orth West Vietnam by 4x4


April 29-May 11, 2001

Mountains, Roads, and Rice Fields Galore
A Tour of Northwest Vietnam

Want to see a fairy tale world of lush green mountains, deep valley bottoms with lime green rice paddies, unpaved roads with more buffalo traffic than cars or motorbikes, tiny villages of thatched-roof stilt houses, locals wearing colorful costumes, and vistas that simply take your breath away? Come to northwest Vietnam. If you come, bring with you a sense of adventure, a liking for bouncy jeep rides, and a willingness to put up with below-par sanitation now and again, and you will have memories for a lifetime.

4x4 Trip
4x4 Trip

Gerry had wanted to visit the mountains in the far northwest of Vietnam from our very first trip to Vietnam in February 2000. He wanted badly to get away from the modernizing cities to see if the tourist literature was true and that rural areas really did still have local ethnic groups living much as their forefathers had centuries ago. We didn't manage it on our first trip, nor did we ever manage it in China or even in our brief visit to northern Thailand last year. But now we were back in Vietnam for a longer term stay, so surely now was the time.

We had hoped when we planned our trip through southern China in January, 2001 to get as far as Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, and so to cross the border from China into Vietnam at Lao Cai, gateway to the northwest mountain resort of Sapa. Unfortunately, however, time ran out before we made it to Kunming, so our entry into Vietnam was via the northeastern border point north of Lang Son and from there we went directly south to Hanoi.

Once in Hanoi, a prior commitment to meet Gerry's aunt and Jan's well-known dislike of the cold meant that from mid-February to mid April, we concentrated our energies and our attention on Saigon, the Mekong Delta, and the Central Highlands, before making our way once again to Hanoi towards the end of April. Here we tried to find a tour operator who would rent us a jeep for one of the advertised 5- or 6- day adventure tours of the northwest. However, as we feared, no-one would meet us halfway when it came to talking price. The jeep tours are all priced at more than $200, assuming four people minimum. We were only two and doubted very much that we could find two other people willing and able to join us on such an endeavor at short notice. So, having struck out on that plan, we bought a ticket on a day train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, the closest railhead to Sapa, which at 1500 meters altitude is the main mountain resort of the northwest and a center for trekking.

During the train journey, in between spells of gazing at the countryside and bouts of negotiating with food vendors, we each read the relevant section of our tour guide, and both concluded that although Sapa, to the west, was definitely the most important place to visit, from Lao Cai it might make sense to go east first to another high mountain village called Bac Ha. The idea was that once in Sapa we wanted to be able, if the opportunity presented itself, to take a jeep tour further west to Dien Bien Phu and beyond and didn't want to have to backtrack. So Bac Ha was our first stop.

4x4 Trip
4x4 Trip

Bac Ha is a Sapa in the making. It's a really small town, barely more than a village, with just a handful of hotels and guest houses and only one or two restaurants for tourists. Situated at 900 meters, it is not quite as high as Sapa, but that can mean that when Sapa is lost in the clouds, the weather at Bac Ha is clear. Like Sapa, it is surrounded by mountains and, more important for the western tourist, by ethnic villages. Our only excursion from Bac Ha was to take a delightful afternoon walk for three hours out of Bac Ha and into the surrounding hills and rice paddies where as hoped we found our first ethnic villages and in one, as we hardly dared hope, were invited into one of the villagers' homes. This was what Gerry had been itching for. To see the life of these villagers up close. To know from personal experience how they really lived rather than from sanitized tourist reconstructions or museum set pieces. We were treated to warm smiles and a sample of the host's homemade corn liquor. Pretty powerful stuff. We shared the fruit we had bought that morning in Bac Ha and a frank interest in all around us.

It was a good beginning and we arrived back at our hotel in Bac Ha full of optimism. There we talked to the hotel keeper (we'll call him Mr. Vo although we don't know his name) about a 3-day tour that he operated to take tourists by jeep to various village markets in the Bac Ha region, which involved spending one or more nights in village homes. As the discussion proceeded, Gerry switched focus and started asking about combining part of the village tour with our projected trip to Sapa and with the 6-day adventure tour we had seen advertised in Hanoi. To our surprise, he seemed willing to come close to our price. In the end we settled on ten days of jeep and driver hire (including gas and any repairs) for $250 on a pre-specified itinerary. A little haggling over the details, a short tete-a-tete between me and Gerry, and the deal was done. Vo tried half-heartedly to sell us on a guide, but we knew that a guide would only want to carry out his plans rather than ours. As long as the driver spoke a minimum of English, we would get by.

Our final itinerary was as follows: from Bac Ha visit Coc Ly market (stay night in village home), visit Cau Son market and stay in Muong Khuong, stay in Sapa (2 nights), Lai Chau, Dien Bien Phu, Son La, Mai Chau (stay night in village home), and spend the last night in Hanoi. The tenth day was for the driver to take the jeep back to Bac Ha. In the end we modified the original schedule by spending two nights in Son La and two nights in Mai Chau, sending the driver back to Bac Ha from there and getting ourselves back to Hanoi by local bus.

4x4 Trip
4x4 Trip

Our driver, Do Quang Phu, whom we called Phu, was a native of Sapa. He was 27 years old, thin and wiry, very even-tempered and a very accomplished mechanic, at least as far as our jeep was concerned. Phu spoke only a few words of English, but we got along just fine with gestures and writing down things like times and distances. The jeep, as we learned later, was owned (or rented) by the hotel. Like most of the jeeps in Vietnam, it is of Russian design, and the one we drove in was a little the worse for wear. In particular it needed a daily tune-up, frequent spark plug changes and the odd distributor clean-out. Designed for the colder climate of Russia, the door windows did not open, but on the first really hot day Phu remedied that problem by simply unbolting and removing the entire top half of the door, window and all.

Every day of our trip was fascinating, but since you don't have ten days to read this account, nor do we have ten days to write it, we will content ourselves with describing the main highlights — our two village stays in Coc Ly and Mai Chau, an interesting encounter in Muong Khuong, a town near the Chinese border, and the mountain resort of Sapa.

Updated July 20, 2003