The Battle of Dien Bien Phu 2014

Six o’ clock PM. The fog hung low over the plaza at Sapa’s town center. My friends Nica, Bernice, and I stood across the Holy Rosary Church taking selfies as we waited for our sleeper bus to Dien Bien Phu, where we would cross the border to Laos.

Here and there were small groups of fellow travelers sitting on their packs or on the ground, chattering, also waiting. Apart from us, there was barely anyone around. The night was cool and serene, the kind of night that made it harder for you to leave, but at the same time pumped you up with hope about the possibilities of the future. It was definitely not the kind of night that prepared you for a forthcoming, blindsiding battle.

The tall, orange sleeper bus turned around the corner. Red, green, blue, and yellow lights glared from its windows into the darkness of the misty night. We all flocked to it like moths to candlelight. A small crowd of backpackers stood at the door of the bus as the conductor, a lanky Vietnamese man in a white T-shirt, denim shorts, and a gold necklace, exited and immediately clambered onto the roof. There was a moment of collective confusion as we all wondered what he was doing there. He stretched his arms towards us and started barking in Vietnamese. We got nothing.

Then our hostel’s landlady, who accompanied us to the bus, told us to hand him our packs so he can put it on the roof. The locals accompanying the other travelers told them the same. This was met with nervous uncertainty, qualms, and outright fury. “Are you gonna cover it?” “What if it rains?” “How is it secure?” “What the eff do you think you’re doing?” The conductor, uncomprehending, merely repeated his orders.

Seeing as we had no choice, we each started securing our packs as best we could with dry covers or large plastic bags. The conductor did cover the bags with a tarp. The rest was up to fate.

Finally, after repeated goodbyes and thank yous to our host, we boarded the bus. I hopped onto the first step, took my shoes off and placed them in the customary plastic bag, looked up at the aisle, and had a mild panic attack. At that exact moment I had a desperate urge to get out and wait for the next bus instead. But I knew I had no choice. This was to be my home for the next twelve hours.

Suddenly, something rammed into my shoulder. It was the conductor, leading me to my seat at the end of the bus. From the way he swung from pole to pole, over the heads of people packed in the aisle, and how he ignored all the faces and other body parts his arms, legs, and feet hit, I could tell he expected me to do the same. As best I could, I wove through sleeping men, circles of ladies chatting, a group of young people passing around some chips, other passengers and mountains and mountains of fluffy flannel pillows and blankets in jigsaw puzzle positions completely blocking my path. There was literally no aisle to be seen, and I had to find holes between folded limbs where I could slip my feet, otherwise I’d have to walk all over them. I tried to excuse myself over their shrill chatter, then I realized they didn’t care.

Finally, I made it to the last solo top seat. I clambered up and squeezed into the tiny space. Like any other sleeper bus, this one had reclining seats and a pocket in front where you could stretch your legs. However, with this bus the recliner couldn’t be adjusted and the leg pocket was too short. To illustrate, I’m only 5’1″ and I had to stay curled up the whole way.

I looked over to Nica and Bernice who were in the double top seats across from me. From the looks on their faces, I could tell we were all thinking the same thing: “WHAT. THE. FUCK??!??!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!!!”

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Behind us a British couple and two Belgian guys were crammed into the four-person recliner at the very back of the bus. Each person was tall and full-bodied, and watching them fit themselves in the seat was honestly pretty entertaining. From the way they chatted with each other, it seemed that each duo was just getting acquainted with the other.

“I hope you don’t mind getting fingered by an Englishman!” the British man said to the Belgian beside him, to which the latter exclaimed his full consent.

After a while they started joking about their sleeping positions: “For the first six hours, we’ll spoon to the right! For the next six hours, we’ll spoon to the left! Ready? One, two, three.. spoon to the right!”

And when the conductor relocated a skinny Vietnamese man to the very back to join them, the Brit naughtily announced, “Somebody’s gonna spoon with a local!”, to which the Belgian laughed nervously.

Eventually, they dimmed the rainbow party lights and I managed to fall asleep. At some point though I woke up due to something stirring under my pillow. I realized it was the foot of one of the Belgians behind me.

“Excuse me, your foot is under my pillow..” I told him.

“Oh! Yeah.. Yeah.. It’s okay,” he assured me, with a smile.

I couldn’t help but laugh. The truth was that I found the whole situation so absurd, that sleeping on a stranger’s foot became a negligible detail. Besides, there was still the pillow and blanket to keep me from kissing it.

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Photographed: my future romance for the evening. My face said it all really. (Photo courtesy of Nica Mapeso)

The next time I woke up it was to my worst nightmare on an uncomfortable, unfamiliar journey: I badly needed to pee. Funnily enough, right at that moment, Nica and Bernice’s conversation trickled towards me.

“…If we don’t stop soon, I’ll crawl to the front of the bus and I’ll yell STOP!” Nica was saying.

It turns out both of them needed to pee as well, and were already coming up with plans on how to make it happen. As luck would have it, a mere moments later the bus stopped at an obscure shed by the side of the road. I could barely make it out from my seat, but the Vietnamese passengers started to pour out. All of us foreigners looked at each other. None of us knew what was happening. When the bus didn’t make any signs of leaving, we all finally ventured a look.

One after the other we disembarked from the bus. It was indeed a shed; small, made of concrete, lit up by a dim bulb. Behind it though the passengers flocked to a dark, unlit passageway. I followed them hoping to find the toilets – and I did. Beyond the long line, I could glimpse a bright cubicle with a ratty wooden door. It frightened me to think of what I would encounter inside, but my desperation made me bury that monster and suck it up.

Nica and Bernice found me at the end of the line, but it seemed they had it worse than me, so they decided to run to a dark hill at the back of the road instead.  They told me later on that a lot of the other women on the bus had the same idea.

Finally relieved in one aspect, we boarded again and psyched ourselves for the rest of the journey. It was only around 10pm at that point, we had eight more hours to go.

Once again the bus was on the move, the party lights were dimmed, the TV was opened, and suddenly weird Vietnamese music blared. A unison of “Whatthefucks?!” dotted the bus. The conductor probably got a hint and hurriedly turned it down again.

I slept intermittently this time, disturbed by the bumpy zigzag, the cold aircon, and my uncomfortable sleeping position all at once. I didn’t learn til later how much Nica had it worse than me. The arm rest, which also served as a guard rail of sorts, on her top seat was gone. This meant that there was literally nothing stopping her from falling to the poor folks below, except for reflex and good luck. At some point, she had to bind her other arm to the arm rest between her and Bernice in order to secure herself. Her blanket and pillow did fall at some point, and it was (a little too aggressively) tossed back up.

I also found out later that another Englishman, seated in front of Bernice, woke up in the middle of the night and punched his party light out of annoyance at its constant blinking. It would have been a hilarious sight, if only I didn’t wish I could punch my party light too.

The next time I woke it was to the glorious sight of daybreak. Huts, nestled in fields sitting between mountains, were grazed by low-hanging clouds. All was peaceful and quiet. Inside, the soft murmur of sleep filled the bus. Outside it was gray and gloomy. Once again it was the kind of soothing imagery that wouldn’t prepare you for more hell ahead.

(We haven’t won the battle, now we head to war.)

The bus arrived at the Dien Bien Phu station around 6:30am. From there, our plan was to get on the first bus bound for the northern Lao city of Oudomxay, and then take yet another bus to our destination, Luang Prabang. Based on our research, the whole trip was supposed to take another ten hours, but we were ready.

As I climbed down from my top bunk, it didn’t immediately register to my half-sleeping brain that something was amiss. I just thought I felt off-balance because, well, I’ve just been in hell-bus for twelve hours. It wasn’t until I got off and Bernice pointed out to me what happened that I fully understood the situation.

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Our bus was literally broken. I vaguely remembered waking up once or twice because I heard something thudding against my side of the bus, but I just brushed it off as giant loose luggage. Once I woke up cos I thought the bus hit a rock on my side, and then we stopped and some guys got off. I assumed they just removed it from the side of the road. I didn’t realize then that we had been traveling on a bumpy, winding mountain passageway in the dead of night with our suspension broken and the whole bus tilted to one side!

On top of that, we didn’t realize how hard it rained until we got handed our sopping wet packs, each one more soaked through than the last. I was lucky cos somehow my bag was just half soaked, and I pack so compactly that the clothes in the core stayed dry. One guy on the other hand had his bag dripping wet that he threw a fit and started throwing his wet clothes at the conductor.

“What the fuck do you expect me to do with that? You fucking idiot! Fucking idiots!” he screamed, as a crowd of uncomprehending Vietnamese watched in amusement.

Despite the anger and frustration though, there was really nothing we could do but get over it.

We saw a minibus bound for Luang Prabang, however it was already full. And it was also the first, last, and only bus leaving for the Lao city that day. I spent some time in denial because I had really wanted to get going, but, once again we had no choice. We went to the ticketing office instead, bought tickets for the only bus leaving the next day, and decided to just look for a place to stay the night.

Now, that probably wouldn’t have been a problem any other day. Except, unbeknownst to us, we arrived at Dien Bien Phu on the anniversary of the historic World War II Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The whole city was in celebration. There were festivities, programs, a bike race, even veterans who probably traveled all the way to commemorate the whole event.

But we didn’t know any of this as we set about looking for accommodations. I felt hopeful too because right across the bus station were already a couple of guest houses. We inquired at the first one along the street, and the man at the reception was quick enough to show us the rooms.

He led us to the establishment next door, a dingy noodle shop with old men in tank tops chatting loudly. The walls were smudged and graying, the floor was sticky and littered with crumpled napkins, even the tables had spilled sauce and used plates lying about. And the flies! We looked at each other as the man continued to lead us further in, up a dark and rickety stairwell, into a corridor that had seen better days – maybe about two decades ago.

The room he offered us was at the very end of the corridor. It was spacious and had three queen-sized four poster beds. It seemed okay at first glance, except the whole room reeked of dust, the sheets looked dubious, and the man offered it for five times its worth. It also didn’t have its own bathroom, but we didn’t dare look at that anymore. We told him it was overpriced, though what we really thought was the whole establishment felt shady, and left for the next guest house.

After that, everything else was fully booked. We inquired at simple, family-owned guest houses, at newly-built inns, at large hotels, absolutely nothing. By the sixth or seventh place we reached, it started to rain. At that point Nica, Bernice, and I had teamed up with an English couple, Rachel and James, who was also on our bus. Like us, they were headed to Luang Prabang but wasn’t able to get tickets on time.

As Rachel and James inquired at establishments, the three of us inquired from those across the street. We kept going despite the rain pouring harder and our packs getting heavier on our backs. But all the accommodations were so full that they didn’t even let us step inside anymore, the proprietors just waved no to us the moment we turned our heads their way.

After several blocks of walking in the rain and probably a dozen inns, Nica, Bernice and I decided to sit down first and get ourselves together. Maybe we could use wifi to search for a place online so we wouldn’t have to keep walking anymore. Rachel and James on the other hand decided to keep going, so we wished them good luck, and found a place with internet.

True enough, there was absolutely nothing. We even ventured asking an old European couple and their Vietnamese friend where they were staying in case we could inquire there. The Vietnamese man, the only one of the three who spoke English, was kind enough to give us directions to a “big guest house six blocks away”. No such luck with that either.

After resting at the cafe for a couple of hours, we sucked it up and decided to go for another hunt. We even tried to be systematic to save energy: Bernice suggested she go and look while me and Nica watch the bags. Still nothing. As we started to succumb to the possibility of being homeless for the night and that we’d end up sleeping at the station, we decided to just go and have a proper meal – our last one being nineteen hours ago, before we left Sapa.

Fate moved in mysterious ways though. As we learned that all the cafes lining the street only served drinks and no food, and as my frustration – aided by hunger and tiredness- reached a whole new level, a lady approached us from out of nowhere and, in her high-pitched Vietnamese, pointed us to an inn. We were shown to a stock room, but with a bed, behind the lobby. It was big, it looked really clean, and it had a bathroom right beside it. Within the span of minutes we were trying to book the room with the receptionist and proprietress, both of whom spoke no English. We just kept exchanging sign language and showing money in the hope that we were talking about the same thing. Finally, after a morning-long search, and a couple of minutes of frenzied exchange, we had shelter for the night.

The proprietress was even nice enough to provide us with our own towels and toothbrushes, which she assumed we had never seen in our lives. As she laid them out for us she demonstrated what they were for. She held out the towel and started pretend patting her body with it and studied us if we understood. She did the same with the toothbrush, and the roll of tissue, with which she pretended to wipe her butt. It was hilarious.

All the stuff stored in the room proved to be useful as we used them all to dry our clothes. A ladder, a bike, a toy car, tarps. Nothing was spared for hanging and drying.

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When we had settled and freshened up, we went out in search for food again. We scoured the streets looking for a place that served more than “refreshments”, and when we found a restaurant displaying food, we didn’t think twice to enter and sit down.

Unlike the other food establishments in Dien Bien Phu, this one was brightly lit, had clean floors, and properly wiped tables. It looked clean and safe and comfortable, which was just what we needed.

We checked out the menu without a word of English, settled for a picture of what we took to be chicken wings and placed our order. We upsized the rice and even ordered vegetables cos we were just so famished.

It just so happened that Rachel and James were also there so we shared a table and started venting about what we had just gone through. Luckily, they had found a place already though it was also overpriced, and by the sound of it, not quite as clean as ours.

Our orders started to arrive as we relived our journey from Sapa to that very moment. The couple’s food looked nice enough which made me all the more exited to eat. Finally, our order of chicken wings arrived.

As the waitress placed it on the table though we all leaned in and stared in confusion. The plate was covered in what looked like leaks and onions and.. not chicken. They were tiny little blackened things with dark yellow meat. It looked NOTHING like the picture. Unfortunately I wasn’t a very adventurous eater, and not even my hunger could make me put one in my mouth.

Rachel and James, who had been traveling through Vietnam for several months and knew some of the language, tried to analyze the menu. We even joked that if we put the chopped pieces together we could probably form the original shape of the thing. By the color of the cooked skin, James suggested it could be gecko. But upon finding its name on the menu and googling, we found out that it’s frog. Glorious.

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They say frog tastes like chicken, but I don’t care. If it looks like that, I’m not eating it. (Photo courtesy of Nica Mapeso)

We ended up eating the boiled vegetables with rice instead. Nowhere near filling. After the failed lunch we transferred to a cafe/ice cream shop/drinking place and spent the rest of the day there telling stories. Rachel and James were a lovely couple and having them in that leg of our journey somehow made things better.

Around 9pm, the three of us finally excused ourselves because we desperately needed real food already. We found a place right beside our inn. In typical Dien Bien Phu fashion it had litter all over the floor, but we didn’t mind. We asked for fried chicken rice and didn’t shut up til we were sure the cook understood we meant chicken. It was a great meal, real comfort food. It was simple, but it certainly saved the day for me.

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It may look plain, but certainly tastes MORE than that. I loved this meal <3

We heard fireworks commencing the festivities while we ate, but we were too tired to check it out. Afterwards it was straight to bed. We were all drained, and we had to be up early for our 7am trip to Luang Prabang. I was just praying so hard that it wouldn’t be as bad.

After everything, I personally felt like I got my Backpacker certification card thanks to that nightmare experience. If I could survive that without losing my head, I could freaking survive anything.