more pleasant than mid day. I have nothing to hurry for, so I make myself a cup of hot tea first before venturing out for my afternoon visits. The first one is to Hill Doc Lap (Gabrielle) which is a lonely hill that the French had an outpost to stop possible infiltration from the north via the route to Lai Chau. The road now is in excellent condition and the ride is through the green rice fields of Muong Thanh Valley. All looks so beautiful in the bright sunshine.

Hill Doc Lap (Gabrielle)
Hill Doc Lap (Gabrielle)

 The hill is easily accessible from the big road. I proceed to the huge cemetery next to the hill to pay my respect. It was a small outpost but so many had to sacrifice when attacking it. Gabrielle was claimed  the best by the French commanders in Dien Bien Phu in arranging the defensive works. The hill is very small and low but from the top, we can have excellent views of the Dien Bien Phu City to the south and the road to Lai Chau to the north. There is nothing of the battle in the past left at Doc Lap and I have no idea how it was fortified back then. I try to recall the attacking points by Viet Minh into the hill and how the barbed wire fence was opened by dynamite...

 

 

Knoll Ban Keo (Anne Marie)
Knoll Ban Keo (Anne Marie)

  I thought it was a quick visit, but Gabrielle took me nearly one hour. It is time to move on now and I don't know where Ban Keo (Anne Marie) is located. Local people have no idea about the hill I was inquiring about. I ride back to the city for a kilometer and turn into a village road heading west. It is more rice fields and vegetable farms here. There are Thai villages and low hills along the way that I don't know which is the one I'm looking for. Struggling for a while, someone shows me the hill near a secondary school and says it is possibly the one. Yes, it is the one when I see the signpost showing the path to the hill. It is surrounded by a big residential area of Dien Bien Phu City.

View of Dien Bien Phu City from Ban Keo
View of Dien Bien Phu City from Ban Keo

Walking up the knoll without difficulty, I could look back to Dien Bien Phu City and have a good view. It is clear that the knoll is the high point closest to the French camps at Muong Thanh. But it is the lowest one compared to the hills and mountains to the north and west. The hill was within easy reach of Viet Minh artillery fire from a nearby mountain to be sure. I don't know why it was chosen for a French outpost here really. Back to Dien Bien Phu Battle, the Thai troops at Ban Keo surrendered and Viet Minh took over it without firing a bullet. Losing the outpost at Ban Keo (after Beatrice and Gabrielle), the French had no more protection from the north: the hard shell of the French hedgehog at Dien Bien Phu was broken one layer after another by Viet Minh...

A machine gun near Muong Thanh Bridge
A machine gun near Muong Thanh Bridge

 It is 4:30 P.M now and I have completed the major battle sites at Dien Bien Phu. Sunlight is soft and the temperature is very pleasant now. The road back to the city is getting busier as  people are going back home from work, pupils are rushing back home from school. My riding around the paddy fields to the west of Dien Bien Phu is a relaxing experience. Things left from the battles in the past are still be seen in the fields. I can see tanks, machine guns... destroyed by Viet Minh artillery. The villages here are so peaceful now...

The day is drawing to a close and I plan to do nothing tonight. Maybe I'll just have light dinner and get back to the room for a hot tea and catch up with the news on television then. The night goes by pleasantly...

A chaffee 24 tank at Muong Thanh
A chaffee 24 tank at Muong Thanh

 Another beautiful day in Dien Bien Phu. I get up early for some hot tea in the room. On the Nam Rom River, the haze is slowly lifting up. The street is empty. I'm lazy in the morning so I don't bother checking the time. After a while the sun comes out and getting more glary, I know it is time to get moving.

Route 12 from Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau
Route 12 from Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau (View heading south with Gabrielle at the farther end)

 Leaving the hotel, I ride straight to Route 12 heading north to Lai Chau. It is over 0900 A.M now but the road is still quiet. The sun is bright but it is a very pleasant and breezy day. Coming out of the city, I stop for a photo of the road with Gabrielle (Hill Doc Lap) in the background. Surely the hill was strategic in stopping infiltration from the north during the Dien Bien Phu Battle.

Rice fields at Muong Pon
Rice fields at Muong Pon

 The road has just been overhauled and in excellent condition. The gradients here are not that steep but there are more high mountains by the road sides. After half an hour or so, I come to Muong Pon, a valley with green rice fields. At this site, there was a fierce battle before Dien Bien Phu Battle when Viet Minh ambushed the French troops withdrawing to Dien Bien Phu from Lai Chau.

The ride out of Muong Pon is through a series of high mountains to Muong Cha Town. The town is the center of the district with roads to different communities in the mountains. There are schools, a medical center and a post office in the town. From here, there are buses to different communes and to neighboring districts and provinces. There is nothing for me to see at Muong Cha, so I keep on riding further.

Muong Cha Town
Muong Cha Town

 The road goes up again as I climb the pass of Ma Thi Ho. The pass provides a great view of the surroundings. On the pass, mountain ebony blossoms are found everywhere. The smell is so nice! It is mid day and people must be having lunch now that there is no one around. There are only sounds of bird chirping, wind blowing and my stomach roaring. It is time to descend the pass now. I know I need to get some food quickly and the next town is Muong Lay.

Ma Thi Ho Pass
Ma Thi Ho Pass

 

 

Mountains at Ma Thi Ho Pass
Mountains at Ma Thi Ho Pass

  Muong Lay Town used to be Lai Chau Town, the former capital of Lai Chau Province. It now belongs to Dien Bien Province though. The town is at the confluence of the Da River and the Nam Na River. There is a hydro-power plant here that has made all the site of the former Lai Chau town underwater. The former villages are now gathered together into a cramped site which looks quite weird. Riding around along the riverside roads for a while, I stop at a restaurant at the town center. Choices are limited here and the prices are even higher than those in Hanoi. I don't need much anyway, so I make it quick and in no time I'm back onto Route 12 heading into Lai Chau Province. It is over 1:00 P.M now and it has been a wonderful day. The adventure through Dien Bien was definitely a great one. There are surely more to await me ahead in Lai Chau...

Muong Lay Town
Muong Lay Town