Pu Luong Nature Reserve, in spite of its vast emerald landscape and wealth of cultural diversity, remains an afterthought for many travelers to North Vietnam. Opting for Sa Pa instead, most visitors miss out on the beauty and simplicity of Pu Luong. Trekking through the karst-mountain landscape, connecting with the local people, and cruising through the undulating mountains by motorbike make Pu Luong a five-star adventure destination.
Things to do in Pu Luong
Get Up-Close with Rice Paddies
Pu Luong Nature Reserve is home to a large ethnic minority population. Villages of Thai and Muong comprise the majority of the area’s populous. The essence of a visit to Pu Luong is found in learning how the local people live with, and depend on their mountainous surroundings. Heavily dependent on agriculture – primarily rice – for survival, their nonstop commitment to tending the land can be appreciated from the ground level. A homestay with a local family is a surefire way to get up-close and personal with this ancient practice. Twice per year, the farmers plant, wait, and harvest their yield. May-June and September-October are the harvest seasons, and the time when the mountainsides are in their most verdant state.
Sleep at a Mountain Village Homestay
I recommend Mr. Ba’s Homestay in Ban Hieu Village. There, a private stilt-house for two next to a mellifluous stream can be booked for 200.000 VND ($10 USD) per night. For larger groups, or cheaper accommodation, consider the larger, dorm-style stilt-house for 80.000 VND per night. Mr. Ba and his wife, of the Thai ethnic group, balance simplicity, professionalism, and hospitality in a way that makes it hard to say goodbye. Nourishing home-cooked meals at the homestay are another upside to Mr. Ba’s. His wife is an excellent chef, and not afraid to test how much her guests can eat!
Trekking in Pu Luong can be arranged with a guide or done solo, and can range from 1 or 2 hours of strolling to 2-4 days of serious humping. In Ban Hieu, many of the villagers are guides for treks into the tumbling limestone mountains. Mr. Ba, our homestay host, pointed out a massive mountain nearby his home that he said could be summited in a day. We opted for a shorter trip, without a guide, and were able to hike for 4-5 hours through both mountains and rice fields. For the most part, this trek didn’t get our adrenaline pumping, but provided a satisfying mix of the mountains and the local lifestyle.
If you do hike on your own, be alert, as there are no good trail markers, and some trails that seem established peter out deep in the jungle. Don’t lose your bearings and end up descending a chossy, crumbling gulley like we did (or do,because type two fun is fun, indeed!).
Tours from Mai Chau
Agencies in Mai Chau offer guided excursions into Pu Luong Nature Reserve. I did not explore these options, but I did stop by a shop called Asia Outdoors, which offers trekking and rock climbing excursions in and around the reserve.
Getting To and From Pu Luong
Hanoi to Mai Chau
To get to Pu Luong Nature Reserve from Hanoi, there are two options. They both involve getting to Mai Chau first. Keep in mind that you can approach Pu Luong from Ninh Binh as well. These directions apply to those traveling from Hanoi.
Motorbike: Hanoi to Mai Chau
The first and most intrepid option is by motorbike. The journey from Hanoi to Mai Chau takes about 5 hours by motorbike, mostly on multi-lane highways. From Mai Chau to Pu Luong Nature Reserve, it’s another 1-3 hours, depending on which homestay in Pu Luong you are destined for.
Bus: Hanoi to Mai Chau
The second option is by bus from Hanoi to Mai Chau (4 hours), and then by motorbike into Pu Luong. There are local buses from My Dinh station in Hanoi (80.000 VND one way, except during Tet when prices are higher), and smaller 16 passenger vans from the Old Quarter (200.000 VND one way, 400.000 round-trip). This is a comfortable form of transportation and I recommend it. The bus back to Hanoi picks passengers up at the Mai Chau Sunrise hotel in Mai Chau.
Getting a Motorbike in Mai Chau
Motorbiking from Mai Chau to Ban Hieu Village takes ~2.5 hours. To get a motorbike, pop into one of the shops along Mai Chau’s main drag. I recommend a semi-automatic or fully-manual bike with excellent tires for this ride. The road up to Ban Hieu through Pu Luong is not a place you want to run into motorbike touble. Often times the clouds shroud the landscape and the locals vanish. A decent Honda Wave should rent for 150-250.000 VND per day.
How to get to Pu Luong from Mai Chau
Getting into Pu Luong from Mai Chau is mostly straight forward, with one small twist. From Mai Chau, continue South on Highway QL15 for 25KM until you reach a small village called Co Luong. From Co Luong, take QL15C into Pu Luong. Finding QL15C may require you to ask a local.