Son La, capital of the province of the same name, makes a good overnight stop for travelers doing the run between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu. While not one of Vietnam’s highlights, the scenery isn’t bad and there is certainly enough to see and do to keep you occupied for half a day.
The area is populated mainly 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 (Khu Tay Bac Tu Tri).
Things to See & Do
An atmospheric place, the Old French Prison & Museum (Nha Tu Cu Cua Phap; admission 10,000d; open 7.30am-11am & 1.30pm-5pm daily) in Son La was once the site of a French penal colony where anti-colonial revolutionaries were incarcerated. It was destroyed by the infamous ‘off-loading’ of unused ammunition by US warplanes returning to their bases after bombing raids on Hanoi and Haiphong, and has been partially restored. Rebuilt turrets and watchtowers stand guard over the remains of cells, fetters, 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 immortalized with various landmarks about town named after him.
A narrow road leads uphill to the prison, off the main highway. At the end of a road is a People’s Committee office with a small museum on the top floor where there are some interesting hill-tribe displays and a good bird’s eye view of the prison ruins. The prison itself is at the back, entered beneath a faded sign marked ‘Penitencier’.
Perched above the town, a lookout tower offers a sweeping overview of Son La and the surrounding area. The climb is steep and takes about 20 minutes, but the view from the top is well worth it. Photography of the scenery is permitted, but the guards will get uptight if you try to photograph the installations, which serve both telecommunications and military purposes. They may also offer you rice-wine and conversation. 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 bag, scarves, silver buttons and necklaces, clothing and other Montagnard crafts at Son La’s market.
Unfortunately, Tam Ta Toong Caves (formerly a minor tourist attraction just outside town) remain closed because of fear that people will contaminate the waters: the caves are the main water source for Son La. Inquire as to whter they have been reopened at your hotel.
A few kilometers south of town are the Suoi Nuoc Nong hot springs. They won’t be everyone’s cup of tea: there’s a rather soupy small communal pool (admission free), and several privately run concrete cubicles (admission 5000d) where water is pimped into a private bathtub. To get here, start opposite the museum road. The road leads past the party headquarters building, after which there’s 1km or so of bumpy track before the road is sealed for the 5km to the springs.
Places To Stay
Almost all travelers journeying between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu spend the night in Son La. There are plenty of hotels in town, many of which are truly grotty and/or double as brothels; those listed here are currently exceptions.
Ngoc Hoa Guesthouse (Nha Nghi Ngoc Hoa; 853993; bed in 6-bed dorm US$3, doubles with bath US$12) is the cheapest OK place in town.
Nha Nghi Long Phuong and Nha Nghi Thanh Loan are two cheap, basic, but OK guesthouses at the main junction in town. Rooms are around US$5.
Trade Union Hotel (Khach San Cong Doan; 852244, fax 855312; air-con twins US$15) remains, for a state-run place, a rare gem,. The staff is exceedingly friendly and prices are reasonable. Large rooms come with hot water and breakfast.
People’s Committee Guesthouse (Nha Khach Uy Ban Nhan Dan Tinh Son La; 852080; air-con rooms 150,000d) has an enormous extension underway, which should be open by the time you read this. These new rooms will probably the worth a look.
Phong Lan Hotel (853516, fax 852318; rooms with fan US$15, air-con twins US$18-20) includes breakfast in its rates and is just opposite the market.
Places to Eat
At the main junction, Long Phuong Restaurant (852339) offers a dood, interesting menu. Try the sour mang dang (bamboo shoots) soup, a speciality of the Thai minority people; and sticky rice dipped in sesame seed salt.
Hai Phi Restaurant dishes up Son La’s speciality – lau (goat meat). 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 conventional, but tasty, boat-meat steamboat.
For good, standard Vietnamese food try Thanh Lan Restaurant, along from the post office.
Getting There & Away
Son La’s airport is called Na San and is 20km from Son La along the road towards Hanoi. At time of writing, flights to/from Hanoi run four times weekly, but this schedule is highly changeable.
Buses take 12 to 14 hours to travel between Son La and Hanoi (63,000d), assuming there are no serious breakdowns, Buses leave regularly between 4am and noon. Buses going from Son La to Dien Bien Phu (39,000d, 10 hours) leave at 4am and noon only.
Son La lies 320km from Hanoi and 150km from Dien Bien Phu. By jeep the Hanoi-Son La run typically takes 10 hours. Son La to Dien Bien Phu takes another six hours.