Curving to form the international border with Laos, Son La Province sits in the Northwest Region of Vietnam. A highly valued tourist destination, the province has often been called the “Gateway to Vietnam’s Northwest”. Gentle in nature, the province is steeped in an illustrious history, rich culture, and majestic landscapes.
Tourism in Son La is limited with most of the attractions related to the 12 ethnic groups in the area. Even though large tourist crowds aren’t common, a steady stream of travelers still visits Son La Province every year.
How to Get to Son La
Being a part of the Northwest Region of Vietnam means that Son La Province is dominated by a mountainous landscape. In between peaks, the landscape is broken up by rivers, waterfalls, and green valleys. Apart from Son La City, the provincial capital, most of the province is remote and underdeveloped.
River and rice paddies beneath the mountains in the Son La Province. Photo: Adam Cohn.
Some of the most beautiful and educational communities that tourists can visit in Son La are the ethnic villages that sit high in the mountains. Set apart from the urban chaos, the province’s only city, Son La, is about 6.5 hours northwest of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. The remoteness of Son La makes it challenging for travelers to venture to as there aren’t many transportation services.
The only airport in the province, Na San, is currently inoperable, which leaves the Dien Bien Phu Airport as the only option for travelers who want to fly to Son La. However, flying to the Dien Bien Phu Airport still leaves a 4-hour journey by car to reach Son La. Longer but more direct, the best way to get to the Son La Province is by road using private or public transportation.
Buses leave Hanoi daily for Son La and they are the most affordable option. For travelers who want the comfort of going by private car, travel times will be reduced, but the overall cost of transportation will be higher. Currently, there are no railway options to get from Hanoi to Son La.
With limited information available about the history of the province, the best way for travelers to learn more about Son La is to travel there and interact with the locals. What’s known about the history of this northwestern province is that it was first mapped during the rule of King Le Thanh Tong (Lê Thánh Tông) in the 15th century.
Rural road in Son La Province. Photo: Adam Cohn
At the time, Son La was part of Hung Hoa (Hung Hóa) Province. Separating and renamed Son La in 1964, the area was ruled by King Le Thanh Tong and then chiefdom, Sip Song Chau Tai. During the 17th century, a fort, which is now Son La City, was home to the Black Tai. Called the Tai Dam, the people have become an ethnic group in Son La Province.
Most of the development during these centuries helped establish Son La as the province it’s become today. During modern conflicts, Son La Province has always been a stronghold for North Vietnam Forces. When French colonists were overtaking land in the north, the Viet Minh Government heavily resisted foreign invasion.
Then, decades later during the Vietnam War, Son La joined with 6 additional northwestern provinces to become the headquarters for the Vietnam Communist Party. Though the days of war are over, the people of Son La are fiercely loyal and proud of their country.
- Southeast Asia’s largest hydroelectric power station, the Son La Dam, is located in Son La Province.
- Son La Province covers an area of about 14,123 sq km (5,435 sq mi).
- There are an estimated 1,248,415 people living in Son La Province.
Son La City, capital of the Son La Province. Photo:
Sitting high in the mountains and tucked into a small valley, Son La City is the capital of Son La Province. The largest urban area and only city in the province, Son La is usually the first place that travelers head to before exploring other destinations. Filled with red-roofed buildings and surrounded by agricultural fields, Son La City is an underrated haven for travelers in the Northwest Region.
As a stopover destination, attractions in Son La City are quite limited, meaning travelers will have to leave the city to explore the area’s amazing natural landscape. For tourists who want to get to know Son La City better, highlights include the local markets, pagodas, and museums. The quiet city streets are easily navigated on foot and if needed, taxis are widely available.
On the fringes of the city, a few of the mountain peaks can be climbed for incredible views of the valley. Still developing, there aren’t many hotels in Son La City and travelers will find that most options are rather small as resorts have yet to be built in the area. Although there aren’t too many hotels, the places that do exist eagerly welcome travelers with open arms.
Son La Dam. Photo: [Tycho]
Providing excellent service and comfort to guests, the best places to stay in Son La City are the Galaxy Grand Hotel and Windsor Hotel Son La. Most of the hotels in Son La are too small to have their own restaurant, but throughout the city, there are plenty of places where travelers can get breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Serving traditional Vietnamese food rather than international cuisine, restaurants in Son La have friendly staff and great food. The best places to grab a bite in Son La are the Son La Restaurant, Nha Hang Xuan Nhi, and Nha Hang Hai Tinh.
Famous Places in the Son La Province
Tourism in Son La Province is steady-going, but unlike some of the country’s larger provinces, destinations in this part of the Northwest Region are quiet, remote, and rustic. Villages and communes are popular tourist destinations and the ones that have become the most famous in Son La are the Thong Cuong Village, Bach Phach Village, and Ngoc Chien Commune.
Vegetables for sale in the Son La Province. Photo: ILRI
Thong Cuong Village
Inhabited by ethnic Mong people, the Thong Cuong Village is distinguished by its winding river roads and endless valleys of flowers. Meandering from the well-known paths, tourists can head into the valleys to view the beauty of the white flowers when they are in bloom. A few of the local roadways traverse into the mountains so that visitors can get a better view of the landscape below.
Thong Cuong is a small village where most visitors will spend only a day. Those who want to spend the night will have to arrange for a homestay with one of the local families.
Ba Phach Village
Set high in the mountains and frequently covered in a heavy mist, Ba Phach Village is well-known for being the home of two ethnic groups. Divided by rugged terrain, the Mong people live on an upper ridge while the Thai people live below. The unique setup of the village interests tourists because it allows them to learn and interact with two different cultures.
Homestays in the Ba Phach Village can be arranged or visitors can choose to just spend the day in the area.
Ngoc Chien Commune
At an altitude of 5905 ft, Ngoc Chien Commune is a special mountain community where the temperatures remain cool year-round. Home to the Thai, Mong, and La Ha ethinic groups, the commune is also famous for its hot spring pools. With some pools open to the public, visitors can relax in the spring and enjoy a taste of the local favorite, Tan sticky rice.
Visit the Son La Former Prison and Museum in the Son La Province, Vietnam. Photo by: Glenn Forbes.
Within the wild landscape of Son La Province, there are quite a few tourist attractions in addition to the famous villages and communes. Showcasing the best of the terrain, history, and culture, the province’s main attractions are the Da River Tourist Site, Na Ka Valley, Son Moc Huong Cave, Ngu Dong Cave, and the Son La Former Prison and Museum.
Scattered throughout Son La, tourists can travel solo or with a tour guide to reach these amazing places.
Song Da River Tourist Site
A main waterway in Son La Province, the Song Da, sometimes called the Black River, has become an important natural resource for the people living in the Northwest Region. In Son La, the Da River Tourist Site has multiple attractions where visitors can experience the local lifestyle, history, archeology, and everyday productions.
Attractions at the Song Da River Tourist Site are the Bo Market, Van Yen Port, and the Son La Dam.
Na Ka Valley
Situated on the Moc Chau Plateau, the Na Ka Valley is one of the most popular tourist sites in Son La Province. Home to many ethnic villages and communes, the valley is also acclaimed for its picture-perfect scenery. Jagged peaks, green hills, and enormous waterfalls all grace the area’s scenery.
Green mountains in the Son La Province. Photo: Adam Cohn
Covered in plum flowers during the spring, the Na Ka Valley is one destination in the province that can’t be missed.
Son Moc Huong Cave
Also called Bat Cave, Son Moc Huong is a large subterranean system that sits just outside of Moc Chau Town. A habitat for thousands of bats, visitors are permitted to enter various caverns. Linking sections together, a series of 240 stone steps takes tourists through the cave past mineral formations. More developed, visitors can tour the caves with or without a guide.
Ngu Dong Cave
Less developed and lacking tourist infrastructure, Ngu Dong Cave is ideal for escaping crowds. The entrance to the cave is just outside of On Village, and due to its remote location, hiring a local guide is necessary. Guides will lead visitors on the path to the entrance of Ngu Dong and take them inside some of the larger caverns. Inside, the cave sparkles with a series of limestone and glitter stalactites.
Son La Former Prison and Museum
Built in 1908 by the French and used to hold political prisoners, Son La Prison has a fearsome reputation. Earning the nickname, “Hell on Earth”, horrible conditions in the prison led to many deaths and illnesses. Damaged, but having survived two wars, the prison was converted into a museum.
Preserved cells in the Son La Former Prison. Photo: Glenn Forbes
Preserving as much of the architecture as possible, exhibits that have been added to the museum include displays of ancient and modern relics from the war or ethnic locals.
Celebrating both local and international ethnic groups, Son La Province hosts a few unique festivals throughout the year. Not an annual event, the Muong A Ma Festival is held once every 3 or 5 years. Hosted by the Xinh Mun ethnic people who live near the border with Laos, the festival is a time when the ethnic communities can come together to worship the gods.
Typical events during the Muong A Ma Festival are traditional dances, martial arts competitions, boat racing, and musical ceremonies. Hoping to attract even more tourists, one of the newer festivals organized by Son La Province is the Laos Festival, which is held at the beginning of July.
Symbolizing the strong relationship between Vietnam and Laos, the festival is a time when ethnic communities from both countries come together to celebrate their cultures and traditions. The biggest events take place in Son La City, but many villages and communes hold their own celebrations too.
A child on a bike in Son La Province. Photo: Adam Cohn
For most of the year, the climate in Son La Province is rather mild. However, being so far north and with high mountains, winter temperatures drop significantly with the average hovering around 54° F (12° C). Tourism in Son La still thrives in winter, mostly for tourists who are eager to escape the hot weather and rain.
The wet season occurs from June thru August, during which time Son La Province is very hot and rainy. This is the least popular time for tourists due to weather conditions. Instead, visitors tend to travel to Son La just before or after the rains. The dry season is the best time to visit the province because the temperatures are perfectly mild.
Not too hot or cold and without the deluge of rain, visitors can enjoy the scenery and activities without being interrupted by the weather. However, good weather brings crowds, and with limited accommodation in some destinations, tourists will be best prepared by booking their accommodations prior to their arrival.
A river running through the mountains of Son La Province. Photo: Dominique Linel
Son La’s mountainous and plateau-dominated landscape will take your breath away. Still undiscovered and unaffected by mass tourism, the province is a dreamlike destination where visitors can escape into the wild landscapes, rich culture, and ethnic lifestyle of Northwestern Vietnam.
A half day’s journey from Hanoi, Son La Province is an ideal destination for a trip away from the big city.
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