Getting Oriented

A little planning goes a long way when visiting this region. The preferred entry point for exploring the area is undoubtedly Sapa and the traditional way of getting to the former French hill station was by overnight train from Hanoi to the border city of Lao Cai and then onward by bus. Now, however, with the opening of the Noi Bai-Lao Cai highway, in September 2014, a bus journey from Hanoi to Lao Cai takes a mere 3½ hours, making travel by road the quickest option. For travelers heading directly to Dien Bien Phu, the main airport there has daily connections with Hanoi and flying is a much better option than the marathon bus journey between Dien Bien Phu and the capital, which has been known to take up to 13 hours. By far the best way of experiencing the region in all its grandeur is via the Northwest Loop. This grand tour, which takes at least a week to do properly, kicks off in Hanoi before checking in at Sapa then turning southwest to Lai Chau and Dien Bien Phu. From there the route heads back to the capital via Son La and Mai Chau.

Sapa and Nearby. Although much of the Northwest remains remote and undeveloped, Sapa is the region’s undisputed tourism star. Idyllically located high among the mountains, yet less than an hour’s drive from the transportation hub of Lao Cai, Sapa feels accessible yet suitably sanctuary-like. The bustling town center has plentiful hotels, restaurants, and shops, yet a short distance away, the rhythms of traditional mountain life beat on as they have for centuries.

Dien Bien Phu and Nearby. Its main claim to fame is as the site of one of the most significant military victories in Vietnamese history, but there’s more to Dien Bien Phu than just echoes of the past. In the Muong Thanh valley, not far from the border with Laos, the town enjoys a rarefied position amid some archetypically gorgeous highland scenery, perfect for hiking.

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