In a nutshell
Son La is surrounded by truly natural beauty with its topography including intimidating mountains, green hills, elegant rivers and lush primitive forests.
Why go to Son La
During the French war, this place was once the site of a French garrison but today only offers peace and tranquillity. Son La is a good stop off point for a day or two and is half way between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu, so people usually stop here to see what the area has in store. This mid-sized place has an estuary that splits it up into two and is a great place to relax and enjoy the views as well as maybe having a picnic. There are also more than 30 ethnic minority groups that are present in the surrounding areas so taking a trek is definitely worthwhile. This area is also famous for its imposing Moc Chau Plateau, where you will see local people working on tea and fruit plantations as well as farms. Also, there are natural wonders like “Hang Doi” (Bat Cave) and a wonderful waterfall to checkout. One of the biggest attractions is found right in the centre and is one for the historians, which is the former prison and museum built and used by the French during the Viet Minh liberation movement. There are a good number of places to stay at and are generally quite cheap but surprisingly to our amazement there wasn’t a great range of restaurants.
When to go to Son La
The best time to visit Son La is either side of the hotter months which are May-September, because it can get very hot during those times. We went in March and it was hot enough for us with temperatures not dropping much during the nights. As we had just got there after the wet season the forests were a deep shade of parrot-like green and made for spectacular photos. We were more than comfortable in our light clothes, though do beware of the mosquitoes and it would be best to bring some insect replant. Around February time, the white flowers of White Bauhinia and Prunus Persica blossom covering the landscape, which make for wonderful pictures.
Where to stay in Son La
We were hugely impressed with the amount of accommodation on offer in the town with the majority of it found around the lake, the centre and close to the park. There are budget options like Bien Phong Guesthouse and Hoang Son Hotel (under USD10) in the centre of the town and have fridges, TVs, bright and spacious rooms as well as internet. Try the Sunrise Hotel (USD20) for midrange as it has good views of the countryside and has good sized rooms that contain decent furnishings. For the highest quality hotels, we advise Hanoi Hotel (USD30-50) as it has very comfy and spacious rooms, a restaurant, bar, Jacuzzi, sauna and internet. Another option would be the Cong Doan Son La (USD20-50), which has tall ceilings, balconies, big satellite TVs, baths and much more.
Where and what to eat in Son La
There isn’t a great deal of places to pick from in terms of restaurants, though one of the best places for outdoor meals and cheap prices would be up by the park. We tried one of the street vendors there and had some tasty and cheap local delights including beef noodle soups and fish and rice. For the more adventurous there was a stand selling fried and boiled snails with dipping sauce. Otherwise, head to the centre where you will find the majority of the restaurants, which mainly only offer local Vietnamese food for relatively cheap prices. One place located in the centre and one we advise is Long Phuong as it serves mang dang, which is sour bamboo shoots soup with sticky rice. If you are looking for western food, try the higher quality hotels like Hanoi Hotel but expect to pay more than you would elsewhere.
How to get around Son La
Son La town is relatively small, so everything is quite easy to get to on foot but if you prefer to cycle then you can as there are a few places that rent bicycles out including hotels for around VND20,000 a day. There are also motorbike taxis that can take you around the surrounding areas and if you don’t have your own bike then you can rent one there for around VND50,000. There is also a public bus that takes you to nearby villages and towns.
How to get to and from Son La
The bus station is around 5km from town along the road into Son La. If there isn’t a bus you can get there by motorbike taxi but try not to pay anymore than VND30,000.
Buses leave pretty much hourly from Hanoi from 7am-9pm and cost roughly VND240,000 and take around 9 hours. Alternatively, you can get the bus from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu as buses can also drop you off at Son La.
Other destinations that Son La serves include Dien Bien Phu (5 hours), Lao Cai (7 hrs), Yen Chau (2 hrs) and Moc Chau (3 hrs). Depending where you are based before departing for Son La, a motorbike could be an option and even from Hanoi your trip can be broken up into shorter distances.
Is Son La a safe place to visit?
There was nothing to suggest anything bad in terms of safety and about the only thing we noted was that you should negotiate a price before jumping on a motorbike taxi as this could save you some money.