Photo: Moody morning north of Muong Lay.

Introduction

Our rating:

Set on the border of Dien Bien and Lai Chau provinces, the original Muong Lay lies underwater. The old town was submerged in 2010 following the construction of the Son La hydropower dam.



Why should you go to Muong Lay?

Good question! Old Muong Lay may be Vietnam’s Atlantis, just don’t tell VinGroup. If you could hire scuba gear there’d perhaps be a reason to linger, but there isn’t. This is one of those “the attraction is getting there” type destinations. For almost all, Muong Lay is just a pitstop on the way to somewhere else—the sunset views across the waters are pretty at least.

Emerald rice fields fill many of the valleys. Photo taken in or around Muong Lay, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

Emerald rice fields fill many of the valleys. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Muong Lay is a logical spot to break the trip between Dien Bien Phu and either Sinh Ho or Lai Chau. If you’re coming from Dien Bien Phu with your own wheels, you could push on to Sinh Ho, but we’d say break the trip here. The scenery in both directions is breathtaking.

Even the dammed river is pretty. There is a bit of a view point on the east bank of the river which is ideal for sunset—grab some cold drinks and enjoy it!

When to go to Muong Lay

June through to September is wet season in this region of Vietnam. Expect heavy rainfall and misty weather. Landslides are common and will slow you down. Visibility wise, late September to October and March through May are the best bet.

Evenings and early mornings can be cool to cold year round. If motorbiking, be sure to dress accordingly. The temperature can be cold on high passes yet stifling hot in the valleys.

Orientation

Damming the waters of the Da River, the hydropower scheme displaced almost 100,000 people. Many from minority groups, especially Hmong, this was the largest resettlement in Vietnam’s history. The primary dam is miles away, some 50km away to the southeast as the crow flies, in Son La province. At 215 metres high, the dam and hydropower scheme flooded 18,000 hectares.

Best explored under your own steam. Photo taken in or around Muong Lay, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

Best explored under your own steam. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Muong Lay today is a curious set up. The town runs north to south along both banks of the reservoir, with two bridges spanning the water. Most of the eateries, cafes and government offices are in the southwest and southeast area. The southeast has the bus station, market, a hotel and a couple more places to eat. The northeast tip holds the largest hotel but otherwise feels abandoned. It includes a strange, overgrown palm-lined promenade area built jutting out into the water. Perhaps waiting for bigger things to arrive.

We mention this segmenting of the town as the distances are considerable. From the bus station to the northern semi-abandoned area is about 5km—with little between. Unless you have your own wheels you may not get to the northern reaches, and we’d say that is no great loss. The best of Muong Lay’s mediocre hotels, the Thanh Binh, is to the north, but if you’re in town just for a night, you will survive in the south.

Peak hour. Photo taken in or around Muong Lay, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

Peak hour. Photo: Stuart McDonald

There are at least two post offices in Muong Lay, one near the bus station and the other on the road out of town on the west bank.


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Where to stay in Muong Lay

The hotel scene in Muong Lay is no great shakes, but given you’ll most likely be in town for just a night, it won’t kill you.


North side of reservoir, Muong Lay
US$10 to 20

Thanh Binh Hotel
# North side of reservoir, Muong Lay
T: (0215) 385 3718
thanhbinhmuonglayhotel@gmail.com
http://khachsanthanhbinh.com/

We’re not saying much when we say the Thanh Binh is the best hotel in Muong Lay, but it is true.

That bed is as hard as it looks. Photo taken in or around Muong Lay, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

That bed is as hard as it looks. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The hotel’s location is less than ideal, kilometres north and on the other side of the reservoir from the bus station towards the semi-abandoned part of town. On the upside, rooms (from 300,000 dong) are large and clean, even if the carpet is faded and worn. Bathrooms are clunky and dated, but our hot water was hot—what more do you need? Some rooms also have a small veranda, though we had little in the way of a view. Rooms also have TV and free WiFi.

There is a swimming pool on site—more tempting than the reservoir, but it is beaten around the edges. Other facilities include a spa and karaoke bar, which we didn’t try, though we could hear it from our room late into the evening.

The pool could do with a scrub. Photo taken in or around Muong Lay, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

The pool could do with a scrub. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The main issue is the location—the hotel is in the middle of nowhere. If you don’t have your own transport you’ll be pretty much stranded here. If you’re not fussed about the pool, the Truc An is better placed for the bus station and eating options.

Rates are good value for the standard and there are a tonne of rooms—there should be no need to book in advance.


South side of reservoir, Muong Lay
US$10 to 20

Truc An Hotel
# South side of reservoir, Muong Lay
T: (0230) 385 2086

Still a decent walk to the bus station, the Truc An offers simple and clean rooms at the same rate as the Thanh Binh.

The main selling point here versus the Thanh Binh is the slightly better location. Though the hotel is still a good kilometre north of the bus station. If location is your concern, the Duc Truong is closer, though the rooms there are ordinary.

Simple fare. Photo taken in or around Muong Lay, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

Simple fare. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Rooms (from 250,000 dong) are sparse, but typical. Rock hard beds, flat screen TV and a small desk, hot water bathrooms, and plenty of light spilling in. A standing fan will keep the air circulating. In the foyer, look for a photo of the hotel surrounded by snow—it isn’t a Photoshop job, rather from a 2016 cold snap.

Given the rates are the same as the Thanh Binh, and there you get a swimming pool (and a larger room) this is a hard sell. There is a restaurant on site, look for the sign announcing “The restaurant is safe”.

If you just want a bed by the bus station, consider the Duc Truong. It is grubbier and the rooms less comfortable than here, but they’re a bit cheaper (200,000 dong).


Map of where to stay in Muong Lay

Map of where to stay in Muong Lay

Map legend

Click on the hotel name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.



Where to eat

As with the hotel scene, the food scene in Muong Lay veers towards functional—it will fill a hole, that’s it.


Muong Lay has two main clusters of simple eateries, at either end of the southern bridge. We concentrated on the western side.

No shortage of carbs. Photo taken in or around Muong Lay, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

No shortage of carbs. Photo: Stuart McDonald

From the west side of the southern bridge, turn left and on your right is Trung Kien Quan with one plate dishes. There is plenty of cold beer on site and at least one of the staff speak a little English. If beer isn’t your thing, a building or two to the south does sugarcane juice, and to the north, coffee.

Continuing south, following the main road around, again on your right you’ll see Ae Quan. This friendly spot does bbq duck and pork, again with plenty of beer on hand. Half a duck is 80,000 dong or 160,000 dong for the whole bird. No English spoken.

The duck was better than it looks. Photo taken in or around Muong Lay, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

The duck was better than it looks. Photo: Stuart McDonald

On the east side of the bridge is a small wet market with a couple of simple breakfast spots scattered around. The above-mentioned Truc An also has a restaurant, but it was empty when we rolled through.

Map of where to eat in Muong Lay

Map of where to eat in Muong Lay

Map legend

Click on the restaurant name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.


Restaurant contact details and addresses

Ae Quan On the road towards Dien Bien Phu, southwest side of the reservoir. T: (0961) 269 993
Truc An Restaurant East side of reservoir, midway between the bridges
Trung Kien Quan Southwest side of reservoir, near the bridge

Ae Quan
On the road towards Dien Bien Phu, southwest side of the reservoir. Muong Lay, Northwest Vietnam
T: (0961) 269 993 Under $2
Truc An Restaurant
East side of reservoir, midway between the bridges Muong Lay, Northwest Vietnam
Under $2
Trung Kien Quan
Southwest side of reservoir, near the bridge Muong Lay, Northwest Vietnam
Under $2

What to see and do

Things to do in Muong Lay

Muong Lay seems pretty bereft of actual sights—the main appeal is getting here...and leaving.

The town lies roughly at the halfway point on QL12 between Dien Bien Phu and Lai Chau and while if you’re travelling by bus you’ll have no real option but to gaze out the window, if you’re under your own steam allow plenty of time for the ride or drive so you can enjoy the scenery along the way.

Ricefield valleys. Photo taken in or around Muong Lay, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

Ricefield valleys. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Aside from the straightforward barrel up QL12, which has plenty enough stunning scenery alone, there is a good, roughly two to three hour sidetrip you can do which will take you very close to the Lao border and deliver on some spectacular vistas and great, mountainous riding. Coming from Dien Bien Phu, about an hour out of town you’ll reach the small town of Muong Cha.

Take a left here and follow route DT131 as it winds up up up eventually reaching Cho Cang. Note that beyond Cho Cang is a restricted area and you may encounter problems (or just be asked to turn back) if you run into authorities. Rather than continuing north, take a right at Cho Cang and follow the lesser road, eventually rejoining QL12 a bit shy of Muong Lay. This second leg of the ride, as it runs up the side of an escarpment, featured some spectacularly poor road surfaces, so do take care.

Pretty pretty. Photo taken in or around Muong Lay, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

Pretty pretty. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Moving onwards from Muong Lay, the road up to Sinh Ho (DT128) is an absolute cracker for views, though is very prone to landslides in wet season. The first third of the ride offered absolutely spectacular views and we’d say even if you were not planning on overnighting in Sinh Ho it is worth taking this route for the views during the ride (or drive).

Both of the above side-trips are well covered in this piece on Vietnam Coracle.

The mountains go on and on. Photo taken in or around Muong Lay, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

The mountains go on and on. Photo: Stuart McDonald

In Muong Lay proper, with some persistence you might be able to get a local to take you out on the reservoir for a sunset boat trip. That said, when we visited in September, the waters were so low you could walk across much of the base.

You could also use here as a base to visit Sinh Ho, but we’d recommend overnighting or making it a stop on the way to Lai Chau.

The reservoir at Muong Lay. Photo taken in or around Muong Lay, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

The reservoir at Muong Lay. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Come late afternoon, there are a couple of sunset view points along the eastern side of the dam. If you have your own wheels, there is a good spot roughly half way between the Truc An Hotel and the northern bridge.

Location map for Things to do in Muong Lay

Click on the map to open its position in Apple or Google maps.



Getting there and away

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Bus

Muong Lay bus station is on the east bank of the reservoir, near the market and the Duc Truong Hotel. Departure times on the following signposted destinations should be taken as a general indicator. Get there early.

Dien Bien Phu: Departs 06:30, 07:00 and 07:30 and costs 70,000 dong
Hanoi: Departs 17:00 and 18:30 and costs 410,000 dong (via Dien Bien Phu)
Lao Cai: Departs 06:00 and costs 145,000 dong
Tuan Giao: Departs 11:15 and 12:15 and costs 145,000 dong




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