Monday, November 22, 2010

Monday, November 22nd Rest Day in Dien Bien Phu

Day Fifteen: Rest Day in Dien Bien Phu
We arrived at the beautifully groomed grounds of the tranquil government owned and operated resort, the Him Lam Hotel, on the outskirts of Dien Bien Phu late yesterday afternoon. Our airy rooms are in small typical Vietnamese red wooden buildings on stilts in the Thai style. After happy hour on our open balcony, we enjoyed a great dinner before being entertained outside under a full moon by local communist party members and singers. The entertainment, where "rice wine" was shared freely, was all in Vietnamese and much of it boring, but Les and Bernie last till the end when everyone participated in lively Vietnamese dancing including the "bamboo stick dance" that many of us have learned.
Bananas are one of the daily fruit staples that are easily available here. Last night some of us stored a banana in our airy room to eat with breakfast. In Michael & Bernie's room, something (?) ate through the skin of the banana and half the inside. Paul & Nancy discovered half their banana eaten last evening and threw it in the garbage can; this morning the banana was gone. We are wondering what kind of animal/insect is in our rooms at night? Chou says its the Thai ladies that come into our room at night?
After a breakfast that is marginally little better than yesterdays, we enjoy a day off from cycling. It is another warm sunny day (3'rd in a row). In the morning we have a tour of Dien Bien Phu which is located in one of the most remote parts of Vietnam in the flat Muong Thanh Valley surrounded by the thick forests and steep terrain that we cycled through yesterday.. A small village until recently, the city has grown quickly with parks, tree lined boulevards and new buildings (war monuments, communist party offices and congress centre) that have been constructed. This is definitely a communist party stronghold; red flags and banners are everywhere although we are unable to understand the messages.
Dien Bien Phu, near the border with Laos, is famous as the site of a decisive Vietnamese battle. The French colonial forces were soundly defeated by the Viet Minh following which the French Indochina empire began to crumble. First we see an English film about the battle, that is difficult to understand, then visit the War Museum, walk up the previously well fortified and guarded "A1" hill, complete with tunnels, trenches and crater where the most important and last battle of the war was fought and won by the Vietnamese on May 7, 1954. This was indeed a good but very detailed history lesson. The next stop was at the reconstructed bunker which served as the french headquarters for the 16,200 french troups located in the Muong Thanh valley.
Last stop of the morning was at the local market where you can purchase everything that is required to live in this town.  We purchased some fruit and other local snacks. We were the only tourists at the market and were not hassled like we have been at markets elsewhere. The group separated after the market; some stayed for lunch in town and some returned to the resort for a relaxing afternoon by the pool or in the shade in the beautiful resort grounds, anticipating tommorrow's 100 km cycle with one long 8 km 10% hill climb. 
The 16 of us are well and healthy but keeping our fingers crossed. We have all cycled the distances and routes outlined in our daily itinerary. Our excellent guide, Chau, warns us about picketpockets and not to eat local foods from street venders or markets. To my knowledge, none of us has experienced any issues related to picket pockets, lost bags, etc.
The Vietnamese wine "Vang Dalat", available in red or white, "produced from Dalat regional fruits" is not very good. Some of us have tried other imported wines but none have impressed us. Wine is very expensive (relatively speaking) here because it is heavily taxed. We have few choices for local and imported beer but what is available is good and inexpensive ($ 0.50 to 1.00). A few of us have been taken to the local vodka, straight up. It's made from fermented rice with 29.5% alcohol, according to the bottle. It's actually pretty good compared to the wine.

Sharon brought a couple of surgical masks and they work for her. Some of us have obtained a local mask to wear for protection against the dust and smog while cycling. I tried mine yesterday but found it to be too thick for breathing properly while huffing and puffing up the hills. My whole face overheated (hot, sweaty, glasses steamed up). I used it only when the road dust was very bad.
Dinner tonight is in the hotel restaurant.
Written by Bernie Phillion

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