Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu (Điện Biên Phủ) is a small town in northwestern Vietnam.
Dien Bien Phu was the site of a major French defeat (1954) in the First Indochina War, and was of tremendous historical significance. The French defeat here led to their complete withdrawl from their colonies in Indochina, and the division of Vietnam into North and South. The battle of Dien Bien Phu is described by historians as: the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle. As such, it had a massive effect on world politics, inspiring other independance movements and spuring a period of decolonization, particularly in French ruled Africa (where many of the troops who fought for the French had been recruited from).
Nowadays, Dien Bien Phu is a relatively quiet town, with a population of approximately 100,000. It acts as a regional hub for the province's trade and transportation.
The town is also notable for its high proportion of ethnic minorities; only one third of residents are ethnically Vietnamese. It is a common sight to see minority women wearing traditional dress, particularly in the area around the bus station.
Vietnam Airlines flies from Hanoi (60 mins).
Buses depart from different stations. Decent sleeper buses leave from Hanoi's Mỹ Đình station around 5.30 pm: the journey takes about 12 hours and costs 375,000 dong (Sept 2013). Hai Van Express has night sleeper bus service from My Dinh in Hanoi for 300,000 leaving at 7:30 pm and arriving at 6 am (Dec 2015). Some travel agents will not book this for you and you may have to book directly at the My Dinh. bus station. My Dinh is an 8-10 km taxi from the old quarter which in a honest cab is 140k-170k. (Dec 2015)
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Dien Bien city center is pretty small and you can easily walk around. There are men standing around to provide a moto ride if you need.
Although of great historical interest to military buffs, there are few if any sights as such. It is a useful stop and transport connection though on the way to other destinations in the area.
There has been recent refurbishment of aspects of the French defences as more tourists are showing interest:
The Him Lam Plaza on Tran Dang Ninh where it meets the river contains a supermarket, a market area with restaurants in the back, and a bar near the river. Plenty of stalls selling a variety of excellent fresh fruit at very cheap prices if you're willing to shop around a little. As a guideline, a kilo of mandarins should cost around 30,000 VND.
There are various cheap to moderately priced restaurants on Nguyen Chi Thanh (labeled Muong Thanh on giant sign where the street ends on both sides).
Eateries next to the bus station may have higher prices (e.g. bowl of pho for 50.000vnd). Make sure you ask the price before eating something. Hung Ha Pho (directly across from bus station) serves a nice bowl of Pho for 30,000vnd. There is a nice cafe with more reasonable prices out of sight of the bus station. Walk out of the bus station and cross the road and turn right then at the T-Junction go left and it's the first cafe you see. Prices should be better there and the views are quite nice of the nearby mountains.
Another option is 'Kinh Khanh' approximately 50m down Lo Van Hac (first road on the left from the bus station). Look for the yellow sign on the left. Serves typical Vietnamese fare of rice, meat and a side of vegetables for 25,000pp. Happy to accomodate vegetarians. But if you stay at Khanh Giang Guest House near here , Ms Le will help you order food because she can speak English.
There are several karaoke places dotted along the main roads. After that your best bet is trying to sit down at a local restaurant and drink with the locals.
Not much (if any) in the way of western bars.
Cheap, flophouse like accommodation can be found across from the bus station at Nguyen Huu Tho/QL12 and Tran Dang Ninh for 150,000 - 200,000 dong. Most of these places have a mix of shared and private bathrooms, cheap restaurants underneath and enough holes for air and bugs to flow through.
A half step up are the guesthouses and hotels on Tran Dang Ninh and the river intersection a few blocks away from the bus station for 200,000 - 250,000 dong. Air conditioning is more common but wifi is still a mixed bag.
There are a variety of hotels and guesthouses on Duong 7-5/AH13/QL 279 near the interaction with A1 hill at Hoang Van Thai and a bit north of that.
Nha Nghi Khanh Giang:There is a nice guest house around the corner from the bus station called Khanh Giang ran by a nice lady named Lé. Only 2 minutes come there. Have nice hot showers and fast internet. She speaks English very well and the rooms are reasonably priced (180,000 dong for a single room). If you're just in town for the day, she will let you take a shower and store your stuff for the day for 40,000 dong (a little less than 2 dollars).
Him Lan resort is 5km from the center. The place is a typical big vietnamese resort. Has got a swimming pool(closed in winter), restaurant, hot water in the room, lake and nice views. Internet connection isn't stable. Prices are from 650.000 to 850.000.
The bus from Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua in Laos leaves daily at 05:30 and costs 115,000vnd (Dec 2014), or you can go directly to Udomxai for 235,000 dong (On December 28, 2013 it was possible to board a 7:00am bus to Mung Khua from DBP). Be sure to get there even earlier and claim a seat although you will likely be sharing your seat with a local, or sitting on a pile of goods piled in the aisle. As a rule, the "bus is never full." Bring water and snacks. It takes about 2 hours to reach the Tay Trang Vietnam exit customs, which is fairly straightforward. From the Vietnamese border station it is another 6km to the Laos border checkpoint.
Visa-on-arrival is available and costs $30-42 depending on nationality plus 10,000 kip visa fee, 10,000 kip extra on weekends. You can pay in Dong (poor conversion rate), Kip, or US Dollars. One passport photo is required, but if you don't have one they'll take a picture for you for $5. Everyone pays 10,000 kip for stamp, 10,000 kip extra on weekends, plus a 5,000 kip 'H1N1' test (they take your temperature). They've also started charging an extra $2 for the 'tourist fund' as of Dec 2014, though the H1N1 test seems only run on weekends. So in total: have your visa fee plus an extra $4 and 5,000 kip plus $5 for the photo if required. If you're travelling on a weekend, you'll need your visa fee plus $6. Probably prudent to carry a little extra with you as well just in case.
The road is now paved and good quality all the way to Muang Khua and should only take around 2 hours, arriving a little before 11:00. It arrives at the main junction in the centre of town (there are 2 ATMs) and there is no longer any need to get a ferry. You can take a tuk-tuk to the bus station (5,000kip) and then connect to Odoumxai for 35,000kip, 2.5 hours. You should consider taking the boat ride down the fairly narrow and very scenic Nam Ou River towards Nong Khiaw where road travel is possible - departures depend on whether there are enough people interested in going - ask ahead at the boat ramp.
There are a number of bus companies that run between DBP and Hanoi. There is little variation in price 360,000-375,000, but substantial differences in the bus layouts. Some have WIFI, others do not. Best to shop around if possible. Trip takes around 11-12 hours, and drops you at the Southern or Western Bus station in Hanoi. Local busses into town from the station cost 7,000, but you'll likely need to research which route you need beforehand (For example, using google maps).
To Sapa/Lao Cai
From the bus station there is a 6:30 AM (sharp!) bus going to Lao Cai for 190,000 dong (Aug. 2015). There is a brief stop for lunch in Lai Chau. The route will pass through Sapa and you can ask the driver to drop you off there. From the drop off point near the lake, it is a short walk to the center and accommodation. If you are going to Sapa, paying the full Lai Cai fare may not be necessary, ask when purchasing (writer failed to do so). Time to Sapa took roughly 8 hours, much of the road is under construction and unpaved, but not terribly uncomfortable in the new-ish van.
Bus Schedule - Update November 2016
Since there is very little—and conflicting—information available online about the bus times from Dien Bien Phu to Laos and Sa Pa, here is a rundown of the ticket office's only copy of the schedule booklet (quickly photographed page for page at the bus station on November 4, 2016):
4.30am: 97.000 VND