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You are here:      Home News An uphill battle
An uphill battle
Du lich bang xe mayFor the adventurous travelers who tour Vietnam’s rugged Truong So Mountains by motorbike, taking the road less traveled is a matter of honor. But even diehards bikers have their limits. Alistair Orr Ewing discovered his – and got a lesson in Vietnamese history to boot

Mai Chau is a beautiful place, perfect for trekking. There are walks that take you from the top of escarpments down through forests into rice terraces and lush fields, past happy kids frolicking with buffalos stilt houses and all the rest. One such walk stars at Pac Co and descends 1, 000, into the valley at Cun Pheo. The first 500 meters are so steep that a staircase was built there some years ago Temple of Doo caricature. My friend Digby and I pushed our motorcycles up this staircase. It took us six hours. You might well ask why we did it.

But this story isn’t about lugging 120kg – motorcycles up the equivalent of two ans a half Saigon Trade Centers, twice (two motorcycles, one at a time). This story is about Mr. Son and about Dien Bien Phu. Mr. Son arrived just after we had tackled the first part of the staircase. At Dien Bien Phu they hauled artillery up impossible hillsides. Men like Mr. Son must have been there. They couldn’t have made it without him.

We were trying to connect the Cun Pheo Valley to the Moc Chau Valley by road, something nature did not intend. We were meant to drive around. Everyone shook theur heads when we asked, except the man in the petrol station who was kind enough to point out the route, indicating an impenetrable cliff face way off in the distance. “Nhung co bac thang,” he said, which later that we realize that “bac thang’ really means “stairs”, nit “rice terraces”.

We drive up a narrow track that soon becomes a very steep path. When that turns into step I struggle to dive along the little gutters to the side, then get off and run beside the bike, pushing her up with spinning tires and full revs. At that point, already exhausted, our minds must have lost all power of reason. We eagerly ignore the blatant warning signs, such as a complete absence of tire tracks and a sheer cliff face ahead of us. Somehow we are utterly convinced that a way through exits. It is always “just up the next big tree”.

When Mr. Son arrives I feel a bit like I do after a full game of football in the summer heat. On seeing my swear soaked clothes and clearly knackered look he claims to be too busy. Don’t blame you mate; I don’t even know what I’m doing here. He is on his way to buy a buffalo. An offer of VND 20, 000 persuades him to help us to get up the next staircase. I can’t imagine why we thought we could be anywhere near the top but even Mr. Son, who has been on the path once before, seems convinced.

Two flights later Mr. Son has forgotten his buffalo mission. Digby has gone scout ahead and Mr. Son is remonstrating that we can’t possibly turn back. I’m so exhausted that I can barely draw on the leaf bong that he has made for us to smoke his tobacco and so thirsty that the smoke seems quenching. Mr. Son tells me he is on a government project. He is from Tay Ninh. He’s solid and cheery with high cheekbones, wavy hair and a constant smile.

Digly return clearly too exhausted to have taken in any valid information during hid reconnaissance mission. He interprets the next 399, meters of staircase as “easy, we can ride all the way, I walked for ages and two H’mong guys told me it was just around the corner and up a little”.

We decide to press onward and upward, fired by Mr. Son’s inexhaustible enthusiasm. I know how they got those guns up the mountains at Dien Bien Phu. Sheer guts, strength and determination, yes, but also through mutual encouragement and camaraderie, the essence that replaces water, nourishment, energy, and faith.

We would drag one bike up two sections of stairs before going back for the other, each section about the length of a gun carriage. We rested at the end of each section, sick with exhaustion, heaving what lay above. With one lifting the font wheel up each, riser, one at the back to push and lift and one standing to the side in “driving position”, roaring the engine, spinning the wheels, burning the clutch plates to find just a little help, we grunted, groaned and gritted our teeth up stair after stair. How did they get the guns up? Something like this? Not very elegant. I expected the flat bits that Digby had mentioned to appear but they didn’t.

We sat again ate the last chocolate reserves, washed down with cucumber bits as water was too precious. The H’mong hunter must have been mighty surprised to happen upon a white Minsk parked halfway up a jungle stairway in the middle of his hunting ground and more so when he rounded the corner to find us, slouched in two minutes of sweaty respite before doing the next Herculean labor. He quickly put two and two together and claimed he had a stomachache. I didn’t blame him. It was Mr. Son who talked him into it. I don’t know what he said. Perhaps something about the glorious victory that would be ours. So then we had four for a bit and I must say they were both most agreeable. Almost “into it’ I would say. The job didn’t seem any easier but we’d probably still be there if it wasn’t for the hunter coming along. And Mr. Son would probably still be with us, such was his loyalty and commitment to the task, however pointless. Imagine how determined they must have felt at Dien Bien Phu.

At dusk the top finally seemed to be in sight, at least there no more trees above us. One more flight of stairs, maybe two, we couldn’t even be bothered to go and take a look and we didn’t really want to know. We huffed and heaved, tears welling with the pain and hope of relist. My clutch burnt out completely so the engine simply roared. At last a clearing opened up ahead and there were no more stairs. No more stairs. No … more … stairs. NO MORE ASTAIRS

Mr. Son looked honestly quite happy with himself, as if he had really achieved something that day. He Had. No wonder Dien Bien Phu was won.


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