The history of the northwest differs to lowland Vietnam. The Vietnamese traditionally avoided mountains, believing the terrain was not suitable for large-scale rice production. For many centuries the area remained inhabited by scatterings of minority people, joined in the 19th century by migrants from Yun-nan, China and Tibet. This was the ‘badlands’, a buffer zone of bandits between China and Vietnam. During Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, the North Vietnamese experimented with limited autonomy in ‘special zones’, but these were abolished after reunification.
Life for the minorities has alway been difficult. Their most profitable crop was opium, but the authorities have clamped down and very little is now produced. Educational opportunities were limited, but new schools in remote areas now provide most children with education. Economic prospects remain limited, so many highlanders move to cities in search of work.
Getting There & Away
The main airport is at Dien Bien Phu, but most travellers take the train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, the gateway to Sapa. On a public bus, the mountain roads can be unforgiving. Consider renting a private 4WD and driver, or riding a motorbike.
To undertake the northwest loop, most travellers head for Mai Chau, then Son La and Dien Bien Phu. Continue north to Lai Chau, Sapa and back to Hanoi. Allow a week for this journey, and more time if using local buses.
Travellers can cross from Laos into Vietnam at the Tay Trang-Sop Hun border crossing, 34km from Dien Bien Phu.