A convenient rest-stop
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 isolated villages. With a substantial population of minority groups, you’ll not need to look far to find people living a 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.
The same-named provincial capital 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. Most visitors give Son La a single night’s stay before continuing on elsewhere.
As with the rest of the northwest, June through to September is wet season. Expect heavy rainfall and misty weather. Landslides are common and will slow you down outside town. 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 hot in the valleys.
A mid-sized town, Son La has a distinct old section to the north and the newer, more more modern part of town to the south.
The bus station is well to the south of the centre of town (not comfortable walking distance), and if you are just overnighting here while travelling by bus, grab a hotel near the bus station to save yourself long walks. International access ATMs are scattered around town. The post office is on the main road through town, near the French prison.
The ruins of the French prison and the sprawling Ho Chi Minh park are both in the northern reaches of town, within walking distance of one another.
Son La has no shortage of hotels, but both the properties we list are towards the northern end of town, convenient to the French prison and the large park. If you’d prefer something walking distance from the bus station, consider the Hoa Lu on the main road. The Green Star Hotels 3 at the southern end of Son La is also a good value option.
Easily the best hotel in Son La, the Cozy Hotel is indeed cozy and welcoming, offering up smart, clean and comfortable rooms at a solid price point.
The hotel is set just off the main road towards the northern end of Son La, with three floors of rooms and an excellent rooftop terrace which is ideal for enjoying the sunset from—they’ll serve you food and drinks here or you are welcome to bring your own. There is also a ground floor coffee shop and restaurant. Staff are friendly, though no English was spoken when we visited.
Superior and deluxe rooms (300,000 and 450,000 dong) are large and immaculate. Airy and bright, with plenty of space to relax in. The beds are comfortable and not rock hard—a refreshing change. They include real linen, plenty of pillows and a decorative sash. There is also a desk and chairs, flat screen TV and WiFi throughout the hotel. There are even bedside lamps—a rarity in these parts. The bathroom was likewise very clean and the hot water piping hot.
This really struck us as excellent value, but if you want to save a few dong, the Phong Lan is a ten minute walk from here and slightly cheaper. It is also a little better placed for getting to the French jail. If you want something more mid-market, consider the Muong Thanh in the centre of town. All three can be booked online—shop around for a discounted rate.
The Phong Lan has clean and well sized rooms for just a few dong less than the nearby Cozy and it is also set slightly more conveniently to the French prison.
The multi-storey glass fronted building may not look like all that much, but the room we were shown was good, if a little dated in the decor department. The room included a separate sitting area which is a bit odd at this room rate, but it was otherwise typical fare. Ikea style furniture, a firm (though not rock hard) bed, flat screen TV and a wall mounted fan. The bathroom, as with the room, was well kept and clean.
The rooms (from 250,000 dong) just lack the style and welcome that you get at Cozy and there is also no rooftop bar and restaurant here. Set on a busy road, the room was nevertheless pretty quiet when we wandered through in the late afternoon. One advantage here is there are more restaurants within walking distance and the French prison is closer to here than the Cozy. You could do far worse than here and we found the staff to be friendly and obliging, though no English was spoken.
Click on the hotel name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.
While Son La is no Hanoi when it comes to a rich and vibrant food scene, there are nevertheless plenty of places to get fed and caffeinated.
For a breakfast bowl we liked Bun Cha 152 right in the centre of town. Generous servings, clean setting, friendly staff and a reasonable price of 30,000 dong a serving.
For coffee, if you like your coffee mall style, consider Blue Coffee & Tea set in the corner of the Vincom mall on Tran Dang Ninh, but we much preferred the deliberately retro Ca Phe 1992, for the excellent coffee, funky decor and exceptionally friendly staff. If you’d prefer something stiffer there is a bar snacks place a couple of doors up.
Sticking with coffee, up on the hill by the French jail, an iced coffee at Le Minh Cafe is the perfect place to chill and cool off after the walk up. There are also pavement stalls lined up here doing fresh sugarcane and coconuts. If tea is more your thing, there is a branch of trendy Tmore on Giang Lac near Vincom mall.
Come the evening, a bbq duck and pork stall sets up about a five minute walk south of Cozy. Perfect fuel for the ride the next day.
While we didn’t have time to try these two Vietnamese restaurants, both Nam Keo and 559 came recommended. Both are near the Vincom Mall.
Lastly, we were told of two sit on the floor Thai restaurants near the Green Star 3 Hotel (Khach San Sao Xanh 3) but for the life of us we couldn’t find them—it was a holiday weekend when we were in town, so they mat have been closed. If you find them, please let us know!
Click on the restaurant name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.
559 559 Ngo 5, Giang Lac, Son La.
Bbq pork and duck stall Chu Van Thinh, Son La.
Blue Coffee & Tea Vincom Mall, Tran Dang Ninh, Son La.
Bun Cha 152 152 Chu Van Thinh, Son La. T: (0972) 784 269
Ca Phe 1992 93 Truong Chinh, Son La.
Le Minh Cafe On the hill by the french prison, Son La.
Nam Keo 110 Truong Chinh, Son La.
Thai restaurants Somewhere near Khach San Sao Xanh 3, Son La.
Tmore Giang Lac, Son La.
Khau Ca, Northern end of Son La
While Hoa Lo in Hanoi offers a better view of prison life (because this one was shelled by the French and again by the Americans), a visit to Son La’s French prison is highly recommended should you find yourself in town.
The prison was built in 1908 by the French, and expanded in 1930 and 1940 to accommodate the ever growing number of political prisoners generated by the Viet Minh liberation movement. Nicknamed “the grinder”, it was notorious for being the most miserable place in the country to be incarcerated. One observer described it as “an open coffin waiting for dying prisoners”. Inmates reached the prison via a 13 day forced march which was designed to cull their numbers before arrival. For the ones that made it, they came to a place where malaria was rampant, and the conditions were even worse than Hoa Lo—in fact, the more “incorrigible” prisoners from Hoa Lo were sent here to be “ground down”, thus the name.
Of course, herding together so many revolutionaries had the opposite effect the French had hoped for. Strong Viet Minh cells formed within the prison walls, held meetings, deliberated, and communicated with their comrades outside. If a prisoner wasn’t a communist when they entered, they were by the time they left. One key leader of the movement, To Hieu, who eventually died in the prison, is memorialised with signs indicating which cell was his (now mostly rubble), the peach tree which he planted (that miraculously survived the bombings) and his makeshift tombstone is on display inside the prison museum.
The very well-presented museum, with a small display of photos, hand and leg irons, and the like, sits in what was a guard house sitting above a rank of underground cells below, and these have survived the bombing intact. It is horrific to imagine human beings spending years of their lives in these dank, tiny chambers. In summer, they must have been like ovens.
This place was a lot harder to escape from the Hoa Lo, partly due to the remoteness of the location, but also because of the “incentive” program set up by the French. They made a deal with the local ethnic minorities to pay out half a kilo of salt for delivering up the head of an escapee—reminiscent of the practice of paying for scalps implemented in the French-Indian War in America.
The prison’s reign of infamy came to an end during the Second World War, when France was losing its grip on its far eastern possessions. There was a half-baked plan to use the prisoners as soldiers in exchange for their release, but the transport process was mishandled, and they all managed to escape. This place is where much of the determination that lead to the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu was born, which is something to think about when you visit A1 Hill.
There’s also a small museum in the People’s Committee Headquarters building just behind the ticket booth. It comprises three rooms: the first room contains archaeological relics, though few are labelled in English; the second is dedicated primarily to Ho Chi Minh, with a number of black and white photos charting prominent events and some more recent colour shots; the third room is filled with the costumes of local hilltribes, although the tribal-wear on display is pretty much exactly what they still wear, and can more sensibly be viewed by simply walking down the street with your eyes open.
To get here, head northwest along Dien Bien Phu from the roundabout, towards Tuan Giao, and the prison is well sign-posted from the main road, 400 metres up a steep hill on your right.
Son La bus station is around 5km to the southeast of town, on the road to Moc Chau. There are a couple of hotels within walking distance if you’re just looking to overnight, but otherwise we’d recommend staying in town proper.
Sample destinations include the following. Note that through buses will drop along the way, so a bus from Son La may pick up and drop off at Moc Chau and/or the turn off to Mai Chau. Confirm departure times the day before if possible.
Dien Bien Phu: Multiple departures from 05:00 to 13:30 from 120,000 dong.
Hanoi (My Dinh): Departing throughout the day, taking around 10 hours and costing 220,000 dong.
Lai Chau: Departing 05:30, 08:30 and 11:30 costing 170,000 dong.
Lao Cai (and Sapa): Departing 05:20 and 16:30 costing 230,000 dong.
Ninh Binh: departing 05:15 costing 170,000 dong.
9 other destinations in Northwest Vietnam