For many travelers, Vietnam is the cities of Ho Chi Minh & Hanoi, and the tours that take you around the area. While some of these are pretty and tourist-friendly, most of these are fabricated versions of Vietnam’s real beauty and people. We managed to ditch most of these must-tick boxes in our Vietnam itinerary to explore the less-treaded North Western highlands of the country.
No Lonely Planet overview can prepare you for the gorgeous, mist-covered mountains that greet you as you enter the village of Ben Lac, nor for the hospitality of its White Thai folks. There are organized tours from Hanoi that take you there, but if you want to experience the untouched, go on your own. We took a local bus from Hanoi to Mai Chau via Hoa Binh, with locals who spoke no English beyond “Where are you from?” but who were friendly enough to call their friends in Ben Lac and arrange a village homestay for us!
We stayed with a couple in a traditional stilt house, and were flattered by their openness, despite the language barrier, and by the lady’s (vegetarian, as requested by me) cooking. We spent a surreal morning biking on the slopes of the village, passing stilt houses and open rivers & streams, into the heart of the mountains which never for a second failed to enchant us. Time didn’t permit us to explore other surrounding villages or trek up one of the mountains, but it sure gave us a reason to visit again.
From Mai Chau to Dien Bein Phu, via Moc Chau and Son La
If you haven’t been to Vietnam, the names will sound very strange; they might sound strange even if you’ve been to Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. Let’s say these are some of the most offbeat routes in North West Vietnam, and that is a huge blessing. If Mai Chau was beautiful, I am at a loss of words to describe what we saw next. The journey from Mai Chau to Dien Bien Phu is like entering a post card and never getting out. The Tonkinese Alps (rightfully called) are as stunning as they are imposing, and we traveled for miles without taking our eyes off them. The thrill was heightened by our insistence to travel in local buses with various tribes of people who board and alight at obscure stops, many of them dressed in colorful ethnic costumes and carrying their babies in kangaroo-like sacks.
Dien Bien Phu is a sleepy town, significant in French history in relation to the Vietnam war, and made just an overnight stopover for us.
From Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau, via Muong Lay
Can you close your eyes and picture the backdrop in Pirates of the Caribbean? In this journey, you can see that backdrop with your eyes wide open, stunned in fact, because it’s hard to imagine that such beauty exists in such a remote part of Vietnam. If you ask me, you haven’t seen Vietnam if you haven’t done this route. Referred to by locals as the “Halong on Land”, the scenery is magical, with slopes of the lush Tonkinese Alps enclosing a river that runs for miles (possibly the Mekong River).
Muong Lay, the old Lai Chau, was a thriving community until the river flooded and submerged the town a few years ago. A new river-side mountain-side township is now under construction and promises to be an unparalleled attraction if discovered by enough travelers. Between Muong Lay and Lai Chau, I saw the most beautiful mountain landscape I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen my fair share of hills and valleys in Asia. Lai Chau is just another sleepy town, just barely alive to break the journey for the night, onward to the touristy valley of Sapa.
The beauty is so virgin that we couldn’t get ourselves to capture it in photographs, for fear of contaminating and misconstruing its purity. Apologies for not sharing pictures on this part; no pictures could do justice.