There isn’t a whole lot in Thai Nguyen to hold your interest, but the Museum of the Cultures of Vietnam’s Ethnic Groups (Bao Tang Van Hoa Cac Dan Toc; admission 10,000d; open 7am-11am & 2pm-5.30pm Tues-Sun, last admission at 5pm) is worth-while seeing on the way to Ba Be Lakes. It is the largest Montagnard museum in Vietnam. The giant pastel-pink building houses a wide array of colorful exhibits representing the 50-odd hill tribes residing in Vietnam.
There is an interesting English booklet about the displays for US$2.
Getting There & Away
Thai Nguyen is 76km north of Hanoi, and the road there is in good nick.
Buses and minibuses to Thai Nguyen (15,000d, three hours) depart from Hanoi’s Gia Lam station regularly between 5am and 5pm.
AROUND THAI NGUYEN
Phuong Hoang Cave
Phuong Hoang Cave is one of the largest and most accessible caverns in northern Vietnam. There are four main chambers, two of which are illuminated by the sun when the angle is correct. Most of the stalactites and stalagmites are still in place, although quite a few have been broken off by thoughtless souvenir hunters. Like many caves in Vietnam, this one served as a hospital and ammunition depot during the American War. If you want to see anything, you’d best bring a good torch (flashlight).
The cave is a 40km motorbike ride over a bumpy road from Thai Nguyen.
Nui Coc Reservoir
A scenic spot popular with locals, Nui Coc Reservoir (admission 6000d; hotel rooms 80,000-250,000d) is 25km west of Thai Nguyen. It’s a pretty stretch of water, and is a major draw-card for city-bound Hanoi residents looking to get away from it all. On summer weekends it can get particularly crowded. A one-hour, circular motorboat tour of the lake is the thing to do and costs about 180,000d. You can use the water park’s swimming pool for 20,000d, and also rent rowboats. It might be worth a visit if you’re on route to Ba Be Lakes, with your own transport, and want to cool off.
Northwest Vietnam offers travelers some of the country’s most spectacular scenery. The mountainous areas are also home to many distinct hill tribes, often still living as they have for generations despite increasing outside influences.
Hwy 6 winds through beautiful mountains and high plains, which are inhabited by Montagnards, notably the Black Thai, White Thai, Dao and H’mong. The Thai live mostly in the lower lands, where they cultivate tea and fruit and live in attractive stilt houses. The Dao and H’mong live in the bleaker highlands over 1000m.
The road is mostly surfaced with bitumen from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu – but even so, it’s a thrill! Even more exciting is Hwy 12 (between Dien Bien Phu and Lai Chau), a dangerous cliffhanger still regularly wiped out by landslides. Although it’s mostly sealed, stretches of this road are so rough it can jar the fillings out of your teeth. The ensuing stretch form Lai Chau into Sapa is bumpy in places, but offers some of the best mountain vistas in Southeast Asia.
The northwestern roads improve annually. However, if you suffer from vertigo, back-ache or (God forbid) haemorrhoids, you might want to stich to the shorter trips. Many travel only as far as Mai Chau or Son La, pr Sapa in the other direction, before turning back.
The most interesting journey in this area is the ‘northwest loop’. Head for Mai Chau, followed by Son La and Dien Bien Phu, then north to Lai Chau or Tam Duong, Sapa, Lao Cai and back to Hanoi. The loop is best driven by 4WD or motorbike, in case the roads are cut and you need to do some bush-bashing. It is also possible – if you’ve got lots of time and stamina – to travel the loop by public transport. You should allow at least a week for this journey, and considerably more time if you’re braving the local buses. And three cheers and more for the hardy cyclists who pump up and down these roads.
Warning: In the entire northwest of Vietnam, there are very few places to cash travelers cheques, and credit cards are of little use. You can cash travelers cheques at some hotels in Sapa. But you will be charged a steep 10% commission. It’s easier to swap US dollars for Vietnamese dong, but the rate is not great; you’d be wise to complete all your money-changing transactions before you leave Hanoi.