Most first-time visitors to the north of Vietnam mark in Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and perhaps Sapa as the must-sees. And that's a good idea, as they are all must-sees. However, if you have a bit more time, or are looking for something a little off the beaten track, then the Dien Bien Phu loop is a great way to see some of Vietnam's most stunning landscapes while visiting some interesting spots at the same time.
People do this in as little as two or three days, but we'd recommend allowing at least five -- or a week if time allows. While the roads have improved considerably in recent years, the transport remains slow going. Also, if you are doing it by public transport, most bus departures will be in the early morning, restricting you to one leg at a time.
What to pack
Warm clothes. Even in the hot season some of these spots will be cool, especially at night. In the cool season, especially December and January, Sapa will be very cold in the evening.
This is a clockwise loop starting and finishing in Hanoi -- we've previously written about doing the Dien Bien Loop in a counter-clockwise direction, here. The route takes you west out of Hanoi to Mai Chau, then Son La, Dien Bien Phu, Sinh Ho, Lai Chau and Sapa, before heading east to Lao Cai for the train run back to Hanoi.
Ideally this is done under your own steam by motorbike or hired car. Second option is tourist minibus, third option is local buses. We've hitchhiked the entire route and you can also cycle it. If you plan to do it by local bus, be prepared for early starts, very slow going, and, at times, rather cramped confines. If you're a confident motorbike rider, that would be the method we'd recommend. Otherwise perhaps try and rustle together a few like-minded souls and hire a car to do it.
This isn't actually the first town of any size you'll reach -- that would be Hoa Binh, which is known for a large dam but little else of interest for the casual visitor. Mai Chau is nestled in a very pretty valley and is known both as a homestay and trekking centre. The homestays may be significantly more organised than those you may have encountered elsewhere, but they are a fun way to sort of experience the local way of living. The walks in the surrounds come highly recommended. Allow two nights.
While Son La has some vestiges of the French War, notably the ruined prison, this is primarily a "the reason for going is the journey" type place. The town, while a little scenic around the weir area, is otherwise nondescript. It does make for a comfortable spot to break the journey and there are plenty of places to eat and stay. Allow one night.
Dien Bien Phu
For the French, Dien Bien Phu marked the beginning of the end of their time in Vietnam and it remains a focal point for travellers with an interest in that period of Vietnam's history. There is a museum, war detritus and very impressive scenery. Dien Bien Phu is also the gateway to the northern border crossing between Vietnam and Laos. War nuts should allow two nights, others should be satisfied with one.
If you're travelling under your own steam, from Dien Bien Phu press on via Muang Lay to Sinh Ho. It's off the "main" road and sees very, very few foreign visitors, but that could be just what you are after. It's a fabulous ride up to the town and while some just take a lunch break here, accommodation is available. Allow one night.
Next stop off the rank, as with Son La, Lai Chau is another one of those getting there is all the attraction type places. The scenery is some of the best you'll see in Vietnam's northwest. Allow one night.
This is Vietnam's number one hilltop attraction and you'll be shellshocked by how developed Sapa is after the scene in the above-mentioned towns. This is a major trekking, shopping, eating and partying centre and you'll likely see more foreigners in the first five minutes than you did in the preceding five days. There's a reason for the hordes though: this is a beautiful place with some great potential for scenic walking, shopping and just hanging out having a relaxing time. Allow three to five days depending on how long you can put up with people trying to sell you handicrafts.
Back to Hanoi
Grab a night train back to the Vietnamese capital (you can train your bike back to if you wish). Or, if time allows, consider a side to the market village of Bac Ha.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.