Key Places - Vietnam to Laos
Built on the right bank of the Red River, the beautiful and tranquil city of Hanoi is Vietnam's capital and the second largest city in the country with a population of 6.5 million. Ha meaning 'river' and Noi meaning 'within '- Ha Noi literally is ' within the river'. This name was given to the city by the Nguyen dynasty in 1832. From 1010 until 1802, it was the Vietnamese political centre, but during the Nguyen dynasty, the city of Hue took its place. Hanoi became the capital of French Indochina from 1902 to 1954 and bears the markings of this era in its architecture, leafy boulevards and an air of colonial elegance.
The ambiance of the city combined with its fine coffee and perfect baguettes have led some to call it the 'Paris of the East' but city life runs at a fast pace with all the markings of modern Asia. Its ancient name Thanh Long (City of the Soaring Dragon) truly sums up the spirit of contemporary Hanoi.
The Old Quarter has been the trading centre for the past 1000 years and is a maze of narrow cobblestone streets each named after a trade or guild. Here you will find market stall traders hard at work plying their wares, and an array of restaurants and street cafes where old men sip their coffee or bia hoi (beer) and watch the world go by. The buzz of a passing motorbike is never far away and this is the tourist hub of the city. As you wander the streets you will find that people stop and chat, friendliness to strangers is the cultural norm here.
This is a stunningly beautiful little city, its architecture a combination of ancient traditional Lao monasteries dating back over 500 hundred years and French Colonial style from the 19th and 20th centuries. Nestled by mountains at the confluence of the Nam Khan and the mighty Mekong the setting could not be more perfect. With over 32 ancient temples within easy walking distance, Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, in order to preserve the temples and ensure that new development is limited and in keeping with this magical city.
Wat Xieng Thong is unmissable, and undoubtedly one of Luang Prabang's finest temples. It was constructed in 1559 by King Say Setthathirath, and is a beautiful monastery displaying typical Lao art style. The old Royal Palace, now a National Museum houses many religious and royal treasures, not to mention the Kings collection of old American 50's and 60's automobiles.
With its many delicious restaurants, stunning views, great markets and shops and chilled out atmosphere Luang Prabang is definitely Lao's hidden treasure.
The mighty Mekong is one of the longest rivers in the world and one of the least spoilt. It is the heart and soul of South East Asia with more that 50 million people depending on it and its tributaries for food, water, transport and other important aspects of daily life. Its floodplains are bursting with food crops during the dry season and the river supports one of the world's most diverse fisheries.
Travelling down the Mekong through Laos/Thailand its importance in obvious as you observe its significance to the people who live on its edge. It is their only means of transport as around them lies mountains and thick jungle. It is a rich supply of fish and crops are planted up its banks. Everyone washes in it, plays in it, swims in it and generally their lives revolve around it. A trip along the Mekong with its rapids is relaxing, exhilarating, and fascinating. It provides an opportunity to glimpse into another way of life.
Sapa, in a quiet mountain location, is the frontier town of the Sa Pa district in Northwest Vietnam, 400 km north-west of Hanoi. Located at 1550 m above sea level, and frequently covered by cloud the town is cool all year round. The area is known as "the Tonkinese Alps".
You will see many hill tribe people, their villages, rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Fan Si Pan, the highest peak in Vietnam. Many ethnic minority groups such as H'mong, Dao and Tay live here, each with unique cultures, lifestyles and languages; all wearing their traditional attires, working on the evergreen terraces. About 1 km from Sapa town, at the bottom of the Muong Hoa Valley is the stunning Cat Cat Waterfall. Cat Cat Village is home to the Black H'Mong who account for over 50% of the Sapa population.
Near to the border with China, Sapa was under French colonial administration for the first part of the 20th Century, and served as a hill station retreat from the stifling summer heat of Hanoi. Many of the town's colonial buildings were destroyed during conflicts at the end of the Second World War, by Viet Minh supporters in the late 1940s, or by French air raids in the early 1950s. The majority of the local communities fled, and the town entered a lull until migration from the lowlands began again with economic incentives in the 1960's. Since the 1990's Sapa has been a tourist destination.
Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu is located in the Muong Thanh valley in North West of Vietnam near to the Laos border and is the capital of Biên Province. The journey here is a dramatic one along narrow mountain roads leading down to rivers at the heart of the valley. Dien Bien Phu is best known for the battle that occurred here in 1954 marking a turning point and end in colonial rule. The French-held garrison fell after a four month siege led by Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh. After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the French pulled out of the region. The city was formally called Thaeng. There are a number of sites of interest relating to the battle including a museum containing military and other artefacts including a bicycle that was used to carry supplies through the jungles and reputedly could carry up to 330kg of ordinance.
"I had a tremendous time. Tough cycling, great views, wild moped rides in Hanoi, great sense of achievement, great company, lots of laughs, beer, chopsticks. My brain is in overdrive..."