Muong Lay

Formerly known as Lai Chau, this small town is nestled in a pretty valley carved from spectacular mountains by the Da River, and makes a good lunch or overnight stop for people travelling between Dien Bien Phu and Sapa. Beneath Muong Lay's beauty lies a difficult existence for locals.
Despite a marked increase in tourist numbers, for most of the people it's a hard living. Far from busy trade routes, normal commerce is limited and the town has only been really successful in harvesting cash crops such opium and timber.
There is a massive dam under construction, just above the current Song Da Reservoir, and this will fill the valley with water. When this comes to pass (not before 2010), this will be the largest hydroelectric station in Southeast Asia. It also could mean that in the future the only way to visit Muong Lay will be by submarine. Being underwater, however, would at least keep things cooler. Odd as it might seem, in summer Muong Lay is one of the hottest places in Vietnam. June and July temperatures can soar as high as 40°C.

Getting to Laos: Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua

Getting to the border Buses from Dien Bien Phu (DBP) to Muang Khua (110,000d) leave daily at 5.30am. It’s advisable to book your ticket the day prior to travelling. This bus takes you through the Sop Hun/Tay Trang border crossing and drops you off in Muang Khua in Laos. The journey typically takes between seven and eight hours, but can be longer depending on the roads and border formalities. Other destinations in Laos from DBP include Luang Prabang (495,000d, 6am), Nam Tha (350,000d, 6.30am) and Udomxai (230,000d, 7.30am).

At the border The Lao border at Tay Trang, 34km from Dien Bien Phu, is open daily between 7am and 7pm. Crossing into Laos most travellers can get a 30-day visa on arrival (US$20 to US$42, depending on your nationality). Have photo ID and additional cash (around US$5) on hand for occasional local administrative fees.

Moving on From Muang Khua there are buses to Udomxai.

Getting There & Away

At the time of writing, Muong Lay had a makeshift bus station on Hwy 12. If you can book ahead at Lan Anh Hotel, Muong Lay is worth a slightly surreal overnight stop, but given the town’s current reinvention, a through bus from Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau is probably the best option. If you’re on a motorbike, note that at the time of writing, the road north of Muong Lay to Lai Chau was very rough, with many roadworks for around 40km. It was scheduled to be completed around August 2014, but could potentially take longer.