Between Hanoi and Mai Chau
The hardest part of the trip is getting out of Hanoi. From the city center, one-way streets actually abut one another and the traffic must disperse in either direction -- it's very strange. The roads out of town going southwest, either Ton That Tung or Tay Son, are a sea of motorbikes; crossing traffic is heavy and unpredictable. If you're going over 30kmph (19 mph), you're going too fast. At the farthest edge of the city, traffic thins out, and once you pass the Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum some 14km (8 3/4 miles) south and west on Route 6, you're in the clear. (The museum is a good rest stop after the long road of city traffic.) From here, you're in the boonies and the fun begins. You can drive up to 70kmph (43 mph), but about 50kmph (31 mph) is best.
Before you reach the town of Hoa Binh, you'll pass through an area of towering limestone peaks; the road is lined with cafes that are popular local rest stops to relax and enjoy the mountainous views (in the evening, a kind of "Blueberry Hill" vibe pervades). The town of Hoa Binh is not worth a stop -- it's just a typical Vietnamese city of cement row houses and honking motorbikes -- but it's the dropping-off point for trips on the large Da River, or Song Da, reservoir, which powers the town's large hydroelectric plant. Past Hoa Binh, you'll enter the landscape typical to this region, with large hills cut by streams and lined with terrace rice farms.
Most stunning is the high pass you cross on the way to Mai Chau. The road is chiseled into the mountain's rock face, and the debris that resulted from the blasting forms a wide skirt at the foot of the mountain.
150km (93 miles) W of Hanoi; 170km (105 miles) E of Son La
Mai Chau makes a good overnight after the shakedown cruise from Hanoi (about a 5-hr. ride). The town center is a rather dull strip of small shops and a few pho and com stands (noodle soup or rice), but there are two White Thai villages just outside of town where both solo travelers and group tours commonly stay. You can take short boat trips on the Da River Reservoir from the pier just near the turnoff road to Mai Chau (best arranged through a tour).
The surrounding villages of Ban Lac and Pom Coong are great for a morning wander, whether you spent the night in a village homestay or at the Mai Chau Guesthouse. The villages are touristed-out, meaning that the little dusty streets are now paved, and that though the hospitality is genuine, the folks here lead with handfuls of souvenir items for sale and not a handshake. The surrounding valley is green with rice fields and laced with fun little tracks. Bring a camera and your sense of adventure, and get lost out on the paddies for a few hours before heading on to Son La. Local guides can be hired from the Mai Chau Guesthouse for trekking farther afield.
From Mai Chau to Son La
Take a detour near Mai Chau and hop a ride on the Da River Reservoir. In fact, many tours include a long boat ride between Mai Chau and Hoa Binh, but if you just want to catch a glimpse of the water, pull off where the signs indicate just past Mai Chau. The road from Mai Chau to Son La is lined with Montagnard villages and some fine areas of karst limestone outcroppings.
320km (199 miles) NW of Hanoi; 170km (106 miles) W of Mai Chau
Son La is a small city set in a narrow valley at the foot of low hills. A short walk up to the town's famous hilltop prison or to one of the viewpoints in the hills above gives you a good perspective on the two busy streets that make up downtown. Both accommodations and dining are rather limited, but this is a popular (pretty much essential) stop on any tour of the northeast.
A testament to the wily French colonists and their love of brutal prisons (also see Con Dao and Phu Quoc Island in the far south; between the American and the French prisons, you can, in fact, tour a prison in just about every province), Son La was home to one of the country's worst facilities, the end of the line for Vietnam's early-20th-century dissidents. A letter from French brass talking of Son La Prison's brutal effectiveness says, "The malaria and toil here would break the revolutionary zeal of any man."
Fast Facts -- There's no ATM service in Son La, but the Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development (8 Chu Van Thinh St.) can cash traveler's checks. You'll find a few Internet terminals around town, but they're all very slow. Try the few along To Hieu Street, near the corner where Route 6 enters the town of Son La. The post office is on To Hieu in the center of town.
Between Son La and Dien Bien Phu
The road gets more mountainous and curvy as it traces vast river valleys and brings you among more Montagnard groups. In fact, a stop just about anywhere brings you into some National Geographic-like moments. Be sensitive when taking pictures of hilltribe people; some groups have superstitions about photo taking. Be sure to ask first, and honor the wishes of anyone who declines to have their photo taken, however front-page-worthy. Do not offer money to take someone's photo. The road traces some high ridges, which also means some hard climbing, with jeeps and motorbikes digging down into second gear, but you're rewarded along the way with stunning viewpoints over broad valleys of terraced rice farms.
Route 6 terminates at the town of Tuan Giao, itself just a place for a little coffee or a local lunch of rice or noodles; from here, a right turn takes you some 98km (61 miles) to Lai Chau along a stunning stretch of Route 6, and a left is just 80km (50 miles) to Dien Bien Phu. Most tours take you to Dien Bien Phu, but should you be so lucky/brave/foolish to be on a motorbike, I recommend you skip a visit to Dien Bien Phu, which, short of its historical significance, is just a dusty border outpost, and head over Route 6 to Lai Chau on one of Vietnam's most beautiful roads.
On Route 6 -- Route 6 cuts across a stunning mountainous patch, a narrow ribbon of paved and broken-paved road that is more often just a shelf cut into the rock. Overlooking broad valley scenery, you'll pass through quaint hilltribe villages all along the path. The road terminates in Mai Chau, where you can easily find lodging for the night before pushing on to Sapa. Note: Even if you decide to go to Dien Bien Phu, see if you can find the time to travel the head of this stunning road for at least a few kilometers, to get a taste of the stunning scenery (drive up from either Tuan Giao or, on the other side, Mai Chau).
Dien Bien Phu
475km (295 miles) W of Hanoi; 150km (93 miles) W of Son La; 80km (50 miles) S of Lai Chau
Toward the end of World War II -- after the withdrawal of all Japanese forces from Vietnam, and the August 1945 reading of the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence and the resultant August Revolution -- the French colonial mission in Vietnam was nearly over. French forces were down to a skeleton crew after years of attrition under Japanese rule in Indochina, but despite international pressure, Charles De Gaulle sent a force of 70,000 to old Indochina under the command of General LeClerc in the 1950s. Efforts at building a French-Vietnamese coalition including Ho Chi Minh were ill-fated and failed as soon as they were implemented. Guerilla fighting and terrorist attacks by the Viet Minh forces throughout the north soon led to the full-scale Indochina War.
First, a massive French bombing campaign of northern supply lines in Haiphong, attacks that killed thousands of innocents, gave way to a long succession of bloody battles and many casualties on both sides. Nearing some truce in the conflict in 1953, the French put all of their eggs (or most of them) in one basket and chose Dien Bien Phu as the best place to intercept supply lines to rebel groups. Hoping to provoke a classic pitched battle instead of hunting terrorists, the garrison at Dien Bien Phu was surrounded by fire stations, or fortified outposts, in the hills above, supported by heavy air transport and, by 1954, manned by some 16,000 seasoned French Foreign Legion fighters. The impoverished Vietnamese guerrilla forces looked cut off, and the French expected to go to the bargaining tables with some real leverage. How wrong they were.
The battle lasted from March 13 until May 8, 1954, with Vietnamese forces surrounding the valley and pummeling French forces with artillery dragged, by hook or crook, over hill and dale from China. The French were completely surprised. Though French expeditionary troops fought valiantly, with some truly fearless French units parachuting into the crippled encampment long after the runway was destroyed, supply lines were cut and all looked lost. Strategists likened the battle to a fight between a jungle tiger and an elephant, where the Vietnamese tiger strikes at intervals and leaves its larger, stronger prey to bleed to death. Without any official surrender, the French laid down their arms and were completely overrun. The first Indochina War was over, and Dien Bien Phu would forever be a rallying cry for Vietnamese sovereignty.
The town of Dien Bien Phu itself is just a wide avenue lined with Soviet-era construction. There are a few decent hotels, but mainstream tourism is far from overrunning Dien Bien, a town whose greatest moment in history was, in fact, when it was overrun. War memorials, including a good museum, are what attract mostly war buffs and French tour groups to this outpost on the Lao border. The highlights can be seen in a casual afternoon before pressing on to Lai Chau or Sapa the following day.
The sites in Dien Bien Phu require a lot of imagination, really. Visualize, if you will, the French dug in all around town, completely cut off from the rest of the world. Bolstered by their surprise battery of Chinese artillery, and seemingly eager to endure casualties, Vietnamese troops come in waves. Losses were devastating on both sides. The story of this important moment in history is told in the many monuments and museums and the town cemetery -- but the modern concretized trade town of Dien Bien Phu is not so interesting. Take a ride across the small bridge at the southern end of town and look for the rusting gun emplacements and a re-creation of the Bunker of Colonel Christian De Castries, who defended the fortess until his ultimate defeat.
Getting There by Air -- There are regular flights on Vietnam Airlines that connect Dien Bien Phu with Hanoi. The small airport is just north of town on the road to Lai Chau. Vietnam Airlines has a booking office at the airport (tel. 0230/382-4692) or in town on Street 5 (tel. 0230/382-4692).
Orientation -- The city center lies on the eastern shore of the Nam Rom River. The road from Son La and Tuan Giao, Route 12, enters to the north of the city (some of the better accommodations are along it), and the central avenues of Le Trong Tan and Nguyen Chi Thanh make up the busy downtown. The history museum and A-1 hill are on the south end of town, and a few important military sites -- bunkers and abandoned artillery and tanks -- are on the west shore. The airport is just north of town on the west bank of the river, along the road to Lai Chau.
Fast Facts -- Bring cash. There are no ATMs in Dien Bien Phu. You can exchange money at Bank for Investment and Development of Vietnam (3 Duong 7-5; tel. 0230/382-5774). There are lots of local Internet storefronts along the main drag. Slow connection is the rule. Better to wait until Sapa unless you're in a pinch. The main post office is on Street no. 3 in the town center.
Between Dien Bien Phu and Lai Chau
Except for some construction spots, the road is in fairly good shape up to Lai Chau. About 300km (186 miles) from Dien Bien Phu to Sapa, many travelers make the trip in 1 day, but it's actually a bit much, considering the big climbs and descents along the way. Also, if you go from Dien Bien Phu to Sapa in 1 day, you pass through the Tram Ton pass to Sapa in the evening (assuming you make lunch and photo stops along the way); this pass is one of the highlights of any trip in the north, and it's a shame to get there too late in the day, when the towering peaks are in clouds. Stay the night in Lai Chau if you can spare the time, so you'll get to the pass and to Sapa at midday; the little town of Lai Chau is also a good place to do a bit of wandering or day-trekking on your own and is thus worth the overnight.
180km (112 miles) N of Dien Bien Phu; 45km (28 miles) SW of Sapa
Just a short, low-lying commercial strip off the main road between Dien Bien Phu and Sapa, Lai Chau is set in the valley of the Dong Da River and is surrounded by large communities of mostly White Thai people. The town is the terminus of Route 6 from Tuan Giao, a shortcut over the mountains from Son La and one of the loveliest stretches of mountain road in Vietnam; travelers along the stretch usually call Lai Chau home for the night. It's also a logical stop if you're coming from Dien Bien Phu and don't want to bust all the way to Sapa in 1 day. (Note: If you cross the Tram Ton pass to Sapa too late in the evening, you will likely miss the most spectacular scenery. Many therefore opt to stay in Lai Chau and cross to Sapa the next day.) The little Lan Anh Hotel is your only choice for a home away from home here.
There are no banks or Internet cafes in Lai Chau. You can exchange currency at the front desk of the Lan Anh Hotel in a pinch, but plan to bring cash. The local post office is near the main intersection heading toward Sapa.
From Lai Chau to Sapa
The road out of Lai Chau follows the Dong Da River Valley as the water widens in broad valleys and narrows to small rapids through precipitous gorges. The road is well paved and not as steep as other spots on the route, but it's not straight.
One possible detour on the route north to Sapa is the village of Sin Ho. Some 30km (19 miles) up a dirt track just east of the main road, Sin Ho is a quiet, isolated Thai village well worth the visit for an amateur ethnologist or an adventurer looking to see what their motorbike can "really do." Warning: This is well off the beaten track, so be sure you have all the requisite gear to fix any flats or major problems; there won't be any helpful strangers wandering down this rugged road. From Sin Ho, there's a "new road" that connects to the north and with the town of Pa So on the way to Sapa, but note that "new road" means "not finished"; it's more or less a rutted track.
Most travelers pass Sin Ho and opt to follow the Dong Da River in a picturesque climb toward Sapa. In this case, you'll pass through Pa So, which has one little riverside hotel run by the same folks as Lan Anh Hotel in Lai Chau , and then hit Tam Duong, a town where you can get your first glimpse of colorful Hmong and Dao people at roadside. There are a few little guesthouses in Tam Duong, but it is so close to Sapa that you might as well press on. From Tam Duong, you climb among stunning peaks on one of the most beautiful stretches of road before hitting the massive switchback of the Tram Ton Pass, which brings you up and over to the town of Sapa.
Note: Many travelers who do this route by motorbike opt to ride the short stretch from Sapa to Lao Cai, and then put their motorbike on the train for the overnight back to Hanoi. The road from Lao Cai to Hanoi via Yen Bai is rural and quite pretty, but nothing compared with the mountain roads of the highland area. It's worth saving the gas, exhaustion, and hassle to just toss it on the train for little more than $10. In Lao Cai, stop in to see the friendly folks at Nha Nhi Restaurant (Nguyen Hue St.; tel. 020/835-901), who can help you out with the details. Important note for Minskers: You have to remove all of the gasoline from your motorbike, so find a local with a Minsk motorbike and make his day by donating your gas to him.