Apart from tourist hotspots such as Mai Chau và 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 — & 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 & dusty và the buses are crammed & uncomfortable.

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But if you have a burning desire to get off the coastal tourist trail, or want to lớn avoid the hellish bus journey from Hanoi lớn Laos và take your time, travelling some or all of the loop offers many rewards.

So what is there lớn do, where can you stop off và how vì chưng you get there?

What is there lớn do?

There"s actually little khổng lồ "do" except sit on a bus or motorbike và enjoy the stunning scenery as it slides by.

What this involves though is observing & experiencing the culture of the region: northwest Vietnam is home to a substantial population of minority groups so you don"t need to lớn look far khổng lồ find people living a traditional lifestyle. If you"ve only been lớn Sapa, the minorities may strike you as a tad contrived, but they"re not: across the northwest traditionally dressed H"mong, Dao, Thai & Tay mingle in the towns, and their villages are scattered throughout the countryside.


It"s also an opportunity to lớn get away from the hectic pace và hassles of the urban centres & talk to lớn curious locals. Few speak English but will try to engage nonetheless. If you make it to the villages you are likely lớn be invited to lớn join a family for tea. Pack a phrasebook.

There are plenty of trekking options, although outside of Sapa và Mai Chau these are difficult lớn arrange independently. Don"t expect any size of tourism infrastructure outside Sapa, Dien Bien Phu and Mai Chau.

Where can you stop-off?

Of course, being a loop you can choose to lớn 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 và sleeping, but there"s little reason lớn linger.


Bac Ha hosts a Sunday market và 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 lớn Lao Cai on the 13:00m bus. This is the last bus back, so if you want to stay longer you"ll need khổng lồ arrange an overnight stay.

Few want to lớn 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 lớn soak up the atmosphere & trek khổng lồ outlying villages.


The journey from Sapa khổng lồ 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 và 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 và has sufficient hotels and restaurants to lớn 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 & the people. The views & sights up khổng lồ 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 khổng lồ reach as it"s on the main route between Lao Cai & 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 và be prepared for an early night.

If you want lớn push on further, try Muong Lay. It was once a pretty town phối in a valley, but that valley will soon be flooded lớn create the new reservoir so it"s not pretty anymore: the only building left standing in the valley is the Lan Anh khách sạn and huge concrete pillars tower above the now derelict town. điện thoại tư vấn the khách sạn to check it"s still standing before planning a night here.

Next stop Dien Bien Phu is the nearest main town lớn the Tay Trang border crossing into Laos và 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 và eating options, it is also trang chủ to a range of wartime attractions along with a fascinating food market. If you"re weary of travelling by bus, it"s possible lớn hire motorbikes in town và drive out to lớn the surrounding villages — but don"t expect a map or guidance.

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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 khổng lồ travel straight from Dien Bien Phu to lớn Son La, 2 hours on from Tuan Giao. The prison in Son La is worth a look if you have the time & need some exercise, và come the evening head to lớn the park for a drink, snails và some BBQ chicken. If you need a treat, the newly opened Hanoi khách sạn offers reasonably priced digs.

Further along Highway 6, before you get lớn Mai Chau, are two towns of little note: Yen Chau và 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 lớn snap a few photos of people selling locally grown mango.

Mai Chau is a great place khổng lồ kick back & relax or, conversely, khổng lồ hire a xe đạp 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 và mossie nets are phối up nightly, home-cooked food is provided — often eaten with the hosts — và the rice wine flows.

Then finally lớn 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 & 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!

How vì chưng you get there?

Most people vày the loop by motorbike. It"s a long way khổng lồ ride, with some tough terrain in parts, but the benefits are greater flexibility và ease of taking photos. It also provides the option lớn get off the main road and explore villages và valleys.

It is also feasible by bus, và 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 và their wares. Most transport is by minibus, but there are also larger buses running out of Hanoi. You"re likely khổng lồ be the only foreigner on board.

The disadvantage of travelling by bus is that you"re stuck on the trunk route. It"s possible khổng lồ hire cycles or motorbikes at towns lượt thích Dien Bien Phu & 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 và tourist-orientated buses and the roads are good. However, the road from Dien Bien Phu khổng lồ Sapa, particularly between Muong Lay & Lai Chau, is not an easy road to lớn travel, và whether on bus or motorbike you"ll be dodging potholes & construction trucks và hoping you don"t plunge over the edge into the abyss.

If you"re starting from Sapa, heading west, buses lớn 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 lớn Lao Cai train station and vice versa & take under an hour.

When there is the luxury of a reasonable bus station, departure times & prices are clearly displayed and tickets can be bought at the correct price before travelling. Chú ý though that if you"re jumping off at a minor town part way along a longer bus route you might kết thúc 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 khổng lồ be a significant amount, except for the journey from Mai Chau to lớn Hoa Binh where the full fare lớn Hanoi is likely khổng lồ be demanded. Once you"re on the bus it"s difficult lớn argue (though try!) so it"s best to lớn agree the price beforehand if you have the luxury of time & patience.

What should I do?

If you"re a confident motorcyclist, bởi vì it by motorbike. If you"re still learning lớn 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.