While looking around the Muong Thanh Hotel in Dien Bien, in northwest Vietnam, we came across the cruel practice of bear bile farming.
Behind a wall next to the swimming pool were half a dozen cramped cages, each containing a sad looking black bear. The bears had catheters sticking out from their stomachs so presumably they were being kept for the purpose of extracting bear bile which is supposed to be beneficial in treating various ailments including impotence. Why, in this age of Viagra, it is still necessary to torture poor bears in this way, I’ll never understand. Piles of foul smelling kitchen slops had been poured onto the floors of the cages. The more disgusting the food, the better the bile production perhaps?
My friend reported this matter to the Hanoi office of the World Wildlife Fund. Perhaps the operation has since been closed down but I am not optimistic the bears would ever be released. Vietnam has few places where bears could be allowed to roam free without endangering the public. They would either be killed by frightened villagers or slaughtered for their skins and body parts or recaptured by greedy bile merchants. All very sad.
When we were planning our trip to Sapa and Mt. Fanxipan we hit upon the idea of extending our tour by taking in Dien Bien, scene of the decisive defeat of French forces by the Vietnamese in 1954. This epic battle brought about the end of France’s colonization of Vietnam and triggered America’s involvement in the region, which culminated in the Vietnam War.
Dien Bien is located very close to the border with Laos and although it looked close to Sapa on the map, the journey by car took 11 hours through stunningly beautiful rural landscapes.
Dien Bien seemed a quiet town. Dogs lay scratching themselves in the middle of the road, untroubled by the occasional motorbike or commercial vehicle.
The architecture was rather odd. Narrow three or four storey houses with lots of fancy embellishments.
The hotel was comfortable enough.
A number of the battlefield positions have been preserved.
Apart from the historic battle relics there is little to attract the foreign tourist but I did manage to pick up a couple of T-shirts at bargain prices.
It was time to depart for Sapa which is a hill town in northern Vietnam and the jumping off point for people who are mad enough to want to ascend Mt. Fanxipan. We took the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, close to the border with China, a journey of about 8 hours. To travel on a Vietnamese sleeper train sounds exciting and adventurous but it is probably an experience that I will not be looking to repeat in a hurry. The train carriage looked comfortable enough. Clean bedding and soft mattresses were provided in our 4 berth, first class compartment. But the whole journey was in the dark so there was nothing to see and the carriage jerked and juddered and was very noisy so sleep was next to impossible for me. Nearly all the other passengers were foreigner tourists – Vietnamese probably know better and take the plane! Arriving at Lao Cai station at 6am, feeling pretty tired, we took a van to Sapa, dropped off some bags and a couple of hours later were transported to Tram Ton or Heaven’s Gate, the starting point of the Fanxipan climb.
Mt. Fanxipan (sometimes spelt as Phan Si Pan) at 3,143 metres, is the highest mountain in Vietnam, or, even more impressive sounding, the highest in Indochina. Since the starting point was already over 2,000 metres I was thinking how hard can this be? The answer was very hard!
A guide and porter were provided. The porter carried everything we would eat for the next 2 days in his basket.
After a gruelling afternoon’s hike we arrived at our luxurious base camp accommodation to rest up for the night.
We had to spend two miserable nights in this shack (one night on the way up and one on the way down). The hut could accommodate up to 16 people sleeping sardine-like. My grubby sleeping bag was located underneath the leak in the roof meaning I was cold and wet as I lay awake on the uncomfortable bamboo slatted floor. The sleeping bag – what vile instrument of torment. The guy who invented the sleeping bag must be the same person who invented the straight jacket, and for the same reason – to drive the poor occupant nuts. Not enough room to curl up, when I rolled over the top half twisted but the bottom half stayed put. It started off cold and clammy and then became hot and clammy without ever being just right on the way.
At least the food was good, amazingly so given the primitive conditions in the ‘kitchen’.
The porters and guides managed to knock up an impressive meal which was washed down with generous slugs of rice wine.
The worst aspect of base camp had to be the toilet facilities which consisted of a wooden platform built over a pit containing a large pig who would eat the ‘droppings’. Eco-friendly, I suppose, but I won’t be eating pork again.
After an early breakfast we began the final ascent to the summit of Fanxipan. It was one of the most exhausting things I had ever done. Mud, mud everywhere, oozing over the tops of boots. Muddy trousers, caked boots, shirt soaked with sweat, glasses steamed up, visibility zero. Lungs wheezing, heartbeat audible, leg muscles aching, hour after hour.
What were the feelings on reaching the top? Not really exhilaration. Relief to get a rest but tinged with anxiety about having to go all the way back down again. It was not the best view in the world due to poor visibility but when the clouds parted there were some impressive vistas. On the way down my knees were buckling and I had to be careful not to slip and injure myself. At least my breathing was easier going down.
Finally back down to the bottom feeling strangely invigorated for several hours afterwards, perhaps due to the after-effects of prolonged heart pumping exercise and the intake of super fresh air.
Back in civilisation, we were able to explore some of the charms of Sapa while recovering for the next stage of our travels.
This region of Vietnam is home to a number of ethnic minorities such as the Hmong people who are happy to pose for tourists in their traditional dress and sell examples of their skilful handicrafts.
The plan was simple enough. A couple of days in Hanoi , then take the overnight train to the hill resort of Sapa, then 3 days to climb Mt.Fanxipan and get back down again, then drive to Dien Bien Phu for 2 nights before flying back to Hanoi.
First stop in Hanoi, the ‘Hanoi Hilton’.
This notorious prison held American pilots who were shot down over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War (or the American War as the Vietnamese call it). The POW’s nicknamed this prison the Hanoi Hilton. One of the more famous inmates was John McCain (recent US Presidential contender) whose flying suit was on prominent display.
During the French colonial era the prison housed Vietnamese political prisoners and criminals in harsh conditions.
I’d never seen a real guillotine before. Efficient no doubt
There are plenty of famous attractions to see in Hanoi.
The streets in the Old Hanoi Quarter are full of character, colour and energy. There was talk about Old Hanoi being recognised by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage site but it seems there are no plans to proceed with that proposal. Let us hope that this district can escape the developers’ wrecking ball for many years to come.