Northwest Vietnam

Hoa Binh - Song Da Reservoir - Mai Chau - Moc Chau - Yen Chau - Son La - Tuan Giao - Pa Khoang Lake - Dien Bien Phu - Muong Lay - Muong Te - Sin Ho - Lai Chau - Sa Pa - Lao Cai - Bac Ha - Ha Giang Province


IDD Code: (+84) 22
Son La has prospered on the back of its to cation as a natural transit point between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu. It may not be one of Vietnam's must-see destinations, but the surrounding scenery is impressive and there are enough diversions to occupy half a day. The area is populated predominantly by Montagnards, notably the Black Thai, Meo, Muong and White Thai. Vietnamese influence in the area was minimal until the 20th century; from 1959 to 1980 the region was part of the Tay Bac Autonomous Region.
Sights & Activities
The Old French Prison & Museum (Nha Tu Cu Cua Phap;admission 5000d;17.30-11 am & 1.30-5pm) in Son La was once the site of a French penal colony where anticolonial revolutionaries were incarcerated. It was destroyed by the infamous
'off-loading' of unused ammunition by US warplanes that were returning to their bases after bombing raids, but it has been partially restored. Rebuilt turrets and watch towers stand guard over the remains of cells, inner walls and a famous lone surviving peach tree The tree, which blooms with traditional 'Tet flowers, was planted in the compound by To Hieu, a former inmate from the 1940s. To Hieu has subsequently been immortalised. with various landmarks now named after him.
A narrow road leads upphill to the prison off the main highway. Nearby is a People's Committee office with a small museum on the top floor, where there are some local hill-tribe displays and a good bird's-eye view of the prison rums. The prison itself is at the hack the entrance beneath a faded sign marked ‘Penitencier',
Perched above the town, a lookout tower of fers a sweeping overview of Son La and the surrounding area. The climb is steep and takes about 20 minutes, but the view from the lop is worth the effort. The stone steps leading up to the tower are immediately to the left of the Trade Union Hotel. You can find a small selection of colourful woven shoulder bags, scarves, silver buttons and necklaces, clothing and other Montag-nard crafts at Son La's market. A few kilometres south of town are hot springs (Suoi Nuoc Nong). There's a rather soupy small communal pool (admission free), and several privately run concrete cubicles (admission5000d) where water is pumped into private bathtubs. Unless you particularly like sharing other people's bathwater, you can probably give it a miss. To get here, start opposite the museum road and follow the trail past the party headquarters building. The township of Thuan Chau is about 35km northwest of Son La. Try and pass through early in the morning when the small daily local market is full of incredibly colourful hill-tribe women. Between 9am and 10am, a steady stream of women can be seen walk ing, cycling and motorbiking home to their villages along the main road.
Sleeping & Eating
Almost all travellers journeying between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu spend the night in Son La. There are plenty of hotels in town, some of which double as brothels. There is a cluster of welcoming hotels on Đ 26/8 that arc the exception to this rule. Viet Trinh Guesthouse (tell: 852 263;15 Đ 26/8, r 80,000d; of the cheapest options in town, the large rooms include hot showers. It's pretty clean lor the price, but English is in short supply. Sunrise Hotel (tell: 858 798; fax 859 799,53 Đ 26/8; r USS10-15;A little further up the road is this smart establishment. The rooms come with all the trimmings like hot water and satellite IV and the tiles are clean enough to double as mirrors, which might be slightly unnerving.
Huong Sen Hotel (tell: 851980; 228 Đ Truong Chinh; r 150,000-200,000d; The newest place in town, this is on the superhighway to Hanoi Rooms are spick 'n' span and also include a smart bathroom. Trade Union Motel (Khach San Cong Doan; s/d/t USS 10/15/20; A rare species in the provinces, this is a warm and welcoming government-run hotel. The large rooms come with all the trimmings and include a hearty breakfast. There are also some newer VIP rooms for US$35 if you are feeling very important. There's a reliable restaurant upstairs that fills up in the evening. Long Phuong Restaurant (tell: 852 339; Pho Thinh Doi-mains 10,000-40,000d) Located at one of the busier junctions in town, this restaurant is the place to sample some of the minority dishes from around the region. Consider the sour mang dang (bamboo .shoots) soup, a speciality of the Thai minority people, washed down with sticky rice dipped in sesame seed salt. Hai Phi Restaurant (Hwy 6; mains 35.000-50,000d) Son La is famous for its lau (goat meal) and here they serve up Billy in every shape and size. Try the highly prized tiet canh, a bowl of goat's-blood curd dressed with a sprinkling of peanuts and veggies. Or go for the more mainstream, but tasty, goat-meat steamboat.
Getting There & Away
Son La's bus station is 2km south west of town. Buses run from 4am to noon between Son La and Hanoi (78,000d), taking about 10 hours or so, assuming there are no serious breakdowns. Regular morning buses also run to Dien Dien Phu (50,000d, five hours). Son La lies 320km from Hanoi and 150km from Dien Bien Phu. By 4WD or motorbike, the Hanoi-Son La run typically takes eight hours. Son La to Dien Bien Phu takes another four hours.