Son La has prospered as a logical transit point between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu. It’s not a must-see destination, but the surrounding scenery is impressive, and there are a few interesting diversions.
The region is one of Vietnam’s most ethnically diverse and home to more than 30 different minorities including Black Thai, Meo, Muong and White Thai. Vietnamese influence was minimal until the 20th century, and from 1959 to 1980 the region was part of the Tay Bac Autonomous Region.
Sights & Activities
Old French Prison& Museum
(admission 10,000d; 7.30-11am & 1.30-5pm) Son La’s Old French Prison & Museum was a French penal colony where anticolonial revolutionaries were incarcerated. It was destroyed by the ‘offloading’ of unused ammunition by US warplanes after bombing raids, but is now partially restored. Rebuilt turrets stand guard over crumbling cells and a famous lone surviving peach tree, planted by To Hieu, a 1940s inmate.
Nearby the People’s Committee office has a small museum, with local hill-tribe displays and good views of the prison.
For an overview of Son La and the surrounding area, follow the stone steps to the left of the Trade Union Hotel. Look forward to a 20-minute walk to reach the lookout.
Thuan Chau is about 35km northwest of Son La. Take a local bus or xe om here early in the morning, when its daily market is full of colourful hill-tribe women.
You’ll also find woven shoulder bags, scarves, silver buttons and necklaces, and other hill-tribe crafts at Son La’s market.
Sleeping & Eating
Sao Xanh Hotel
(022-378 9999; www.saoxanh.vn; 1 D Quyen Thang; r 280,000-380,000d) Excellent value with spotless rooms and a friendly vibe at reception. The hotel is just a short walk to good cafes and restaurants.
(022-385 2263; 15 D 26/8; r 300,000d) Here’s the best budget option for long-term Southeast Asian travellers, with simple but clean rooms in a small family-owned guesthouse.
(022-375 3299; www.khachsanhanoi299.com; 228 D Truong Chinh; r US$35-47) This gleaming main-drag edifice has spacious and modern rooms trimmed with colourful art, wooden furniture and surprisingly comfortable beds. Mod cons include a bar, restaurant and jacuzzi, and the massage chairs are definitely worth considering after a long bus journey. Bring along your negotiation A-game to get a good walk-in rate.
Long Phuong Restaurant
(022-385 2339; P Thinh Doi; mains 40,000-70,000d; 11am-10pm) Located at one of the busier junctions in town, this restaurant features local minority dishes. Try sour mang dang (bamboo shoots) soup with sticky rice dipped in sesame-seed salt.
Agribank (8 D Chu Van Thinh) Has an ATM and changes dollars. The main post office is west of here.
Getting There & Away
Son La is 340km from Hanoi and 140km from Dien Bien Phu. The bus station is 5km southwest of town.
Buses from Son La:
|DESTINATION||COST (D)||DURATION & FREQUENCY|
|Dien Bien Phu||97,000||4hr; frequent 5.30am-1.30pm|
|Hanoi||150,000||8.5hr; frequent 5am-1pm|
|Ninh Binh||From 135,000||9hr; 5.30am|