#11. From SE Asia: Entering Viet Nam

Post #11
Dien Bien Phu, Viet Nam
February 5th, 2010

(note: I am at times severely constrained here by bandwidth and the Viet Namese national firewall. Often I cannot see images, and Facebook and numerous other sites are blocked by the Viet Namese government)

I left Muang Khua, Laos at 5:30 in the morning ready to have my bike carried to the Viet Nam border by bus. But when I got to the river to be ferried across to the bus pickup, I discovered that the bus had already left, 30 minutes BEFORE its scheduled departure. If I did not find an alternative, it looked like I would be riding. I had heard that this road was not finished, but I figured ‘What road is?’

While waiting at the river, I met a very interesting British couple. They had been working in Shanghai for the last 5 years and now were finally taking the big tour. They reinforced what I had heard about terrible road conditions thru the mountains of NE Laos. Then, as if by magic, an SUV comes up to us and the driver asks if we would like to pay for a ride to the border of Viet Nam. $6 a head. Well of course. It was still dark. We loaded up and were off.

The road ahead quickly turned into a construction site. At times it was difficult to know which way the road actually went. Just from the size of the holes in the road, I was glad I had not tried to ride this. As we went on the road simply got worse and worse. We needed the 4WD. I commented to Andy that Steffan, the Swiss cyclist we had met the night before, would not be able to make this road to the border in a day. He agreed. Furthermore, we had seen no villages along the way for the first 30 kms, and so how would he get food and water?

On the way we were stopped 2 times for hours at a time by road construction. Excavators, bulldozers and the like. A 4-meter high pile of dirt blocked one road. We all got out in the morning fog and watched the work. People walked right past and UNDER the construction cranes and gear as they worked. They could easily have been killed. Anyone could approach any moving machine without hindrance. OSHA would have fainted.

While waiting, I talked with Andy, the Brit semi-conductor fellow, with whom I was riding. He really had some interesting things to say about China and SE Asia. Two of the biggest points he made were

1. A western-style ‘democracy’ would be a major disaster for China at this point.  China would definitely become unstable.  But it would be a bigger disaster eventually for the rest of the world. (wow. Strong stuff, with a well-defended argument). And

2. Asia is going to industrialize, modernize, and increase their living standards and their consumption of resources REGARDLESS of any perceived environmental constraints. Forget 350 ppm CO2 or whatever. Nothing internally will stop their increasing usage of fuel, coal, electricity, whatever. Andy said that ‘it is in the cards’. It will happen. And the environment/Gaia will do what it must. As a point Andy mentioned that the road we were on was being funded in part by Viet Nam. China has already built good roads into Laos. Manufactured goods are going in, and timber and resources are going back. Viet Nam plans to do the same. So the two last ‘semi-wild’ countries in SE Asia, Laos and Myramar, will be leveled for resources for the rest of industrial Asia. Andy said that the Asians’ general attitude is that ‘the west did it, and now it is our turn.’

I have said for decades that the culture of industrial dominance cannot internally control itself. Only something external can stop it. I hoped I was wrong. Andy is telling me that I am right.  I still hope that I am wrong.

We finally got to the Laos side of the border crossing a just before noon. I did my currency changes, assembled my bike and began riding the climb thru the mountain forests to the Viet Nam border. I had not eaten or drank anything today. I was a bit apprehensive of this crossing. Everyone had told me that Viet Nam is DIFFERENT from the rest of SE Asia.

I finally reached the customs station and I was quickly ushered in by uniformed, armed customs guards.
I handed it to him. The older man immediatly knew where I was from. He checked and rechecked the VISA. (In Viet Nam, no one enters without a pre-issued visa. This means sending your passport and forms and $50 to the Viet Nam embassy a month before you enter.)
A guard with a mask then checked my ears and measured my temperature. Yes, I was hot, I had peddling uphill for 5 kms. After filling out some forms and a computer check, they stamped my passport waved me thru. I went out to my bicycle. Several Viet Namese men stopped me and began asking me questions about my bike. As I began to answer, the older man came out and said GO! You go NOW! He motioned me rapidly with his hands. The hostility was real. I nervously hopped on my bike and set off.  I wondered whether he had had relatives or friends killed in the war.  The Viet Namese lost 2.2 million during the war, 5% of their population, so the odds were very great that he had a personal loss.  And nothing I could say to him would change his feelings.

I had no idea what altitude this border crossing was.  Andy had told me that it was one of the highest border crossings in the world, if not the highest. I do not know about that. But I do know that I coasted downhill for 13 kms. I had two climbs to do, and then another 6 km coast. And then I was in the Dien Bien Phu valley. Not once on the way did I see a single food vendor or a place to get a drink. That was a big change from Laos or Thailand.  And I had been out of water long ago.

I finally rolled up to a cement factory. Across the road there was a restaurant. I walked in. They looked VERY surprised. I asked for a menu. There was none. I surmised that this restaurant for the workers at the factory, and I think I was right. I motioned to the staff that I would like to eat and drink, if that were possible. They conferenced. Apparently they had not done this before. They got an English speaker. Yes, they would serve me, but it would be very expensive. How much? 20,000 Dong. (that is about $1.25) Yes I will pay that.

Some men invited me over. They gave me tea and filled up all my water bottles with good water. When the food arrived, it was enough for 3 people. I was embarrassed by the quantity. I motioned that it was too much. I then sent some back to the kitchen. I did not want to waste food in front of them. They were not offended, but were appreciative of my gesture.

But I confess that when they asked me of my nationality, I said I was Canadian. I simply did not want to have to deal with the potential of that border guard’s reaction with every transaction that I did. If you think there is something wrong with that, then let me know. But I just wanted to get going and not have a potentially longish conversation with a lot of people. I guess I should mention that I learned that when I travel in conservative Muslim countries, when they ask me what my religion is, I simply say Christian. They can accept being ‘of the book’. But to be kafir (not of the book — infidel) is not acceptable. And I don’t need the grief.

I had a very pleasant 20 km ride into Dien Bien Phu. Along the way, I was treated fine. At a cafe, a man insisted that I share some home-made beer with him. He waved off any offer of money. These were friendly, decent folk. When they asked me where I was from, I paused, then answered USA. And they were still friendly. I felt good about that.

Next: the incredible battlesite of Dien Bien Phu. The battle that changed the 20ieth century.

3 Responses to #11. From SE Asia: Entering Viet Nam

  1. if i were you i’d learn the canadian national anthem

  2. Dwight.
    I am truly enjoying riding vicariously with you. I admire your fortitude and good fortune.

    I would caution you however, to stay on the beaten path in places like Hue and Quang Tri province. There is much unexploded ordnance still lingering in many places.

    From my memory of a similar trip taken by US Vietnam Vets, they found little animosity on their journey, finding the Vietnamese people to be gracious and forgiving. Be safe and joyful. I can think of no better diplomat. Denny
    PS.. I tried to find the Viet Vets ride piece to no avail. Here are a couple of others with some insights and observations. Carry small bills was an interesting one. Getting change back from street vendors is difficult to impossible according to one.

  3. Dwight- Sounds like you’re having quite the adventure! I spent some time in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia (wasn’t supposed to be there!), and Laos in the early 70’s when I was in the Air Force. I bet those places have sure changed since the war is over and the people aren’t being bombed regularly. Hopefully, we can touch base at the next Heartwood gathering. I would love to hear more. Be safe and take care of yourself! Charles

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