In 1954, for the first time, a colonized country freed herself from a Mother Country, which inspired a chain of national liberation all over the world. All were triggered in a tiny city in the Northwest of Vietnam called Dien Bien Phu. This historical site is located in the middle of Muong Thanh valley, which is shaped like a saucepan, and its border is made up of forested hills.
It is only 30 km away from the Laos border and 453 km from the Northwest of Hanoi. Coming here, you will be amazed not only by the scenery, but also the variety of ethnic cultures in the region. This region is not only inhabited by Kinh (Vietnamese) people, but also ethnic minorities such as Tay, Si La, and Hmong people.
Based on folklore, it used to be the origin place and was a center of all Thai ethnics in South East Asia. Its previous name was Muong Thanh, or Muong Then in Thai, literally means Heaven’s Country. But nowadays, this place is best known for the event that happened there almost 70 years ago: “Dien Bien Phu battle”.
In that battle, Vietnamese army won against a much more powerful and better-armed French force. Until this day, many tourists, including French veterans, are still coming here to understand the tactics used by the Vietnamese army and what drove them to be such fearless soldiers. The once fierce battlefield, has now become a peaceful city, attracting history and adventure lovers from all around the world.
Dien Bien Phu weather and climate is mild with a lot of rain in the summer. In the winter, it’s dry and cold. Therefore the high season for travelling here is from January to April and from September to December, when the weather is neither hot nor cold, giving you a very pleasant feeling.
I - How to get to Dien Bien Phu today
You can get here by two ways: by air or by bus.
-By Air: There are flights from Hanoi to here operated by Vietnam Airlines at 10:00 and 13:30 on a daily basis. The flight will take you an hour to get to Dien Bien Phu airport, which is very near to the center of the town.
-By Bus: There are many buses connecting Dien Bien with Hanoi and other provinces in Vietnam. Most buses are sleeper buses which operate throughout the day.
Arriving in here, the best way to get around is to rent a motorbike. Your hotel’s receptionists would be very willing to help you rent one. To further regions, like Muong Lay, shuttle buses are a better choice. Please keep in mind that the renting price here may be higher than other places.
II - Exploring famous attractions in Dien Bien Phu
1 - Bunker of General of De Castries
De Castries was the commander of the French army in the Dien Bien Phu battle. He was captured on May 7th, 1954, marking the complete failure of the French military campaign. His bunker is 20m long and 8m wide, including rooms for boarding and working.
In the past, the bunker and a blockhouse on Eliane 2 Hill was connected by a trench built from logs and sand bags. Nowadays, this trench has been destroyed and can no longer be seen, but the bunker is still well-preserved and is a must-see place when you come here.
2 - Museum of Dien Bien Phu Victory
This is the perfect place to understand the context of the historic battle before you head to the battle relics. Certainly there are many propaganda pictures, but putting aside them, you can find most important documents and images related to the battle here.
Opened in 2014, the museum is designed in the shape of a topless cone, the surrounding is decorated like the camouflage netting on the helmet of a Vietnamese soldier. The museum has 1 basement and 1 floor, in which the basement is the place to receive visitors, study space, interaction and entertainment services. The ground floor is a fixed exhibition space dedicated to the exhibition of the victory, the panorama space and the operating area.
3 - A1 Hill
In the large defensive system of the French colonialists in Dien Bien Phu in 1954, A1 (Eliane 2 as the French called) is the most important point, the key to the door protecting the center of the stronghold. The Vietnamese couldn’t win over this hill even after 39 days and nights of fighting stubbornly, and only after they successfully dug a tunnel and placed nearly one ton of gunpowder at the top of the hill could they destroy the enemy forces occupied there and capture the point. This battle was crucial for the fate of the French army because only more than 12 hours later did De Castries and all of his staff have to surrender right in the fortified command post that they thought to be "uninvadable".
A1 Hill (Source: Aleka)
A1 relic (Elian 2 site) is located next to National Road No.279 (Road 7/5) in Muong Thanh ward, Dien Bien Phu city, Dien Bien province. This site is 32 m higher than the road surface with an area of 83,000m2, about 500m to the west of the headquarters of the French colonialists. A1 belongs to the Eastern hills along with C1, C2, D and E forming a solid wall to protect the central area, the last high point that directly protected the French Headquarter and was considered to be "the key”of the entire stronghold.
The battle’s fierceness was far beyond Vietnamese army’s initial predictions because this base was the support and the last belief of the French to save the collapse of Dien Bien Phu base group. "The Battle of Five Hills", as some French soldiers called it after the war ended, emphasized that the fiercest of the 56-day-and-night Dien Bien Phu battle took place on this hill.
4 - Muong Thanh Rice Field – Largest Rice Field in Northwest Vietnam
Coming to Dien Bien, visitors will be immersed in a vast space of clouds, sky, mountains and rivers. Here, you can admire Muong Thanh field - the largest field in the Northwest of Vietnam. It probably sticks in your mind that there are only terraced fields in the Northwest, but this place is also famous for 4 large fields.
For a long time, there has been a saying among Northwestern people: "Nhat Thanh, Nhi Lo, Tam Than, Tu Tac" (Number one Thanh, number two Lo, number three Than, number four Tac), which is the list of large fields in Northwest of Vietnam: Muong Thanh (Dien Bien province), Muong Lo (Yen Bai Province), Muong Than (Lai Chau province), Muong Tac (Son La province). Among them, Muong Thanh field is ranked number one. Located at an altitude of more than 400m above sea level, Muong Thanh field stretches over 20km with an average width of 6km. Muong Thanh field is considered to be the largest, not only valuable in agricultural production, it is also an attractive tourist destination, where visitors can admire the scenery and enjoy the fresh air.
The impressive rice paddy (Source: Tu Trinh)
Whichever means of transport you go by when coming to Muong Thanh in May, you will be stunned by the beautiful natural scenery, a yellow color covering the valley. Muong Thanh field is like a giant "warehouse" filled with rice and corn, making visitors feel as if they are walking in the middle of the golden sea. The new rice fragrance spreads across the field, creating a familiar feeling of the northern countryside which stretches as far as your eyes can see. Simply a beauty that you can never forget.
5 - Muong Thanh Bridge
Dien Bien Phu terrain is a large basin, surrounded by high mountains, in the central battlefield the Nam Rom river flows through, dividing the central headquarter of the French army into left and right banks. Communication from the central headquarters with the two sides was difficult. Therefore, the French commander ordered the Muong Thanh bridge to be built over Nam Rom river. Muong Thanh iron bridge is a battle bridge made in France and assembled in Dien Bien. The entire bridge is 5m wide and 40m long. The two sides of the bridge are simple support bars, without a middle shaft, decks are wooden, underneath are iron beams linked together very firmly to ensure a load of 8-15 tons.
At 17:00 on May 7, 1954, one regiment of Vietnamese army quickly crossed Muong Thanh Bridge and headed straight to their enemy’s headquarters. At 17:30 on May 7, 1954, General De Castrie and all the French troops in Dien Bien Phu were captured by Vietnamese troops.
Today, Muong Thanh Bridge is still well-preserved, peacefully crossing the Nam Rom River. Connecting the past with the present, it attracts many tourists to visit the old battlefield or learn about a once heroic Dien Bien.
6 - Xa Nhe Cave
(Source: Vietnam Journey)
Existing millions of years ago, coming to the Xa Nhe cave, visitors can explore and experience the wide and high cave with many bats and birds on its ceiling. The transformation of nature has made Xa Nha cave a strange one. Here you can see huge stalactites mixed with quartz sand, creating sparkling phosphorescence.
Going deep inside, stalactites are more unique, colorful with strange shapes. In the cave there are many round white sparkling round stones that take hundreds of years to form. Each small calcium crystal contained in every drop of water falls down, sticks together. Especially in the cave, there are two giant stalactite columns with the diameter of 2m rising up with various shapes, all creating an interesting scene.
7 - Muong Lay – Valley of Stilt Houses
Located more than 100 km from Dien Bien Phu city, being the northern gateway of Dien Bien province connected to Lai Chau province by National Road No.12, Muong Lay town appears as a Valley of Stilt houses leaning against the mountains, lying close by, one another, reflected in the Son La reservoir.
Looking down from the peak of Pu Vang - the highest peak of the mountain range in the west of Muong Lay at sunrise and sunset, Muong Lay is the place where the mountains meet with clouds and sky, bringing visitors a peaceful and pure feeling.
III - What to do in Dien Bien Phu?
1 - Culture exploring at Ta Sin Thang market
Ta Sin Thang fair market in Ta Sin Thang commune, Tua Chua district preserves its own characteristics. Not only is the place to meet and exchange goods of the peoples in the region, Ta Sin Thang fair is also an ideal rendezvous for ethnic boys and girls.
It is customary that every six days, everyone no matter rich or poor in the region, will try to be present at the market. From when the sun rises, from all the roads, the flute, the sound of the horn, the sound of the horse's foot, the sound of the lips, the laughter and talk are stirred and excited all over the trails. Those who can afford a motorbike ride, and those who can't afford it walk to the market, regardless of distance. H’mong ethnic boys and girls, in colorful dresses beside baskets full of diverse and abundant goods, all flock to the fairground as a rendezvous.
2 - Relaxing boat ride at Pa Khoang Lake
Located in the middle of Dien Bien Phu city, Pa Khoang Lake is like a bridge between two relic centers, which has an interesting and attractive ecotourism site on this famous tourist route. On hot summer days, the lake area attracts quite a number of weekend guests.
Coming here, in addition to the cool, fresh air, immersed in the nature of green forests, visitors also have the opportunity to float on small roofed boats, to follow the waves rolling on the surface of the lake, letting your soul wander with the clouds of the sky and the river.
Boats will bring you to every nook and cranny of forested islands, exploring and discovering so many mysteries of nature. If desired, you can park the boat to discover the shore, go fishing or relax, or enjoy the scenery.
3 - Visit Cherry Blossom Garden in Muong Phang
Most domestic and international tourists when coming to Dien Bien happen to know of Muong Phang, as the headquarter of the Vietnamese army in the historic the Dien Bien Phu Campaign. However, few people know that on an island in the middle of Pa Khoang lake, Muong Phang commune, there is a cherry blossom garden marking the friendship between the two nations of Vietnam and Japan.
(Source: Annie Spratt)
Traveling nearly 20 km from the city center and nearly 10 minutes of canoeing on Pa Khoang Lake, you will get to the "Flower Island". From hundreds of meters away, a whole hillside was seen in a blooming Cherry garden.
There must be nearly 50 plants, many of which are as tall as 6 - 7m. Cherry flowers here are a type of Higan Sakura Cherry, planted to admire, so the flowers are very bushy, bloom into large clusters of dark pink and light pink. Blooming time lasts up to 3 weeks.
4 - Enjoy local food in Dien Bien Phu?
Dien Bien Sticky Rice
Dien Bien sticky rice is a specialty of the Northwest in general and Dien Bien in particular. If you have not enjoyed sticky rice, you are not considered to have come to Dien Bien. The rice is grown in upland fields, absorbing mountain water so it is not only fragrant when cooked. Even raw Dien Bien sticky rice has a faint scent. The rice is fragrant, soft, sweet and is a unique specialty of Dien Bien and the Northwest mountains.
Black chicken Tua Chua
Tua Chua black chicken is an endemic black bone chicken species of Hmong people, called Ka Du in H’mong language. Living through thousands of years of nomadic life, H'mong people have preserved the chicken species for generations because they consider Ka Du to be a valuable asset, always present in the list of inherited properties for donation and marriage. A Ka Du chicken has black eyes, black skin, black meat, black viscera, and even black bones.
Bitter bamboo shoots
Bitter bamboo shoot is a specialty that only grows in the mountainous areas like Dien Bien. The bamboo shoot season starts from February to June. Bitter bamboo shoots grow from the hills and mountains. When there is heavy rain, bamboo shoots grow very fast. The best bamboo shoots are picked when they have not yet sprouted from the ground, then each bamboo bud will be white and attractive.
Bamboo shoots are available at any restaurant in Dien Bien. Small bamboo shoots with sickle handles are boiled by the owner. Guests can just hold the bamboo shoots by hands and dip them into “cham cheo” - the special sauce of the Thai. It is incomparably delicious.
Khau Xen in Muong Lay
Khau Xen is a shrimp-chips (Phong Tom) like snack that is firmer, chewier and less ludging than shrimp-chips In Thai, “Khau'' means rice, “Xen” means slice. Khau Xen is a traditional dish made from glutinous rice and upland cassava that has existed for a long time among the white Thai people (Muong Lay, Dien Bien). Khau Xen is used to treat guests, as a gift for relatives and friends from far away to Muong Lay.
You may be interested in: complete guides to visit nearby destinations
- Sapa Vietnam - the meeting land between heaven and earth
- Mai Chau - a peacefull and tranquil destination
IV - Accommodation in Dien Bien Phu Vietnam
Below are some recommendations for accommodations
Cong Duan hotel (Source: Cong Duan hotel)
1 - Cong Duan hotel
Cong Duan is a large hotel suitable for group events. Its rooms are spacious, well-equipped and bright. It is located on the main road near the roundabout.
- Address: 374 Duong 7-5
- T: (+84-215) 382 4841
2 - Dien Bien Phu Hanoi hotel
This hotel has professional receptionists and well-decorated rooms. Its furniture is all made from light wood. There are minibars, TVs, air conditioners and shower bathrooms in all rooms.
- Address: 849 Duong 7-5, near the cemetery
- T: (+84-215) 382 5103
3 - Viet Hoang Guest House
Viet Hoang guest house is near Thanh Binh bridge. Its rooms are bright and full of air. Its furniture is decent with broadcast TV, mossy nets, etc.
- Address: Thanh Binh Rd, opposite the bus station, near the bridge.
- T: (+84-215) 373 5046
V - Recommend Dien Bien Phu itineraries
1 - Getting by air
You can book a direct flight to this place and spend 2D1N or 3D2N (if you are really into history) there.
Itinerary for 2 days 1 night
-Morning: Transfer from Hanoi Noi Bai airport to here, have lunch
- Afternoon: Spend your half day at the battlefields
- Evening: Have dinner and overnight
- Morning: Half day of sightseeing or trekking into villages of the ethnic minority Thai people, boat trip in Pa Khoang Lake.
- Afternoon: Have lunch before transfer to the airport for the flight back to Hanoi.
Itinerary for 3 days 2 nights
Day 1: Hanoi
Transfer to airport for flight to the Capital of Dien Bien Province. Upon arriving in Dien Bien Phu, visit the museum, bunker of Colonel De Castries, A1 hill.
In the evening, enjoy dinner and stay overnight here. .
Day 2: Dien Bien Phu
Visit the battle field, old Muong Thanh bridge, place where General Vo Nguyen Giap controlled Vietrnamese army during the Dien Bien Phu campaign.
Day 3: Hanoi
In the morning, discover the locals’ life and culture or buy some souvenirs at the market. Then move to the airport for a flight to Hanoi.
2 - Getting by bus/car
In this case, you should make a longer tour to the northwest of Vietnam
For adventurous travellers
Day 1: Hanoi – Mai Chau valley
- Morning: Depart through the infamous traffic of Hanoi to Mai Chau valley, Hoa Binh province.
- Afternoon: walk around the two connecting villages, learn more about the ethnic Thai people and experience their culture.
- Evening: Have dinner. Highly recommend you taste the local rice wine, an experience in itself. Overnight in Mai Chau
Day 2: Mai Chau – Son La
- Morning: depart for Son La.
- Afternoon: Arrive in Son La. Visit Son La Prison Museum. Evening: Dinner and sleep in Son La.
Day 3: Son La – Dien Bien Phu
Have breakfast then move to Thuan Chau Market. Visit blue H'mong village at Pha Din Pass, lunch in Tuan Giao before making your way to here. Overnight in Dien Bien.
Day 4: Dien Bien Phu Battlefield – Muong Lay
On this day you spend the whole morning visiting some special old war places such as A1, C1 hill, De Castres's bookie and Muong Thanh airfield. Here you can see all details about the campaign against the French in 1054. Have lunch then move to Muong Lay in the afternoon.
Day 5: Hanoi
Depart for Hanoi. Be prepared for a long distance of about 500km to Hanoi. You are supposed to stop over at Son La for lunch before continuing the journey to Hanoi, which may finish in the late afternoon.
For historical travellers
Day 1: Hanoi - Son La
Depart for Son La. Have lunch upon arrival in Son La. Afternoon visit Son La Prison, To Hieu peach tree. Dinner and overnight in Son La
Day 2: Son La - Dien Bien
- Morning: Depart for Dien Bien; Arriving in Dien Bien at lunch time, have lunch and check in the hotel.
- Afternoon: visit the battlefield, Muong Thanh bridge, A1 Hill etc.
Day 3: Dien Bien
- Morning: Visit place where General Vo Nguyen Giap controlled Vietnamese army in Dien Bien Phu campaign and Muong Phang, where Vietnamese army stationed.
- Afternoon: Go shopping at Muong Thanh Market
- Evening: have dinner then visit Dien Bien at night.
Day 4: Dien Bien - Hanoi
Go back to Hanoi. End of the trip.
Dien Bien Phu travel guide with those necessary information are hoping to give you an overview of this place and have a better plan for your trip here.