Remote and mountainous Son La province stretches along Vietnam's south-western border with Laos and is bisected by the Song Da river which flows down through the province eventually emptying into the large reservoir in Hoa Binh province.
Characterised by a rugged, yet breathtaking, mountainous landscape, the steep slopes of Son La's valleys are layered in hundreds of stepped rice terraces, while the lush valley bases are home to small and often very isolated farming villages. With a substantial population of minority groups, you'll not need to look far to find people living a very traditional lifestyle well away from the hustle and bustle of Vietnam's larger, more urbanised centres.
For the vast majority of visitors, Son La is but a series of slow vistas taken out of a minibus window as they make their long winding trip from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu and while the same-named provincial capital holds little of touristic value, it's a classic the pleasure is all in the getting there type destination.
There are far less spectacular provinces in which to lose a day or two than Son La, and, if you're travelling under their own steam, particularly by motorbike, Son La holds terrific potential with ample side-roads and off-the-main-road villages and valleys you can explore.
The sleepy provincial capital of Son La itself is set at the halfway point between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu. It was once the site of a sizeable French garrison during the French war, but today, aside from the ruins of the prison, the only evidence the French ever made it here is the baguettes and rich strong coffee. A mid-sized town, the provincial capital is split in two by a small estuary, the fertile banks of which are given over to small-scale farming.
For a town of little note, really the only point of interest here is the ruins of the French prison, so most visitors give Son La a single night's stay before continuing on towards Dien Bien Phu or Hanoi.
Highway 6 is called Truong Chinh in town, and Phuong Quyet Tam further out by the bus station. It veers sharply to the west as it hits the town centre, and it then called Dien Bien Phu. The road on the west side of the river is To Hieu, on the northern stretch of which you'll find 26/8 Street by the park, with access to the lookout point. On the east side, the road is Chu Van Thinh. They're connected via two bridges — Cau Trang, on Dien Bien Phu, and Cau Day Vang a bit to the north. There's a small unnamed bridge further north. If you're looking for Nguyen Luong Bang, head to the Highway 6 roundabout, and it branches off to the east.
Internet is in good supply — there's one centrally-located place for 4,000 dong per hour just south of the Day Vang bridge road on Chu Van Thinh.
Kim Anh Internet: 203 Chu Van Thinh, Son La. T: (022) 385 5077. Hours: 07:00 to 23:00.
There are a number of ATMs around town, with a BIDV bank on To Hieu. Long distance phone services and Western Union are available at the post office. It's on To Hieu just south of the Day Vang bridge road.
Son La Post Office: 172 To Hieu, T: (022) 385 2417, F: (022) 385 8899. Hours: 07:30 to 11.30 and 13:30 to 17:30.
BIDV: 188 To Hieu, T: (022) 385 2276, F: (022) 385 2308
By Sarah Turner.