|We joined up with another guide who was taking two Danish guys on the some route as we were taking, although they had their own bikes. We spent the first part of the morning looking around one of the Montagnard - the general term for all minority peoples - villages. We started by visiting a gronghouse (at least that is what it sounded like) - a long, very tall wooden house on stilts, used for celebrations and funerals. The building looks pretty unusual, and from the inside the beams supporting the roof criss cross all over the place without looking as if they are at all planned. Strange architecture. The rule of the communists is felt even in these buildings as, like all other public buildings (it seems) there is some sort of poster reminding those inside who is in power. Next we went to meet the village elder and his wife. As we arrived he was sat on the porch of his house-on-stilts while his wife pounded away with a big stick at some sort of plant matter in a clay pot. He was a tiny guy who jumped up with a huge smile on his face when we arrived, saying hello to Son and the other guide, then to us - in French giving us the chance to understand him (I wish that in learning Spanish I hadn't forgotten so much of my French!). He then started playing a rickety looking instrument that was like a cross between a glockenspiel and a drum, having wooden bamboo tubes that he hit with sticks and a foot pedal that was used to hit a few more tubes. It was all held together with bits of string and looked like it would fall apart if used too heavily. He played a few tunes then invited us up to have a go - although noone was comfortable with playing it as it looked like it would fall apart! He showed us around his tiny two roomed house, laughing at the fact that me and the Danish guys were about a foot and a half taller than him. From there we went to look around a church - a nice building, different from any other church I've seen by the way that the congregation sits on all four sides of the pulpit, which lies at the crossing of the cruciform shape of the church. Behing the church was an orphanage, which we visited, which was a kind of surreal experience. Most of the children were on an upstairs balcony, and when we arrived we they started singing various nursery rhyme songs in several languages, some of the children just staring at us, others belting out the songs, but most somewhere inbetween, some looking quite happy, some very sad, but again most some mix of the two which made it quite difficult to sit there and experience what was happening: it was kind of like they were putting on a show for the tourists, and, considering their position it seemed really wrong watching it. They had a repetoire of about five songs which they repeated a couple of times, then just as the level of discomfort reached its peak and we were about to leave, the other guide came in and asked if anyone wanted photos taken, at which point the children all launched themselves at us ready to pose for the cameras. They were genuninely happy when they saw themselves on the camera screen though - the wonders of digital cameras. The whole thing wasn't an easy expeience. Nearby was a Montagnard hospital as well - the minority people recieve free medical care while the Vietnamese don't, but I'm not sure why.
Eventually we got back on the bikes and continued on our trip. The next stop was at a war monument where two tanks were parked, allowing for posing for photos, then up to a lookout over a completely devastated area of the mountains. The area was heavily bombed and defoliated during the war, and as such there is very little growing there when there would once have been lush jungle. Further up we turned on to the original path of the Ho Chi Minh Trail - the route used by the North Vietnamese Army during the war to take supplies and troops down to the south, and the reason the region is so heavily bombed. I think that there is actually more than one trail, because there's a road in Laos that is called the Ho Chi Minh trail as well, but this is what the Vietnamese government call the road we were on. We stopped at a long monkey bridge for a look around, watching a guy on a motorbike somehow make his way over the narrow path, and for the guides to try to make us fall in the river by jumping up and down on the bridge while we were in the middle, then carried on up over a pass in the mountains, and the highest part of our journey. We passed a long part of the original Ho Chi Minh trail road, a small track leading up in to the hills, and occasionally the new road we were on would follow a stretch of broken concrete or a basic bridge that marked where the trail was and how it looked before the government decided to upgrade the road. The further north we went, the more green the land became, and forests covered the mountains broken by occasional rivers and waterfalls. The views were spectacular in places.
We spent the night in a small town called Kham Duc. Dinner was a bit different to normal as we decided to have gas fired cook yourself food, eating some very tasty pork and deer. Delicious!