The Muong Thanh Valley at Dien Bien Phu
The Muong Thanh Valley at Dien Bien Phu

North West of Vietnam by Motorcycle: Dien Bien - Part 1

All of a sudden the road leads me out of the forest into an open area without big trees around. From here I could have a great view of Dien Bien Phu City. I can't see rice fields in the Muong Thanh Valley though, as it is too hazy. In the front, the road meanders along the mountainside into the city. By my side, there are scenic rice terraces dropping down to ethnic villages. 

A panoramic view of Dien Bien Phu City from above
A panoramic view of Dien Bien Phu City from above

 

 

Rice terraces near Dien Bien Phu City
Rice terraces near Dien Bien Phu City

Descending the mountain slowly, I could feel the hot and dry air. The city is certainly receiving a new spell of Lao wind which is very uncomfortable. The street is quiet and most restaurants are closed. In the mountains, it is normally that local businesses resume only after the first full moon celebration. The city has changed a lot since my last trip here and I have difficulties navigating around the streets. Struggling for a while I could find a Com Pho restaurant that still has a steamy boiling vessel in the front. The fried noodle with beef is so great that I hum along riding to the hotel that I have reserved earlier.

My hotel room at Dien Bien Phu
My hotel room at Dien Bien Phu

 The hotel is a newly built one by the Nam Rom River. The owner is an architect who certainly knows to make it as nice and practical as possible. All details are well taken into account. The staff are so nice people who always wear a beaming smile upon seeing a guest. When checking in, the receptionist keeps reminding me that they provide 24-hour assistance should I need something. I wish to myself that good people like these have the opportunities to do well with their work. It is wonderful you have a home faraway from home on your trip...

My room is spotless clean with elegant decors. The window offers a view of the Nam Rom River and the  rice fields. It'd be lovely to sit still and have tea here this late afternoon then. It is warm and strong sunshine out there and it is cool in here. The late lunch and the nice room make me feel sleepy and I am in no hurry...

Rice fields in the Muong Thanh Valley
Rice fields in the Muong Thanh Valley

It is over 3 P.M now that I wake up. It is still bring sunshine outside and I had over an hour of deep sleep. There is no plan this afternoon, I'll be riding around the city to have a feel of it and of the Muong Thanh Valley. All visits will be done tomorrow or the day after if need be another day.

Dien Bien Phu City is much bigger now than it was on my last trip here. But the traffic is very quiet. There are more shops with lots of goods and there are big supermarkets here even. There are a lot of restaurants on a street near my hotel but most are closed for Tet still. There is a boulevard running north-south alongside the Nam Rom River which helps me to ride around the city without difficulty.

Navigating around the main streets for a while, I return to the boulevard and travel northward. I just want to have some fresh air and a better view of the Muong Thanh Valley. The vast rice fields all around bounded by ranges of mountains makes the atmosphere here so relaxing. The weaker sunlight reminds me that it is the time to go back to the hotel.

The Muong Thanh Bridge
The Muong Thanh Bridge connecting the French strongholds on the 2 sides of the Nam Rom River in Dien Bien Phu Battle

It is late in the afternoon and the hot shower makes me feel refreshed. The street in front of the hotel seems busier now. I take the camera and go out for a visit to the D1 Hill which was called Dominique 2 by the French. The hill is the highest of those in the Muong Thanh Valley which had a very strategic position during the Dien Bien Phu Battle.

The Victory Monument on Hill D1 at Dien Bien Phu
The Victory Monument on Hill D1 at Dien Bien Phu

 

 

The view heading east of the Muong Thanh Valley from Hill D1
The view heading east of the Muong Thanh Valley from Hill D1

 Hill D1 now has a Victory Monument on the top around which there is a large flat area where the visitor can have a good view of the surroundings. The temperature is very pleasant as the sun is setting over the Pu Ta Co Mountain on the Lao border to the west. The Ta Leng Mountain Range to the east is being shrouded by thin mist. In contrast to my last time here, there is a big residential area stretching from Hill D1 to the Ta Leng Range. A lot of storks are circling over the park to the south west of D1, they are coming home for the night. Some local women are doing exercise near the monument. A few French tourists are silently waiting for photos of the sunset. It is so tranquil a scenery!

The view heading west of the Muong Thanh Valley from Hill D1
The view heading west of the Muong Thanh Valley from Hill D1

 I sit still thinking of nothing. The last visitors are leaving the site and I realize that it is nightfall already. Having no ideas what to do next, I walk slowly back to the hotel and get on the motorbike. Just ride around the city to get some inspiration. Most restaurants are closed and I have no ideas for a good dining experience.

The streets are very quiet at night. A big newly open restaurant on the boulevard serving only chicken soup. No more soup tonight! A nice restaurant near Muong Thanh Bridge with draft beer and noisy crowds does not make me feel good either. I keep riding around aimlessly feeling a bit hungry when I see a little restaurant with quite a few young folks. They serve vermicelli with tofu, the food I love each time winter comes in Hanoi. It tastes nice here, though not as nice as what I'm used too. That is the best I could have tonight anyway.

Dinner at Dien Bien Phu
Dinner at Dien Bien Phu with vermicelli, springrolls and fried tofu

 

 

Shrimp paste
Spicy shrimp paste

  It is only over half past seven now that I feel kinda mid night. It's better to go back to the room and make it a real early night then. It has been a long day today and it will be a long day tomorrow....

Hong Cum, the site of the former firepoints protecting the French Hedgehog from the south
Hong Cum, the site of the firepoints protecting the former French Hedgehog from the south in the Dien Bien Phu Battle

  A nice morning comes after great sleep. It is so pleasant now, but the sun is getting stronger and it won't be easy later today. I feel hungry and get to a nearby restaurant for breakfast. The rolled rice paper tastes like nothing so I have to move on and try my luck at another one which serves chicken noodle soup. It i a bit better and I have enough confidence to set out for the visits of the day. I'll be exploring Dien Bien Phu from the south, Hong Cum. This was the site of fire-points protecting the French Hedgehog from the south during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. There was an airfield here back then. The camps were on both side of the Nam Rom River. Nothing is left nowadays save a little monument. The road to the Lao border is still very quiet. The Nam Rom River is shallow during this season, but I can't cross the river as there is no bridge here.

Road to Laos from Dien Bien Phu
Road to Laos from Dien Bien Phu

 During the Dien Bien Phu Battle, the French had 2,000 fighters at Hong Cum. Regiment 57 of Division 304 separated Hong Cum from the Central Zone at Muong Thanh by trenches. Hong Cum surrendered on 7-May-1954 after the fall of Muong Thanh.

Leaving Hong Cum, I head north going back to the Central Zone of the former Hedgehog which is the center of Dien Bien Phu City nowadays. The first site is the A1 Hill which marked the fiercest battles of Dien Bien Phu. Looking back to the series of targets that Viet Minh had to bring down, A1 was definitely the crunchiest of all. The fall of A1 would mean the fall of the whole Central Zone meaning the fall of the French at Dien Bien Phu.

Hill A1 Dien Bien Phu
The secret trench allowing French enforcement from Muong Thanh to Hill A1 at Dien Bien Phu

 The visitor entrance to Hill A1 is from the west on the former Route 41 at the Mannequin Bunker which caused a lot of casualties to Viet Minh in the battles here. From this bunker there is a once secret trench leading the the commander bunker on the top of Hill A1.

Viet Minh Trench at Hill A1
Viet Minh Trench at Hill A1

 To attack Hill A1, Viet Minh dug a trench from the south west. I have some moments recalling the immense difficulties they had back then and the brutal battles that took place here. Each centimeter of trench was paid not only by perspiration but also by blood; each centimeter closer to the top, so closer were they to victory.

French Commander Bunker at Hill A1
French Commander Bunker at Hill A1

 All trenches lead to the top of the hill where the commander bunker was. The bunker was a mystery to Viet Minh at first, its well-built walls and thick concrete ceiling was one of the main reasons that it was so resilient to all attacks. Viet Minh had to dig a secret tunnel close to the bunker and put in a ton of explosive to blow up part of it. Hill A1 was brought down and the French troops in the Central Zone at Muong Thanh surrendered. The visitors can still see the recreated crater by the explosion and the tunnel on the hill nowadays.

Crater on Hill A1 by 1 ton of explosive by Viet Minh
Crater on Hill A1 by 1 ton of explosive by Viet Minh