Photo: Canals of Ca Mau, Mekong Delta.

Vietnam forum

West from Hanoi: Sa Pa or Mai Chau/Moc Chau/Son La?

Posted by linolanayseda on 14/12/2010 at 00:10

Hello all,

My husband and I are traveling to Vietnam and Laos for three weeks (mid-Feb. to early Mar.) and we're planning on going overland west from Hanoi to the Tay Trang border crossing. Trouble is, I can't make up my mind which way to go, between these two routes. If you could offer your advice or experiences, I would greatly appreciate it.

We would have about four days' time to reach Dien Bien Phu. For instance, we would take an overnight train from Hanoi to Sa Pa on Friday night, spend Sat & Sun in Sa Pa (maybe going to Bac Ha or Can Cau), then spend Monday on the bus to DBP. I'm not sure exactly what the logistics would be on the Hanoi-Mai Chau-Moc Chau-Son La route; there doesn't seem to be a lot of information out there about timing and so forth -- if you can help clarify that, I'd be very grateful.

Other details: I'm really interested in hill tribes and their textiles. However, where I live, there is a huge and vibrant Hmong community, and their handicrafts (particularly Flower Hmong-type textiles) are readily available throughout my city, so I'm interested in seeing some other tribes and their textiles and crafts. It's hard to grasp where there will be more diverse and authentic offerings and which route would have the least amount of tourist-oriented, non-traditional examples.

As for the scenery factor, I'm sure either route would be spectacular. My husband is quite taken with the look of flat valley floors with karsts spiking up out of the ground -- it seems that the MC-SL route is more like that -- correct?

Thanks in advance for any and all help and opinions!

#1 linolanayseda has been a member since 23/10/2010. Posts: 5
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Posted by somtam2000 on 15/12/2010 at 15:34 admin

In Mai Chau and Moc Chau etal the fabrics etc are predominantly H'mong and Tai so a bit different to what you'll be seeing around Sapa , but don't expect the variety you'd see trekking in say NW Thailand. In either case, most of what you'll see will be geared towards tourists, though I guess you could do a trek from either so visit more outlying villages. Scenery wise, the area around Mai Chau is very pretty, but for pure Big Mountain vistas (of course entirely deforested) the northern route (via Sapa) is the better one.

Six of one, half dozen of the other really. With four days, realisticly you're looking at a maximum of a one night village homestay overnight from either option, and I'd wager Sapa is probably better for that.

#2 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,938
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Posted by indochinaexpert on 3/1/2011 at 18:01

Posted from within Vietnam.

Currently, the road from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu is not really proper. The bus from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu is pretty long time costing.
However, this is surely better option with full of mountainous magnificence.

#3 indochinaexpert has been a member since 3/1/2011. Posts: 7

Posted by violets on 4/1/2011 at 07:43

I did the Hanoi via Son La route to DBP a few years ago and stayed one night each in Mai Chau and Son La and 2 in DBP. The scenery was just great and I saw, from the bus window, quite a lot of tribal life. I didn't see any minority weaving anywhere and many of those tribal groups don't wear their traditional clothing anymore.

Mai Chau is beautiful but survives largely on tourism it seems and the village houses are converted to homestays, with toilet blocks, power, hot water and every house seems to have a dancing performance organised. Many of the tourists come in large groups, though I was able to book a bed when I arrived off the bus without any trouble. You can do treks from here, organised through your homestay, but you will probably not have time for this.

Son La has less to offer the tourist, though it was raining when I was there and so perhaps I didn't see it at its best. The scenery getting there is great but I was pretty scared going fast on the new road i the mist (saw a head-on collision so my fears were probably justified).

The road between Son La and DBP was being built then (don't know what state it is in now) and the four-wheel drives were turning back from what had become a sea of mud in the rain. The bus got through however, though was helped on numerous occasions by the many bulldozers along the route. It was a slow and frustrating ride (and all I had to do was sit there). That leg of the trip really had the best scenery and most interesting glimpses of local life, probably because it was still so inaccessible.

I found DBP very interesting because I had a good, well-educated, guide take me around and tell me about the french war. I also did a tour of the local area with him. The town itself is relatively new and with little to distract you. It was also quite a challenge to get fed.

If you catch local buses to the area you will need to bargain hard because you'll be mostly catching buses off the street and they are likely to wildly overcharge.But hard bargaining pays off- just remain confident and calm. I find it helps to know roughly the right prices (check at the bus depots and always ask when you arrive somewhere what time the bus leaves the next day) and to offer a little more than that when you get on. They wait till you are in the middle of nowhere to have you pay and I was threatened to be thrown off the bus, but wasn't. They do this to locals too (though probably not for as much) and I was once cheered by mountain women when I successfully stood my ground. The Son La bus depot is quite a way before the town and the DBP bus from there leaves about 5am. There are other buses coming from Hanoi, leaving Hanoi about 4am. The drivers and conductors work really hard, especially on the Son La DBP leg, and I regretted bargaining quite so hard.

#4 violets has been a member since 6/7/2009. Posts: 153

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