The remote northwest of Vietnam appeals to those wanting to get off the beaten track in some of Vietnam’s most beautiful, unaffected and untouristed areas.
Travellers who do venture to Mai Chau, Son La and Dien Bien Phu often do so by hired jeep or motorbike, while those striking straight north to Vietnam’s trekking capital of Sapa avail themselves of the comfortable and efficient overnight train to Lao Cai. Whichever way you’re headed, prepare yourself for magnificent mountain scenery as you pass through through deep ravines and over breathtaking passes.
While best known for the popular trekking centre of Sapa, which gives travellers an opportunity to learn about the region’s incredible ethnic diversity, there is a lot more worth investigating in this part of the country. The remote town of Dien Bien Phu was the site of a bloody, decisive battle in the First Indochina War that saw the French defeated and captured. The town remains a drawcard, but it’s more about the journey there than the town itself — check out the Dien Bien Phu motorcycle loop. A trip to Dien Bien Phu is easily combined with an approach to Sapa via “the back way” over the Fansipan pass (Vietnam’s highest), allowing for more stunning scenery and the opportunity to see some of the less touristed parts of the country.
Another popular destination is Mai Chau, whose day trekking and scenic vistas have helped it develop into a small tourist centre en-route to Dien Bien Phu. Many trips from Hanoi run out to Mai Chau — and with good reason. It also forms a comfortable spot to rest those weary limbs before continuing onwards and up into the hills.
More and more travellers are now heading up into this part of the country, in part due to the border crossing into Laos near Dien Bien Phu. This is a time consuming part of Vietnam to visit, and relying on local buses will test your mettle, but if you have the time, the northwest (not just Sapa) is well worth adding into your trip plan.