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


Stretching west from Hoa Binh is Song Da Reservoir (Ho Song Da), one of Vietnam's largest. The flooding of the Da River has displaced a large number of farmers for about 200km upstream, and is part of a major hydroelectric scheme generating power for northern Vietnam. In 1994 a 500k V power line was extended to the south, temporarily freeing Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) from seasonal power shortages. Easiest access to the reservoir is by taking a spur road that cuts off from Hwy 6 at Dong Bang function (60km west of Hoa Binh and just outside Mai Chau). From the junction it's about a 5km drive to Bai San Pier. There's no obvious jetty here - hang around and someone will come out from a house and ask where you want to go. You'll need a Vietnamese speaker to help make arrangements. One of the trips you can take is to the Ba Khan Islands. The islands are the tops of submerged mountains. The return trip to the islands takes three hours and costs about 250,000d per boat (each boat can seat 10). Another possible boat trip is to Than Nhan village, home to members of the Dzao tribe. The two-hour return trip costs about 180,000d. The boat leaves you at a pier from where it's a steep 4km uphill walk to the village. If you'd like to stay in the village, take the boat one way for 100,000d and get a return boat to Bai San Pier the next day.
If you are anticipating an exotic Indiana Jones encounter - sharing a bowl of eyeball soup, taking part in an ancient fertility ritual or entering a shamanic trance with the local medicine man - think again. Spending a night in one or Mai Chau's minority villages is a very 'civilised' experience the-local authorities have made sure that the villages are up to tourist standards, so electricity flows, modern amenities abound and there are hygienic Western-style toilets. Mattresses and mosquito nets are provided. While this is eminently more comfortable, it may not live up to your rustic hill-tribe trekking expectations. Tour operators are not helping the situation: somehow they cannot seem to resist slapping up their oversized stickers wherever their groups stop to eat or drink, even if that happens to be on these lovely wooden stilt houses. Despite - or perhaps because of - modern amenities, it's still a memorable experience and many people end up staying longer than planned. The Thai villages are exceedingly friendly and, when it's all said and done, even with TV and the hum of the refrigerator, it is a peaceful place and you're stilt sleeping in a thatched-roof stilt house on split-bamboo floors. Reservations are not necessary. Just show up, but try and arrive before dark. Just to get your bearings as much as anything else. You can book a meal at the house where you're slaying for around 30,000d, depending on what you require. The women here have learned to cook every thing from fried eggs to French fries, but try to eat the local food - it's more interestinq. Trv to establish the price of meal before departure, as there have been occasional disagreements over the bill.