Day 22: 75km Dien Bien Phu to Tuan Giao
Today we made a slower start than normal after beer and rice wine the night before. On the way to dinner we found the first pub we’d seen in Vietnam. Actually, it was a street corner warehouse full of tables and chairs. Men sat drinking jugs of draft beer while they chatted happily and noisily. Someone ordered us some bar snacks; pepperami-style meat to be wrapped in tough, bitter leaves and dipped in spicy sauce. I prefer peanuts!
Later we picked an ethnic Thai restaurant for dinner (the Thai are a minority group here and not to be confused with Thais from Thailand). We sat on the floor once again to eat sticky ribs, beef and rice from small tables. We drank too much rice wine because the locals insisted on toasting this, that and everything. After every cheers they thank everyone and shake hands. Laborious! Bed by 10.30, a late night by Vietnamese standards.
We have discovered Xoi for breakfast, a sticky rice topped with unknown crispy things and slices of unknown meat. It’s filling and makes a nice change from noodle soup. We took some steamed buns (we think filled with mushrooms and quails eggs) and a couple of Banh-Mi baguettes from our favourite supplier with us for the road. We had made a special trip to her stall for lunch yesterday to find it closed. Sandwiches are for breakfast and evening snacks here, and not the lunchtime staple we craved. Almost everywhere else was closed too, so we joined the locals in a siesta.
The road today was one of the best yet. We wound 500m up through the hills on quiet roads before plunging back to the river around sweeping bends. A great, edge of your seat sort of descent! The rest of the journey passed through wide valleys scattered with wooden houses and paddy fields. The locals have invented many ways to transport water to the correct paddies. We saw concrete aqueducts and weirs for the first time. Also water wheels where the river current lifted water a metre or so into a bamboo pipe. Finally, 75m long pipe bridges suspended over the road using steel cables.
Only local produce is available in Vietnam – food and drink doesn’t usually travel far. It can be hard to find coffee in the north as it doesn’t grow here. We’ve stopped several times at a Ca Phé sign only to receive confused looks. Ca Phé seems to mean ‘some drinks, maybe’ and not coffee as you might expect! Still, we found the best coffee of the tour so far today. It’s made by balancing a metal filter pot on top of a mug. Once the coffee has dripped through its time to stir in condensed milk then ice. Today the waiter came and titivated our coffee several times before we were allowed to drink it. The coffee is always served with green tea in a separate glass.
Our destination was Tuan Giao, a one street town. We found a recommendation for a small hotel on travelfish.com (tips on the smallest places in Asia, even where Trip Advisor fails). We communicated with the elderly proprietor in French. Much better than the primitive sign language that we needed last week. We whiled away the hot afternoon drinking iced smoothies.