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In Search of Muong Luan Tower, Viet Nam
Unusually heavy rains had washed out many roads in Vietnam including the road at Pa Bat. A crowd drinking beer, tea, coffee, and smoking, had gathered in a nearby building to watch the operation of an idle machine – a combination backhoe and road grader – doing the repairs. A mountain of dirt lay across the road in what seemed like a whole day’s work. We were not far from Muong Luan, our final destination, and it was essential to get there before dark. Night falls quickly in the mountains of northern Vietnam.
I was looking for the old Muong Luan tower that was built by the early Buddhists when they were traveling through Asia. Not much is known about the tower except that it is located in the dusty little town of wooden buildings in Muong Luan next to a constantly flooded river lit to glass every month by a full moon that looks bigger than any other moon in the world where scrawny lophead chickens and black pigs root through the mud.
The road to Muong Luan from Dien Bien Phu is considered a regional road with a number of lower quality, in this case highway 130 and no quality. Road building in Vietnam is an ongoing endeavor due, in part, to the undefined psyche of Vietnam. Instead of building a good road with a thick layer of asphalt that can last a decade or more, they scrape out an even patch of dirt and cover it with a thin blanket of asphalt that begins to chip, crack and pit at one head while they are still working on the other end. Within a year the road is a disaster of debris, ruins, potholes, caves and ditches, a no man’s land of dangerous travel as trucks buses and motorbikes throw up huge clouds of dust choking or grinding the dirt into a sticky pack. of mud suction.
That’s probably the only way to build a road in the outdoors with the equipment available: road grader, roller, water buffalo and man power. The grader breaks a path slightly smooth; the water buffalo drags a log over the roof to complete the leveling; a row of stone chips will follow 4 to 6 inches; again the buffalo brings running water; tar carried in buckets from a waiting truck; then workers collect quarter-inch crushed rocks into flat baskets and dump the rocks onto the tar. The roller flattens everything once more and the road is ready. The quarter-inch tar and stone cover is probably about all they can handle. At the thought of stacking six inches of stone and tar, all the workers would scatter.
The scenery on the way had been amazing, with hillsides covered in green quilts, buffalo grazing like caramel dots on almost vertical slopes, silver rivers cutting through gorges, and dusty villages of citizens hanging suddenly from shaded rocks. sources.
In Dien Bien Dong we had stopped at the local orphanage to deliver food. There were only ten children living in the orphanage, eight boys and two girls. The staff keep the building clean and take good care of the children; all the lumps of joy happy to see strangers. Nev Tickner, an Australian living in Dien Bien Phu doing charity work, had bought a cooker for the orphanage and demonstrated to the staff how to fry chicken after mixing them in egg and yolk batter. As the only Australian in the area, Tickner says he is a unique minority, and an extremely valuable one.
I was wondering through the town with my friend Linh looking at the colorful and cheap goods imported from China. With so little industry in the country one might think that the Vietnamese would start making their own products but in this respect they are like most countries and it is easier to buy cheap products from places like China rather than supporting their own efforts.
An old man, with long hair blowing over his face like a torch, was waving at me. Calling doesn’t mean goodbye in Vietnam, but hello and come over for tea and a chat. We shook hands like old brothers as the tea was brought out. To a Westerner, Vietnamese hold your hands for an uncomfortable amount of time and often won’t let go until the meeting is over. They are loving people and it is not uncommon to see people walking hand in hand or making fun of each other. Women are always glued together like ivy. Foreigners, after meeting a Vietnamese woman, often confuse their hand, kiss and touch arms, especially if the arms are covered with hair, as something sexual but they are not these are just gestures of society and the loving society in which they live.
The man was 82 and in good health. He was a soldier, like mine, but it was only mentioned once as the man said, “that’s in the past.” He seemed particularly happy to see me as foreigners are very rare in the remote area. He invited me to dinner and to stay as a guest in his home as long as I liked. There are two types of people in Vietnam: those who pretend to be super friendly and gracious and those with the real sense of cleaning out your bank account. Then there are the majority of Vietnamese, the average people found throughout Vietnam who are genuinely gracious and generous and want nothing more than to build goodwill between people.
The road to Muong Lun Ancient Tower is long and difficult and it took us from Dien Bien Phu through Hong Cum, Huoi Le, Sam Mun, Non Nua, Huoi Mua, Na Son, Dien Bien Dong, and now, the last town before our destination, Pa Bat. At Pa Bat it seemed that our efforts were for nothing and we stood looking at the washed out road. The clearing had left a large crater just before the bridge and the trucks had collected tons of dirt to fill the hole. A small bump sat idle on the other side of the dirt and even if the tractor had been working there was little doubt that the hole could be filled in without hours of work.
The operator was drinking beer with the spectators. He spied our frustration and jumped off his chair and told us to give him ten minutes and he would clear a path for us. Of course we thanked him kindly, then had a good laugh amongst ourselves over his uncertain optimism. They were laughing at us. Like an eager mole he turned his back from side to side throwing dirt everywhere in such eagerness that we could only watch in disbelief. In less than ten minutes he had pierced through. I don’t usually give money freely but both Nev Tickner and I were so happy we gave him $10 for the show. The prize seemed to bother him and he would have been happy with anything else than to see the smiles on our faces and the warm hands we offered. That $10 was the best money I spent in Vietnam and ultimately saved us a lot of grief.
The road to Muong Luan did not improve but the destination was worth the trip. Muong Luan is a quaint little town nestled in steep hills like spiders on a brick wall. The road through the town is a cacophony of mud and rocks. There appears to be some development on the horizon as a roller sat on the far side of the bridge and it looked like construction was expected around the tower. Children used the tower as a big toy, an artificial mountain rolled around.
I couldn’t find any information about the tower from anyone in town and there isn’t much on the internet other than conflicting theories. The Dien Bien Phu tourist guidebook, poorly written in the government’s official language of boredom with a sprinkling of narcolepsy, gave all the fascinating details presented in most Vietnamese books – nothing but dimensions.
Muong Luan is a Lao village and several locals said that the tower was built by Viet-Lao ethnic groups around the 14th or 16th century. (It’s okay in Vietnam to miss a date by hundreds of years.) Others said the tower was built in the 12th century. Others said that Buddhist monks built the tower on their way to China. That explanation seems the most plausible since the tower resembles many other Buddhist statues.
The structure is carved with lotus, flying birds, snakes, dragons and moss and mold covering the stone sides in green silk robes. A headless soldier lies at the bottom. Trees frame the tower and the river and mountains make a nice backdrop for pictures.
Unfortunately very few people, except for the most hardened tourists, ever visit the tower due to the impassable road conditions. Too bad. The views are beautiful.
By the time we got to Pa Bat a new pile of dirt was blocking our way and the tractor operator had gone home. We were informed of our arrival. After a very short time he came down the road with his equipment, a smile on his face. Again he cleared the way. The best part of Vietnam is always the people.
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