Day 17 (1 Jan 2010): The Wild (North)West [Sapa – Dien Bien Phu]

For your convenience, please refer to The Journey for the itinerary and the latest updates.

Weather: Fine

Distance covered today: 285km
Distance traveled from Guangzhou: 1,814km
Distance remaining to Singapore: 3,290km

Fact of the day: Dien Bien Phu was the site of the famous battle during the First Indochina War in 1954.

It was New Year’s Day but nothing changed. I still had to wake up early to catch my bus. I was asked to arrive by 7.00am at the travel agency for the scheduled departure of 7.30am. Like everywhere else in this part of the world, the minibus arrived late and I was shoved inside it which was already packed with passengers.

Our route for the day

It turned out that about half of the passengers on board were locals and the rest tourists. French seemed to be the predominant nationality among the tourists and we picked up two Thai guys on the way out of Sapa. It was a tight squeeze; seats meant for three had to accommodate four. Vietnamese safety standards are clearly not quite the same as back home. There was a guy who acted as an assistant to the driver. He would got everyone sorted and seated in the correct position. He wanted me to move behind to squeeze with three other tourists in the last row and I claimed that it was impossible. Luckily he didn’t insist and my row only sat three persons throughout the trip.

The road out of Sapa definitely wasn’t one of the best that I traveled on.

Room for more improvement definitely

Although I can’t deny that the scenery was spectacular.

Fantastic scenery

We stopped at a roadside restaurant about 2.5 hours after Sapa. It was a little too early for lunch but I got some pho in anticipation of the long journey ahead. After lunch, our driver would yet pick up another passenger on the cramped minivan. The assistant kept hitting on the new lady passenger (which irritated the hell out of me) which finally stopped when she got car-sick and didn’t want to talk anymore.

I observed that the locals are more susceptible to car-sickness compared to foreign travelers in mountainous areas. My little hypothesis (perhaps someone can prove it please) is that despite living in regions with curvy roads, the locals didn’t travel on motor vehicles much. Most of their rides are short ones and they only travel out of necessity. Meanwhile the foreigners are often hardened travelers who have more than their fair share of bumpy roads and thus less likely to get car-sick. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

At about 2.30pm, a roadblock (KM unknown) prevented us from continuing our journey. Prior to that the roads weren’t too bad and the vehicle was burning the distances at pretty good speed.


Apparently a rock had fallen from the cliff and killed someone. The police officers closed the road for investigations and only motorcycles could pass through the affected sector.

My ride

Everyone's waiting

Upfront nothing seemed to be happening

During the stop I chatted with some of the other travelers. Like me, they were all going to cross over to Laos the next day. I guess one really had to be patient traveling in this part of the world; nothing really runs on schedule and roadblocks like this happen all the time.

There was a dam construction project right beside where the accident took place.

Dam construction

While a new dam would bring economic benefits, dam construction and tunnel-building were known to cause soil erosion and landslides. Was the dam to be blamed for the unfortunate event? I had heard all about how the dam projects affect the ecosystem in Sikkim. The location might have change but the impacts were eerily similar.

Finally our vehicle got going after almost two hours. I was puzzled why the police officers couldn’t open the road earlier but I shouldn’t criticize things that I didn’t understand.

Something interesting en route:

Banana man

The lost hours would cause us to arrive at Dien Bien Phu (KM 1,814) after sunset.

DBP bus station - boy was i glad to get there

The Thai guys were able to communicate with some of the people at bus station in Thai/Lao and through them we knew about the connecting bus to Laos the next day. After registering and paying for the ticket (88,000 VND), getting accommodation was next on the agenda.

Fortunately I had made use of the unsecured Wifi in Sapa to research on Travelfish. It is a really comprehensive online portal for backpacking visitors to Southeast Asia and it is highly recommended for anyone going to the region.

I ended up with Viet Hoang Guest House, located diagonally across the bus station. I shared the room (Twin, 150,000 VND per room) with a British backpacker from the bus. I’m sorry that I forgot his name and let’s just call him BP.

We had a rather expensive dinner at a eating place two shopfronts away from the guest house and managed to trade some travel stories. He was on a two month trip to Southeast Asia and was going back to Thailand after seeing Laos. There didn’t seem to have much going on at DBP in the evening and both of us turned in early. BP was especially tired since he had a late night on NYE in Sapa while I wasn’t looking forward to yet another early start the following morning.


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