Dien Bien Phu and the north west of Vietnam
Dien Bien Phu and the north west of Vietnam are less visited by travelers. Most travelers who visit the north west, limit themselves to Sapa and Lao Cai and imagine they have seen enough of the minorities and the mountains.
However, a continuing journey from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu is very rewarding. Don't expect it to be easy. The roads are rough, facilities basic but you will get your rewards in finding more different minorities and spectacular scenery.
On the way to Dien Bien Phu you can find some very basic guesthouses or you can try your luck with locals who are mostly a bit shy but very friendly. Phong Tho, Lai Chau and Luan Chau have guest houses. Although this area is not heavily populated you will be able to find food and water without a problem. Camping is certainly possible.
Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu has a long history. It is located near the border with Laos (although you can not cross here). The city is mostly known for the events there during the First Indochina War, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The French colonial troops retreated into the valley of Dien Bien Phu.
The Viet Minh of Ho Chi Minh occupied the surrounding hills to make sure nothing could go in or out. The French didn't expect the Viet Minh to be able to bring heavy artillery (including anti-aircraft guns) into the hills but were mistaken.
After two months the French surrendered. Shortly after the battle, the war ended with the 1954 Geneva Accords. The France agreed to withdraw from its former Indo chinese colonies leaving the country in two parts.
The fear for the communists would later on develop into the Second Indochina War but that war would hardly reach the Dien Bien Phu valley.
There are two main reasons for visiting the valley. The first is the historical importance and yes, there are still in the countryside some remains left from the first Indochina War.
The second reason is the opportunity to see some of the many minority people at the markets of the smaller towns. Dien Bien Phu, over the centuries has managed to keep it's importance as a central trade center. Minorities from not only Vietnam but also Laos (although it's unlikely they will acknowledge they're Lao) can be found here.
Going south, Son La, Hoa Binh and back to Hanoi
The road from Dien Bien Phu to Son La gets better the closer you come to Son La. It is possible to cycle it in a day. The road mostly swindles through the mountains. Much of the hills is in use for agricultural use but there are many areas still untouched.
That said, Son La is hardly worth mentioning. It is a small town which mostly exists because of it's location. The town is a center for the local villages to do their shopping at the market.
From Son La it is still two days cycling to Hoa Binh and another day to Hanoi. It's a hard trip but certainly worth the effort.
Accommodation in Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu has some good hotels, check them out if you are going into the north west of Vietnam. I don't think it's necessary to book in advance, the city is not that much visited but you might want to find a few good hints:
Crossing into Laos
Yes, it is possible and you can get a Lao visa at the border! Since a few years both authorities have opened the border between the 2 countries. You can cross the border and continue to Oudomxai. It's a ride I still have to do.
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Ha Long Bay on land, that's what Ninh Binh is called. The beautiful limestone mountains with caves and pagoda's is worth a visit.
North West Vietnam
Sapa, Lao Cai, Dien Bien Phu and Son La are some of the bigger and well known places in north west Vietnam