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.
By Sarah Turner .