The Pa Khoang Lake at Muong Phang
The Pa Khoang Lake at Muong Phang

North West of Vietnam by Motorbike: Dien Bien

It is late in the morning now and here I am nearly on the top of the Pha Din Pass between Son La and Dien Bien. It is quiet all around. I'm by myself taking the old route on the pass. The new road is in great condition, but it is lower on the mountainside, the old route is deserted but it goes higher. Taking the old route, I hope to have a nicer view of the surrounding nature.

 A long and steep incline on the Pha Din Pass
A long and steep incline on the Pha Din Pass

  The old road goes up for about half an hour more then there comes a long and steep incline. Gradients on mountains normally meander along the mountainside, this one just goes down in a straight way. I feel a bit uncomfortable at first, then manage to descend the mountain without much difficulty.

The new road and the old route on the pass
The new road and the old route on the pass

 The view on the top of the pass was blocked by trees, it is much better down here after descending the long incline. On this side of the mountain, it is not much different between the old route and the new one. Both offer great views of the surrounding.

Rice terraces at Tuan Giao at the base of the Pha Din Pass
Rice terraces at Tuan Giao at the base of the Pha Din Pass

 After a turn and another long gradient, comes the base of the pass. The temperature is hot down here and there are breathtaking rice terraces along with Thai houses on the mountainside. The scenery is so peaceful.

Fish broth for lunch at Tuan Giao
Fish broth for lunch at Tuan Giao

 The road is flat all the way to Tuan Giao Town where it forks: one branch goes to Muong Lay and Lai Chau, the other to Dien Bien Phu. I take the latter one and pull in a restaurant for lunch. It is a new restaurant which seems to have more clients than the others nearby. The owner is short, chunky and has a jovial mood. I ask for steamed rice, steamed spinach and fish broth. It takes quite a while before the food arrives, it is over mid day now. I'm so hungry and the food is just delicious.

Steamed spinach for lunch
Steamed spinach for lunch

 By the time I finish my lunch, most people have left the restaurant. The owner leaves the kitchen an makes hot tea. He invites me to join him after I ask for the bill. We have a nice conversation about doing business in this new town then I bid farewell to him and continue the ride amid rice fields and waterwheels.

Landscape near the Tham Pua Cave, Tuan Giao
Landscape near the Tham Pua Cave, Tuan Giao

Then there is a bridge across a scenic river with stunning mountains around. There is a signpost that shows the way to the Cave of Tham Pua where the Headquarters of the Viet Minh troops was during the Dien Bien Phu Battle. The road to the cave is very bad and I would have to leave my motorbike to get to the cave, so I decide to give it a miss and continue the journey into Muong Ang Town.

The sunshine is still bright, but the temperature is much better now. It is breezy as I climb the gradient at the other end of Muong Ang Town. Muong Ang is on a higher altitude than Tuan Giao and the mountains here are just so beautiful. The air is fresh here and it is so pleasant that I have quite a few stops take in the great atmosphere.

View of Muong Ang Town from above
View of Muong Ang Town from above

 At Na Tau Township which is 15km away from Dien Bien Phu City, there is a small road to Muong Phang which was chosen to be the shelter for Viet Minh headquarters during the Dien Bien Phu Campaign. The headquarters was moved to Muong Phang from Tham Pua Cave as it was more convenient for communications and for commanding the battles in the Muong Thanh Valley. There are mountain peaks at Muong Phang that allowed the commanders of Viet Minh to observe the battles at Dien Bien Phu and make suitable decisions in time.

Scenic mountains at Muong Ang
Scenic mountains at Muong Ang

 

 

Muong Phang Headquarters
Muong Phang Headquarters

  Arriving at Muong Phang in late afternoon, there is not enough time to climb the mountain. I follow the trail in a peaceful forest to visit the site of the former headquarters of Viet Minh. There are huts housing different departments of the Headquarters: communications, meeting, kitchen, operations... There are secret tunnels connecting one hut and another. All looks just so simple considering that the personnel of the headquarters had a decisive role to the Viet Minh at the time and that the most elite forces of the Viet Minh had been deployed around Dien Bien Phu. 

Muong Phang is less than 20km from Dien Bien Phu. The French had reconnaissance flights scouting the periphery of Dien Bien Phu days and nights, and Muong Phang was never discovered. The history of Vietnam would have changed course if the French had found out that forest of Muong Phang was housing the headquarters of Viet Minh then. It seems true that the most dangerous place is the safest one! General Giap commanded his troops from a forest just so close to the battlefield that his enemy would never think of.

The Operation Hut at Muong Phang Headquarters
The Operation Hut at Muong Phang Headquarters

 

 

General Giap's hut at Muong Phan HeadQuarters
General Giap's hut at Muong Phang HeadQuarters

 After concluding the visit of Viet Minh Headquarters, I am assisted by the local tourist department to stay overnight at a Thai family. My hike to Pu To Coong and Pu Huot Peaks to observe the Muong Thanh Valley is to be arranged tomorrow. Mr. Yen whose family I am staying with tonight will be the tour guide.

Kids at Muong Phang
Kids at Muong Phang

Dropping my luggage at the family, I get out to explore the community. All looks so well organized and clean. There is a paved road running through lines of houses on stilts. A few kids come over being curious at my taking photos of the houses. Then, they run off like singing birds when I point to camera towards them. Their screams echo through the mountains even after they are out of sight. They must be having a great time!

Rice fields at Muong Phang
Rice fields at Muong Phang

 A day is drawing to a close and sunlight is moving away from the rice fields of Muong Phang. I jump on my motorbike and ride further into a back road that is said to lead to Pa Khoang Lake. The serene lake surrounded by forests is 5 km from the village. After passing through a few communities of Black Thai, the road runs through a bamboo forest which blocks the view for a few kilometers.

Bridge on the Lake of Pa Khoang
Bridge on the Lake of Pa Khoang

Then comes a suspension bridge that I find myself right on the water of Pa Khoang. There is no one around but a tiny rowing boat in the distance. The forest around the lake is getting dark as the sun is setting behind the mountains. I leave the motorbike to have a stroll on the lawn close to the water. It is so wonderful to stand still listening to the sound of silence all around...

Pa Khoang Lake
Pa Khoang Lake

 The temperature is dropping quickly and I could feel that the cold is seeping through my jumper. It was  warm when I visited the headquarters and I forgot to bring along warm clothes. It is the time to move back then. When I get to the rice fields, local ladies are ready going home too. The scene is so peaceful and relaxing...

Dusk at Muong Phang
Dusk at Muong Phang

 The family has dinner ready for me when I arrive back. All is simple as their daily meals as I told Mr. Yen earlier that I just wanted all to be as their daily life and that I would need an early night. It gets just cold when the family lays the sleeping mat and cushion for me after dinner. It is so wonderful to be warm again and it takes me no time to get into a deep and sound sleep...

Some noise from the kitchen wakes me up. Mr. Yen is preparing breakfast for us. It is still dark and cold outside. I get refreshment and join him by the fire. After some greetings, we keep quiet basically through breakfast and tea time after. He is a quiet gentle who only talks when asked. I love the quiet morning and appreciate the peaceful time.

Trail to Pu To Coong Peak
Trail to Pu To Coong Peak

 We set off for the mountain on my motorbike to the mountain base where the motorbike is left behind at a Thai family. The sun is rising and I could feel the heat building up as we walk up further on the steep trail. If it rained, it would be impossible to walk on this trail as it'd be too slippery and muddy.

The mountain was right behind Viet Minh Muong Phang's Headquarters. It was convenient that General Giap could just climb the mountain peak and with a pair of military binoculars he could observe the development of the battles in the Muong Thanh Valley at Dien Bien Phu.

Bamboo forest near Pu To Coong Peak
Bamboo forest near Pu To Coong Peak

 The trail is too steep at some parts that I have difficulties moving up. The last leg of the climb is through a bamboo forest for a couple of hundred meters that there is no trail. Mr. Yen had to slash a small path through the thick bamboo bushes so that we could move to the top. Bamboo thorns keep hooking at my clothes. I'm kinda worn out when arriving at the peak finally. To my disappointment that it is too hazy in the direction of Dien Bien Phu that I could see nothing. Still, the view of the Muong Phang Valley is great though. I tell Mr. Yen that there is no need to climb Pu Huot Peak and we'd better descend the mountain. 

The view heading south-west from Pu To Coong to Dien Bien Phu
The view heading south-west from Pu To Coong to Dien Bien Phu

 Mr. Yen told me that the climb would take 4 hours all together but we made it in less than 3 hours an a half. We have some relaxing time at the family that we left the motorbike afterwards before getting back to Mr. Yen's house. The family has lunch ready. I thank them and decline as I have some other things to do at Dien Bien Phu. They are so nice people and their life is just happy here. I hope to bring more travellers to visit this region and experience their life and culture. 

The view heading west fro Pu To Coong to Muong Phang Valley
The view heading west from Pu To Coong to Muong Phang Valley

 It is 18km from Muong Phang to Dien Bien Phu via the back road that passes Pa Khoang Lake and over 25km via Na Tau Township on Route 279. I take the former one. The road from Pa Khoang to Dien Bien Phu is small and travels through a primeval forest. The temperature here is about 3 degrees lower than at Muong Phang Village now. There is a beautiful guest house in the woods amid nice settings, but it seems closed and there are no guests. Isn't it a pity! The trail around here is ideal for mountain-biking.

Back road in the forest at Pa Khoang Lake
Back road in the forest at Pa Khoang Lake