VIETNAM: The Dien Bien Phu loop

Just some suggestions

Introduction

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.

How long
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.

In summary
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.

Transport
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.

Mai Chau
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.


Mai Chau scenery
Mai Chau scenery

Son La
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.


Dien Bien Phu is also good for bbq chicken
Dien Bien Phu is also good for bbq chicken

Sinh Ho
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.

Lai Chau
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.


Fun rolling down -- less so riding up.
Fun rolling down -- less so riding up.

Sapa
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.



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