Hanoi, Mai Chau, Son La, Dien Bien Phu - Suggested itinerary

| 21 Dec 2009
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21 Dec 2009

In the 1990s, many friends took the arduous but spectacular loop from Hanoi to Mai Chau, Son La, Dien Bien Phu, Lai Chau and on to Sapa before returning to Hanoi. They rhapsodised about the beauty of the terrain and the extraordinary richness of the ethnic minority cultures encountered. And then they recalled the condition of the road - which was at that time a spine cracking buffalo track.


Travelling in the far north has improved markedly during the past decade but surprisingly, this hasn’t caused an explosion in travel. Vietnam’s far north remains the most magical part of the country and with the exception of Sapa, sees very few travellers.


Photo: Mark BowyerTypical karst landscape between Son La and Dien Bien Phu
My more recent encounters with Vietnam’s far north have been every bit as enriching  as those of my predecessors - but rather less of a challenge on the back. New roads have opened over the past five years making the journey relatively comfortable. The road building has created its own hazards though as frequent landslides during the wet season cause some loss of life and delays.

Vietnam’s far north has now entered a more rapid phase of development though with new dams, roads and big population inflows so the coming will years certainly see some unwelcome changes as well as positive developments. To sample it at its magical best, visit the far north as soon as possible.

The itinerary here covers half of the northern highlands' loop between Hanoi, Mai Chau, Son La, Dien Bien Phu. You will find further coverage of the route between Dien Bien Phu, Sapa and on to Hanoi elsewhere on www.rustycompass.com

Day 1 Hanoi to Mai Chau


The four hour drive from Hanoi to Mai Chau is probably the least spectacular of this journey. It’s well worth it though - Mai Chau’s serenity and beauty are the perfect escape from Hanoi’s crowded streets and traffic mayhem.

Mai Chau, Vietnam
Photo: Mark BowyerMai Chau on misty autumn morning
Mai Chau’s relative proximity to Hanoi has made it a popular two day one night destination with travellers from Hanoi for over a decade. It’s a great way for those with limited time to experience Vietnam’s natural landscapes and montagnard cultures. And despite its popularity, Mai Chau remains a wonderful spot.

Most visitors to Mai Chau stay in traditional Thai longhouses. They’re run by very hospitable local White Thai families and while they’re rustic and basic, they’re a huge part of the appeal of the place.

After a filling and tasty lunch of local cuisine, we set off on bicycles through the rice paddies and villages. Mai Chau is set amidst the distinctive karst mountainscapes that are a recurring feature of this part of Vietnam.

This itinerary only spends a night in Mai Chau but there is plenty of trekking and cycling for those inclined to stay on longer.

Day 2 Mai Chau to Son La


We rose early to have another brief cycle before commencing our five hour drive to Son La. As we moved further from major population centres, the drives became more spectacular.

Vietnam, Moc Chau
Photo: Mark BowyerHaving fun in the tea plantation Moc Chau
Moc Chau is a major tea growing region along the way and definitely worth a stop though not as exciting as it was written up in our itinerary.

The most enjoyable parts of this entire trip were the improvised stops to walk down into villages and commune with minority communities. Those experiences were unforgettable.

We were especially fortunate to encounter a White Thai “cho coc” - a leaping market - as we neared Son La. “Cho coc” refers to a mobile market that sets up on a side road for a day and moves on to another location the following day. We spent close to an hour chatting, laughing and buying fruits from sellers who were incredibly hospitable.  

We arrived in Son La at our hotel, The Cong Doan or Trade Union Hotel in the late afternoon. Rooms were as you would expect from a Trade Union Hotel in remote Vietnam - or perhaps a little better. Perfectly adequate in any case.

Day 3 - Son La to Dien Bien Phu

Son La was once a very small mountain outpost. The French used it as a garrison and then  decided that its harsh climate and remoteness made it a suitable location for a prison. These days Son La is expanding rapidly as Vietnam tries to bolster its population across the far north. Tourist arrivals are still tiny though.

Vietnam, Son La, prison
Photo: Mark BowyerThe French era prison, Son La
The town itself has little to recommend it except that it is a convenient stop between Mai Chau and Dien Bien Phu. The simple streetside market not far from the Cong Doan Hotel is friendly and colourful and an early morning visit is a nice way to start the day.



The French era prison is the most well known tourist sight in Son La. In the 1930s, French colonial authorities decided to use the prison for the incarceration of some of the country’s most militant revolutionary leaders.

Like its counterparts in Hanoi and on Con Dao Island in the south, the prison is a timely reminder for travellers overcome with Indochine nostalgia of the brutality of the French rule in Vietnam. It’s also a lesson in how not to quell an insurgency. Many of Vietnam’s most celebrated communist leaders did time in these barbaric prisons. I’ve often wondered whether these prisons in part shaped the harshness of Vietnam’s post 1975 national government - most of the country’s leaders at the end of the war were the alumni of French era prisons.

The prison at Son La is in ruins and features a small museum that celebrates the great achievements of its former prisoners and remembers those who never made it out.


Photo: Mark BowyerThai minority kids near Pa Khoang Lake
We left Son La at around 10AM and headed towards Dien Bien Phu. It was another day of spectacular scenery but we kept our stops to a minimum in order to make it to our first destination - Pa Khoang Lake - by mid afternoon. Pa Khoang Lake is a spectacular body of water set amidst Thai minority villages. It is also famous for the nearby bunker from which General Vo Nguyen Giap coordinated his Viet Minh forces in their historic victory against the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. General Giap is Vietnam’s most celebrated military figure leading communist forces to victory against the French and then playing a major role in the war against South Vietnamese and US forces.


The area around Pa Khoang Lake is a perfect combination of friendly minority villages, beautiful natural scenes and a strong historical undercurrent. We only had about 2.5 hours  here before night fell. I’d recommend travellers spend half a day wandering among the villages, the lake and visiting the Viet Minh bunker. There were no other travellers sighted here and our brief visit was definitely one of the highlights of the entire journey.

On each of my recent visits to Dien Bien Phu, Pa Khoang and General Giap’s bunker area (known as Muong Phang), drivers and guides were not sufficiently familiar with the area and became lost. We didn’t lose much time on account of this but certainly guide and driver knowledge of this area seems minimal at best.

Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu, General Giap
Photo: Mark BowyerGeneral Giap's bunker at Muong Phang. The French were conquered from here.
From Muong Phang, we commenced the 17 kilometre ride to Dien Bien Phu town. It had been another long day but it had ended on a very high note at Muong Phang.

We checked into the Muong Thanh Hotel for the night. The best place to stay in Dien Bien Phu is the Hanoi Dien Bien Phu Hotel however this was fully booked the night we were in town. The Muong Thanh is wonderfully kitsch but pretty ordinary really. Travel companies will try and persuade you to stay at the Him Lam Hotel. I would avoid that. It’s a long way from town meaning that you are a long way from all of the historic sites of Dien Bien Phu. It has nothing to recommend it either.

Day 4 - Dien Bien Phu

We only spent a day in Dien Bien Phu on this occasion as I had been there several times this year. We did the usual and always interesting sightseeing which includes the Museum,  Hill A1 (Eliane), the Viet Minh and French cemeteries, de Castries’ bunker.


Photo: Mark BowyerViet Minh Cemetery, Dien Bien Phu
If you’re not travelling on to Sapa from Dien Bien Phu, it makes sense to spend two nights in Dien Bien Phu to ensure you have an opportunity to head out of town to visit some of the Thai minority villages in beautiful settings that are located around 20kms north of the town.

Accommodation


The accommodation throughout this itinerary is basic. In Mai Chau, the Longhouse accommodation is wonderfully located and atmospheric but consists only of straw mats or thin mattresses on timber floors. They are open to the elements and travellers will need plenty of warmth in the cooler months from October to March.

In Son La and Dien Bien Phu, hotels are also basic but adequate and clean.

Eating

Most of the meals on this trip were healthy hearty Vietnamese and minority specialties. Best not to expect any western cuisine in this part of the world. Vegetarians may face some challenges also. The meals at the Mai Chau Longhouse were a highlight of the trip.

Transport

We travelled in a well maintained late model Ford Everest. The roads were in good shape in most places and the traffic wasn't very heavy.

Weather


The far north experiences similar weather patterns to Vietnam’s capital Hanoi though in some areas, the highs and lows can be more extreme. Warm and frequently wet months run between April and September. Things cool down between October and March and can be very cold in the depths of winter - especially at night.

Keep in mind

If time permits, this itinerary can be extended by three or more nights to include Sapa. From Dien Bien Phu, Sapa can comfortably be reached by road with an overnight either in old Lai Chau town or Pa So. This drive features more spectacular landscapes and wonderful ethnic minority experiences and Sapa is a great place to end exploration of the far north.

Itineraries in this part of Vietnam can be done in either direction - starting in Sapa or Dien Bien Phu or ending in Sapa or Dien Bien Phu.

Vietnam Airlines flies twice daily between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu.

Travel companies


For this journey, we travelled with Handspan Travel in Hanoi. I was largely happy with their arrangements. There were a few hiccups though. Guide and driver familiarity with Dien Bien Phu and surrounds was poor leading to wasted time, some problems in daily planning and a disappointing account of the battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Downside

One of the big disappointments about travel in this region is the poor availability of serviceable bicycles for travellers - except in Sapa. Dien Bien Phu is perfect country for  cycling and yet getting hold of a bike proved quite a challenge on all of my visits. Motorcycle hire is far more straightforward.

Don't expect textured accounts at the historical sites either. Dien Bien Phu may be one of the more interesting battle ramparts in Asia - but that hasn't done anything for the quality of the narrative at museums and at the still very engaging battle sites. Do your own research before you travel!

Resources


Travellers to Dien Bien Phu should definitely pack a copy of Bernard Fall’s book The Siege at Dien Bien Phu, Hell in a very small place. As so many of the sites of battle are still easy to visualise in the town, Fall’s book breathes life and human pathos into the story of the battle.
Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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