Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Vietnam 2016 - Day 6
Monday April 4 dawns bright and warm. We are up early and wolf down our breakfast. Today, our 6th day in country, we are back on our motorbikes by 7:30 am and scheduled to ride north into the mountains. We ride out of Dien Bien Phu following our guides and steadfast friends, the Vietnamese pastors. Our destination today is the very mountainous region better known as the Tonkinese Alps.

We head out of town riding mostly north along the main highway. We follow our Vietnamese guides for about an hour along this fairly decent highway until we suddenly turn off the main road and begin an ascent up the side of a mountain on a not-so-decent road. For the next couple hours we ride mostly up! We are in a very mountainous region with very narrow, dusty roads that are crumbly in some places, and always with some motorbike traffic or water buffalo obstacles.

After a couple hours of mountain hugging roads, we enter and stop in a small village, once again to make introductions at a regional police station. There we met the chief of police for this district, and we exchange gifts and pleasantries. Once again we happen to notice that they already have our names in front of them. After the speeches are made and gifts are exchanged, we take some time to shake hands and meet some of the local government staff. When we leave the police station, one of the local officials hops on our mini bus to ride with us for a while.

We ride out of this small town and continue down the mountain jungle road. A few kilometers down the highway, we turn off the main road to follow a dirt lane back deeper into the jungle. We follow this dirt lane (no way you could call it a road) as it winds deeper into the jungle. We follow a river for perhaps 7-10 kilometers (very hard to judge distances when your riding a dirt trail in a jungle).

Eventually we leave the dirt trail and ride down along the river and into a fair sized Hmong mountain village. We are told that we are the first Westerners to ever visit this particular village. The building are mostly crude wooden shacks with dirt floors and no running water. Yet here amongst the village houses we find a small United Methodist church. As before, we find ourselves surrounded by these extremely friendly and generous people. Greetings are exchanged, songs are sung, and we spend considerable time in prayer with the villagers.

*Side note: as I reported at the beginning of this blog, I had not been feeling well, and had not been eating because of kidney stones, although I didn't know what was ailing me until later. Here in this remote village, with temps in the high 90's, high humidity and no air moving down in this jungle valley, I pass out from the heat and dehydration. I was quite humiliated when they picked me up off the dirt floor. The Vietnamese pastors refuse to let me ride up and out of the village, so they put me on the back of a bike and I ride out as a passenger. From that point on, they refuse to let me ride on my own, and instead I will ride in the mini bus the rest of that day. And what a ride that was! I have come to the conclusion that our Vietnamese bus driver learned to drive by playing the video game "Grand Theft Auto"! All I can say is, "Wow! What a ride!!"

We finally (and safely!) arrive at our next destination, the town of Lai Chau around 7:00 pm that evening. We are exhausted, but exhilarated! What a day and how blessed each of us feel to have been able to see and experience some of God's Children in such a remote location. As before, we were surprised and humbled by the exuberance of these humble people. Their singing was loud and boisterous... their praise was joyful and exciting. Their worship was sincere and meaningful. As pastors and ministers of the Gospel, we couldn't help but admire their enthusiasm and join in with them. Once again, these American preachers got preached, and experienced God's blessings in a way that both humbled and excited us. What a joy to be able to experience God in such a new and unique way.

Tomorrow we continue north toward the Chinese border, but for us weary pastors, it's time for supper and bed. Good night from the Tonkinese Alps of northern Vietnam.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Vietnam 2016 - Day 5

It is Sunday April 3 and the mission group is in the northwestern city of Dien Bien Phu, located on the Laotian border.  It is an off-day, a day of sight-seeing and relaxing after several days of riding our motorbikes up into the mountains of northern Vietnam. We enjoy a relaxing breakfast, then around 9:00 am the manager of our hotel volunteers to guide us in and around historic Dien Bien Phu.

*A little background... Dien Bien Phu was the sight of the regional headquarters of the French Army in Vietnam. The French had been in control of Vietnam for over 100 years, and had built up a very large military base in and around the Dien Bien Phu valley that included an airbase and several French garrisons. In late 1953 and early 1954, the Vietnamese Army surrounded this valley and laid siege to the French troops stationed there. Despite having the most modern equipment and significant help and material from the U.S. and other allies, the Vietnamese, using out-dated equipment that had been man-handled up and over the mountains surrounding the valley, soundly defeated the better equipped and modernly trained French Army. As a result of this enormous defeat, the French were forced completely out of Vietnam in July 1954.

Our sight-seeing tour today included a war museum dedicated to that 1954 victory over the French. On display were many pictures, statues and busts of various Vietnamese generals and others responsible for the victory, along with many dioramas portraying images and scenes of heroic Vietnamese endeavors.

Across the street from the war museum was the sight of the main headquarters of the French Army. This sight included trenches and underground tunnels used by the French to fend off their attackers, along with displays of captured and destroyed tanks, trucks, planes, artillery batteries, and other French equipment left behind after the battles. We spent quite some time walking around and climbing in and out of trenches and peering into the abandoned French bunkers.

After climbing around the battle display in the heat of the late morning for several hours, we paused for a little lunch.  After lunch, we boarded our little bus for a journey back into the moutains in and around Dien Bien Phu. This trip took us up and down back roads and crude lanes... bumpy, curvy, mountainous, mostly one-lane roads (although we often encountered motorbikes, water buffalo, goats, walking Hmong villagers, road construction crews, and the occasional dump truck. We made stops at a newly constructed man-made lake with a resort hotel on the shore, and we stopped by the headquarters of General Giap, the Vietnamese commanding general who orchestrated the defeat of the French Army. 

A quick note about our Vietnamese bus driver... I'm not sure, but I think he must have learned to drive at a NASCAR training facility! Our sight-seeing trip this day was fast, it was furious, and more than once, he had this captive group of preachers praying earnestly for their safety!

We arrived back at our hotel around 5:00 pm with supper scheduled for around 6:00 pm. A special surprise awaited us... First was a group of young ladies who surrounded each of us for pictures... then we were especially surprised with pizzas for supper!  We had our choice of chicken and mushrooms, sausage and cheese (the sausage was a cut up hotdog!) or beef pizza. And a special topping adorned each pizza... kernels of corn! Not sure who thought that one up, but corn instead of pizza sauce??

Well, our off day had been a very warm and filled with travel and activity. We learned a lot about this far flung corner of Vietnam, and of the determination of the Vietnamese people. It was a very tired group of preachers that finally made their way back to their hotel for a well deserved rest. Tomorrow, back on the bikes as we travel deeper and higher into the real mountains of northern Vietnam!