Push Me Pull You Bus Fun

Dien Bien Phu Travel Blog

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The stick in the mud bus before we dragged it out.
I decided to take on the little-used, only open since last year, Vietnam - Laos border crossing at Tay Trang for a few different reasons, the main one being that I was dying for something a bit more interesting than the tedious tourist shuffle I'd experienced up the coast of Vietnam. I had also taken into account the fact that flying to Laos is (relatively) expensive and the 24 hour Hanoi - Vientiane bus route has a reputation amongst backpackers only slightly higher than that of malaria. This left only the option of retracing my steps southwards through half of Vietnam to the major crossing at Lao Bao.
The road/sludge path ahead.
"Bugger that!" I cried (silently, in my head, in my mildew-scented Sapa hotel room) and went for Tay Trang anyway.       

So, after spending all day on white mini buses trundling along rough roads in the mountains of North West Vietnam I pitched up at Dien Bien Phu at about 6pm, just as it was going dark. Dien Bien is famous as the site of a defeat for Vietnam's French colonial masters back in 1954. They considered themselves pretty secure in their garrison, right up until they were pounded into submisson by the artillery of the industrious North Vietnamese and subsequently overrun.

Unkown to their enemies, the Vietnamese had apparently lugged heavy weaponry over the mountains, piece by piece, to secure positions on the ridge above the French base.
The foreign legion gears up to hike off to the border.
They then wasted no time in re-assembling it there and pulverising the French occupiers into a decisive surrender. Shortly after this the French threw in the Indo-Chinese towel and pretty much accepted that Gallic influence in the region would, from then on, principally be felt through the continued presence of fresh baguettes and decent coffee.

From what I saw (the bus station and a cheap hotel across the street) modern Dien Bien is not the prettiest of places. But tsk tsk Dave, who knows? Beyond this muddy little enclave of traffic fumes and noise, there may exist a veritable smorgasbord of beautiful architecture, cultural wonder and lively night spots with dancing girls, strip poker and cocktails with names like: "The Pink Pulsating Pomegranite." I therefore encourage everyone to make the bum-numbing journey to North West Vietnam to discover these wonders.
Passing the old border Vietnamese border post. Lovely weather... for fish.
Knowing that I was in for a 5.30am start, I decided to ignore the temptation, stay in out of the rain and watch a Vietnamese game show on telly instead. It was chock full of bright colours, a shouty audience and inexplicably stupid games. Pretty much like the English equivalent then.

The next morning saw me stumping across to the bus station at the ungodly hour of 5am to claim a seat on the bus across the border. It was  pitch black and raining hard, the bus station yard was a pig's mud lake paradise and I was already uneasy about the chances of our bus getting us to Muang Khua some 70km over the border in Laos. This nervousness increased when I saw the old 25 seat rattler that was to be our chariot. I was surprised to find about 15 other travellers on the bus with me along with the locals, all of us crammed into seating positions that were non too conducive to decent blood flow in the legs, i.e. hemmed in by boxes, grain sacks and other assorted detritus and about as tight as the average gnat's rectum.          
However, off we went, only slightly beyond the appointed time of 5.30am and all went well for the first 15 minutes. Until we stopped for breakfast. For 45 minutes. Finally, after everyone had dined to their satisfaction and I had finished sighing, we set off once again and this time managed to keep going for almost an hour. It was at that point, on the curling hill road up to the border, when the fun really began. The road surface was sealed, the hill however was not and a large piece of it had obviously slipped down across the highway and created a wide slick of deep and sticky mud that our bus driver tried to charge through like Lewis Hamilton. It didn't work.

We eventually extricated the bus from its muddy nest via a combination of pushing, pulling, digging and wholesale abuse of the reverse gear. That still left us on the wrong side of the mud slick. Next step, wait on the bus out of the rain for unlikely help to arrive in the form of a bulldozer or walk the 6 km through the Vietnam and Laos border posts and hope to snag some transport on the other side. 45 minutes went by and the increasingly restless foreign legion decided to make a go of it up the hill - so out come the backpacks, on with the boots and off we trot, led by a Laos lad who's a student in Hanoi and speaks Vietnamese, Laos and English. He reckons he can sort us out with some transport at the Laos border post. Not wanting to admit defeat and go back to Dien Bien (wonderful though it may be) we straggle off after him to finally escape from Vietnam.

Halleluiah! Thought I, not knowing that this was only the starting gun on 4 days of soggy travel consternation...                      
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The stick in the mud bus before we…
The stick in the mud bus before w…
The road/sludge path ahead.
The road/sludge path ahead.
The foreign legion gears up to hik…
The foreign legion gears up to hi…
Passing the old border Vietnamese …
Passing the old border Vietnamese…
Dien Bien Phu
photo by: marg_eric