Apart from tourist hotspots such as Mai Chau and Sapa, the so called Dien Bien Phu loop, through northwest Vietnam, is relatively untravelled territory. There are reasons for this: primarily, it takes time — whether travelling by bus or motorbike you need to allow a week or so — and that's time that many tourists don't have; secondly, it's tough — the roads are exceedingly bad in places, English is rarely spoken, it's hot and dusty and the buses are crammed and uncomfortable.
But if you have a burning desire to get off the coastal tourist trail, or want to avoid the hellish bus journey from Hanoi to Laos and take your time, travelling some or all of the loop offers many rewards.
So what is there to do, where can you stop off and how do you get there?
There's actually little to "do" except sit on a bus or motorbike and enjoy the stunning scenery as it slides by.
What this involves though is observing and experiencing the culture of the region: northwest Vietnam is home to a substantial population of minority groups so you don't need to look far to find people living a traditional lifestyle. If you've only been to Sapa, the minorities may strike you as a tad contrived, but they're not: across the northwest traditionally dressed H'mong, Dao, Thai and Tay mingle in the towns, and their villages are scattered throughout the countryside.
It's also an opportunity to get away from the hectic pace and hassles of the urban centres and talk to curious locals. Few speak English but will try to engage nonetheless. If you make it to the villages you are likely to be invited to join a family for tea. Pack a phrasebook.
There are plenty of trekking options, although outside of Sapa and Mai Chau these are difficult to arrange independently. Don't expect any form of tourism infrastructure outside Sapa, Dien Bien Phu and Mai Chau.
Of course, being a loop you can choose to travel in either direction, but let's go anti-clockwise from Hanoi.
If you're on public transport, head straight to Lao Cai on an overnight train or bus. By motorbike you'll no doubt want to make a few stops en route as it's over 300km. Lao Cai is pleasant enough, with options for eating and sleeping, but there's little reason to linger.
Bac Ha hosts a Sunday market and is easily reached by bus from Lao Cai's main bus station. Those in a rush can pick up the 06:30 or 07:00 bus straight after they leap off the overnight train, spend a few hours in Bac Ha and return to Lao Cai on the 13:00m bus. This is the last bus back, so if you want to stay longer you'll need to arrange an overnight stay.
Few want to miss Sapa. Yes, it's touristy, but it's also a fascinating hotpot of culture, has a cool climate, and offers plenty of trekking opportunities — it's also the last stop for burgers and pancakes! A couple of days is sufficient to soak up the atmosphere and trek to outlying villages.
The journey from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu takes about 9 hours and, at the time of writing, includes many hours of travel in a minibus along an absolute shocker of a road. Roads and bridges are being built in preparation for a reservoir that will flood the valley. This construction also means the scenery, particularly between Lai Chau and Muong Lay, is concrete and brown where once it was green.
It's worth making at least one stopover between Sapa and Dien Bien Phu. The question is where?
Lai Chau is just 3 hours from Sapa and has sufficient hotels and restaurants to accommodate an overnight stay. Plus, the Dong Thieu Duong cave nearby is a good trip out if you have the time.
Next on you have the choice of Sinh Ho or Phong To, although neither offers anything of interest nor any inspiring accommodation or restaurants. But remember, it's all about the scenery and the people. The views and sights up to Sinh Ho are really something, but if you're on a bus you'll struggle for pics so burn them into your memory. Bikers will have more luck.
Sinh Ho is a bus terminal and isn't on the main through bus route, so if you take this option, budget for an overnighter at the over-priced Thanh Binh, the only hotel that takes foreigners.
Phuong To is easier to reach as it's on the main route between Lao Cai and Dien Bien Phu. There are a couple of reasonable hotels in town but there’s very little life — or light — after it gets dark, so take a torch and be prepared for an early night.
If you want to push on further, try Muong Lay. It was once a pretty town set in a valley, but that valley will soon be flooded to create the new reservoir so it's not pretty anymore: the only building left standing in the valley is the Lan Anh Hotel and huge concrete pillars tower above the now derelict town. Call the hotel to check it's still standing before planning a night here.
Next stop Dien Bien Phu is the nearest main town to the Tay Trang border crossing into Laos and also has some historical interest: it is the site of the Vietnamese victory over the French in 1954. As well as a reasonable selection of hotels and eating options, it is also home to a range of wartime attractions along with a fascinating food market. If you're weary of travelling by bus, it's possible to hire motorbikes in town and drive out to the surrounding villages — but don't expect a map or guidance.
Three hours on is the sleepy town of Tuan Giao, which is home to one of the nicest guesthouses you'll find outside of Sapa: the HongKy. They also run a café where you can get your Western fix if you've had enough of pho and com. Spend the night if you have time.
It's feasible to travel straight from Dien Bien Phu to Son La, 2 hours on from Tuan Giao. The prison in Son La is worth a look if you have the time and need some exercise, and come the evening head to the park for a drink, snails and some BBQ chicken. If you need a treat, the newly opened Hanoi Hotel offers reasonably priced digs.
Further along Highway 6, before you get to Mai Chau, are two towns of little note: Yen Chau and Moc Chau. Moc Chau has a bit more going for it, with some reasonable hotels — try the Hai Yen – as well as a good restaurant, bia hoi and a small market. Yen Chau is even sleepier than Tuan Giao but is a good place to snap a few photos of people selling locally grown mango.
Mai Chau is a great place to kick back and relax or, conversely, to hire a bike or take to your feet and explore the surrounding countryside. Most opt for homestays in the villages about 2km from Mai Chau town itself. There are dozens of alternatives but all are similar: mattresses and mossie nets are set up nightly, home-cooked food is provided — often eaten with the hosts — and the rice wine flows.
Then finally to Hoa Binh. Being only 2 hours from Hanoi, with little going for it besides a museum, there's no reason to linger, but it's a sizeable town so there are plenty of hotels and restaurants. It's also possible to organise boat trips on the reservoir though these generally run out of Hanoi.
Then you're back in Hanoi — see, that was easy!
Most people do the loop by motorbike. It's a long way to ride, with some tough terrain in parts, but the benefits are greater flexibility and ease of taking photos. It also provides the option to get off the main road and explore villages and valleys.
It is also feasible by bus, and while this requires a little more planning and patience there is a sense of adventure as you cram into an ancient minibus with 30 locals and their wares. Most transport is by minibus, but there are also larger buses running out of Hanoi. You're likely to be the only foreigner on board.
The disadvantage of travelling by bus is that you're stuck on the trunk route. It's possible to hire cycles or motorbikes at towns like Dien Bien Phu and Mai Chau, or otherwise negotiate with a xe om driver and be specific about where you want to go.
The southern part of the loop, from Dien Bien Phu through Son La, is well served by local and tourist-orientated buses and the roads are good. However, the road from Dien Bien Phu to Sapa, particularly between Muong Lay and Lai Chau, is not an easy road to travel, and whether on bus or motorbike you'll be dodging potholes and construction trucks and hoping you don't plunge over the edge into the abyss.
If you're starting from Sapa, heading west, buses to Dien Bien Phu leave from the bus station from 06:30 or you can pick up a through bus at the southeastern corner of the lake. Transport between Sapa and Lao Cai is straightforward — regular minibuses run from outside the church in Sapa to Lao Cai train station and vice versa and take under an hour.
When there is the luxury of a reasonable bus station, departure times and prices are clearly displayed and tickets can be bought at the correct price before travelling. Note though that if you're jumping off at a minor town part way along a longer bus route you might end up paying the fare for the full distance.
When picking up a bus from the side of the road, there's a greater chance of being over-charged, but this is unlikely to be a significant amount, except for the journey from Mai Chau to Hoa Binh where the full fare to Hanoi is likely to be demanded. Once you're on the bus it's difficult to argue (though try!) so it's best to agree the price beforehand if you have the luxury of time and patience.
If you're a confident motorcyclist, do it by motorbike. If you're still learning to ride one, consider an organised motorbike tour instead. If motorbikes are not your thing, rustle together a group to do it by hired jeep. Last option? Bus.
By Sarah Turner.
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