Hoa Binh means ‘peace’ and this easygoing nature town is a relief after the traffic-plagued suburbs of Hanoi. The area is home to many hill-tribe people, including the H’mong and Thai. Hoa Binh is a handy pit stop en route to Mai Chau.
Muong Cultural Museum (Khong Gian Van Hoa Muong; 0913 553 937; www.muong.vn; 202 Tay Tien; admission 50,000d; 7:30pm) Founded by Hanoi artist Vu Duc Hieu, this establishment showcases the art, culture and history of the local Muong ethnic minority. Sprawled across five verdant hectares, it also highlights the quirky art and sculpture of the owner and is worth visiting for the relaxed vibe and beautiful surroundings alone. There’s also shared accommodation in simple stilt houses.
A xe om from Hoa Binh to the museum is around 50,000d and a taxi around 100.000d. Treks with local Muong ethnic minority guides can also be arranged (300,000d).
(8-10.30am & 2-4.30pm Mon-Fri) A small museum showcasing war memorabilia, including an old French amphibious vehicle. It’s on Hwy 6, after the turn-off to Cu Chinh Lan.
Cross the bridge towads Phu Tho and you’ll see the dam wall of a vast Russian-built hydroelectric station. Across the river is a memorial to the 161 workers who died during its construction.
Sleeping & Eating
You’ll find com pho (rice-noodle soup) places lining Hwy 6, and both the Hoa Binh hotels have restaurants.
Thap Vang Hotel
(0218-385 2864; 810A Đ Cu Chinh Lan; r 160,000-300,000d) Set just off the main street this smart minihotel has neat rooms with fridge and satellite TV. It’s worth paying slightly more for the larger rooms.
Muong Cultural Museum Homestay
(0913 553 937; www.muong.vn; 202 Tay Tien per person 100,000d) Simple shared accommodation in ethnic minority stilt houses. Breakfast is an additional 30,000d and other meals are also available. Longer-term residencies by artists are possible.
Hoa Binh Hotels I &II
(0218-385 2051; s/d US$30/35) Heading west of the centre along Hwy 6, Hoa Binh Hotels I and II havve comfortable accommodation in replica stilt houses. Rooms are showing some wear and tear, but the quiet, almost rural, location is a bonus.
There are ATMs alonng Hwy 6. Internet access is at the main post office (per hour 3000d).
Hoa Binh Tourism Company (0218-385 4374; www.hoabinh tourism.com; Hoa Binh Hotels I & II) Has offices at both hotels; regional tours are offered.
Getting There & Away
Hoa Binh is 74km southwest of Hanoi and accessible by public bus (45,000d, two hours, frequent from 5am to 5pm) from My Dinh station. Buses (55,000d, 11/2 hours) to Mai Chau leave around every two hours from 6am to 2pm.
Visit Ba Vi National Park en route from Hanoi, and follow a riverbank road to Hoa Binh.
SLEEPING ON THE STILTS
If you are anticipating an exotic encounter – sharking a bowl of eyeball soup or entering a shamanic trance with the local medicine man – think again. Staying in Mai Chau’s minority villages is a civilised experience. There’s electricity, Western-style toilets and hot showers, and roll-up mattresses and mosquito nets are provided. While this is eminently more comfortable, it probably won’t fulfil your rustic hill-trible trekking expectations.
Despite – or maybe because of – the modern amenities, it’s still a memorable experience, and many people end up staying longer than planned. The surrounding area is beautifully lush, the Thai villages are attractive and tidy, and locals are exceedingly friendly. Even with a TV on and the hum of the refrigerator, it is a peaceful place, and you’re still sleeping in a thatched-roof stilt house on split-bamboo floors.
Reservations are not necessary. Just show up, but try and arrive before dark so you can get your bearings.
THE HIGH ROADS ON TWO WHEELS
With spectacular scenery and relatively minimal traffic, more travellers are choosing to go by motorcycle around the northwest loop from Hanoi up to Lao Cai, over to Dien Bien Phu and back to the capital. For the really intrepid, the roads venturing north towards China into the spectacular provinces of Ha Giang and Cao Bang are the newest frontier for travel in Vietnam.
Hanoi is the place to start making arrangements. Consider joining a tour or hiding a guide, who will know the roads and can help with mechanical and linguistic difficulties. Be sure to get acquainted with your bike first and check current road conditions and routes.
Most motorbikes in Vietnam are small capacity (under 250cc). For years the sturdy Minsk was the bike of choice for travellers. Today numbers have dwindled, as mopeds and Chinese off-road bikes have proliferated. Honda road bikes ( such as the Honda GL160) and trail bikes are other good choices. These bikes have a good reputation for reliability and have decent shock absorbers.
Rental agencies will provide checklists, but essentials include a good helmet, local mobile phone for emergencies, rain gear, a spare parts and repair kit (including spark plugs, spanners, inner tube and tyre levers), air pump and decent maps. Knee and elbow pads and gloves are also a good idea.
Highways can be hell in Vietnam, so let the train take the strain on the long route north to Lao Cai. Load your bike into a goods carriage while you sleep in a berth. You’ll have to (almost) drain it of petrol.
If you’re planning on riding from Dien Bien Phu via Muong Lay and Lai Chau on Hwy 12 to Sapa, check with bike-rental places before you leave Hanoi. At the time of writing, the 40km after Muong Lay to Lai Chau was very rough with many roadworks, so the rental places will be able to provide updated information and advise about any recommended alternative routes. Hwy 12 was scheduled to be completed by August 2014, so it should be ready by the time you read this.
Take it slowly, particularly in the rain: smooth paved roads can turn into muddy track in no time. Do not ride during or immediately after heavy rainstorms as this is when landslides might occur; many mountain roads are quite new and the cliff embankments can be unstable. Expect to average about 35km/h. Only use safe hotel parking. Fill up from petrol stations where the petrol is less likely to have been watered down.
If running short on time or energy, remember that many bus companies will let you put your bike on the roof of a bus, but get permission first from your bike-rental company.
Recommended specialists in Hanoi include Cuong’s Motorbike Adventure and Offroad Vietnam.