There's 60 kilometres of road to cover after crossing the border checkpoint from Laos into Lai Chau province in northwestern Vietnam, and darkness has already fallen by the time we reach Dien Bien Phu. In the evening, the town's main thoroughfare seems little different from other remote towns, although the flickering neons in red, pink, green, blue and yellow that line the middle of the strip give it a carnival feel.
The lights end at the next intersection and we soon find ourselves outside the Cong Doan or Trade Union Hotel. This is a common name in Vietnam, and while not a chain, visitors to the country will see Cong Doan hotels in other cities including Hanoi, Halong, Son La and Hoi An.
Dien Bien Phu's version has a spacious car park and a short walk takes us to a huge restaurant on the ground floor from where we spot a sign for Thai massage in the adjacent building.
For our first dinner in Dien Bien Phu, the hotel restaurant serves us 10 courses, all unfamiliar, and places a white ceramic bottle containing a strong smelling local liquor on every table. We debate whether to try it but are not brave enough.
Some travel agencies' websites rate the Trade Union as a one star hotel; others more generously give it two. Either way, it is well run and offers decent accommodation for anyone wanting to visit this remote town.
After checking in, guests receive a real key, a rare sight in these days of key cards. There is no elevator but those with lightweight suitcases won't have a problem walking up a maximum of three storeys carrying their own belongings. Anyone with heavier bags can always ask for assistance.
I push open the door to my room to discover two nice wooden beds, a well-polished floor and clean white walls rising to a ceiling that must be almost three metres high. The room is immaculate, with clean sheets, thick blankets and a mosquito net folded on the bed. In cooler temperatures, you may not need the mosquito net as the weather keeps them away from the third floor. The balcony overlooks the car park and the adjoining building.
This hotel has a total of 50 rooms and offers quite reasonable prices, from US$15 (Bt510) to $27 a night including breakfast. That makes it a popular choice with Vietnamese tourists, who come in both large and small groups.
When we go out to explore the next day, we find the hotel is very conveniently located, within easy walking distance to the market and the town centre. There's a small Internet cafe not far away, but you will need to ask one of the hotel staff to point you in the right direction.
In the daylight, the Trade Union Hotel looks like just a shabby concrete block right in the centre of town. Don't be put off by outside appearances, though. Inside it's clean and its convenience is far more important than how it looks.
Trade Union Hotel Dien Bien Phu at a glance
High Point: Spacious and clean rooms for travellers on a budget.
Low Point: The building looks lifeless, just ordinary and old concrete blocks by the main street. It is only a place to sleep at night.
Pay for it: US$15 to $27
Find it: 374-7/5 Tan Thanh Ward Road, Dien Bien Phu, Lai Chau Province, Vietnam
Phone it: (84 23) 824841, 824319
Special to The Nation