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Dien bien peopleNorthwest of Hanoi toward the Chinese border lies the Hoang Lien Son Range, with Mount Fansipan, the highest peak of Vietnam (3,143m). This range was christened the Tonkinese Alps by the French, who took a liking to the cool climate. Limestone largely comprises this Northwest frontier where dramatic hills rise from the plains. From Hanoi to the Northwest several routes will get you there, the most spectacular via Dien Bien Phu to Sapa. At Lao Cai, close by, you can cross into China and continue by rail to Kunming.


The Northwest offers captivating mountain scenery; you can hike or trek into valleys around key towns. The hill tribes inhabiting the valleys here include Thai, H'mong, Zao and Muong groups. Some live in raised long houses. May still dress in traditional garb; intricate hand-embroidered clothing and silver jewelry are worn by the women. The best time to see minority people is on market day in the towns, when the mountain people hike in for days from surrounding areas. The big day is usually Sunday. Key destinations in the Northwest include Dien Bien Phu and Sapa. Dien Bien Phu, toward the Lao border, is a small town that was the site of the Vietnamese communists' victory over the French in 1954, ending the Indochinese War I. The village of Sapa remains the jewel of the northwest, a former French hill resort with splendid mountain scenery, a market thronged with people, and excellent hiking opportunities. For a more limited time Hoa Binh and Mai Chau offer good one-day or two-day trips with light trekking.

Hoa Binh Mai Chau Moc Chau
Son La Tuan Giao Dien Bien Phu  


Hoa Binh

Thuy dien Hoa BinhNearly 70km to the Southwest of Hanoi, Hoa Binh is easy to reach by the Highway No. 6 which have much less traffic compared with other national ways crossing by the capital, and have more poetic landscape. Hoa Binh is the name of a mountainous province, the name of its chief town, and of the biggest Hydropower Station of Vietnam run by the water power of the Reservoir built on the "Da" River (the Black River). For those who love ecotours, Hoa Binh is a good stopover for meals or refresh before delving into the hill tribal daily life in the Muong, Zao and Thai villages close by or continue the mountain way to reach Mai Chau.

Mai Chau

Mai Chau

This small village is not marked on many maps, but if you are heading from Hoa Binh to Moc Chau it is impossible to miss. Mai Chau is set about 2.5 hours North of Hoa Binh and is approached as you go down the side of a very steep valley. From Hoa Binh to Mai Chau you will pass by Man Duc crossroad, which is an hour driving from Hoa Binh and backed by karst peaks, with an interesting market. Another hour from Man Duc is the stop for a spectacular view over Mai Chau valley to the south. The village, nestled between two steep cliffs and surrounded by emerald green paddies, is enchanting to look at as you wind down the mountainside.

"Thai" ethnic people have inhabited in Mai Chau for centuries and are highlighted from other hill tribes for their cleaness, intricate weaving decoration made by dexterous women's hands and hospitable customs. Many evidences show that they are homogenous with the Thai groups living in South of China and in Thailand now. An overnight visit to Lac village or Poong Com village in Mai Chau can be easily combined with trekking or hiking in the surrounding mountain area or with a longer visit to the far Northwest.

Moc Chau

Moc chauMoc Chau is set nearby some small dairy-farms, belonging to the government or privacy. The way from Mai Chau to Moc Chau stretches between the round hills filled of green tea and terraced rice fields, which bring a special tranquil beauty for the region. Yet, since most of visitors stop by Moc Chau just to refresh before heading North, the attractions of the town are limited in local dairy cakes, fresh milk, and the market that concentrate colourful-dressed H'mong and Black Thai people.

Son La

Son LaLocated 320km northwest of Hanoi, Son La town is often used as a half-way overnight stop on the way to Dien Bien Phu. There is not much to remark the town except a prison built in 1908 by the French colonialists to incarcerate the Vietnamese political criminals. However, from Son La to Dien Bien Phu you will see lots of minority villages - Black Thai, white Thai, H'mong, and Muong - some close to the road. Black Thai women wear black sarongs, and tightfitting blouses with rows of silver or metal buttons down the front attached tightly to the neck. The blouses are usually bright green, blue, or purple. A woman coils her hair in a topknot, covering it with a black turban embroidered with multicolored thread. After marriage, Black Thai women wear a silver hairpin. Some 800,000 Black Thai and White Thai (white-bloused Thai people) live in the Northwest. 

Tuan Giao

Tam thanh Nhi thanh cavesFrom Son La, your road will pass over Thuan Chau and starts climbing to cross Pha Din Pass at 1,300m before reaching Tuan Giao, which breaks the distance of 180km from Son La to Dien Dien. If your destination is Lai Chau, you can skip the turn to the west heading to Dien Bien and carry straight. White Thai villages lie along the route between Tuan Giao and Lai Chau, with pretty women wearing white blouses with silver jewelry.

Dien Bien Phu

Tam thanh Nhi thanh cavesThis was the scene of the siege in 1954 that finally broke the back of the French war effort in Vietnam. In an attempt to halt Viet Minh (Vietnam Independence Association) incursions into Laos, the French commander, Navarre, decided to establish a "super garrison" at the top end of a valley called Dien Bien. This was to police the strategic cross-roads between Laos to the West, Son La to the South and Lai Chau to the North. He believed that with this base firmly established in the Far Northwest, he would be able to launch sorties against the Viet Minh, and greatly reduce their strength in the area. He was to be proved terribly wrong.

The Viet Minh commander, Vo Nguyen Giap, finally saw an opportunity for an open confrontation with the French and started working towards it. By mid 1953, the base was completed and regarded in French circles as virtually impregnable. With twelve battalions of French, Morrocan and Algerian soldiers, two airstrips, a heavily mined perimeter and surrounded by a number of smaller defensive positions, named Dominique, Elaine, Claudine and Huguette. These were named, supposably, after the four mistresses of the base commander Colonel Marie Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries. The troops within the compound slept fairly soundly at night! The French even went to the extent of flying in an entire brothel of French women to keep the soldiers happy!!

For Giap and his comrades, however, the struggle had hardly begun. They embarked on an incredible logistical feat of dragging up, in pieces, various heavy field guns that were then hidden in caves and dense forest cover in the hills surrounding the Dien Bien Phu base. By early 1954, Giap had over 40,000 men in the hills, completely surrounding the base. It was estimated that just to keep Giap's men fed, over 250,000 porters were used to ferry food.

Tay BacFor the French it was their ignorance amongst other things that led to their downfall. Though they knew the Viet Minh had some troops in the surrounding hills, nothing was done about it, until it was too late. On 10 March 1954, to the horror of the French, Viet Minh shells started landing on the airstrip. Giap possessed a comprehensive plan, first if which was the neutralisation of the airstrips, thus completing the siege. The French were taken completely by supprise, and after the first day of shelling, an assault was made on Gabrielle. By midnight 13 March, Beatrice had fallen. The fighting was fierce, with the Viet Minh often following up hours of shelling with human wave tactics, incurring shocking casualties. At times the fighting was hand to hand and always chaotic, with the French utterly frustrated by their inability to hit Giap’s well-concealed guns.

Within five days, both the airfields had been completely destroyed and the garrison could only be re-supplied by airdrops, an increasingly perilous pastime, proven by the wrecked planes on the ground. As the Viet Minh edged closer and closer in trenches, the airdrops increasingly fell into Vietnamese hands. The position was becoming truly desperate.

At the start of April there was a lull in the fighting during which Navarre parachuted in some of his crack troops adding to his garrison now totalling about 16,000. Giap also brought in his reserves, edging his forces up towards the 50,000 mark. The French were desperate and they appealed to the US for assistance, preferring bomber strikes from their bases in the Philippines. By this stage the US was funding 78% of the French war effort, so they hardly had unstained hands. They came back with a proposal for limited tactical nuclear strikes on the Vietnamese positions along with a series of strikes on China, fearing ‘another Korea’, all of which would be performed on French behalf. Thankfully this insanity was avoided by the British giving the idea a big no and congress getting cold feet. In the end there was nothing forthcoming from the US.

For the French, the end was near. On 4 May following a series of attacks, the Viet Minh attacked with a force previously unwitnessed and by 8 May the garrison finally surrended. By this stage the conditions within were unimaginable, with maggots in the wounds of the injured and an incredibly demoralised fighting force. It was estimated that during the battle 7,000 French and close to 20,000 Vietnamese had lost their lives. This loss finally caused the French to withdraw from Vietnam.

Dien Bien Phu now bears few scars except for the occasional scattered tank to bear witness to its horrendous past, though it is still one of the remotest areas you could visit. The hilltribes living around the area of Dien Bien Phu make up 70% of the regions population, and the ethnic minority groups include the Black Thai, Nung, Meo, Loa and others.


SapaSapa is the most popular place to go in the Far Northwest amongst budget travelers and packages tourists alike. By using Sapa as a base you can hike off to more remote ‘traditional’ hill tribe villages and sometimes you will be offered a bed in a village for the night. Sapa was originally built as a hill station in the early part of this century and, in winter, gets bitterly cold. If you are going to be visiting Sapa in winter do not forget the winter  woollies.

Sapa is preparing itself for the continuing tourist boom considerably well. Behind Sapa, towards Phong Tho is a high pass forming part of the Hoang Lien Mountains that were known to the French as the Tonkinese Alps. This range includes Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam at 3,143m, which view at dawn could be spectacular.

There is a weekend market in Sapa during which the town fills up with hilltribe people selling their wares. If you want to see these tribes as they "traditionally" live (as opposed to flogging jackets to tourists), either go for a hike or head over to Dien Bien Phu from Sapa. This stretch has the most traditional people you will see in the whole of Vietnam. It seems that most tourist groups pile into Sapa during the weekend for the market. However, travelers have reported that during the week is a much better time to catch a glimpse of the real Sapa avoiding from a big hassle of tourists.

You can hike in the surrounding area and visit a number of fairly traditional predominantly Mong hilltribe villages. Further afield is the colourful Red Zao, Dzay, Tay and Xa Pho people. A home stay in the Tay village would be unforgettable experience.


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